Art, eating and body image

Eating Well

June 04, 1996|By Colleen Pierre | Colleen Pierre,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

There's a big difference between maintaining a healthy body weight and being skinny.

Several months ago I wrote a column about people in Europe staying slim without dieting. While they eat few diet foods and TC many foods high in fat, they appear to balance the energy equation with physical activity that's integrated into their day through walking, cycling and stair climbing. They also appear to eat more discreet meals instead of snacking all day long, and their rates of obesity are much lower than ours.

By chance, that column appeared on the same page with "Body of Art," a story describing the "Feast, Famine, and the Female Form" tour at the Baltimore Museum of Art. According to that story, the program, led by psychologists Miriam Arenberg and Beth Williams, focused on the seriousness and prevalence of eating disorders among women. The leaders contrasted a Degas ballerina, the super skinny, "in" shape women are currently dying for, with sculptures and paintings of larger, self-assured and more productive women who have been the symbol of desirability throughout the ages.

I thought the story was great and was disappointed to have missed the tour. I was also struck by the apparent dissonance between the two articles. Mine seemed to say, "Keep trying to be slim," while the other indicated that trying to be slim can make you sick, lower your self-esteem and take your life.

At least one reader was struck by this clash. In a letter to the editor, Penny N. Kenny wrote, "I saw signs of hope, until I caught sight of the 'thin is in' article [by Pierre]. By putting it on the same page, you reinforced the idea that ultimately we must be thin and that individuals who seek a positive personal image in their full bodies are simply dreaming. Wouldn't it be nice if we lived in a world where an article like 'Body of Art' could just be left to stand on its own?"

Perplexed, I've been ruminating about this for months.

The two articles actually promoted the same concept (dieting for beauty is usually not good for women), but the connection wasn't clear, since the articles weren't designed to appear together. Further, the situation in which American women find themselves is complex and not easily addressed in two brief newspaper articles. Perhaps salvation lies in integrating three pieces of the truth which then reveal a larger truth.

Real women of all sizes are sexually attractive to different men, they just don't all appear on magazine covers. All women are valuable and have unique gifts to offer their lovers, friends, families, co-workers and employers. Yes, we're faced with size discrimination (much of it we inflict on ourselves), and it's really dumb, because it hurts good women and deprives the world of their talents.

Only a small percentage of women have the genetic blueprint to be cover-girl slim. So it's a good idea to stop starving and accept a more natural place on the body-weight continuum. There, healthful eating (not dieting to lose weight) and regular exercise can support maximum enjoyment of life at its fullest.

In the past 15 years, obesity has climbed to an all-time high of 33 percent of the adult population. This is not caused by a change in genetic material or the unworthiness of people, but more likely is due to decreased daily physical activity combined with a vastly increased food supply. Ever-increasing body weight does not decrease a woman's worth, but it will limit her ability to get around and enjoy life, while increasing her risks for heart disease, cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure and stroke.

So how do we put the brakes on obesity and eating disorders at the same time, not to discriminate, but to maximize self-esteem, pleasure, productivity, beauty, health and longevity? Healthful eating and regular exercise accent the positive for every woman, at every weight.

Colleen Pierre, a registered dietitian, is the nutrition consultant to the Union Memorial Sports Medicine Center and Vanderhorst & Associates in Baltimore.

Pub Date: 6/04/96

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