The New Year is upon us, and with it comes the pervasive, and often heavily marketed, promise of a better tomorrow. About 40% of American adults make at least one New Year’s resolution. Goals range from drinking less to reading more books, but unsurprisingly, in our body-conscious culture (in which rates of both eating disorders and obesity have risen dramatically), the most popular resolution is weight loss. A 2006 ABC News poll shows 45% of American adults cite weight loss as a New Year’s resolution — 55% of American women and 36% of American men.
I’m not suggesting weight loss is an inherently “bad” goal. However, a problem arises when the focus of weight loss is solely aesthetic, as it so often is. Rather than promising ourselves we’ll lose ten pounds or fit into that pair of too-small jeans, we could focus on becoming physically stronger and healthier through enjoyable exercises, or eating foods that are nutritious and varied. But if we did that, how would the 40 billion dollar per year diet industry survive?
Weight loss is no easy task. It requires an almost constant amount of time, money, and vigilance. Changing one’s lifestyle to be healthier can be rewarding, and can help one gain the energy to focus on other important pursuits. But weight loss for the sake of weight loss does just the opposite. Any extra energy one may have is spent counting calories, exercising, reading up on the new fad diet, or otherwise trying to reach what may ultimately be a fruitless or unobtainable goal.
In The Body Project, author Joan Jacobs Brumberg traces the first “slimming craze” in America back to the 1920s. (Not incidentally, the craze began just after American women received the right to vote.) “Before the twentieth century, girls simply did not organize their thinking about themselves around their bodies. Today, many young girls worry about the contours of their bodies — especially shape, size, and muscle tone — because they believe that the body is the ultimate expression of the self.”
Indeed, the body is still revered as “the ultimate expression of the self.” Women are bombarded with the message that their worth is dependent on their size, and diminishing their size will lead to a more fulfilling life. In reality, weight loss is rarely the key to happiness, with the exception being weight loss to battle legitimate health concerns. And isn’t happiness what the New Year should really be about?
When making our New Year’s resolutions, let’s vow to consider our happiness first. That happiness could come from resolving to read a good book in the bath every week, working toward a promotion, spending more time with friends and family, organizing the office or home, or setting realistic and healthy goals for the way we treat our bodies (that may or may not result in weight loss). Whatever your resolution may be, here’s to a Happy New Year!