Pity poor Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor.
Not only did she bear at least partial responsibility for the 1936 abdication of King Edward VIII, which earned her the undying hatred of the British Royals and those who loved them, but she’s credited with uttering one of the most pernicious phrases of the twentieth century: “No woman can ever be too rich or too thin.”
Whether or not this idea originated with the much-reviled Mrs. Simpson, it has had definite staying power. So many women—young or old—have absorbed it, I feel like it’s almost become part of our DNA. We all know the importance of being thin (and rich, of course), and many of us waste our lives on an endless treadmill of diets, exercise plans, weight loss, and weight regain, in vain pursuit of this ideal. If we can’t ever be too thin, then we can’t ever stop, right?
Yet by the time we reach our 50s, most of us know that Wallis was talking through her very expensive hat. One of the great joys of middle age is the realization that we don’t have to believe everything we hear, and that includes ridiculous assumptions about our body size.
But poisonous aphorisms aside, this begs the question: how thin should we really be?
Well, there’s always the good old BMI (Body Mass Index) chart, which many of us remember from our days at Weight Watchers, or the walls of our doctors’ offices. BMI is meant to estimate the amount of fat we carry, based on our weight and height. This is expressed as a number, which is supposed to tell us exactly how fat we really are:
- 18.5 or less: Underweight
- 18.5–24.99: Normal
- 25–29.99: Overweight
- 30–34.99: Obesity (Class 1)
- 35–39.99: Obesity (Class 2)
- 40 and above: Morbidly Obese
On the surface, this seems like a good-enough system—not perfect, but a decent ballpark.
However, BMI has some drawbacks. It doesn’t account for the difference in density between fat and muscle, meaning that a very muscular person might have the same BMI as an overweight couch potato. Similarly, people who’ve been overweight all their lives tend to have very dense, heavy bones; even when they slim down, they may weigh more than average, although they look like everyone else.
This actually happened to me after my gastric bypass surgery: at one point, I reached my “perfect” weight, if you went by the BMI charts. Only problem was that I looked like I’d just emerged from a concentration camp. My bones protruded, my eyes were sunken, and I shivered constantly like a chihuahua on meth. I couldn’t sit or lean against hard surfaces, as the knobs on my spine hurt too much. To look normal and feel healthier, I had to regain about 20 pounds…at which point my BMI was back up in the “overweight” range. Sigh.
Worse, body mass index doesn’t account for individual body shapes (“apple-shaped” people versus “pear-shaped” people, for example), and it says absolutely nothing about lifestyle. Based on BMI alone, it’s impossible to tell whether you eat a ton of sugary, fatty foods while lounging in front of the TV, or whether you are an active person who eats a healthy diet…and just happens to weigh more than average.
And yet, many people treat BMI like the Holy Grail of weight loss: they fret if their magical BMI number creeps up into the “overweight” or (gasp!) “obese” range, and they set their “target weight” square in the middle of the “normal” range. Because really, who doesn’t want to be “normal”? Even though it’s not a useful tool, body mass index has gained a kind of sacred status in the weight loss arena.
Okay, so let’s set aside the BMI. How can you decide what weight you should be? I’ve mentioned this in an earlier post, but it bears repeating:
You are at your “best weight” when you are:
- Eating the smallest number of calories that still leaves you satisfied
- Exercising as much and as hard as you can while still enjoying your life
I didn’t make this up. This sage advice comes from Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, and the first time I heard it, I realized that this was the critical piece I’d been missing in my own weight loss efforts. I’d been focusing on a number on a scale, rather than on what I could comfortably and happily achieve.
“But…” I hear you groan, “This tells me nothing! I hate the weight I am now, and I want to lose [insert number of pounds here] NOW, if not sooner! How can I do this if you won’t tell me what weight I should be aiming for?”
The simple answer: I can’t tell you that. No one can.
But I will tell you that once you’ve begun eating less and moving your body more, without feeling deprived or stressed, your body will start to evolve toward your “best weight.” And you won’t need me—or a BMI chart—to tell you when that happens.
Yes, it’ll take time. And believe me, I know what it’s like to hate your body and wish it would just change already, dammit! But if you stick with it, are kind to yourself, and remember that this is a permanent lifestyle change and not a temporary diet, you’ll get there. Really, you will.
This post is part of an ongoing series on After the Kids Leave. We’re not health professionals, and these posts cannot be construed as medical advice; they represent our personal experience only. To read earlier posts, please check the Related Articles list at the bottom of this page.