Overweight People Live Longer? The Enduring Challenge of Self-Esteem Problems

As you might have heard from every news source not talking about the fiscal cliff, a new study shows that people with higher BMI’s live longer.

Oh boy. Where to begin? What a nice New Year’s headline for all of us discouraged, chubby Americans who are hopelessly insecure, temporarily motivated and caught in the constant battle between appetite/body chemistry/lack of gym hours and self-esteem.

But what does it even mean, that “overweight people live longer?”

Well, as The Atlantic points out, it doesn’t mean much at all. At least, it doesn’t mean what people want it to. The stats essentially show that when people die, the majority of them have a low BMI for any number of reasons including but not limited to draining illness or frail old age. In the “reporting” done on this research, none of that was taken into consideration.

The journalism here tickles the ears of a wanting, somewhat overweight constituency. A story like this appeals to the self-conscious, the overweight, and the insecure–those with ’low self-esteem’, if you will. Here’s the spin:

In many places where this story has been picked up, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Time, the implication seems to be that the push to get people down to a “healthy” weight has been overblown.

How astoundingly marketable! Regardless of the facts, this kind of study can ease the troubled mind of the physically insecure, and even give us an excuse to indulge our bad habits. Not like we need an excuse–we usually just do it anyways and feel bad about ourselves later. But a free ticket to feel good about who we are? It is just too good to pass up.

I should know. Every time I go into the doctors’ office (a rare thing, as I only go when things get bad…like Lyme Disease bad) that damn BMI chart stares me in the face and calls me ‘obese’. Obese, for crying out loud! Ever since I was little I have been the chubby kid, but I am in pretty good shape. I jog, play racquetball, wear size 36 jeans and eat pretty healthy (holidays not included). But that darn BMI takes my “self-esteem” and tosses it straight into that little trashcan in the doctors’ office that holds all of the used needles. But the issue isn’t really my BMI.

The real issue is an identity one. The impetus for New Year’s resolutions is that we see gaping gaps in between the person we want to be and who we actually are. “Self-esteem” tells us to feel good about who we are, while religious perfectionism, embedded into the cultural fabric of this country since the Second Great Awakening, tells us to become someone worthy of feeling good about. Combine these two with a consumer culture that tempts with sloth and gluttony, and just like that, you’ve got yourself a New Year’s resolution. A study like the one mentioned above only feeds that monster. Sure, those BMI charts are laughably awful, but when our hearts find rest in a study like this, we know that our hope is misplaced.

We need Jesus not only for the reasons we are overweight, but also for the false promises of miracle diets, moralistic discipline and studies that offer us excuses. Only a radical shift of identity–not the latest feel-good study and statistics–can produce somebody who is comfortable in his or her own skin.

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  • It only adds weight to this view to discover that there’s almost no evidence that high self-esteem makes us better people, or that low self-esteem makes us worse. Numerous studies have demonstrated little or no correlation between low self-esteem and a propensity to indulge in violence, drug use or racist behaviour, for example, or between low self-esteem and teenage pregnancy. Meanwhile, one study suggests a positive correlation between high self-esteem and drink-driving. To summarise Ellis: don’t feel bad about yourself. But give some thought to the idea of not feeling good about yourself, either.