Busting the myth that skinny equals happy
When I was in high school, a girl I'll call Randi Williams had big hair, a stomach as flat as a board, and legs that—I swear—were at least 12 feet long. Me? I had hair that was the only thin part of my body, a face as round as the moon, and legs that looked like short little tree trunks. Randi ate French toast for breakfast, quenched her thirst with chocolate milkshakes, and snacked on tiny, white, powdered-sugar doughnuts, a dozen at a time. I tortured myself with diet pills, skinless chicken, and breakfast cereal that tasted like sawdust.
When I looked at Randi, all I could see was what she had that I didn't. It wasn't long before I came to the conclusion that I was definitely living the wrong life, and that if only I could live in Randi's body instead of mine, I would be happy -- blissfully, eternally happy.
In my workshops and retreats, I often hear people say that if they were thin, all their problems would be solved. Because they feel that the biggest source of suffering in their lives is their weight, they believe that if they weighed less, they'd be less miserable. They all have at least one Randi Williams in their lives: someone they gaze at longingly (and with just the teeniest bit of malice), someone who they are convinced is living the life they are meant to have—if only they could get their act together and lose weight. In short, they believe that being thin means being happy.
I tell them that if it were that simple, every single one of us could (with the right diet and exercise) be thin/happy, and everyone who is already slim would be ecstatic. They narrow their eyes. They look at me with suspicion. They don't want to hear that the problem is not that someone else has something (a thinner body, more money, a better job) that they don't, but that in constantly gazing out there, we forget to look in here.
We walk around with the terrible feeling that something is missing because something is -- when we spend our days wanting what we don't have, we miss what we do have. Then we feel empty, wrong, and lacking, convinced that the answer lies in getting more (or weighing less). In the process, we forget what is good about our own lives.
The Limits of Weight Loss
It's true that having a noncompulsive relationship with food frees our energy and time. It also allows us to feel lighter and less restricted. But happiness, as the saying goes, is not in getting what you want, but in wanting what you have.
The truth is that many thin people are miserable. Many of them don't like themselves. And all people -- thin or fat -- get old, have cellulite, and die. Being thin does not exempt anyone from illness, loss, or heartbreak.
But there's another way of looking at this. I spent a good deal of my life believing that someone else would have done a much better job living my life. Now, whenever I find myself thinking that the answers are out there as opposed to in here, or if I catch myself wanting what someone else has or believing that I am the wrong person to be living my life, I do two simple things:
- I take a few deep breaths.
- I turn my attention inside myself instead of outside. How do you know when you're outside yourself? The first clue is that you start to feel panicky about needing to be "fixed." You embark on a major program of self-improvement, feeling 2 feet tall, weak, stuck, and unable to move forward with anything. That's when you know you need to climb back into your own body and focus your attention on yourself and what's really important in your life.
To do this, I make myself notice simple, concrete things: the pale turquoise sky, the cool air, the crisp taste of an apple, the fact that I have arms and legs. And, oh, I almost forgot: the sheer fact that I am alive. (That last one really helps. As far as I know, there are not many opportunities for earthly happiness if you are dead.)
Being concrete about what we already have works every time, and here's why: One of the few things over which we have control is where we put our attention. And if we pay attention to the fact that we can move, breathe, feel, laugh, cry, and notice sunsets, there is cause for joy. Every single one of us has a richly embroidered life, though different from the one (we believe) we would choose. If we put our attention on what we already have instead of what we lack, that desperate, panicky feeling that something is wrong and someone else has it better goes away. We come back home to ourselves and begin liking our own lives -- which is all we ever wanted from being thin anyway.