By Dr. Robi Ludwig, TODAY contributor
Have Americans finally reached their weight loss goals? Or, are we just over our roller-coaster dieting ways? According to one new and surprising study, released by the New Product Development Group, the percent of adults on diets has dropped. Only 20 percent of adults reported being on a diet compared to 1991, when dieting reached its all time high of 31 percent.
Perhaps what’s even more intriguing about this study is not only have our dieting habits dipped, but our ideas about weight and how we view it has changed as well. Apparently, fewer people find overweight individuals unappealing or unattractive. That's a 55 percent decline from those who felt otherwise in 1985.
So what’s the deal? How can we make sense of these statistics? As a psychotherapist, who studies human trends and links between feelings and behavior, this striking weight and appearance shift left me curious and searching for answers. Ideas about beauty are both subjective and cultural. For example, during the early 1900s, Americans had a very different idea of beauty than we currently see on TV and in magazines. In 1912, Cornell student Elsie Scheel was described by The New York Times as "the most nearly perfect specimen of womanhood." She was 171 pounds, 5 ft 7 inches tall, and had a body shape closer to the Greek statue Venus de Milo than Brooklyn Decker. Today, her body type would be labeled “overweight” as opposed to the “ideal” weight.
Our attitudes towards weight and what’s acceptable is more fluid than people realize. According to John Cawley, associate professor at Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology, attitudes about weight constantly shift. He finds it interesting that these attitudes change the more people become overweight. Our national preoccupation with being thin has also waned over the last couple of decades.
Shela Marie Layden, a nurse from Salem, Ore., believes this trend could have more to do with “a loss of will power and feelings of hopelessness when roller coaster dieting proves unsuccessful.” Kenny Dichter, chairman of Juice Press, thinks the dieting decline may have more to do with people adopting a healthier lifestyle in general, and not calling it a diet. He says that both his male and female customers are drinking juice and incorporating raw vegan foods into their daily nutritional regimen, making it a part of their regular lifestyle.
Diets are regimented and hard to keep. Plus, we also know they often fail. We want fast and easy, when it comes to weight loss, which doesn’t exist. This harsh reality, in addition to the awareness that thinner is not always healthier or sexier, could also account for this dieting decline. We now have women in the media who not only own their curves, they seem to be celebrating them. Stars like Jennifer Lopez and Kim Kardashian are both beautiful and sexy women. They are not skinny, yet they appear to like themselves, love their looks and work their curves. Musical icons like Lady Gaga and Christina Aguilera also make no apologies for any extra pounds that found a way onto their lovely frames. Our world is no longer only about air brushed images of perfection. Reality TV has opened our eyes to see what’s always been there, not every one is a size 2, and that’s OK. In fact, maybe it’s even better.
Perhaps today's modern comforts have made it easier for us to feel good about ourselves now without having to be the perfect weight. Our clothes are more stretchy and forgiving. We can wear yoga pants, stretchy jeans and fabulous comfy dresses which don’t make us feel like we’re suffocating when we’ve overdone it on the pasta. Instagram has allowed us to alter our images so we can look better in photographs than ever before. And social media has allowed us to talk to the masses about ourselves in a positive light, perhaps also reinforcing our collective positive self image.
Many people know that healthier and thinner don't always go together and have embraced the importance of adopting a healthier lifestyle over restrictive and temporary dieting. Regardless of why this is happening, it sounds like this could be a positive shift. It’s about time we realize there are a lot of beautiful body types and shapes out there. Perhaps in 2013, we no longer have to be a one-size-fits-all kind of culture, especially when it comes to our beliefs about beauty.