For millions of Americans, every New Year begins with resolutions about losing weight and getting fit. But with the arrival of 2009 in particular, it seems like we're being deluged with messages about how to shed pounds and sculpt our physiques. It seems like every magazine, newspaper, Internet site and morning show is paying homage to those who have achieved control over their appetites, directed their energies into exercise and emerged healthier, sexier or more powerful.
"The Biggest Loser" is bigger than ever, not to mention weight-loss programming like the "Joy Fit Club," "Celebrity Fit Club," "X-Weighted," "Big Medicine," "Bulging Brides" and "I Can Make You Thin." Vegetarian kids are getting lots of airtime. Television segments on eating better in '09, women now half their size and The 4-Day Diet seem like an everyday event.
I believe that this intense focus on our bodies - which we may also see echoed in increasing sexual contact between teenagers, increasing teen pregnancy rates, increasing rates of infidelity and even increasing birth rates - could be fueled by our growing sense that we can control little else. With the global economy in chaos, with the continued threat of terrorism and with our nation at war, it is natural that we would want to show somehow that we are the masters of our own destinies - if only in what number pops up when we stand on a scale, or what our muscles look like when we look in the mirror.
Not all of this is a bad thing, of course. Fitness is a noble goal that more Americans should embrace. A focus on physical beauty isn't the end of the world. Very few of us are without any interest in whether others perceive us as attractive. And no one can find fault with creating children we can embrace, love and nurture.
The trouble comes when a desire for control becomes hyperbolic, because it is fueled by social or economic anxieties. That's the "breeding ground" not just for increased rates of teen sex and pregnancy, but for increased rates of anorexia and bulimia and steroid use in gyms.
If all we can believe in is our bodies, then manipulating them into the right size and shape, and using them to assert we are capable, worthwhile and powerful can become a national preoccupation bordering on addiction. In exactly the same way, more and more of us can fall victim to manipulating our brains to deliver pleasure on demand (when little flows from the world around us) through the use of illicit drugs.
This literal turning in on ourselves isn't just fueled by an inability to control the national debt or whether GM goes out of business or whether Americans lose their homes or keep their jobs. I worry it is also fueled by a lack of trust in individuals and institutions that Americans once believed in. In a year that starts out with headlines on banks gone bust, CEOs in private jets begging Congress for bailouts, Rod Blagojevich, Bernie Madoff and rogue Attorney Marc Dreier (to name a few), it is as if Americans are reverting to what they know they own - their bodies. There, they still have a shot at having final say over what happens. If they trust nothing else, they can trust what they literally consume, see, touch and feel.
What's that old line about what to do when you feel like you're lost in a dream - or a nightmare? Pinch yourself. (Or pinch an inch.)
Well, there's no harm in focusing on our bodies as long as we don't lose sight of everything else.
Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatry correspondent for FOX News Channel and a New York Times bestselling author. His newest book, "Living the Truth: Transform Your Life through the Power of Insight and Honesty" has launched a new self-help movement. Check out Dr. Ablow's website at livingthetruth.com or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.