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