Warning: My bullshit-meter is in overdrive right now. Do not read on if you are faint of heart, or are allergic to the radioactive fallout of bullshit-meters.
Wait, what is my bullshit meter in overdrive about? I'll get to that presently. But, as with all things, we need to start at the beginning. Yoga Dork recently posted an open letter to Yoga Journal by Anna Guest-Jelley of Curvy Yoga. In her letter, Guest-Jelley talks about her feelings about an article in the most recent issue of Yoga Journal. The article, titled "Measure for Measure", describes one woman’s story about food and weight loss.
Guest-Jelley, who describes herself as "a curvy yoga teacher and proponent of Health at Every Size (HAES)" goes on to say that while she does not critique the author's experience of weight loss, she wants to "highlight the fact that weight loss is a minority experience, and sharing stories about it sets people up to feel ashamed if they can’t have the same results." She then goes on to critique the article, claiming that:
'Although this article is not presented as a “diet plan” for people to follow, the author promotes intuitive eating while “measuring out three ounces of cooked salmon.” These mixed messages inspire people to believe that they can have the same results, setting them up to feel like failures if they don’t... Even if people agree and want to follow suit, the truth is that they can’t; if two people eat the exact same amount of calories and do the exact same amount of exercise, they will experience different results, often greatly so.'
She then concludes that, "regardless of people’s beliefs about the likelihood of weight loss, using self-shame (as in the “sting” of the word fat) to get there is never going to work. Dr. Bacon [founder of HAES] describes this problem eloquently: “Few of us are at peace with our bodies, whether because we’re fat or because we fear becoming fat. Every time you make fat the problem, these are side effects, however unintended they may be.”
I think I have done my part to represent Guest-Jelley's position as clearly and charitably as I can. By the way, the web links in the quoted passages from Guest-Jelley's letter above were originally in Guest-Jelley/Yoga Dork's article. I am not responsible for putting them there. The information that they present is highly questionable, as I shall point out shortly.
I'm going to just say what I think. First, a little disclaimer: I'm not a big fan fan of Yoga Journal; I am very sympathetic to the oft-made accusation that YJ caters all-too-readily to popular-media images of yoga (featuring predominantly slim, willowy young women on their covers, for example).
But Guest-Jelley's views just kicks my bullshit-meter into very high gear. To begin with, I think Guest-Jelley lumps together three very different issues: (1) The effects of excessive weight on health, (2) Different people can "eat the exact same amount of calories, do the exact same amount of exercise, and get very different results", and (3) Using self-shame to get people to lose weight is never going to work.
I agree with both (2) and (3). I agree that depending on things like metabolic rate and certain lifestyle factors, different people may very well have the same diet and exercise plan, and have different results. I also agree that shaming people into losing weight usually does not lead to sustainable long-term results. But I really believe that you can only pack on so many pounds without compromising your health; in other words, I strongly believe that health at every weight level (or, as Linda Bacon very glibly puts it, "Health At Every Size") is a load of bull.
I am not a medical doctor. I am the kind of doctor who can talk to you about Plato's view of the soul and death as you lay there dying, and hopefully make your transition to whatever lies beyond a little less fear-inducing. But this is a topic for another post. As I was saying, even though I am not a medical doctor, I strongly believe (and have good anecdoctal evidence from friends about this) that one can only pack on so many pounds before one starts experiencing adverse effects on blood pressure, insulin resistance and heart health. And I think that this is what my fundamental disagreement with Guest-Jelley boils down to. Guest-Jelley, as I mentioned, is a supporter of Linda Bacon's work and her doctrine of HAES. Simply put, the doctrine holds that (1) Commonly accepted methods of weight loss have, at best, mixed results, (2) Weight level really has nothing to do with overall health, so why bother with weight loss or weight control?
Well... should I believe what somebody says about health issues just because that person happens to have the letters "M.D." after her name? (Would you believe everything I tell you about Plato ("Did you know he was on crack when he wrote the Republic?") just because I have the letters "PhD" after my name?) In order to support the claim that weight loss/control has nothing to do with overall health, Bacon's HAES manifesto (does this sound politically motivated, or is it just me?) addresses the "myth" that the only way for overweight people to improve health is to lose weight. It dismisses this "myth" by claiming that "[m]ost health indicators can be improved through changing health behaviors, regardless of whether weight is lost." In support of this, Bacon claims that "[i]mprovements in insulin sensitivity and blood lipids as a result of aerobic exercise training have been documented even in persons who actually gained body fat while participating in
the intervention." These latter claims about increasing insulin sensitivity and lipid metabolism are supported by a couple of footnotes pointing to research done on this (impressive!). But if one actually looks at the footnotes, one finds that the validity and currency of the studies cited are highly questionable. Bacon cites two studies, one done in 1992 and one done in... (hold your breath) 1970! As I said, I am no medical expert... but does she really expect me to believe that NO further major study has been done in these areas for the last twenty to forty years? We must also note that as "recently" as the sixties, researchers were still publishing articles in major medical journals touting the "health benefits" of smoking! So why should we trust a study about insulin sensitivity and weight that was done in 1970?
To sum up, I just can't shake off the suspicion that the Curvy Yoga Movement (and the HAES doctrine that supports it) is just one more example of these feel-good-movements-masquerading-as-yoga/holistic health ("Hey, you can eat whatever the heck you want, be as heavy as you like, because you practice yoga, and yoga teaches acceptance of what you are right now. Be. Here. Now. And besides, we have the science to support this. So, have no fear!"). Now I'm curious: I wonder who is bankrolling Bacon's research?
Well, I'm actually quite hungry right now. I better go eat something now: I certainly don't want to be in the ranks of those shame-induced self-starvers that Guest-Kelley speaks about!