That you have to be thin to be pretty is ingrained from birth in anyone with a double X chromosome, but as the feminist Betty Friedan wrote in the preface to her 1963 book The Feminine Mystique: “There is a strange discrepancy between the reality of our lives as women and the image to which we are trying to conform.” Bambi-like 16-year-old girls posing in fashions aimed at the wallets of women twice their age and weight? Perfectly coiffured celebrities with personal trainers and armies of nannies telling the less fabulous that Cheerios and cheeseburgers are their favourite food? Here in the real world, one woman in five puts on a stone and a half in the first year of marriage. Toss in three pregnancies, zero time to herself, eight years of leftover fishfingers and, yep, the the woman who was formerly svelte is now completely sedentary and pushing a size 16.
It is fair to say that the average women wife doesn’t just feel under-confident about her body — according to A 2007 survey by Grazia magazine, she loathes it. It is a shockingly depressing reflection on the female state of mind but the Grazia survey revealed that 98 per cent of British women hate their bodies and the average woman worries about her size and shape once every 15 minutes. Another survey, by Shuc, a bathroom equipment company, reveals that 33 per cent of British women think that they are too fat to appear naked in front of their partners and one woman in ten has to switch off the light before she can undress. When the magazine Psychology Today conducted an investigation into female body image they found that 15 per cent of 3,452 women said that they would sacrifice more than five years of their lives to be the weight they want, and 24 per cent said that they would give up more than three years.
It’s depressing, and of course, depression is directly linked to weight gain, which raises the question: are British women the fattest in Europe because they are depressed, or are they depressed because they are fattest in Europe? Overeating, binge eating and compulsive eating are all, without exception, a form of comfort eating. And when food is used as a way of soothing emotional hurts, dieting without some sort of counselling is never going to work.
The renowned psychologist Paul Ekman once said that a key goal of psychotherapy is to “increase the gap between impulse and action.” The ability to delay gratification was first identified as significant in the1960’s when Walter Mischel carried out his ‘Marshmallow test’ on a group of four-year-olds who were offered one marshmallow now, or two if they waited fifteen minutes. The children were then monitored for ten years and those who were able control their impulses proved to be better adjusted, more dependable, and scored significantly higher in aptitude tests. Author, psychologist, and science journalist Daniel Goleman describes a child’s emerging capacity to “squelch an impulse” as one “basis for free will”, which can be more aptly described as “free won’t.” And scientists who have pinpointed the dorsal fronto-median cortex in the brain as the area responsible for restraint suspect that if this part of the brain does not develop properly in childhood, it may lead to disorders ranging from attention deficit to addictions or compulsive over eating in later life.
While it can be reassuring to point the finger at a faulty frontal cortex or lousy parents, there is still only one way to get thinner and stay thinner. Yes lipo can be a quick fix but unless you change your habits the fat will pile back on again. Though the word diet in conjunction with the word exercise is the worlds greatest turn off, until someone invents a pill that gets rid of forty pounds overnight, it really is all we have.
If you are trying to lose weight it is worth trying several different diets because some people find it much easier to stick to low carb diets such as Atkins which are high in protein and don’t really require counting calories. Others find systems like Weightwatchers which involve daily units and weekly weigh ins easier to stick to. Jeni Cook, a nutritionist and raw food expert, suggests starting the day with a green juice of spinach, apple and celery, eating a generous healthy lunch and then having a smaller protein snack before 7pm. Or try the alternate day diet, which is surprisingly easy to stick to. You can find out more about the complexities of body image and diet in my book The Body bible.
I can’t underestimate the importance of exercise, but like diets, an exercise plan will only be only sustainable if you choose an activity that suits your mental state and your schedule. If you are someone who suffers from stress, walking or jogging will give you space to think. Kickboxing alleviates tension, yoga quietens the mind, and salsa and capoeira are great social activities. Exercise for 30 minutes a day, five times a week for one month and you’ll see a difference in your shape, and your stamina. And you’ll feel happier too.
In his book The Rough Guide to Happiness, the psychologist Nick Baylis says that “vigorously exercising for 45 minutes, three times a week, for 16 weeks, is as effective as the leading antidepressant medication in treating depression”. And a 2007 study by the mental health charity Mind found that a walk in the park reduced depressive feelings in 71 per cent of people.