Did you know that only 5% of men and women possess the body types portrayed as ideal in our advertising-saturated society? Only 5%!

How about a better question: why are the other 95% of us trying to be something that is genetically impossible?

Genetics are the fundamental stopping point on this topic of body image, but no one is talking about it. It’s time we owned our ancestor’s gifts (and they were gifts) and perhaps even embrace them.

Welcome to Ever Widening Circles! Every article we publish –  on any subject under the sun –  demonstrates that it is still an amazing world. We are a new alternative to the negative 24-hour news cycle. Today we offer two fresh perspectives on this problem of “body image.” After an initial inspiring video, read on! I’m going to give you a reason to smile and be proud of your own body, and your genes!

But first, here’s a terrific commentary on this subject of body image by Harvard senior and EWC contributor Liesl Ulrich-Verderber. At 6-foot 3-inches tall when wearing business heels and having been called “big boned” her entire life, Liesl has a few thoughts that seem to have resonated with many. Since this video, part of the annual Lowell House Speeches at Harvard, hit Facebook, I’ve heard no end to the positive comments. It had 3000+ views within days.

Take a look at Enormous by Liesl Ulrich-Verderber:

Well then…in five short minutes, the subject is just about wrapped up! I’m hoping you feel almost totally vindicated for having a full figure. Now, I’m going to give you a little more firepower someday when you are snubbed about your body shape.

Here’s a line of thought about genetics that I think has been poorly discussed in the past:

I (Dr. Lynda Ulrich) have been involved in thousands of people’s lives for 25 years and keep track of their general health quite carefully. I’m a dentist, so unlike your physician, I have the luxury to spend as much time as I like chatting with my patients. We talk to people about their struggles, their victories, and we see how their health progresses over our long relationships together. Issues of body image are a common complexity for most, so here’s my take on the subject…

To start, I’m sorry that the ideal 5% have to hear this but…  the genetics that make for a magazine-cover figure are not compatible with survival in some parts of the world today, and they certainly were not survival genes just a few thousand years ago.

An important part of the “healthy human” equation through the last 100,000 years includes having some fat stored for periodic episodes of scarcity. Six pack abs and nothing to pinch at the waistline are not body attributes that would get you through the lean times. Humans with that little body fat would be more likely to perish early when food was scarce, and women would not be able to reproduce or feed their offspring.

Take a look at this next photo to see what I mean about body size and genes, and then think about your own bloodlines.

Image: three young people compare their musciles

Source: Dr. Lynda

In the photo above, our speaker from Harvard, Liesl, is standing with two of her cousins. They are my brother’s children. The beautiful girl in the middle is probably one of those in the “ideal, magazine-cover” 5%; her mother is British, slight in stature and still almost ideal when it comes to her figure, at age (ahem) 50-ish. But her brother, in the photo on the right, obviously shares more genes with Liesl. He’s a college football player, a lineman, almost her twin genetically.

What can they do? They will be ENORMOUS!

They need not fret about their genetics. It is what it is.

Maybe our contemporary culture does not favor their body types, but they would have been survivors 1000 to 10,000 years ago.

Look at your own body type honestly. Are you “sturdy”? Can you work like a draft horse? Are you the one friends and family come to when they need a hero? That’s a good thing! Some of that is in your genes too! Your people were the survivors!

Your body may be far from ideal looking, but if you were more fit (not necessarily thinner) would you finally feel good about yourself? I am suggesting we start by keeping this simple: a better goal might be to become fit enough to walk 3 to 5 flights of stairs (depending on your age) without being out of breath at all, and then let’s all forget about the shame or judgment surrounding appearances.

Maybe this should be the goal: fitness at any size.

Image: Dr. Lynda and Liesl

My daughter, Liesl (right) and I! We will never make anyone’s CoverGirl list, but we are robust women who could survive a famine with flying colors, and we are proud of it!
Source: Dr. Lynda

One of the things Liesl didn’t tell you was that the professor who said to her, (in a thick British accent) “my gawd, you’re enormous!” is an evolutionary biologist. His next question was, “Where are your people from my dear?!” He knew her stature was tied to many generations of people who were tall, big boned and ready to struggle for survival in a climate favoring those physical attributes. To the trained eye, our physical attributes tell us about our most rugged and successful ancestors.

Even if we put body weight aside, the genetics for height go back a long way in human history as well. We would do well to stop giving tall people some advantages. Short was “ideal” for much of human history.  In some climates being smaller in stature was a tremendous advantage for survival, and in others parts of the globe, long limbs would have been a terrific advantage.

 

Image: Chuck trying on hats

Dr. Chuck trying on hats!
Source: Dr. Lynda

Liesl’s father, Dr. Chuck, is 6’6” (2 meters) tall and his ancestors are from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In this photo, you can see how those genes differ from the people we met in the Andes of South America, where it was an advantage to be of small stature. I must say, he looked like a freak everywhere we went In Ecuador!

Folks, it all comes back to what served your ancestors best in their fight for survival, depending on the various conditions they faced. It’s time we put body image aside, thank our ancestors for being just the right size and shape to survive where they were. Their specific body type, passed down through the ages, was perfect enough to eventually produce each one of us, with all our diversity.

Let’s stop the insanity. If you carry too much weight to be healthy, work on it. But if you’ve got 10-15 pounds more than you’d need to carry off that photo shoot for Cosmopolitan magazine, forget about it! Live life. Love others.

Image: Liesl and her cousin

Liesl with her cousin
Source: Dr. Lynda

Be brilliant and kind. You will be remembered for your heart and brains, not your jean size.

I would argue that the “picture of health” ought to be someone who is at their best fitness level for their given genetics. And that is always going to include being able to pinch an inch or more. Where did your people come from? What climate? What conditions were best for survival?

Let’s own our ancestry and the sturdy bodies they passed down to us.

Stay open, curious and hopeful!

~ Dr. Lynda

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Sources:

  • American Journal of Psychiatry, “Mortality in Anorexia Nervosa.” Pages 1073-1074, 152 (7), 1995.
  • The Renfrew Center Foundation for Eating Disorders, “Eating Disorders 101 Guide: A Summary of Issues, Statistics and Resources,” 2003.
  • Sullivan, Patrick F., American Journal of Psychiatry, Vol. 152 (7), p. 1073-1074, July 1995.
  • Shisslak, C.M., Crago, M., and Estes, L.S., “The Spectrum of Eating Disturbances. International Journal of Eating Disorders.” 18 (3): 209-219, 1995.
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), The Center for Mental Health Services (CMHS), offices of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (Retrieved) March 2015.
  • American Psychological Association, 2001.
  • Levine, Michael, “Prevention of Eating Problems with Elementary Children.” USA Today, July 1998.
  • Neumark-Sztainer, D., “I’m Like, SO Fat!” The Guilford Press, Page 5, 2005.
  • The Renfrew Center Foundation for Eating Disorders, “Eating Disorders 101 Guide: A Summary of Issues, Statistics and Resources.” renfrew.org, September 2002.
  • Zucker NL, Womble LG, Williamson DA, et al. “Protective factors for eating disorders in female college athletes. Eat Disorders.” 7: 207-218, 1999.
  • Collins, M.E., “Body figure perceptions and preferences among pre-adolescent children.” International Journal of Eating Disorders, 199-208, 1991.
  • Mellin, L., McNutt, S., Hu, Y., Schreiber, G.B., Crawford, P., & Obarzanek, E., “A longitudinal study of the dietary practices of black and white girls 9 and 10 years old at enrollment: The NHLBI growth and health study.” Journal of Adolescent Health, 23-37, 1991.
  • National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. “Eating Disorders Statistics.” ANAD.org, February 24, 2014.

Notes:

  1. Ulrich-Verderber, Liesl. “Liesl Ulrich-Verderber – “Enormous”” Vimeo. Lowell Student Speeches, 11 Mar. 2015. Web. 3 Apr. 2015. <https://vimeo.com/121899573>.

Dr. Lynda is a dentist, artist, global traveler, and philanthropist who looks for potential and shares it with the world.