Diet culture is all around us. It influences how we speak and exercise, what we eat and wear, and even…
Like everyone, I have very specific memories of my childhood. There are the memories that my siblings and I rehash almost every time we’re together; the ones my mom rehashes and we all agree are “funny now, not funny then,” and then there are those about my weight.
I have very specific memories of my body and weight starting at a young age.
In the fourth grade, when I innocently weighed myself at my friend Lisa’s house, her sister said, “Whoa, you’re fat!”
I stored that in the memory bank.
In the seventh grade, when we received physical fitness report cards, complete with body weight and fitness scores, a boy named Steve looked over my shoulder, read my report, and yelled loudly enough for the whole class to hear, “Wow! You weigh more than me!”
That’s another memory tucked away. I suspect that if we could find Steve today, he’d probably have no idea who I even am—and if he did, he wouldn’t remember ever saying that.
Not surprisingly, by the time I was 15 in the ninth grade, I mistakenly believed my weight mattered. In fact, one night my friend Jenny and I decided we wouldn’t go out with friends unless we both weighed less than 115 pounds. I can still remember standing in her bathroom, about to step on the scale and hoping that number would deem me worthy of going out. Ugh.
In the years that followed, my worth was always tied to the number on the scale. I referred to different times in my life as the “heavy” or “thin” years… entire periods of my life overshadowed and defined by my weight.
In grad school, I fell in love with fitness. Thanks to discovering all of the ways the human body is amazing (and made even better by exercise), my focus turned toward performance-oriented goals rather than appearance, for a change. Things like how far I could run or how much weight I could lift. I grew more confident and certainly stronger, but even then those benefits still shrank when compared to the number.
It happens to so many of us—this attachment to an ideal body weight—despite powerful evidence that our bodies may be stronger, fitter, faster, and healthier at a different weight.
Yet, there are those times when we could push the needle a bit more, challenge ourselves to dig deeper and lose body fat. Aesthetic goals are one of the main reasons why people start exercising in the first place. We don’t have to turn away from body weight goals entirely, but we do need to understand the difference between a goal that’s within our reach and supports our health, and one that truly isn’t serving us.
The human body is extremely smart and has a way of talking to us—if we are willing to listen. However, most of us have become convinced that mind over matter is the way to go, at all costs. We think we can power through injury, or push to extremes with our schedule, workouts, or diet. We latch on to the idea if we just do a bit more, or hang on a bit longer, we’ll see the results we desire.
Here are a few ways your body is trying to tell you that your pursuit of some “ideal” isn’t ideal for you.
While the idea of missed periods may sound heavenly to some women, it’s a sign of estrogen deficiency. Secondary amenorrhea (the cessation of your menstrual period after you’ve already started menstruating) is caused by hormonal changes brought on by too much exercise, poor diet and low body fat. Prolonged periods of amenorrhea can lead to infertility and decreased bone density, and puts women at risk for heart attacks later in life.
Check your energy levels. Do you wake up each day feeling as though you haven’t slept at all? Are you finding it tough to make it through the most straightforward workout? Are you agitated and reactive when things don’t go your way? Consistent fatigue (the kind that can’t be shaken off with a power nap or a cuppa Joe), is a sign that you’re pushing too hard.
Along the lines of fatigue, you may begin to notice that you are feeling “off.” It takes a little longer to recover between sets. Or perhaps you are just S-O-R-E all of the time. A little tweak here or a twinge there require you to take longer and longer to warm up.
Independently, it’s easy to overlook these warning lights. We can forget details, dismiss signs, and attribute them to other things going on in our lives, until we find ourselves exhausted, injured, and wondering why our body is letting us down.
It’s not only about what your body is saying. If you’re pushing yourself to attain a goal or an ideal that isn’t the healthiest for you, your head might start talking to you, too.
Some psychological signs that you are pushing too hard include becoming fixated on all of the details… to the point of obsession.
For example, years ago at a fitness conference I went out to lunch with a fitness magazine editor and a ‘celebrity’ personal trainer. As we looked over the menu, the editor and I joked about a recent article we worked on together about eating out at restaurants. The trainer laughed along awkwardly before admitting that she rarely ate out. It was too much stress for her. When the meal arrived a few minutes later, she pulled a food scale out of her bag and began weighing her food.
She wasn’t prepping for a contest. This wasn’t a necessary short-term “dial-in” period. She had just gotten so accustomed to weighing and measuring everything that she couldn’t step outside of that comfort zone. Ever. Even then, she confessed, it was hard for her to eat anything when she wasn’t exactly sure how it was prepared.
When we obsess over macros, bring a food scale to a restaurant, and become hyper-fixated on calories and grams, it consumes us more than we consume food.
We do that not only with food, but also with the scale and our weight. When I worked in research settings, study subjects would regularly ask if they could go to the bathroom, change clothes, remove jewelry, etc. before weighing in.
They would do anything to get the lowest possible number on the scale (even if it was a meaningless reflection of their actual weight or their health).
It’s important to remember one thing: no one knows what we weigh. You know what else? No. One. Cares.
My children don’t know if I am a half pound heavier today than I was yesterday. They wouldn’t know if I’m 20 pounds heavier or lighter. They also don’t care. What matters to them is how I show up. Am I patient, kind, energetic?
If the number on the scale drives you to feel bad about yourself and act in ways that aren’t consistent with who and how you want to be in the world, then it is no longer a tool that serves you.
To find the middle ground between a body weight you love and a body that loves you back, you need to do some deep digging.
Explore where your ideal came from in the first place. If you have A NUMBER in your head, consider its origin.
A friend recently told me she was trying to get to a certain body weight. When I asked her about it, she said, “When I was in high school, a doctor told me that’s what my weight should be. I’ve had it in my head ever since.” Twenty years is a very long time to be carrying around a goal that someone else decided for you.
You are the expert of your body.
Too often we get so caught up in the pursuit of something else, that we have no idea of how it feels to live in the here-and-now. Spend a week tracking how you feel in your body. How are your sleep, energy, and mood? Do you get to eat the foods you enjoy? How do they make you feel? Do you have time for other people, hobbies, and activities in your life? What makes you feel strong, happy, and energetic? Keep track of how you are feeling and see if your habits and actions are producing the type of feelings you want to have.
A favorite mantra of mine is:
Unrealistic expectations lead to premeditated disappointments.
It reminds me to double check the goals I set for myself. It’s also a reminder that I am in control of the outcome.
Too often we set these lofty goals for ourselves because we think we should. We do it without real consideration for our lives, our typical patterns, or even if that goal is really that important. We get so caught up in the expectation and so attached to the outcome, that we lose sight of what we get to experience every day while working toward it.
Maybe that means I do want to lose body weight from time to time. So I head to the gym and adjust my workouts. I’m getting stronger and fitter every day. I’m also probably paying attention to what I’m eating, fueling my body with healthy foods. But if I only hang my success on whether or not the scale budges, I’ve just lost “credit” for all of those great things I’m doing for myself. My self-talk turns negative, and my confidence decreases—and it’s all because I focused on the wrong measuring stick.
If you notice that you’re spending a lot of time and energy on a quest for a “someday” ideal body, rather than enjoying and living in the one you have right now—especially if it’s coming at a cost to your health!—perhaps it’s time to change your measuring stick.
Instead of continuing to allow that attachment to an ideal body weight rule your life, let the things that truly help you be your best guide. Your healthy weight may be different than what you envisioned, but you will find that you’re stronger, fitter, faster, and happier.
And isn’t that ideal?
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