Oprah Winfrey has had some wacky ideas over the years—she gave a platform to vaccine denier Jenny McCarthy, not to mention faith-healing promoter Dr. Oz—but you don’t get to be the most successful businesswoman in the world without having a pragmatic core.
And judging by a recent article in the New York Times Magazine, that pragmatism seems to inform Winfrey’s attitude toward weight loss. She tells author Taffy Brodesser-Akneraug: “So all of the people who are saying, ‘Oh, I need to accept myself as I am’—I can’t accept myself if I’m over 200 pounds, because it’s too much work on my heart. It causes high blood pressure for me. It puts me at risk for diabetes, because I have diabetes in my family.’’
The article by Brodesser-Akneraug offers a personal look at the deep confusion that women who are overweight feel in today’s world. In the past, they could simply go on a diet—Atkins, Weight Watchers, whatever—tell people they were on a diet and lose weight (or not). But today, the author notes, dieting has become a dirty word. People are not supposed to simply try to be thin. They are supposed to be “healthy” and “strong.” And experts seem to disagree about the extent to which getting thin will make you healthy. Will losing weight lower your blood pressure or cholesterol? Some studies suggest that losing and gaining weight repeatedly is less healthy than just staying the same weight. So maybe it’s better not to diet at all.
Others say it’s better to practice body acceptance. The movement, which the author traces all the way back to the 1960s, has gained traction in recent years. She cites
Linda Bacon’s book, Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight, which, she notes, “used peer-reviewed research to bolster these ideas. She gave seminars to doctors on fat phobia and weight bias in an effort to help them understand how their views on obesity were hurting their patients and not allowing them to examine fatness neutrally.”
Bacon’s research fed what became a kind of feminist empowerment movement, with overweight women posting pictures of themselves on social media and daring others to criticize them. But then, as Brodesser-Akneraug argues, “normal, nonmilitant, nonactivist people began asking themselves if it was that bad to be fat — if it was that unhealthy, or that ugly, to be fat.”
The problem is that every other social message we receive tells us that it would be better for us, and that we would be happier, if we were thinner. Which brings us back to Oprah. In her heart of hearts, Oprah, like most American women, wishes she were thin, or at least thinner than she is. But after decades of dieting she has recognized that this probably won’t happen.
And so instead she has drawn a kind of red line: 200 pounds. It’s not as thin as she would like. It’s probably not even what most doctors would recommend, but it means that she can’t simply ignore what she’s eating. Maybe that means she will never truly accept herself no matter what. But we don’t do this in other realms of our lives—why should we do this with our weight? If we fail a test or underperform at work, we don’t simply accept ourselves as dumb or lazy. We are supposed to try harder next time. If we are rude or mean to other people, we don’t simply say: “Well, that’s just the kind of person I am.” We are supposed to make amends and do better next time.
Maybe we don’t have complete control over our weight, but we also don’t have complete control over our intellects or emotions. We may not be able to live up to society’s ideal body, but we can, as Oprah suggests, set some minimal requirements for ourselves and strive to achieve them. It’s not body acceptance, but it is accepting reality.
Image: By https://www.flickr.com/photos/aphrodite-in-nyc [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons