Recently the actor, Jonah Hill made a social media request, asking people not to comment about his body—good or bad. Hooray for him! I am overjoyed that a celebrity with a substantial public platform has opened up this conversation. For many years, I have been expressing similar sentiments. It is important to maintain a healthy lifestyle, and conquering obesity is a great achievement. Unfortunately, our societal obsession with body image does nothing to support these endeavors. It often makes things worse.
When we lived in Thailand, I lost a lot of weight under the supervision of an endocrinologist. In my book, Nine Years in Bangkok: Lessons Learned I wrote about that journey. Here is an edited excerpt from the chapter dealing with this topic.
In a year and a half, I had lost 37 and a half kilos—a little over 82 pounds. My health problems virtually disappeared, and I felt great due to regular exercise combined with healthy eating habits. I’d made some permanent lifestyle changes.
Oh yes, and I looked great too. That caused a lot of inner torment, believe it or not. I had been sensitive to fat jokes and judgemental comments regarding body image when I was heavy. But I became even more aware of people’s preconceptions about physical appearance when I lost weight. While out and about in Bangkok, I would see people with whom I’d worked for several years. Some of them walked right by me with no recognition. At social get-togethers, my husband would have to re-introduce me to business colleagues who hadn’t seen me for a while. One or two of them thought he had a new wife!
Some remarks were enough to drive me back to unhealthy eating. I was told that I looked better, I looked like a new person, I looked like a different person, I looked beautiful now. I know I was supposed to be flattered. But no one seemed to realize that I wasn’t a new or different or better or more beautiful person. I was myself. The superficial flesh had changed; the essence of me hadn’t changed. A few times I got fed up and confronted people with some hard questions such as “What did you think of me before?” “Wasn’t I good enough or beautiful enough for you before?” “How was I so different when I was heavy?”
No one answered these questions. Perhaps they didn’t want to be trapped into admitting that superficial beauty counts for almost everything in the modern world. I wanted to tell them that this very philosophy was what caused my problems in the first place. I wanted to tell them about all the nights of my life when I’d cried myself to sleep because I thought I was too fat (when I wasn’t). I wanted to tell them that this emphasis on perfect physical beauty—especially for girls and women—was destroying many of us. It had taken me many years to reach a level where I no longer needed the fatty protection (or the haze of cigarette smoke before that) to protect me from all the negativity in the world. In my 50s I was slowly learning to be happy in my own skin.
As I look back, I wonder how things might have been if I hadn’t been trapped in a cycle of diet programs for years before finally going to the other extreme. What if I had just been happy with who I was and what I saw in the mirror? Would it have taken me until my early 50s to finally be at peace with my appearance and focus on my health? I hope that one day we will reach a place where people, especially young girls, no longer feel the social pressure of attaining physical perfection.
I welcome any comments from my readers. Opening a dialogue on this issue can only lead to a healthier outlook in the future.