Thinness and the Survival Instinct

The backlash to the dieting culture has been relatively quiet and even meek. There is plenty of evidence that diets don't work and that health is not related to size. But these realistic voices don't make a dent. Slavish focus on weight, food and exercise dominates the mindset of our culture. And at this point, the void that would emerge from eliminating the thin bias is hard to overestimate. We are trained to believe that we need the obsession with weight. Without it, apparently, we would all be lost. 

Believe it or not, a large part of our consciousness centers on survival. This basic instinct has utilized our higher order level of thinking for millennia to outlast and outperform all other species. We tend to think our superior intelligence and problem-solving skills make us evolved beings, but the true element of our station in the world is our ability to survive. Whether it is related to making fire to cook food, ingenious methods to protect ourselves from predators or various means to combat bacteria such as purifying water or antibiotics, our successes rely heavily on the combination of our sophisticated brainpower and our most primitive instincts. 

But now this success has caught up with us. If life for many fortunate people is fairly stable without any imminent risk to health or survival, where can we apply these powerful instincts? Being human means the need to survive remains very present and very strong. Perhaps there's no immediate risk, but this fundamental part of our biological makeup remains intact. 

The combination of strong cultural pressure and social science applied to marketing has brought these instincts full circle. Our need for thinness has changed from a societal norm into a what feels like a biological necessity. Too many people cannot function unless they weigh a certain number or fit into a certain size clothing. The urgency to be thin is increasingly conflated with the survival instinct. For many, life cannot go on normally without thinness. 

Meanwhile, various industries use the vast knowledge about food, metabolism and human suggestibility to create foods, weight loss plans and exercise regimens that encourage a lifestyle largely centered around food and weight. There is a sense of inevitability and virtuosity to the ascetic life focused on diet and exercise. In the end, this ultimate goal of thinness creates nothing more than a small, meaningless life. 

Since we cannot eliminate our survival instinct, we as humans need to find a place to apply it. Allowing industry and culture to shift survival to something as banal as weight isn't creating meaningful lives. Recovery from eating disorders focuses on authenticity and deepening personal relationships as the antidotes. Is this lesson one that can work in a larger context? I'll talk about this more in the next post.


Can Dieting Create Meaning in our Lives

Diet and weight have come to define purpose and success in our lives. The clear data that prove the ineffectiveness of diets and various weight loss regimens never appear to sway the underlying premise of our collective goal. The fundamental concern isn't medical. It's psychological. 

We live in a world where only thinness is normative. The most widely accepted weight scale, BMI, skews heavily towards the lower end of the spectrum and does not take into account the variety of body shapes and makeup. Weight bias pervades all aspects of our culture from media to fashion, business to healthcare. Professionals of all stripes adhere closely to the expectation of thinness. Most people are not at all aware of how weight bias colors their perception every day. 

New movements to counter this insidious fat phobia are more and more prevalent. Body positivity espouses the concept of accepting and appreciating the body you have regardless of size. Health at Every Size, a successful government-sponsored program, has been shown to improve overall health significantly without focusing on weight loss. Yet successful alternatives to weight bias do not affect the central psychological driver for our collective belief. 

Daily life tends to isolate us in our small worlds and to limit our ability to see the overall benefits of our existence. More often than not, those lucky enough to be free of illness or immediate threats to our well-being struggle to find meaning or urgency in our lives. 

The human yearning for purpose has persisted over centuries, and we all struggle to latch onto a tangible meaning for our lives, especially in the modern post-industrial, digital age. One clear salve for the masses is dieting and weight. The daily struggle gives direction for each day. The success or failure of following a diet or losing weight structures an otherwise aimless life. 

So the purpose of dieting is only purportedly to lose weight. The meaning runs deeper and the need for daily structure is even more important than the outcome. That's why people diet or focus on food and weight their entire lives. With this background, what comes next? I'll continue in the next post.