In the middle of a camping trip in a perfect woodsy spot on a beautiful lake this summer, we decided to go for a drive through a vacation residence area on the same lake. Some of the homes are small, simple, rustic cabins up in the trees, while others are larger, more modern homes in prime, lakefront spots.

I thought about how nice it would be to own one of those lakefront cabins, to be able to spend the entire summer there, working and playing. To be able to step out of a proper kitchen in the morning, cup of coffee in hand, to sit on a proper deck and watch the lake. As opposed to walking out of a small camp trailer and sitting in a camp chair on the ground (which is still pretty nice).

Then a question occurred to me: “Am I admiring these homes, or am I coveting them?”

I decided that thinking “It would be nice to…” fell into the admiring camp. There are lots of things I think would be nice. It would be nice to own a house in the South of France (with the money to keep it up). It would be nice to win the lottery and have a really substantial nest egg. It would be nice if our house was bigger in certain places (except that I designed this house, it is perfectly big enough for two people, and the fact that it’s not a bit bigger is fine).

I don’t obsess over not having a home in France, or a lottery-sized savings account, or a bigger living room. I don’t covet those things, or the people who do have those things.

So, what does this have to do with food or body image?

Be yourself…everybody else is already taken

Have you ever looked at someone else’s body — their size, their shape, the length of their legs* — and thought, “I have to make my body look like that”?

I certainly did, back in my dieting and fitness magazine-obsessed days. I had a binder of pictures of fitness models as my “body inspiration.” I know people who took up running so they could achieve a “runner’s body,” when people who have that body type — a stereotype, really, because if you run and you have a body then you have a runner’s body — had it before they started running. It’s part of their genetic blueprint. One of my college boyfriends considered taking steroids so his lengthy gym workouts would yield thick, muscled “bodybuilder calves.” My husband has those calves, and he doesn’t lift weights. Or take steroids.

I have clients who are working on improving their body image, who worry about what it means when they notice a woman who is thinner, younger, maybe fitter, maybe taller, and like how she looks — or sometimes, simply how she looks in her clothes. “Is this normal, or is this a problem?”

It depends. Are you admiring or coveting?

To be able to admire, rather than covet, you need to accept what you already have. That’s true for houses, for bank accounts, and for bodies. It also helps if your idea of beauty is broad, rather than limited. That allows you to admire the appearance of someone who doesn’t look like you, without feeling like there is something inferior about how you look.

Of course, appearance isn’t everything. We are not objects to be consumed visually. We are living, breathing, human beings with thoughts and hopes and dreams and skills and talents and the capacity to love and be loved.

*Just wait

Does coveting have any limits?

With coveting, there is grasping, perhaps jealousy. That’s painful, and probably futile. And what are we striving for, exactly? Is it just an aesthetic ideal, or are we striving for happiness, acceptance, belonging?

This can apply to our feelings about those who have more money, more interesting vacations, a more high-profile or glamorous career. “If I was a rich movie star who vacations in Lake Como, I would be happier and everyone would love me.”

As I remind my clients, everyone has problems. Just as we can’t judge someone’s health based on their body size or appearance, we can’t judge someone’s happiness based on those things. And I think we all know someone — either in our own life, or in celebrityland — who’s desire to achieve a thinner, fitter body, or to maintain a “forever young” appearance, is obsessive to the point of being sad.

As a stunning example of what lengths some people will go through to have a body that is very different from their own, I give you the new leg lengthening trend. Yes, indeed. Some men are willing to spend as much as $150,000 to have their leg bones broken and hollowed out, titanium rods inserted, and then be in constant pain as their legs are slowly lengthened, one millimeter at a time. (I wish I was making this up.) All because taller men get more respect, dates, etc.

What’s fascinates and saddens me is why anyone would take on such a massive medical and financial risk to become taller — to so covet being a taller person — rather than dig deep and figure out what it is that makes them insecure about their height.

You can’t solve a systemic problem with personal changes

Of course, this isn’t just about personal insecurities. Society does award extra gold stars to both women and men who are more closely aligned with certain standards of appearance, ability and status. So more benefits get heaped on those who have already won a metaphorical lottery based on genetics and the income and status of their family of origin. Or those who are willing to do whatever it takes to be like those people, even if it makes them unhappy in the process.

If you’ve drawn the short stick when it comes to society’s unrealistic standards, that’s something that may become your problem (as with anti-fat bias, ableism or racism), but it’s not your fault. It is a systemic issue, not a personal problem that you need to “fix” by trying to change something about your body.

If you have spent time, money and energy unsuccessfully pursuing lasting weight loss, how happy did that make you? If you have logged countless hours participating in forms of physical activity you really don’t enjoy (because it burned more calories), how happy did that make you? If you have accumulated even MORE hours shaming yourself because you regained the weight you lost or haven’t been to that bootcamp class in months, how happy did that make you?

I want you to imaging paying a lot of money to have your legs broken in half. That is not an unreasonable metaphor for what many people put themselves through trying every weight loss diet under the sun. Extreme calorie restriction, possibly dangerous weight-loss drugs, surgical removal of perfectly healthy digestive organs.

It is possible to live a fulfilling life at any size. People are doing it every day. Society just doesn’t want you to believe it’s true. Let’s reflect on that a bit.

Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, is a Pacific Northwest-based registered dietitian nutritionist, freelance writer, intuitive eating counselor, author, and speaker. Her superpowers include busting nutrition myths and empowering women to feel better in their bodies and make food choices that support pleasure, nutrition and health. This post is for informational purposes only and does not constitute individualized nutrition or medical advice.

Seeking 1-on-1 nutrition counseling? Carrie offers a 6-month Food & Body program (intuitive eating, body image, mindfulness, self-compassion) and a 4-month IBS management program (low-FODMAP diet coaching with an emphasis on increasing food freedom). Visit the links to learn more and book a free intro call to see if the program is a good fit, and if we’re a good fit!

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