When I think of Body Image, my mind becomes of a whirlwind of salads and treadmills and girls in bikinis. This tumultuous relationship with eating salad and my obsession with the way my butt looks in a bikini has led me to a variety of outlets for seeking guidance towards achieving “perfection.” But somehow or another, I found the most inspiration within the pages of an unlikely children’s book: none other than A.A. Milne’s beloved Winnie the Pooh. When I unwittingly picked up a copy of Winnie the Pooh in my 20s — after having never revisited it since I’d been a kid — all my self-sabotage seemed to unravel. Who would’ve thought a teddy bear with a tummy would be a beacon for body positivity? It turns out A.A. Milne’s portrait of Winnie the Pooh and his character-defining affinity for eating honey offers a realistic lens through which we can learn about our social relationship to eating and body image. Here are some of those very lessons that Pooh brings back down to earth:
Being active and eating go hand-in-hand
Our introduction to Pooh is set forth by his discovery of a beehive nested in the high branches of a large oak tree. Pooh realizes that if he wants to eat the honey from the beehive, he must contend with climbing all the way to the top of the tree. Although he feels like complaining about it, he comes up with a song to help pass the time. As Pooh is climbing, he sings,
“It’s a very funny thought that, if Bears were Bees,
They’d build their nests at the bottom of trees.
And that being so (if the Bees were Bears),
We shouldn’t have to climb up all these stairs.”
Pooh’s lyrics acknowledge his frustration and impatience in having to climb the tree in order to reach the honey. Nonetheless, he sings lightheartedly and continues climbing steadily, because of his determination to eat the honey.
Pooh’s choice to sing in spite of his displeasure reminds us that we have complete control over our attitude towards physical activity and eating. We can choose to look at exercise in a positive light — as a complement to our eating habits — rather than a chore or a punishment for eating/wanting to eat. At the same time, we don’t have to pretend it’s always pleasant and effortless to manage this balance, just as Pooh acknowledges.
Setbacks happen. It’s how we deal with them that makes all the difference.
Just as Pooh’s tiredness is coming to a head, he is thrilled to discover he is about to reach the honey! But when Pooh steps eagerly onto the final branch, it immediately breaks beneath him, causing him to plummet ten, then twenty, then thirty feet to the ground, as he crashes through several other branches along the way.
But after Pooh’s mighty fall, “He crawled out of the gorse-bush, brushed the prickles from his nose, and began to think again.”
Pooh persists, as we should, through our own struggles and efforts. So even if we fall off the bandwagon and have to start over, even if we gain or lose a few more pounds or inches than we intended, we can take note from Pooh to brush the prickles from our noses and try again.
Listen to the internal cues from your body and figure out what works for you personally
Instead of accepting defeat, Pooh decides to devise a better strategy for achieving his goal to eat the honey from the tree. First, he evaluates the circumstances of his setback and is able to come to terms with the reason the branch wasn’t able to support his weight — that “It all comes of liking honey so much.” Then, Pooh takes action by consulting with his friend Christopher Robin. After careful deliberation, they settle on Pooh using a blue balloon that can both lift him to the top of the tree, as well as serve as a sky-colored camouflage from the bees.
Pooh’s Plan B addresses a valuable point. It’s important to learn what works and what doesn’t work, and to listen to our bodies. Does intermittent fasting make you feel too lethargic?
Why is it so overwhelming for you to finish a single chocolate bar without feeling extremely guilty for overeating? Is keto right or even necessary for you? Are there other more conceivable steps can you take instead? Instead of wallowing over the fact that the tree branches couldn’t hold him, Pooh learned why, and adapted accordingly. We similarly can learn to understand ourselves and our habits too, to better serve us mentally and physically, instead of looking at them as shortcomings.
It’s normal to get burned out, and to lean on others when we do
A.A. Milne later describes the side effects of Pooh’s taxing endeavor, that “his arms were so stiff from holding on to the string of the balloon all that time that they stayed up straight in the air for more than a week.” Through this comical depiction of Pooh’s arms being stuck in the air, we can find assurance and levity in the fact that even Pooh gets sore muscles after a strenuous workout. No pain, no gain, right?
But despite giving a hundred percent, and consequently being drained both physically and mentally, Pooh faces yet another letdown. When at last he successfully floats to the top of the tree, he comes to the disappointing realization that the whole time he has been going after the “wrong sort of bees,” and therefore the “wrong sort of honey.” Fortunately, Christopher Robin is there to help Pooh safely float back down to the ground.
Pooh’s exhausting ordeal to accomplish something as simple as eating honey exemplifies how we sometimes have to deal with ups and downs (quite literally, in Pooh’s case) that can be discouraging and tiresome. But just as Pooh did, it’s often in our best interest to turn to someone, like Christopher Robin, who we can rely on to support us when we are down or struggling on our own. Isolating yourself can make things a lot worse. When Pooh turns to Christopher Robin for help getting down from the sky, he pleads, “If you don’t…I shall have to let go, and that would spoil me.” Pooh is unabashed and honest when he reaches out to Christopher Robin, showing us that there’s no use in letting pride or shame get in the way of asking for support.
So even though it’s discouraging when all the effort you’re putting in doesn’t seem to be accurately reflecting the number on the scale, and even though it’s tiring in every way when you can’t overcome a plateau, or you can’t eat without counting every single calorie, it doesn’t have to be a burden you carry on your own. Reach out to your own Christopher Robin, whether it be a nutritionist, therapist, trainer, doctor, support group, or a trusted friend. Take a breather, and rest assured there will be many more opportunities to eat honey that will taste even sweeter.
It’s OK to treat yourself, and punishing yourself is the wrong way to handle binge eating.
Pooh soon finds a new opportunity to enjoy his favorite honey, during a morning visit to Rabbit’s house. When Rabbit offers Pooh “Honey or condensed milk with your bread?” Pooh excitedly replies that he would like both but pauses to rethink and adds, “but don’t bother about the bread please.” Pooh’s deliberate decision highlights the fine line between treating yourself and being overindulgent, and how it’s wise to recognize when you’re doing one or the other. Pooh indulges in both the honey and the condensed milk but chooses to refrain from eating the bread. Cutting carbs is by no means a universal rule of thumb, but Pooh shows us that we can treat ourselves while also making conscious, balanced choices about what we eat. Most importantly, Pooh doesn’t deprive himself from a delicious treat. We don’t need to come up with excessively restrictive and unrealistic rules for ourselves in order to enjoy eating something yummy.
However, Pooh also shows us that this is much easier said than done, because even he struggles with binge eating, most notably the occasion in which he ends up eating a large jar of honey in one sitting. Pooh rationalizes his indulgence by saying he needs to check the honey in case “somebody put cheese in at the bottom just for a joke.” And in his best efforts to exercise eating in moderation, Pooh determines, “Perhaps I had better go a little further,” eating only small amounts at a time. But before he knows it, the jar is nearly empty.
When Pooh realizes what he’s done, he handles it exactly the way we should. Although he expresses disappointment in his overindulgence, he doesn’t shame himself over it, or deem himself a failure. Pooh’s post-binge sentiment is something many of us can relate to: A.A. Milne recounts, “Some hours later, just as the night was beginning to steal away, Pooh woke up suddenly with a sinking feeling. He had had that sinking feeling before, and he knew what it meant. He was hungry.” Pooh reminds us of a reality we need to acknowledge, that it’s normal to be hungry even after a “cheat day.” You still need to and deserve to eat even after you binge, no matter how guilty you feel about it. While Pooh at first desperately tries to ignore his hunger and succumb to his guilt, he realizes it’s pointless to further punish himself by skipping his next meal. As is normal to do, “For some minutes he lay there miserably,” but Pooh eventually does the right thing — he gets out of bed to eat instead of starving himself.
If you don’t fit into a pair of jeans, it’s not the end of the world
Although Pooh doesn’t wear clothing, and has therefore never dealt with the frustration of not being able to fit into a pair of jeans, he does in fact deal with the frustration of not being able to fit through the front door of his friend Rabbit’s house. On one occasion, Pooh gets stuck there for an entire week. Pooh sniffles in frustration as he informs Christopher Robin, “Rabbit might never be able to use his front door.” But Christopher Robin confidently assures him, “Of course he’ll use his front door again,” and begins suggesting ways in which they can attempt to free Pooh from where he is stuck. Christopher Robin is the voice of reason we sometimes tend to neglect: it’s not the end of the world if it seems our body dimensions don’t fall within certain standards. Just because you don’t fit into an old pair of jeans anymore, doesn’t mean that you never will again, or that you need to at all. And just because Pooh is too big to fit through Rabbit’s front door doesn’t mean he will be stuck there forever.
Achieving your body/health/recovery goals is an ongoing process that takes patience, dedication and self-care
Pooh comes to a realization that if he wants to fit through Rabbit’s front door, it will be best for him to shed a few pounds, and therefore decides begrudgingly to change his diet under the close supervision of Christopher Robin and Rabbit. But when Christopher Robin tells Pooh it will take a week to see results, Pooh’s distress is apparent (and relatable): “Bear began to sigh, and then found he couldn’t because he was so tightly stuck; and a tear rolled down his eye.” In spite of this, Pooh perseveres through the week and his demeanor takes a 360 turn, as he finds overtime that the change in diet is helping him to feel and look better. He’s able to free himself, literally and figuratively, from the rabbit hole he’s been stuck in. By the end of the week, the previously discouraged Pooh is in such high spirits over his accomplishment that “with a nod of thanks to his friends, he went on with his walk through the forest, humming proudly to himself.” Pooh’s uplifted, healthier mental state proves that improvement in our overall well-being is the real victory in developing healthier eating habits. Reaching a healthier mental state happens when you focus on caring about your body and what it’s capable of, and not entirely on how it looks.
So let’s take on that shift in perspective too. Do you remember the first time you read Winnie the Pooh — a time when ice cream really meant ice cream, not calories, when exercise meant playing outside with your friends, not hitting the gym? It’s hard to fully revert back to that little kid mentality, but we can most definitely achieve a close second by taking the words of Winnie the Pooh to heart. In our reality where diet culture is king, and everyone is either a self-proclaimed nutritionist or Instagram model selling a life-changing workout plan, it’s nice to take a step back, and look at all this over-complication through the perspective of a children’s book. If imperfect, real, food-loving, tummy-having Pooh is our standard, then it’ll be much easier and manageable to achieve the self-love and body positivity we are all striving towards.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, contact the NEDA helpline at 1–800–931–2237 for support and resources. For crisis situations, text “NEDA” to 741741 to be connected with a trained volunteer at Crisis Text Line.