70 kg is the current weight of the average Australian woman, according to a new study Marie Claire used for an article I was interviewed for. I roughly fit that criteria with my weight fluctuating a little depending on what’s going on in my life exercise and stress wise. Hence why I was interviewed.
While the feature wonderfully showed beautiful women of all heights, shapes and sizes, I wish it had included an article on body image. And not just a positive “isn’t-it-great-we-can-all-look-good-at-different-sizes” kind of articles but an honest, hardhitting one. One that would have taken a look at the comments made by my fellow models for the day - about not being able to help comparing herself to the “real” model- and – about constantly trying to lose weight or having been unhappy with weight in the past. I would have wished for an article that questioned what the current average weight reflects.
Have we overall, as a nation, put on weight? I tell you now, the answer would be a resounding yes. Are we happy with the weight we’re at? I doubt we are. And, more importantly, what is happening to our BMI and general physical health and mental wellbeing? Well, let’s have a look at this last point, shall we?
Standing at 1.86m tall, I’m rather far from your average height and while my weight to height ratio has always been within a healthy range – even when I had an eating disorder as a teenage girl, it never dropped below what could be expected of a growing girl -, 70kg will put most people who are much smaller than me slightly on the top side of being healthy. There, I said it and you can send me comments, complain, do your “but underweight models are the source of all problems with body image… big is beautiful” thing. I don’t buy it for one second.
I do wholeheartedly believe that it is best if you feel comfortable in your skin – regardless of your weight. I do believe that it is better to have a steady weight than to yo yo diet. I do believe that BMI is only a poor way of measuring what is healthy and what isn’t. But it IS currently the easiest way to help us standardise and make an educated guess at whether someone is within a healthy weight range or not.
Food for thought from a long term study of weight fluctuations, mental and physical wellbeing in Australian women (unfortunately the latest and best one I could find was from 2007) shows a “rapid increase in weight among younger women”. It links being overweight or obese to poorer mental and physical health and higher health care costs. Not surprising, of course, but I’d really like to get off my chest that the attitude taken towards healthy body image to me sometimes resembles a glorification of being above a healthy weight range. I understand that we can feel a little cheated and peeved by the fashion industry representing mainly underweight and very skinny models as the ideal. That’s not right. I’m with you there. But the amount of times I have had negative comments on my pictures on my agency’s facebook page complaining I don’t look “big” enough. Seriously? And did you know plus size companies get hate mail if they use models within a medium healthy weight range rather than those with a high BMI? That’s just lunacy. Let’s cut the crap.
The study showed quite clearly that mental health is related to weight. Weight gain or loss and fluctuations also. Best mental health comes with most stable weight – fact. Being underweight or overweight or obese lessens your chances of being happy. A healthy mind lives in a healthy body. Looking after yourself doesn’t mean starving or gorging yourself or depriving your naturally active body of movement. Hey, the reason I feel I can be quite blunt about this is because I have done ALL of the above. I have also used exercise to whittle myself back to a skinny little model. Did being MUCH lighter make me happier? No, it made me supremely unhappy. Then I tried to not pay any heed to my weight, never let myself enjoy exercise too much, always watch what I did and question it… Did that make me happier? Well, no. It helped me find a balance though. I now do care about what my body FEELS like. How my mind is going.
There are reasons we eat, reasons we exercise, reasons we look after ourselves or don’t. If you are truly happy at a higher weight – GREAT for you. I mean that! Be happy with where you are. But I have encountered enough plus size models who suddenly lost weight when they had a positive change in their life and then maintained that lower set weight to no longer believe our bodies are naturally inclined to carry around a lot of excess baggage. It just doesn’t make any sense. Different ranges of normal, yes. But the reason we are gaining weight as a nation and world is our lifestyle, surely. Not the fact we “just” like it that way.
Back to the study which showed that a look at the biggest factors contributing to “overweight and obesity suggests that while energy balance is important, through attention to diet and physical activity, other contextual factors must also be taken into account”. It goes on to cite socio-economic status, city vs country living and events such as childbirth and quitting smoking as factors contributing to weight gain. We live in a convenience society where we drive in boxes, eat out of boxes and sit in front of boxes. It isn’t surprising we would get just a tad more box shaped ourselves… And facing the simple yet hard truth that modern living is VERY unhealthy for you if you don’t make conscious decisions to look after your own body and mind the best way you can, can be unpleasant. I understand that.
I am no saint. I have been VERY bad to my own body and am extremely grateful it still works so well despite years and years of mistreatment when I was younger. It is only very recently that I have truly come to understand how my mind and body interact as a whole. I’ve brought my heart into the equation. And I’m putting it out here now: Please stop thinking diversity is showing underweight and overweight models. Let’s shoot for healthy bodies and minds – literally. And women, as a group, can we stop undermining each other and instead support? Help each other be stable in weight, balanced in mind and happy?
I leave you with two heart wrenching examples of women who took part in the study to show ow often we are in denial about how we feel and just carry on the way we know – to our own detriment.
If you like this post or would like to comment, I encourage you to do so. This is an open forum and I would love to hear from you. Even if you feel alienated or annoyed by what I say. Let’s open the body image discussion with an open, honest approach. Enough of the “big is beautiful” stuff already! Yes it is. Every size can be. But is it a healthy idea(l)? If you could be any weight at all, wouldn’t your choice be to be the healthiest, most radiant and happiest?
Increased weight among Younger women
The weight gain among the Younger women [...] is reflected in comments made by Younger participant Sally. At Survey 1 Sally had a BMI of 23, which is within the healthy weight range. At this time her life ‘lacked routine’ and she was stressed by the need to live away from home in order to pursue study. By Survey 2 Sally had become overweight with a BMI of 28 and chose not to write any comments on the survey form.
At Survey 3 Sally had experienced significant weight gain and had a BMI of 32, indicating that over a seven year period she had moved from being a healthy weight to being obese. She wrote about being diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome and had moved from a ‘stressful’ job to a less rewarding but also less stressful position.
Sally commented on her weight for the first time at this survey:
Have become overweight in the last three years. I have put on about 15kgs.
By Survey 4 Sally had experienced more weight gain, with a BMI of 33. She again commented on her weight:
I am overweight and very unhappy about it but I recently joined a gym for the first time ever. I am working part time in a clerical position while furthering my studies. I could earn a lot more and have a much easier financial situation but I don’t want the travel and excessive hours that come with that.
Increased physical activities among Mid-aged women
Helen, a Mid-aged participant, made free-text comments at all four surveys and exemplifies some of the quantitative findings for the Mid-aged cohort. Helen had been steadily gaining weight across the first three surveys, but by Survey 4 she had increased her physical activity levels and consequently experienced a significant weight loss.
At Survey 1, with a BMI of 35, Helen wrote:
I consider that the majority of my health problems are related to my obesity. I have always found it difficult to loose and keep weight off. I am on the true cycle of losing weight and then gaining more. I have been to all of the usual weight loss programs. Because of my weight I am breathless on exertion. The key to better health for me is weight loss and manageable work hours.
At Survey 2, with a BMI of 37 Helen again wrote that her health problems were due to obesity. By Survey 3, her BMI had risen to 38 and she was using a prescribed weight loss product in an attempt to lose weight and was exercising sporadically. However, her busy lifestyle prevented her from ‘exercising as much as (she) should.’
At Survey 4 Helen reported that she had started a new weight loss program 18 months beforehand. Her BMI at Survey 4 was 34, lower than it had been at any survey time point:
18 months ago I commenced a weight loss/fitness program exercising on a treadmill morning and night (half an hour each) and in nine months lost 30 kgs in weight. I stopped medication for hypertension. I maintained the weight loss with minimal exercise for 6 months.
Despite these positive results, Helen reported that she has gained 10 kilograms in the past six months, due to:
…loss of motivation, increased workload/intensity, extreme tiredness associated with workload…The problem is trying to balance them all (work, family, friendships, study) I want the lot- but my age is catching up.
This case study points to time pressure and difficulties in work-life balance as being potential barriers to sustained behavioural change and uptake of regular physical activity. Nevertheless, and as pointed out in this report, as Mid-aged women experience life changes such as children leaving home, and changes in paid work, more time might become available for women to increase their levels of physical activity.