Jess Weiner is an author and self-esteem expert who's a major (albeit controversial) figure in the body acceptance movement. After struggling with food issues, she abandoned the scale and settled at a happy size 18 — that is, until she realized she'd not weighed herself in 16 years. Her positive body image aside, she was clinically obese. And after a visit to the doctor, she decided that she needed to make some changes.
In the September issue of Glamour, Weiner wrote a highly personal essay detailing the behavior and diet changes that improved her health substantially over an 18-month period. During that time, she dropped her blood sugar by 11 points, her LDL or "bad" cholesterol by 30, and her triglycerides by 21 points, while raising her HDL, or "good cholesterol" by 10 points, all of which is pretty fucking awesome. It's worth noting that her original numbers weren't egregiously bad to begin with — her LDL and triglycerides were "borderline high," and her blood sugar was only at the top of the normal range — but there was room for improvement, and since she has a family history of type 2 diabetes, she took the news that she was pre-pre-diabetic seriously.
By working with a nutritionist and exercising regularly, she made positive changes to all those markers of wellness, while losing only 10 percent of her body weight—at 225 pounds and 5'6", she remains clinically obese—which I would count as a terrific example of Health At Every Size in action. The whole concept behind HAES is that exercise and a balanced diet can improve your bloodwork and lower your risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease without necessarily causing a dramatic weight loss — and incidentally, that it is possible to be fat and healthy.
Indeed, Jess writes that her doctor declared her new numbers "fantastic," and reminded her that "health is more than just your weight." And a recent study funded by the British Heart Foundation and UK Medical Research Council found that "BMI, waist circumference, and waist-to-hip ratio... do not importantly improve cardiovascular disease risk prediction in people in developed countries when additional information is available for systolic blood pressure, history of diabetes, and lipids." In other words, across a population, more fat people than thin ones will have those other risk factors and thus develop cardiovascular problems—but if you put Jess Weiner next to a "normal" weight person with identical blood sugar, LDL, HDL, triglycerides and blood pressure numbers, it's anybody's guess which one of them is more likely to end up with heart disease. Weight alone doesn't predict it.
And yet, the article is titled, "Jess Weiner's Weight Struggle: 'Loving My Body Almost Killed Me." Since when does "loving your body" mean "avoiding the doctor and any tests that measure cardiovascular risk"? (And I don't necessarily pin any of this on Weiner herself; Glamour editors are the ones writing these headlines.) Moreover, to the extent that HAES is touched upon, it's referred to as "OK at Any Size" (emphasis mine) — a common misnomer that usually signals ignorance of the basic premise (health), let alone the science behind it. In fact, HAES is dismissed as nothing more than a comforting delusion for defensive fat ladies.
But what was most surprising to me — especially given Weiner's history of disordered eating — was that after getting all of her numbers right into the target zone, and being told by her own doctor that it didn't matter if she lost another pound, she writes this: "I know I'll never be skinny, and I'm fine with that, but I'm still focused on losing more weight — 30 more pounds is my goal — so I can stay out of the diabetes danger zone." (That would be the diabetes danger zone she was never actually in, just to be clear.)
Coincidentally, I met Weiner (who talked about the article on the Today Show this morning, in the video at left) for the first time on Saturday afternoon, when we met for lunch before speaking together on a body image panel at the BlogHer conference in San Diego. After a bit of "OMG, great to finally meet you!" — in very different ways, Weiner and I have both been visible figures in the body acceptance movement — we dove right into discussing her piece. I agreed with her on roughly 95% of the weight and body image-related topics we discussed, both over lunch and later sitting next to each other in front of a large audience.
Aside from obvious disclosure reasons, it's important that you know that I met her because if I hadn't met her and liked her, I probably would have ripped this essay to shreds, ignoring any positives — fat woman in Glamour! Illustration of HAES principles in action! Acknowledgement that health is about more than weight! — in favor of ranting about the title, the misrepresentation of fat acceptance activists, the credit given to weight loss itself, and the lack of acknowledgment that an ED survivor who currently gets top marks on several important measures of health should perhaps be extremely wary of a desire for further weight loss. Had I not met her, I wouldn't know that her other long-term goal, to hold plank pose for a minute, was cut from that section, or that she considers 30 pounds a "moving target" and has no plans to worry about it if she doesn't lose anywhere near that much. I probably would have assumed the reality was even worse than what made it into the article.
Nevertheless, I still had some questions for Jess. She answered most of them via email.
KH: Tell me about the title, which you described to me as "deliberately provocative" — do you really feel like body acceptance "almost killed you"?
JW: The title is ripped from a journal entry I wrote to myself the day I came home from the doctor. I was scared and confused. I felt that my own belief systems had betrayed me. I was questioning and wrote this line to myself — it is what inspired the title: "Have I been so consumed listening to other people's body image dilemmas and the media's insane and unrealistic pressure to morph women into one version of beauty...has loving my body almost killed me?
KH: But your original numbers weren't really as dramatic as that makes it sound. Do you think a thin woman would have been told those numbers were cause for concern? Do you really think fat women should worry about being pre-pre-diabetic?
JW: I can't speak for what other women may feel about their health, but for me, having my numbers be this close to pre-diabetes was not OK w/ me. Heart disease and diabetes run in my family and I know they are preventable diseases. I didn't want to be just out of reach of the danger zone — I wanted to really be in the best health I could be in.
KH: Do you worry about falling back into ED thinking?
JW: I think anyone who has dealt w/ an eating disorder still fears falling back into that obsessive thinking. But recovery is like being in the mafia. You end up knowing too much to ever go back. After 20 years of recovery — recovery now looks like having a myriad of coping tools - so many more than I did when I was actively struggling — within my immediate awareness. And it's a combination of being aware I am having those thoughts and then as Geneen Roth says - having "gentle inquiry" with myself about why and exploring where they come from. Giving myself grace and action to follow to take care of myself and shift that thinking. Some days I am quite victorious and some days I worry too much. I try to take all of that in stride.
KH: What feels different about your weight loss efforts now, after recovering from an ED and spending years as a body acceptance activist?
JW: Before this - I never really pursued health. I have only chased after weight loss or thinness. I don't think the conversation around whole health and wellness is ever fully presented to women who carry weight. I think it always starts with weight loss as the ultimate goal. The work I did with my doctor is about being engaged in a whole-istic plan for health. And I am measuring that success in various ways: that before this work with Dr. Verma, I was not presented with a plan that would engage my whole-being and allow me to be moderate and not extreme in my pursuit. This approach is much more in alignment with my beliefs as a body acceptance activist. No one directly told me I couldn't pursue weight wellness in a moderate way - I think I just spent too much time in black/white thinking (caring about appearance/weight = bad — critical thinking/shunning societal pressures = good) that I forgot to really find the middle ground for myself. And this health crisis was a wake up call.
Loving My Body Almost Killed Me [Glamour]
Kate Harding is a writer in Chicago. She's written for pretty much everyone and is a contributor to our forthcoming Book of Jezebel.
Image via waterlilly/Shutterstock.com.