Body Sacred: First, a Rant

Thanks, I grew them myself.

This post will be first in a series about weight, health, spirituality, and food issues, which I am labeling after the title of my second book.  They’re not excerpts from that book, more like posts about how my views have changed, what my body life is like now, and what I am doing, thinking, and working on surrounding those issues that drove me to write The Body Sacred in the first place.

This will be the only time you get to see me in my undies, though, so enjoy it.

“Hello, my name is Dianne Sylvan, and I am morbidly obese.”

At time of writing I weigh 310 pounds and my BMI is something like 48. I don’t really trust either of those numbers as indicators of health–I wrote an entire book on the diet industry, spirituality, and body image, and I still believe at least 95% of every word I wrote.

The thing is, when I wrote that particular book, I was about 80 pounds lighter than I am now. And believe me when I tell you it’s a whole different world for me six years later.

I’ve been belittled, ignored, and openly mocked for my weight since I was in my early 20s and only topped out at about 220 pounds. Now, I find that I’m basically ignored, until my back is turned, whereupon I get eyerolls that people think I don’t catch in my peripheral vision. When I tell people I’m a vegetarian they look at me as if I’m a liar, and when I say that I dance, they almost have to stop themselves from saying, “Yeah, right.”

Here’s something I’d like all smaller people to remember, and not just for my sake.

When you see a morbidly obese person at the grocery store on her motorized cart trying to buy food, or get out of a car, or fit into a movie seat, sure, you see how hard she’s fighting to do normal things. Sure, you think of the misery, and the potential for disease and the incredibly hard wear she’s putting on her joints. Maybe you feel scorn, maybe pity. Maybe she reminds you of the people in your family–and I’d bet even money someone in your family qualifies–who have dealt with diabetes, cancer, and heart disease, all of which are easily treated, if not reversed, by a switch to a plant-based diet. Or maybe you think she’s lazy and nasty.

But don’t for one second, ever, ever assume that she’s not aware of it too.

There’s never any reason to give a stranger “tough love” about her health. There’s no reason at all to think that the woman you’re about to belittle for being too fat to go through a door without turning sideways is completely ignorant of the risks and pain. There’s no need to mock her or tell her she needs to lose weight, because she lives in America, for fuck’s sake. She already knows.

Have you ever met an American who had never, ever heard about Jesus Christ? Probably not, despite what the streetcorner evangelists cry. And you’ve never met anyone who hasn’t heard the Skinny Gospel either.It’s on every channel, in every magazine, all over the internet, on billboards, in grocery stores, doctor’s offices, the sides of buses, the radio.

We’ve all heard it. And chances are, we’ve all been trying.

For most of us, being obese comes with a high price tag. We’re uncomfortable, we’re hot and sweaty, we’re in pain, we have to plan our day based on limited mobility and trying to avoid huge crowds of assholes–and diet book authors–who think it’s all right to belittle someone and make them feel like a huge fat blob of worthlessness…for the sake of their health. You know, because they care so much about our health.   At no point are we ever not aware of how fat we are. We know, okay?

No matter how many books it sells for you, no matter how justified you may feel, repeat after me: YOU CANNOT HATE SOMEONE FOR THEIR OWN GOOD.

When you scorn the fat girl on the bus, you don’t know anything about the circumstances that led to her size. She might have already lost 200 pounds by nearly killing herself with anorexia. She might have gained the weight because she was gang raped and part of her coping mechanism was to insulate herself against the rage of men with a layer of fat. She might have been in therapy for years trying to resolve that. She might have just started the life changes that are going to help her achieve good health–and that health might not include being thin. She might have started out at 400 pounds, where even a year later of intense mindfulness training, exercise, and nutrition counseling she’s only gotten down to 325 because losing it slowly is healthier and more sustainable. She might have had bariatric surgery and now has to worry about malnutrition, blood clots, scar tissue, skin fold removal, and possible complications up to and including death. And she might be working her ass off, literally, day after day, overcoming psychological and social stigmas that amount to being considered worthless and disgusting simply because she has that fat ass.

So shut. The fuck. Up.

Leave us alone. If you’re our friends and you’re worried, say something, and talk about it rationally. Some of us might be really defensive, but it’s probably because of people who do what I was just talking about. But still, chances are, we know. We’ve tried. We’re still trying. But there’s so much more to it than calories in/calories out, despite what all the Weight Watchers/Jenny Craig/Nutri System “scientists” claim. If you’re not addressing the emotional issues that cause you to reach for food as a way to cope with life, then nothing is ever going to work: not Points, not premade meals laden with chemicals, not drugs, not gastric bypass. They’re all bandages for the wound that is still gaping year after year: a wounded and hurting spirit.

It all seems so straightforward to people who aren’t living with actual obesity. Calories in, calories out. But until you’ve been in this body with its constant back pain and aching knees, the inability to wear normal clothes, the fear of disease looming even after blood chemistry comes back 100% normal, and the whole world looking at you like some kind of fatty pariah, the reality of it is safe to laugh at from the other side of the TV screen or the other side of the restaurant.

Don’t assume you know what I’ve been through. Don’t assume you know what I eat. Don’t assume you know anything about my issues or what attempts I’ve made not to be what you consider a sexless, heartless object who is apparently also deaf.

I’ve noticed that people who are cruel to the obese also tend to use the same kind of tone and language when talking about farm animals, as if we’re only as smart as a hog because we look so much like a hog. That makes it okay to be cruel to a woman who reminds you of an animal it’s okay to be cruel to because hey, it’s not as if it’s a real person. All you can see is fat. When you try to give “advice” to someone from that mindset, you don’t really care about helping them. You care about assuaging your own fear that one day you’ll be in the same shape and everyone will hate you too.

I long maintained that being fat was not the death sentence that pharmaceutical company-funded studies wanted you to believe. And to a large degree I still believe that. I believe that it’s possible to be healthy at a wide range of sizes as long as you’re active and eat a healthy diet of whole foods, minimizing animal fats and proteins and emphasizing plants.

That doesn’t mean I don’t think there are limits. Each person has a sort of healthy zone of size, diet, and activity in which they function optimally without having to do anything extraordinary to maintain that health. Now, for athletes that might be different, since training and so forth might involve a different diet and workout regimen for however long the event goes on, but for most people, “wellness” is a green area (sounds healthier than “grey area”) in which you maintain a range of weights for your height based on your activity level, all fueled by the optimal eating habits for your body, not anyone else’s, not what some chart says, not what some celebrity says. You, and you alone, are in control of your overall health, and only you can decide what feeling healthy is. For you it might look very different from me. And that’s okay.

We’ve had it drilled into our heads that health means uniformity of size, muscle mass, and calories in/out, but that’s just not true, and to try and force ourselves to conform to someone else’s body is not only placing unfair pressure on them, but on ourselves, because we’re trying to do away with what makes us unique and beautiful…to become someone else. A copy of the original is never as beautiful. To paraphrase Margaret Cho, don’t fail as someone else. Succeed as yourself.

No, I am neither satisfied with nor comfortable with my obesity. I am taking steps to address it, but it takes time. Any solution for this condition that has a hope of succeeding over the long term is going to require two things: time, and change from the ground up. It’s not enough just to change what you eat or how often you jog. If you don’t address the underlying issues that got you to obesity in the first place, you’re going to end up right back where you are as soon as your enthusiasm fails, because those old patterns and beliefs are still in place waiting for a chance to whisper in your ear that you’re not worth it, that you can’t succeed, that you’re a loser who’s never been able to lose weight before…why should you now?

It’s not impossible.  But the world we live in does its damnedest to make it seem impossible.  If all you have to do is eat a healthy plant-based diet and get moderate exercise, then what would the weight management centers, bariatric surgeons, pharmaceutical companies, “diet” cola makers, “fat free” snack makers, “Biggest Loser” shows complete with DVD tie-ins, books, weight-loss bars and shakes, clothing, supplements, and branded water bottles and pedometers do to make money?  What about all those “healthy” fast food salads which end up having more calories and fat than a Big Mac?  If food were not the enemy, and our bodies not an ongoing war, then what about those desserts that claim “you deserve indulgence,” or the countless plastic surgery centers who claim getting pounds sucked out of your thighs is as easy as a manicure, or the TV personalities who sell exercise DVDs as well as their own personal line of weight loss bars and pills?

It’s so hard to pull back the bullshit curtain and see what’s underneath:  it’s just you and your body and a world full of food.  And I’m sure you, like me, have treated your body like a war zone for most of your life, and developed such a dysfunctional relationship with food and your flesh that it could be its own episode of Jerry Springer.

And while I don’t have any solid answers on how to make it all better, I can tell you with absolute conviction what can’t:  hatred.

Much of what we do to our bodies is violence.  We restrict and starve.  We binge until our stomachs hurt.  We go under the knife and have foreign objects implanted in our abdominal cavities.  We have fat sucked out.  We run and run and run on the treadmill until every muscle tears and we cry.  We eat processed, unsatisfying, chemical-laden food aiming for a certain number of calories or carbs without regard for taste or joy.  And we stand in front of the mirror screaming, “Why aren’t you thinner?  Why can’t you be beautiful?” as if we were at basic training in our own personal hell.

All of this in the name of health and beauty.

The basic choice for all of us is this:  Do I want to totally abnegate my physical form, gradually hacking parts off and starving it down and making it smaller and smaller until I have no body at all, living only in my head because I’m afraid to face the years of pain I’ve stored in my flesh?  Or do I want to live fully in this body, the only one I get this time around, and learn to live in healthful ways that make my heart and body both feel loved, cherished, and strong?  One choice is essentially death.  The other is life.  Live, or die: that’s what it comes down to in the end.

You can’t make that choice for anyone else and you can’t force it on them.  But when someone’s sword is pointed at her own throat, you can’t disarm them–it’s up to them to lay that sword down.

Meanwhile, try laying down your own…as I’ll try to lay down mine.

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24 thoughts on “Body Sacred: First, a Rant

  1. Angel M.

    I sat here and read this, nodding my head, tears in my eyes.

    The first book I ever read from you was The Body Sacred, and it was one of those books that went on my ” Changed my life somehow” list. For my whole life ( 31 tomorrow ) someone has been calling me fat, even when I was not. My Dad was brutal, I was 15 and 120 pounds, and had been called to heavy just about every day of my life up until that point. A little while later I had the first of three kids, and ever since that first child I have never been able to get the weight off and I have watched the scaled slowly creep up, fall down a few pounds, and then double back up again until I now sit in a 270 pound body on a 5’5 frame.

    I have been the person who gets called names, gotten the looks no one thinks I see, heard the whispers no one thinks I hear. The ones that do talk to me face to face about it of course are only concerned for my health, since obviously being this big must mean I am in danger of stroking out on top of their new balance ball technology sneakers. Yes my knees hurt, and my back hurts, and my shoulders hurt, but that in no way means I am dead…I have feelings too..and I have tried so many things to get the weight off, yet it never seems to work, because of those emotional issues.

    It is so hard to overcome those issues however, when everyone you know just adds to it with the things they say, thinking they are “helping” me somehow.

    Sorry, did not mean to write my own post here, but I guess what I am trying to say is I totally relate to this, and I am looking forward to this series, and I bet a lot of people will be interested as well, because this type of thing is what I consider a silent killer, because so many women are this way, and have no one to talk to , or no one they feel they relate to, and they sit, at home and alone, slowly dying more and more each day, physically, emotionally and spiritually as well.

  2. mama kelly

    I have nothing to add u stated it beautifully. Thank u for being a voice of reason in an insane and all too often very cruel world

  3. Morgaine

    I have so been in that same place. At my heaviest, I was over 350 lbs. I have lost about 100lbs since then (and still have another 100 to go to be in the healthy BMI range), but it only happened once I learned to truly value myself, and stop telling myself how “ugly” I was when I looked in the mirror. Because the truth is exactly as you say – I was treating my body as a shield and a battle ground, dumping huge amounts of toxic foods into myself in order to “punish” myself for not looking like a “normal” girl, and also “shielding” myself from rejection by rejecting myself first. Thank you for standing up for the girls in the world who are constantly suffering scorn and abuse for their weight issues. And FYI- I think you look super hot in that pic up there!

  4. Analae

    I think everyone in the world should read this, and I want to thank you for writing it. Although I don’t face the same struggle, there are many around me who do, and I can’t tell you how big my smile would be if those people would only realize their true worth and embrace it. Thank you for spelling it out.

  5. Alice

    I normally really love reading your posts, but you’re right, you don’t have any solid answers on making it better, your post is angry and frustrated, you can’t expect the world to change for you. A whole generation of bitches that snort coke and throw up to lose weight? I think you are kidding yourself at the amount of work it takes in a gym for those women and men to achieve those bodies. As a personal trainer i help men and women properly take their body fat % down with workouts and diets that truly change their lives. I don’t think 45 min in a gym 4-5 days a week is cruel and unusual. I don’t think that eating a high lean protein diet and saving complex carbohydrates for before and after workout is starving yourself. In fact you must eat 6-7 times a day small portions to raise your metabolism. I am a type two diabetic that used to be 290lbs, educating myself on proper fat loss nutrition and consistency in the gym brought me down to 127lbs. It is a science, it does work. The right food at the right times a day and the proper amount of exercise is the answer. Yes it takes a lot of work and it is a life change but it is very possible. Here is a good website to start learning how to do it right.
    http://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/beginner_fat_loss_program.htm

  6. Nicole

    Dianne – I think this was a rant that was totally needed. I read Body Sacred and so this post backs up most of what’s in the book…

    I think in terms of the poster above (Alice)…what Dianne was trying to profess was that it’s not about the food or what trick you can figure out to make it all better–it’s (like she said multiple times throughout the post) about the emotional damage that lies below everything. It’s about taking everything step by step and finding your path to whatever health you find right for yourself. I myself would feel like a gerbil or lab rat when trying any type of weight-loss “plan” or exercise “program”…that’s just not the way I work. The only way I could go about it was an organic way…organic in terms of really listening to what my body wanted to do that day…(I won’t go into all that here).

    Basically I just wanted to say that I think putting up a website for a beginner fat loss program is just the problem Dianne was speaking of in her post–it’s not about finding the trick or the right plan, it’s about finding what’s best for you on your own terms. It’s the only way anything is gonna stick.

  7. Jenna

    Dianne-
    I just had to say that this is beautifully said, and just what I needed to hear today. Thank you.

  8. Jennie

    Your writings on this subject are always enlightening. After being unhappy with my weight, turning to an eating disorder, having recovery followed by relapse followed by more recovery and more relapse, this subject is constantly on my mind. (my currently recovering mind) When you write, it reminds me of everything that I don’t want to miss out on because of an obsession.

    I’m looking forward to the rest of your posts in this series.

  9. melinda

    Thank you Dianne! I believe it’s mainly about your getting your emotional and spiritual issues under control. Until that happens no amount of dieting and exercise is going to help–sure it will come off–for awhile but it won’t stay. I am just really learning to love my self and my body–as is. So, yeah! for the rant and i’ll be eagerly awaiting the next posts.

  10. Nelly

    Ok.

    So what I’m about to say might not seem entirely related to the post, or PC, or what have you. As far as direct response to what was said goes, most of what I thought has already been put far more cleverly by other readers, and I agree with almost everything the other commenters brought up (ALMOST. I will not feed the trolls…).

    Maybe it’s my enormous bias from years of reading your books and blogs and falling ever deeper in love with the way you can turn a phrase, mixed with the totally smoking picture up there at the top, but as I read this post, the one thing (beside all the cheers of “yes!” and “right on, sister!” was this particular thought:

    Damn, woman.

    You’re so, so beautiful.

    Thank you for every word you’ve ever penned or typed, Dianne. We love and appreciate each one more than you know.

  11. Sarah

    I’m not really sure what to put here – a massive thankyou probably, you helped me to turn a massive U turn life-wise, and even If I cant start the engine yet that’s a move in the right direction. (wow – what a mixed metaphor) I actually found myself nodding at the begining of Alice’s post – it made me aware of how much time I waste, not only hating myself but hating everyone else. I forget sometimes that we are all in the same ‘sytem’ we are all fed the same images and the same ideals. it’s only because of you that I started to reject all that and I wanted you to know that I will always remember your book and the effect it had on me.

    Also – That is a truly beautiful picture, without wishing to be insulting or in any way misunderstood probably the most erotic thing I’ve seen all year.

  12. Ali

    I really appreciate and respect what you wrote here, and couldn’t agree more with this statement in particular: ” I believe that it’s possible to be healthy at a wide range of sizes as long as you’re active and eat a healthy diet of whole foods, minimizing animal fats and proteins and emphasizing plants.”

    On the other hand, I think it’s also really, really important to avoid a rhetoric of opposite extremes. Speaking as someone lucky enough to have done everything you praise (eat lots of fruits and veggies, avoid animal products, stay active, and especially, live with joy) for most of my life, and who also happens to be in the range of what our culture more generally would call “thin” (even, sometimes, “skinny”), I want to point out that not everyone who is thin has starved themselves or abused their bodies because of self-hatred and peer-pressure. Flinging hatred and rage back at the “skinny bitches” of the world and demonizing them based solely on appearance and baseless assumptions seems equally wrong to me as dumping derision and mockery on those who are overweight.

    I’m sure that you would agree, too, but it saddens me to see every discussion about health and weight colored by this false dichotomy between the “disgusting, out-of-control fatty” and the “joyless controlling skinny-bitch.” This just isn’t true, and I think it can become an obstacle to health when we tell ourselves, “gosh, in order to be healthy I have to become like that? .. no thank you!” In some places your post loudly denies that we have to make that kind of false choice, but in other places you seem to imply it almost without noticing.

    So I just wanted to speak up here, to remind us that if we want to be healthy, we can’t at the same time demonize those who have succeeded in being so.

  13. Nicole Ross

    Alice — I think you’re missing the point of this post. Having been overweight, I’d think you would understand that those of us who have been there usually have severe emotional problems that are linked to our eating disorders. Whether they be stress or comfort eating, or even stretching as far as bulimia.
    The point is not that going into the gym is somewhere “cruel and unusual punishment”, but that our society has a skewed vision of what is healthy.
    For example, the smallest I’ve ever been in my adult(ish) life was 155 lbs back when I was 13. I wore a size 10, had a reasonably “normal” body by society’s standards, and my face looked like an emaciated corpse. I do not lose weight proportionally. Over the years, I jumped up to 220 due to some hard years in my life, because like many, I used to eat to relieve stress or pain. At that point, I did all the Weight Watcher time. I lost almost 50 pounds and settled in at 173. I got tons of praise from my friends and family, and attention from the opposite sex. But, for my close friends and boyfriend, I was the most miserable bitch ever to be around. Especially if they had poor foresight to come with me out to dinner. Sure, I’d lost a lot of weight, but I still had a very poor self image. I was in a constant battle with the scale, where even a slight change in numbers could send me into a spiraling depression, because I judged my worth by numbers on a machine. Obviously, something somewhere wasn’t working.

    My personal experiences having been added, I think what’s important to take from this is not the message of “exercise and diet don’t work” or “skinny bitches must die”, because that’s not the point. The point is that some of us don’t want to look like that. Personally, if I see someone and their thighs to do not touch in the middle, I find that a lot more distasteful than a very large woman. Nor is it always healthy. I’ve gained some weight back since moving onto campus in my junior year of college. I now hover somewhere between 190 & 200. That probably technically qualifies me as “obese”, but my heart rate regularly runs between 55 & 80, and my blood pressure is actually usually lower than normal.
    It’s not that we feel the need to demonize thin people, but rather that we resent society’s ideal that we must somehow look a certain way to be healthy or happy. I’m very healthy. I get daily exercise and eat a relatively balanced diet. (Okay, so I’m a college student, and beer and ribs don’t exactly count, but… I’m a college student. You only live once.) The more important point being that I’m happier now than I ever was as a “skinny bitch”. I have a better self image than I ever have. I’m slowly learning to love me for me, but because of the numbers on the scale. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the point. Weight watchers and personal training and all those types of things are effective, but NOT only the person pursing them can develop some sliver of self-esteem. And people who have or have had weight problems, generally have NONE. They’ve been told time and time again that they’re ugly, undesirable, unhealthy, and diseased. The problem is that society has enabled that treatment of overweight people. I really love Dianne’s line: “You cannot hate someone to save them.” I see a lot of people exercise that mantle, and it doesn’t belong to them. Somehow it’s acceptable to “own” someone’s life in that way, and try to fix them by making them feel terrible about themselves. I’ve seen a lot of families do this to their children. I’ve seen a lot of spouses do this to their spouse. It’s neither acceptable, nor is it effective.

  14. Alice

    Nicole- “No, I am neither satisfied with nor comfortable with my obesity.” isn’t saying to me that she is happy about the current shape she is in. My only point was that if you are not happy change it! If you are happy great! We should all love our selves and our bodies no matter what size and shape they are. This post however didn’t sound to me like a person happy with their body. I have been on both sides, i was the overweight girl that was mocked and i hated it, until i took control of my issue and changed it. Because ultimately it was my issue not the people who thought i was fat and undesirable. You can’t change what society views as beautiful or healthy all you can do is do what makes you feel good about yourself. I think it’s great that you love your body and don’t care what people think of it. Good for you! My post was not meant to harm or seem uncaring at all. I just believe in what i do and i see it work for many people with the same issue. I got into it to help people not make them feel bad. The point to me is when you start to take control of your body and see the results you gain self confidence, i don’t think it works the other way around.

  15. Shalimar

    My journey to being a person comfortable in her own skin has taken some interesting turns lately. This post was the right thing at the right time. I can’t peg any one thing as ‘it’ but all together it was perfect.

    Also your picture at the top is wonderful.

  16. Ellie Di

    There are so many thoughts in my head about what to say here. I find myself wobbling around in different emotions. I agree and yet feel the need for balance. The tendency to give as good (bad?) as we get is incredibly strong, and in many ways haters on both sides deserve to get theirs. But karma will do that – let’s not wreck our own with being nasty, too. We never know what someone else’s life entails and should always treat others with the respect we want, too. On the other side, I feel that everything you’ve said about the emotional and background points, as well as health not being about size or weight, is 100% on. We need to move past the gospel of thin and get healthy of mind as well as of body.

    That said: Thank you so much for sharing this. Like so many other people, your thoughts and writing on body image have really changed me and how I deal with myself. I can’t wait to see more on this, my dear.

  17. Ally B.

    Dianne – I look forward to reading whatever comes out! I have to say that your website hasn’t been closed since I found it and everything you have written has been take in with great amounts of love!

    Thank you for the rant and sharing your thoughts with all of us!

    <3

  18. K. Ledbetter

    I know it’s been said a dozen times before, but thank you so much for posting this.
    It means a lot to get to hear about health and image from someone not trying to “fix” their readers.
    You’re an inspiration and a role model.

    Thank you.
    -K

    PS- Don’t let the troll get you down.
    <3

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  20. Claire

    I really enjoyed the thoughtfulness and poignancy of everything you’ve written, but the thin-hate was extremely off-putting and really undermined much of what you communicated about acceptance. As a skinny person who struggles with body image and eating (just like you), I was confused by your portrayal of thin people as somehow being exempt from the kind of inner pain you describe (though I know I have it easy in other respects).

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