Thinness is No Panacea

When I was doing my research for my book Gaining, one of the most resonant terms I learned was “overvalued ideal.”

In the world of eating disorders–and unfortunately in our larger society, as well–the ideal that’s most commonly overvalued is thinness.  To be thin is equated with being good, lovable, moral, attractive, superior, smart and, yes, perfect. This ideal is reinforced by fashion, advertising, celebrity culture, peer pressures, status pressures, work pressures and by the values systems in all too many families.  With so much riding on this single, simple and theoretically attainable goal, it’s small wonder that certain highly persistent perfectionists will strive to achieve and maintain excessive thinness no matter what the price. And, at the other end of the genetic spectrum, perfectionists who are less persistent may develop bulimia or binge eating disorder.

The cost-benefit analysis that logically should guide us as we make our way through life goes right out the window with an overvalued ideal. That’s because the excess value we ascribe to the ideal–an excess that often amounts to culturally sanctioned delusion–overrides any and all perceived cost. Health, intimacy, peace, friendship, mental acuity, meaningful work, parenthood, family life–none of these can compete with the stranglehold of the overvalued ideal.

But thinness is hardly the only overvalued ideal in our culture, much less the only one that appeals to individuals inclined to perfectionistic thinking. Each variety of eating disorder targets a slightly different ideal.  Exercise anorexia (Anorexia Athletica) prizes muscular thinness. Body builders overvalue lean muscular bulk, which can manifest in Bigorexia. Orthorexia places a premium on the purity of one’s diet–purity being defined by labels such as vegan, raw, macrobiotic, organic, fat-free or whatever the latest puritan health fad may be.

Of course, there is a degree of unquestionable value in each of these ideals. If you’re fit, strong and thin for your body type, your health will likely benefit. And if you eat a wide variety of foods that are rich in nutrients and low in pesticides, you’re probably eating well. But no one of these ideals is a panacea–any more than the ideal of “democracy” has proven to be a perfect solution in Iran and Afghanistan.  Life is far too complex for any single ideal to solve all our problems.

Which brings us to the real conundrum: the more confused, frightened, ashamed and stressed we feel, the more likely some of us are to throw ourselves at “perfect solutions.” As we can see throughout the world today, this syndrome extends far beyond the world of eating disorders.  Whether the overvalued ideal is a “perfect” size, diet, faith or political belief, the undercurrent that drives us toward that ideal is our own inchoate and multifaceted distress. Feeling overwhelmed and helpless makes us more inclined to elevate simplistic ideals in ways that can end up doing us harm.

Now, whenever I feel this inclination, I remind myself of the old Mark Twain joke, “Whenever I feel the urge to exercise I lie down until it goes away (emphases mine). Once the urge has passed, then it’s safe to proceed without the risk of excess. We all would do well to learn to distinguish between the urgency that causes us to overvalue certain ideals and the ideals themselves, then proceed with care, caution and common sense.

Photo from user Paul H. through Creative Commons License 2.0


  1. I am perplexed about the writer's decision to lump vegans with anorexics.

  2. Super post. This really addresses the fact that our culture is eating disordered; the problem no longer belongs to isolated individuals.

  3. I’m a vegan for ethical reasons and I really fail to see how what I consider as strong moral commitment is akin to a fad diet or an eating disorder.
    Though I do not advocate eating such things on a daily basis, I’d like to remind the author that plenty of junk food is vegan. Believe me, we have our ample share.
    Lastly as a former eating-disordered person who is still battling some un-healthy obsessions with food, I’m really disapointed by this comparison btw veganism and eating disorders (and don’t get me strated on the eternal clichés regarding vegans and their relationship with fodd…). If anything, veganism has helped being more at peace with food,btw.

  4. The vegans on here really need to calm down.

    The author never compared veganism with anorexia, and they never said it was unhealthy or a sign of an eating disorder. They were pointing out that the word “vegan” is sometimes used as a buzzword to denote pureness/wholesomeness in food, and that the idea that certain foods are bad and certain foods are good contributes to a thinness-obsessed culture.

    Not too happy about all those things (“vegan, raw, macrobiotic, organic, fat-free”) being called “health fads”, though. But I do agree that advertisers can twist words around and idealize things that don’t need to be idealized.

  5. Belle of Acadie says:

    I love Ms Magazine!

  6. “And, at the other end of the genetic spectrum, perfectionists who are less persistent may develop bulimia or binge eating disorder.”

    As someone in recovery from an ED, that really hit me hard. I’m sure it wasn’t meant to come off this way but “perfectionists who are less persistent” made it sound to me like “bulimics just aren’t trying as hard”

    I’m sure that mostly has to do with the fact that since my beginning treatment for my ED in February, I’ve quit restricting my food in an effort to eat normally. And even though I generally don’t overeat I do at times succumb to the urge to purge. This in addition to my weight gain has made me feel like my ED is less important than the girl who looks like she could just blow away. It is still very much there and is something I’m dealing with everyday but I feel like it’s something I can’t talk about because no one will care since I’m not starving to death.

    Again I doubt the writer of the article meant it like that. But my messed up thinking took it that way.

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