Your choice: Try 61 diets in a lifetime, or learn to love yourself
Dieting to achieve that 'ideal' body is the fast-track to failure. The secret lies in self-acceptance -- liking yourself and feeling happy in your own skin
Published 11/03/2014 | 08:49
Lupita Nyong'o won many awards for her supporting actress role in 12 Years A Slave
She was also lauded for her looks, her beauty and fashion sense. Lupita was the style icon of the moment.
And that made her speech at the Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon all the more extraordinary.
She spoke about how as a child she hated her dark skin and prayed that she'd wake up lighter-skinned. She spoke of her self-loathing and the lessons she at first resisted learning.
She phrased an ugly thing beautifully when she spoke of "the seduction of inadequacy".
It was an inspired and inspiring speech, one whose wisdom applies not only to race but to all beauty-related issues.
A person's real and enduring beauty comes from within, and that can only come from self-acceptance. Very often, however, the greatest impediment to that is that we have become attached to feeling bad.
As March ploughs on, quite a few new year resolutions will have faltered and more than a few diets will have ended, many in quiet desperation and bewildered self-loathing.
The average diet lasts five-and-a-half weeks and the average woman will embark on 61 diets in her lifetime.
But the very nature of an average means that in reality many people will never diet, while others will undertake far more than 61.
There are people for whom weight is an endless battle. For a variety of reasons it's a battle that seems easier to lose, but is that because we simply do not know how to win it?
The "seduction of inadequacy" that Lupita Nyong'o spoke of is a fascinating concept. Familiarity is comforting, safe, sometimes even if we don't like that familiarity.
It's why people stay in rubbish relationships and jobs, why we aren't all in a permanent cycle of making things better. Very often, being overweight is a classic symptom of some level of self-loathing.
You can be confident, happy and successful in lots of areas of your life and still be in thrall to that one, deeply personal strand of self-loathing.
I've lost and gained probably about 30 stone over the years. I'm in a permanent place of being on a diet, about to go on a diet or just taking a little break from a diet, even though I know there's no point in dieting.
I know, accept and believe that I need to make permanent, liveable-with changes. But I don't do it.
And no one is more baffled than me as to why I keep myself in a place that makes me unhappy.
A friend who has also always battled to stay within some reasonable BMI lost a lot of weight after a bad break-up. He lost it because in his distress he was unable to eat.
When he asked why I didn't just do the same, I nearly punched him in the face.
I'm not labouring under any illusion about the physical reasons for being overweight. It's simple maths, an income/expenditure equation with calories: if you eat less you lose weight.
It's the psychological or emotional reasons that prove to be the real barrier. Being overweight is an issue for physical health, but it's also an important emotional health issue.
Why do so many of us live in bodies we wish were different without really doing anything about it?
There's no question that some people do physically struggle with weight-gain/loss more than others.
Where overweight is concerned, although there are cases where health issues or medication are a factor, the simple truth is that slow metabolism, hormones, family history and big bones notwithstanding, most people are overweight because they eat too much.
Shelly has struggled with her weight for most of her adult life since she was put on large doses of anti-depressant medication in her 20s.
The combination of that and steroids for asthma meant she gained three stones in five months.
There were other side-effects. She stopped having periods and suffered hair loss, but it was the weight that most bothered her.
"I know I needed the medications and the interaction was unfortunate, but in the long run the worst thing was the habits I got," she says.
"Part of the weight-gain was the drugs, but a lot of it was because I ate more. I couldn't eat when I was very depressed, but once I was more like the walking wounded -- depressed but functional -- I comfort-ate.
"For a long time I blamed the external factors for my weight issues, but the truth is that I eat too much.
"I was probably suppressing emotions and all the rest of the things they say about comfort-eating and food addiction, and although I gave up smoking and drinking I struggled most to stop over-eating.
"I read somewhere that what starts off as emotional over-eating does actually become a chemical addiction because the years of sugar and endorphin rushes you get from food change the neural pathways in your brain."
Shelly has lots of interesting snippets of information and fascinating theories on food addiction and weight issues.
But they all lead her to the same place.
"As long as I was blaming my weight on something external, it meant I didn't have to tackle it myself," she says. "Or I didn't have to accept full responsibility. I lived in a permanent state of thinking I was going to be thinner and hating myself while I wasn't."
After the death of a friend, Shelly says she did a lot of re-evaluating what was important in life.
"One of the things I realised was that I had spent most of my adult life hating my body and doing nothing serious about it," she says.
"I'd spent so long keeping myself in a place that made me feel bad. My friend had died and it just made me think what a stupid concern weight is.
"So I got my head out of my a**e and decided that I enjoy food. It's a great pleasure and an honour to have it on tap.
"And that as long as I am healthy in terms of exercise and keeping within reasonable limits, I can stop feeling bad about not being perfect."
The trick to achieving anything is that there is no trick. You have to be very clear about what you want and can realistically achieve.
And the key to that is brutal honesty. Kicking a nasty food habit is no different. Anyone who is overweight has to be really honest with themselves about why they're overweight for a start.
But it is just as important to be realistic in what is achievable. All too often, diets and lifestyle changes fail because we set ourselves up for failure.
When you have a lot of weight to lose, the recommended two-pounds-a-week route feels too slow. You decide you're going to lose five pounds the first week and three every week after, and when you don't it's a failure -- you knew it, you just can't lose weight, you may as well have a Big Mac.
Alternatively, you stick at it and you do lose lots of weight, but you have set a target so unrealistic that you keep yourself in another, different but no less-damaging place of failure.
You decided to lose four stone. If you lose three it's a failure and the perennial cycle that got you fat in the first place remains unbroken. No matter what you do, you can't feel good enough.
Most serial dieters know all of this already. It's part of what's so depressing about the cycle. And for so many of us it's a cycle of losing and regaining, the dreaded yo-yo dieting that just makes matters worse.
Kirstie Alley and Claire Richards are famous for their weight fluctuations, proving how difficult it can be to maintain success.
It's extraordinary and odd and terrifying that such a high proportion of people in the western world live their lives loathing something as vital as their own body. It's such a waste of time and energy.
Reaching for an ideal body is the fast-track to failure. And whose ideal is that anyway?
With very few exceptions, people who have an 'ideal' body work at it as if it were a job.
It's a lot of steamed fish, broccoli and interval training. No wine, no chocolate, no pasta.
The truth, as Lupita Nyong'o pointed out so eloquently, is that the key to being a truly attractive person lies in self-acceptance.
Liking yourself and feeling happy in your own skin is what makes people attractive in the broadest and most important sense.
Find the line between making excuses for not changing and forgiving yourself for not being perfect.
Oprah, the once famous yo-yo dieter, seems to have found a steady, happy place between neither extreme and she looks good. Proof that even moderation should be done in moderation.