Famine Brain and Body Image


The other day I put away my scale. Hid it where I won’t think about it anymore. I’d been weighing every Monday morning.

It’s not that it’s telling me bad news . . . its just that what I’ve been doing isn’t working. I’m not getting the results I should be getting.

When I’m doing something for a while and it doesn’t work or I don’t achieve the results I thought I’d be getting . . . it’s time to try something new. (Another argument FOR health care reform. We already know this isn’t working, time to try something new.)

Here’s what I noticed: it took me 8 months to lose 8 pounds and one week to gain 6 back. Not fair. Not cool.

Worse, I’ve noticed that the more I talk to Ainsley about healthy eating, appropriate portions, feeling good about our bodies and getting more exercise – well, exact same results. Only the fact that she gained weight is causing me a great deal of stress too. I certainly don’t want to put pressure on her to be perfect or a size 0. But, I also fear the side-effects and risks of obesity (early puberty and diabetes), not to mention my desire to protect her from the resulting social hell.

It’s a very, very tight rope parents of daughters walk. I admit I’ve slipped off that rope a few times in the last month or so. This is my first time at daughter-raising.

Let me be clear: we are not and never have been dieting. We are not and never were trying to be a size 0 or 00.

We’re just trying to ward off all the evils we constantly hear about in the news about obesity and childhood obesity. We’re trying to ward off the unnatural hatred of our own bodies, known as negative body image, etc.

But, what you focus on expands, right? If you focus on avoiding obesity and negative body image, maybe it backfires. There’s a great, in-depth article about this backfiring trend at Shaping Youth.

It’s gotta be our thinking that’s causing us, women and girls, all this body stress.

Martha Beck’s book The Four-Day Win: End Your Diet War and Achieve Thinner Peace describes what’s happening to Americans – as we diet and work out and focus on improving our bodies through will and discipline and then rebound only add on even more weight – as Famine Brain.

It makes a super cool amount of sense.

Basically, we’re ignoring that our bodies are primates. We’re mammals. We’re creatures. Historically, the only reason we’d increase our activity level and starve or deprive ourselves is if we’re in danger. Our bodies are evolutionarily created to respond to danger and starvation by packing on fat we’re gonna need to survive. Our bodies know this and believe this, so when we – in the most abundant country the Earth has ever seen – spend an hour running as fast as we can and depriving ourselves of food, as if we are in danger of starvation – we go into Famine Brain. In other words, our bodies pack on fat to store for later. Then our self-worth plummets because our will and discipline failed us.

It makes a crazy amount of sense.

The flip-side, and this should be highly optimistic for you to hear, is that if we convince our brains and bodies that we live in a land of abundance with plenty of food that we won’t soon be deprived of – which is actually the truth – then our bodies will shed its extra pounds effortlessly.

The key being the knowledge that we’re not starving. We’re not in danger. We’re not deprived. We are blessed. There is plenty. We do live in a land of abundance. We have enough. (Don’t tell Fox Inflammatory Gossip, they’ll have nothing to report and lose all their advertising.)

So, I ditched the scale. I’m trying some of the exercises in the book to reassure my brain and body that it doesn’t need to prepare for famine.

As for body image. I look great. My kid looks great. You look great. So far my daughter thinks so too. Rather than worrying whether she’ll develop some awful pro-ana eating disorder – which might very well attract such an outcome – I’ll deal with that if it comes. Which I doubt. In the history of our family there has never, ever been someone looney enough not to eat on purpose. We’re much more on the pleasure-eater side.

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