The Thin Culture

My favorite section of the paper is still the comics. Lately I have been reading what seems to have become an annual theme in the "Cathy" comic strip. Not only can Cathy not find a suitable bathing suit, she is repulsed by the sight of her body in the suits she tries on. Cathy’s obsession with her outward appearance often keeps her from enjoying life. This otherwise successful person suffers from insecurity and low self-esteem because she is not thin.

The Cathy of the comics is sure she could be thin if only she were disciplined. Yet research suggests that while Cathy could be thinner and healthier, she probably cannot be thin by current cultural standards. When it comes to weight loss, most people can maintain a weight loss of about 10 percent of one’s body weight at most. Increased discipline might be quite good for Cathy, but it would not allow her to have a model’s body. Our culture asks women to achieve what for most of them is impossible and, like Cathy, real women suffer under the weight of these ideals.

The research that suggests our ability to maintain weight loss is limited is hard for my students to accept. Those who are thin, but not necessarily disciplined with regard to diet and exercise, are sure their fellow students could be thin, too. The heavier students who speak up about the issue are sure that if they really wanted to, they could lose and maintain as much weight as they chose. They believe weight loss is a matter of will no matter what the research says.

Even if we are skeptical of research, we can consider the claims of the diet industry. The typical diet-program commercial shows us pictures of people who have lost dramatic amounts of weight. There is usually an asterisk leading us to the disclaimer that the vivid results are not typical. I do not think I have ever seen a commercial for a weight-loss program that showed people who not only lost a large percentage of their body weight but kept it off for years.

The reason weight-loss programs never tell us that long-term maintenance of major weight loss is typical is because it rarely happens. We want to believe that dieting failures are failures of will because we can hope to improve our discipline, one day be thin, and therefore be happy. If there is a limit to the amount of weight loss that reasonably motivated people can maintain, then some of us have to accept that we will never be thin by modern cultural standards.
The current thinking in the psychology of hunger and weight loss is that each person’s body functions to maintain a weight within a particular range. This weight range is largely determined by genetics. It is quite possible to temporarily have a weight outside of the range, but over the long haul most people’s metabolism will adjust and weight will be gained or lost to bring a person’s body weight back within the range. Weight loss of more than 10 percent takes most people under the lower limit of their weight range. Thus dramatic weight loss is almost always temporary.

If we accept this thinking and the research behind it, we are left with two personal challenges: First, we must accept ourselves in the midst of a culture that celebrates thinness. Second, we must not let our inability to achieve the cultural ideal be an excuse for unhealthy lifestyles. A good exercise program may not result in thinness, but will result in lower resting pulse rates, lower cholesterol, and lower blood pressure. Exercise and a healthful diet will yield health benefits, while striving for an unrealistic weight is unlikely to provide health benefits and is likely to leave us like Cathy—insecure and blue.
A brief editorial cannot fully explore the issues and research related to weight and body image. Therefore I recommend two books to the interested reader: The Obesity Myth by Paul Campos and Rethinking Thin by Gina Kolata.

Perhaps over the next year I will read about Cathy and her husband Irving making healthful changes in the foods they choose and regularly walking their dogs for exercise. Surely more humor can be found in these lifestyle changes than in continuing to wallow in the misery of the insecure mindset. Then knowing they are healthier, though still pudgy, Cathy and Irving can happily and confidently go to the beach in their new swimwear. It would be great to read some good news for a change, even if it was in the comics section.

— Dr. Joseph J. Horton is an associate professor of psychology at Grove City College and a researcher on Positive Youth Development with The Center for Vision & Values.