There is no shortage of videos on YouTube about people chronicling their "weight loss journeys". Every once in awhile, though, there is one like this, which is undeniably compelling and inspirational:
This video moved me. I'm sure it will move most people who watch it. Seeing this man struggle, fall on his face and ass, and keep getting up and doing it again ... you can't help but respect and admire him. There is no denying that Arthur is an incredible person with an incredible drive, and what he has accomplished is amazing. I am very happy for him and I hope that his health and his life continue to flourish.
However, there is an unspoken but very palpable subtext in this video (and others like it) that disturbs me. The suggestion seems to be that unless you put yourself through the same kind of endless agony and torture, you are not worthy of respect. It seems to be saying that if you are overweight and not putting yourself through hell to rectify it, you are lazy. It also suggests that all it takes is hard work and determination.
If hard work and determination were the answer, I'm certain there would be very few people in this world with a "weight problem". We have all put more than our share of sweat, agony, torture, hard work, and determination into the weight loss bank, and for the vast majority of us, it hasn't paid off.
The inspirational intention of videos like Arthur's can backfire in the sense that they suggest to viewers that his "happy ending" is possible for everyone (and is it the end of his story? Ex-protege of Richard Simmons, Michael Hebranko's tumultuous story comes to mind). Nothing could be further from the truth. These kind of results are extremely rare, and they can be accomplished by very few people.
I also found this video (and the message it sends) a little ambiguous. At times it was difficult to determine which aspect of Arthur's transformation he was happier about: the weight loss or the fact that he is now able to walk again (not only walk, but run!) In the end, he stated that regaining his mobility was far more important than the weight loss, but the weight loss aspect of his story seemed to be stressed far more than his disability. It seemed to be suggesting that even if he never did regain his mobility ... at least he lost the weight.
I know that some people out there will read this blog, sneer at me, and call me an envious spoilsport for putting a negative spin on this video. Envy has nothing to do with it. The problem I have with it is this: I keep picturing people who are significantly overweight watching Arthur's video and saying, "I can do that too!" Then I picture them trying as hard as they can, and falling far short of their lofty goals when their bodies fail to have the same affinity for weight loss as their minds ... and getting horribly depressed, ashamed, and their spirits broken when the results just don't turn out the way they were told they would.
Don't misunderstand me: I'm not anti-effort. I think that striving for something you want to achieve -- whatever it is -- is a wonderful and admirable goal. Our minds are extremely powerful and it is truly amazing what some people can accomplish by being staunchly fixated on one specific goal. If that kind of focus does flower and come to fruition, it's difficult to imagine anything more rewarding.
But why is that we never see the other side of the equation -- the reality, the far more common experience -- which is diet failure, weight regain, depression, shame, humiliation? Those results are experienced far more often (95% more often) than the almost-unprecedented, astronomical success like Arthur's. Stories like Arthur's are positive and inspirational, but they can also be dangerous and destructive. Most of us are not superheroes. Most of us are just normal, average people trying to do the best we can.
There is no shortage of TV shows with this message as well: shows like The Biggest Loser, where people are segregated in a weight loss community where weight loss and exercise are lived, breathed, walked and talked 24/7. It's inevitable that in such an isolated, focused community, weight loss is bound to result. But situations like that are not reality. The average person can't take a hiatus from life, sequester themselves in a weight-loss-obsessed community for six months to a year, and singlemindedly focus on weight loss. Average people have to work, pay bills, raise kids, maintain their homes. Those everyday obligations don't leave much room for an intense focus on weight loss. Real life is just not as accommodating as so-called reality TV.
Yet videos like Arthur's and shows like The Biggest Loser keep trying to convince us that the results these people attain are just as possible for us ... and it is simply bogus.
Have you ever wondered why you never see videos about people chronicling their weight loss regain AFTER a massive weight loss? Have you ever wondered why there are no videos showing the fallout from diet failure -- the desperate attempts to maintain weight loss, and the inevitable binging and yo-yoing that occurs after dieting? YET IT IS THE NORM. 95% of dieters inevitably gain the weight back.
I wish I could go back in time and chronicle the suffering I went through when I regained the huge amount of weight I lost after a starvation diet. It would have been truly educational and inspirational as far as exposing the damage that dieting did to my body. You would have seen me struggling to get through each day without feeling like I was starving to death, panicking at every weigh-in when I saw the weight creeping back on, and frantically trying to control my rebelling body .. and having to deal with the feelings of failure, shame, and embarrassment on top of it all, when I found myself back at square one.
I wonder if anyone out there who has lost a huge amount of weight on a diet will be brave enough to make such a video. I suspect it will never happen, because it would simply be too depressing. Who'd want to chronicle their "failure" and put it on Youtube for everyone to see? But it happens to 95% of us ... and seeing what someone goes through when weight is regained would be tremendously helpful. It might make some young person considering a diet give it a second thought, and thus avoid the inevitable weight loss/gain rollercoaster her whole life.
I'm not saying it's wrong to try to lose weight. No one has the right to tell anyone what she should or shouldn't do with her own body. I'm not begrudging Arthur's success and trying to dissuade people from losing weight if that is their choice. But it's extremely important to remember that Arthur's results are rare. They are not the norm. It is counterproductive and potentially destructive to imply that his results are attainable by everyone.
Other inspirational videos could deliver a far more helpful message: Don't bother getting on the diet train ... concentrate on eating healthy and moving your body, but forego the boot camp mentality. You're 95% more likely to be much happier in the long run.