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Beware The New Year's (False) Promise Of A Born-Again Body

03/21/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Each New Year arrives filled with the possibility of rebirth and renewal. It presents the opportunity to start over again, with a slate so clean it's easy to envision yourself at your very best: happy, healthy, living life to the fullest.

As we examine the reality of ourselves as we are, compared to the image of who we could be, what stands out most for many us--especially women--is the seemingly sorry size of our bodies. The flab, sags, bulges, and heft do more than remind us we're another year older; they symbolize our imperfections and weaknesses, along with everything else in our lives that we think needs fixing.

Of all the New Year's resolutions we make, our vow to trim down and shape up is enormously enticing, perhaps because the physical transformation we dream of seems clearly within our reach. If we could just cut out those extra helpings, give up snacks and forego desserts, spend a few more hours pounding the treadmill, and at long last lose those "extra" 10 pounds that are keeping us from being happy...

Full of hope at this new beginning, the fantasy of getting our lives in order plays itself out in the pursuit of a born-again body--a body freed from our former transgressions and slavish desires, a body that no longer gets in the way of our happiness and success.

Lured by the prospect of such freedom, we resolve to start dieting (again).

But what do our New Year's resolutions to lose weight tell us about who we are and who we aspire to be? What do these vows reveal about our culture? And what are we really hoping for when we commit to renovating our figures?

I see the promise of a "born-again" body as part of a broader societal network of beliefs, myths, rituals, and moral codes that encourage us to find "salvation" (i.e., happiness, health, and fulfillment) through the quest for a better (read: thinner) body. I call this "The Religion of Thinness," for it has many of the features of traditional religion (i.e., beliefs, myths, rituals, images, moral codes, etc.) even though it fails to deliver the salvation it promises and sadly shortchanges the spiritual needs to which it appeals.

Of course, most people don't associate their desire to be slender with religion. But for many--women in particular--the prospect of a "good" body comes to function as a kind of "ultimate purpose," a goal that gives their lives personal meaning while connecting them to a much wider cultural devotion to thinness.

The Religion of Thinness is sponsored by a $60 billion a year weight-loss industry that promises to help us "fix" our physical "shortcomings." Some of the same companies that peddle products and programs designed to help you "change your life" by transforming your figure also manufacture and sell foods that are high in fat, sugar, and calories. Nestle, for instance, famous maker of yummy chocolate, now owns Jenny Craig. How convenient to offer us candy bars on the one hand, and "healthy" (i.e., processed, packaged, lo-calorie) dinners on the other. This is just one example of the bulimic-like mentality that pervades our culture's approach to appetite and eating. We are simultaneously instructed to refrain and to indulge, to withstand and to give in, to forego and to supersize our desires. Small wonder so many of us feel out-of-balance when it comes to food and our bodies.

In addition to its obvious commercial sponsors, The Religion of Thinness also finds implicit support in certain traditional religious ideas and narratives. Consider, for example, the story of Eve, whose unruly appetite led to humanity's downfall. Throughout Christian history, this mythical incident fostered a view of female desires as untrustworthy and women's bodies as shameful. Again and again, church fathers recycled the story of Eve to find evidence that women are more "carnal"--more defined by and tied to "the flesh"--than men, and thus more prone to give into temptation, and therefore in more need of supervision, regulation, and salvation. No doubt, the author of the Genesis creation myth did not intend to send a message that women need to contain their appetites and be thin in order to be happy. Nevertheless, the symbolism of the story--particularly the nexus between female appetite, temptation, sin, and shame--continues to have resonance for many women today.

The belief that female bodies are shameful and in need of regulation/redemption continues to permeate our culture. Most women today don't think of their dissatisfaction with their bodies as related to the legacy of Eve, but the wars they wage against their own flesh reflect our culture's deep-seated association between women's appetites and sin, as well as its widespread myth that getting our bodies under control will make the rest of our problems disappear.

Ultimately, what makes The Religion of Thinness so persuasive is that it is so pervasive. The very omnipresence of its unspoken creed--"I will be happier when I'm thinner"--makes it extremely difficult to question.

But what if, rather than buying into the false promise of a born-again body, you resolved to accept, love, nurture, and enjoy the body you currently have? What if, instead of perpetuating a war against your flesh with diets that dictate what you can eat and self-loathing directed at your thighs and/or tummy, you made an alternative New Year's resolution--a decision to practice peace with your body?

What would such a commitment entail?

What I have in mind are some fairly specific ways you can choose to live more harmoniously in the body you have. Some of them involve a good deal of soul-searching, while others are more practical in their orientation. None of them make weight-loss a priority, though I suspect that each of them will move you in the direction of greater health--mentally, physically, emotionally, and perhaps even spiritually. And isn't that what you were looking for in the first place?

What follows is a list of suggestions for practicing peace with your body. While it's not exhaustive, it is enough to help you get started in building a more healthy relationship with food and physicality. In a series of future blogs, I will elaborate how each of these suggestions can play a role in moving you beyond the superficial fantasy of a "born-again" body to a deeper sense of happiness, well being, and purpose.

1) Practice cultural criticism of The Religion of Thinness. This means questioning the assumptions behind our society's images, beliefs, rituals, and moral codes that encourage you to find "salvation" through a thinner body, and asking who benefits when you buy into this narrow promise of fulfillment.

2) Recognize your desire to be thinner for what it is. Look deeply at your yearning to lose weight and see the desire for peace and well-being beneath it. Then, ask yourself if losing weight will really give you these things.

3) Cultivate a new relationship with exercise. Shift from a fitness paradigm of punishment to one of enjoyment by creating exercise rituals and habits whose primary aim is not to help you burn calories but to reduce stress, strengthen your body/spirit, promote overall health, and take pleasure in physical movement.

4) Eat foods that nourish your body and spirit. Instead of deciding what to eat based on caloric content, commit to eating more whole, organic, local, and fresh foods, as well as those that are prepared with love and kindness. As often as possible, try to eat in a way that is mindful of others and that enhances your enjoyment of what you are eating.

5) Practice awareness of your body from within. Shift your attention away from how your body looks on the outside to how it feels on the inside. Use meditation and breathing exercises to do this.

6) Contemplate your larger sense of purpose. Ask yourself: what is most important in my life. Take time to explore some other big questions: What is the meaning of my life? To what should I be devoted? How should I deal with suffering? To what or whom am I accountable?

7) Recognize your need for a sense of community and connection. Spend more time with those who nurture your overall sense of well-being, and choose not to invest in relationships that fuel your feelings of bodily inadequacy and competition.

8) Examine the icons you look up to for inspiration and self-definition. Consciously choose role models--real people or historical figures, famous or unknown--whose lives exemplify the compassion, bravery, love, and service to which you aspire. Discard those that are not worthy of your esteem, energy, and devotion.

9) Transform your right-and-wrong approach to food and your body. Instead of judging your body for being "less-than-perfect" and obsessing about "good" and "bad" foods, widen your moral perspective to highlight the connections between the health of your body and the well-being of the planet.

10) Practice mindful awareness. Observe often what is happening in your body and in your thinking in the present moment. Use this awareness to practice acceptance of your body/yourself and compassion for others.

These are just some of the ways you can pursue a new kind of New Year's resolution this January- one that enables you to relinquish the never-ending quest to improve your body, and embrace instead a path that allows you to accept, appreciate, care for, and enjoy your physicality. I look forward to elaborating each of these suggestions in the weeks to come.