Thursday, February 2, 2012

Once Again, With Feeling

I admit it: I read a few dieting blogs. Here is my response to a post I read today on Screaming Fat Girl, a blogger for whom I have a lot of respect though our world views and attitude towards dieting differ somewhat.

I'm sorry SFG, but I really can't agree with you, nor can I condone your lumping all those who condemn the dieting culture into the "sore losers" (pardon the pun) category.

First, there is ample (again, pardon the pun) proof that for the vast majority of people, dieting does not work. If dieting were actually a statistically valid option, the weight loss industry would not be pulling in a staggering $60 billion per year. We are pouring every cent we have into books, classes, meal replacements, packaged meals, etc. in order to lose weight and where has it gotten us? Fatter and fatter.

The science behind why we weigh what we weight is hugely complicated. The number of physiological factors governing our ability to maintain, lose or gain weight is staggering. Leptin, leptin resistance, ghrelin, insulin, insulin resistance and a whole host of other chemicals and chemical reactions in our bodies come into play. I strongly recommend reading the blog "Debra's Just Maintaining" from start to finish for a clear-eyed, intelligent and scrupulously honest look at the life of someone who is both a weight loss maintainer and a "lay-analyst” par excellence of the science behind the difficulties of weight loss maintenance.

I do not claim to speak for the fat acceptance world. I consider myself a proponent of Health at Every Size and in the HAES world, what I see is quite the contrary of giving up. I see people working really hard to improve their health in so many ways. The one thing they are not doing is adopting the overly simplistic, dare I say jingoistic approach of "calories in - calories out", which even bariatric experts like Dr. Arya Sharma have condemned (he calls it the Nightmare on ELMM Street).

There is so much we can do for our health that is not dieting. For many people, it starts with what is in our heads. I have noticed that a significant number of weight loss bloggers admit to having experienced severe physical and/or emotional trauma during their formative years. Rape victims, for instance, often eat huge quantities of food in a vain attempt to build a protective wall around themselves. They end up with extremely fat bodies though their fear remains unassuaged. Emotional eating or emotional food restriction cannot be adequately dealt with and overcome through a strict diet regimen (for the overweight) or by simply forcing food down the throat of an anorexic. The psychological factors must be dealt with. Simply manipulating one's food intake is, in the vast majority of cases, not enough to effect lasting change.

I am convinced that the so-called obesity epidemic is the result of factors like, but not limited to:

-severe trauma amongst a certain segment of the overweight population;

-an abundance of scientifically engineered foods that are hyper-palatable, energy-rich and nutrient poor and often much cheaper than unprocessed or minimally processed, whole foods;

-the car culture, especially in North America;

-a culture that defines the individual as either super-fit or beyond redemption, thus making it psychological torture for an overweight person to even show their face in the gym;

-a culture of divide and conquer: the 99% vs. the 1% (but that's a whole other kettle of fish);

-and finally, the inability to accept that people come in a variety of shapes and sizes (both vertical and horizontal), which leads many people who were born with a genetic predisposition to plumpness (and that absolutely exists) to take drastic means to reduce their weight, which in turn often leads to yo-yo dieting one's way up the scale. How many people, in particular women, look back on pictures of themselves when they first started dieting and realize with horror that their repeated attempts to "fix" a perfectly fine body have led them into morbid obesity?

Learning to eat mindfully rather than ravenously gulping down all the food in sight because “tomorrow”—once you go on a diet—you will be forevermore condemned to a life of privation and lots of lettuce without any dressing, ever, ever, ever; and learning to make physical activity a regular part of your life rather than a torture that one must undergo to flatten the belly and tone the arms are absolutely NOT the signs of someone who has given up. They are the signs of someone who is working with her heart and soul to be healthier in body and in mind.

I have no doubt that many (though not all) people might lose some weight if they decide to learn to eat mindfully (and this is not learnt overnight, nor is it easy) and to make physical activity an integral part of their everyday lives, even if it simply means walking rather than using the car when at all possible. But will they all become slim? There’s a pretty fat chance of that (this will be my last “pardon the expression”).

We will eradicate the 25+ BMI body the day we eradicate natural body diversity, the day we can ensure that all women will be at least 5’2” in their stockinged feet and have a pleasantly generous, though not excessively large bust; the day that all men have a penis measuring X inches long and biceps that are at least X inches around (I have no idea of the “normal” measurements for either of these examples); and the day that no one is ever born with anything but blue eyes and blond hair.

To paraphrase John Lennon, “give health (rather than the futile quest for the so-called perfect body) a chance”. This, to me, is far from giving up.


  1. Thanks for this. I want to one of the minority who keeps the weight off, but I know that the biological/physiolocal odds are against all of us who have lost significant weight. However, if I don't believe and hope and work to be one of the minority --and faith is part of it, believing it's possible--why bother can become the attitude. I like that SFG says we have to believe we can. If we don't, why climb Everest or start a charity or march on Washington...we have to believe change is possible..for US.

    But I'm not an optimist by nature. I look at the odds and cringe. But I wake up each day and say, 'I will beat the odds"a nd just try.

    I do think we must believe we can control ourselves...whether to earn a college degree, succeed in some career, make a marriage work, get along with pesky relatives or troublesome customers, etc. We must believe we have the ability to adapt, change, and reach goals....

    While I believe in accepting folks, fat or thin or inbetween, I have seen posts in the Fat Acceptance movement (and I hung with FA people back in the 90s) that do seem like, "Hey, why bother. I'm gonna eat cake."

    There's a big difference in "I can't be thin, but I can eat good foods and move and destress" and "I can't be thin, so I'll eat what the hell I want." I totally support anyone wanting to eat real food and moving and working on the issues. I don't want to hang with folks who say, "Screw diets. I want brownies and double meat pizza." One is positive; the other self-destructive.

    But we need to hear from all sides. Obesity is complex and vexing and hurts a lot of us, inside and out and bring discrimination. We must keep the dialogue because change is necessary--to make life more walkable, active (city planning, etc) and less discriminatory (against the overweight/obese). No one should be hated for being fat. But no one should be admired for being gluttonous and self-destructive.

    Let the research and discussion continue....

    Thank you....says the gal happy and self-accepting being overweight at 180 lbs...and will never be Hollywood Thin...unless I get a wasting disease.

    1. Thank you, Princess. A fine response.

      The issue of "control", when applied to the issue of weight loss is extremely problematic, though.

      In fact, when we work hard to achieve something, I would not call it control. I would simply call it hard work. You can work hard and indeed achieve many things. Some things, for some people, are impossible to achieve, no matter how hard they try. And this doesn't just apply to weight loss. I really like Fat Chick in Lycra's comparison to the boy who's aiming to play in the NBA. I could give a similar example, based on my futile attempts to become a professional opera singer (and believe me, I worked long and hard).

      If your efforts at losing weight are working (and since I do read your blog, I know they are), that's fine. But I know that you've often mentioned how fickle the scale can be and that you sometimes find yourself having a hard time being able to eat a reasonable number of calories without seeing the scale start going back up.

      Contrary to those who are convinced that once the weight is off, they will be able to eat the same number of calories as someone who has never dieted and always maintained a so-called normal weight, you have responded (and I hope that I am faithfully expressing your thoughts) that maintaining essentially involves undereating and overexercising for the rest of one's life.

      If dieting makes our bodies essentially even more thrifty and the "dieted" body has trained itself to need fewer and fewer calories and more and more exercise just to maintain and not re-gain, we truly are in a fine pickle. I know that you have chosen to live with this "pickle" and far be it from me to question your decision. I just don't believe it has to be the only decision one can make to live in relatively good health.

      Bottom line though is that the discussion must continue.

  2. I am asking this question out of honest curiosity about the HAES belief system and not with snark or sarcasm, so I would appreciate an honest and polite answer. Does the concept of "health at any size" apply to ANY size or only oversized? i.e., do its followers feel that, for example, an 85 lb. anorexic adult woman can be healthy? Again, I am asking this question sincerely only because the only take on the subject of HAES is without except about and by larger people. Thank you.

  3. *should read, "without exceptION" - typo

  4. I think an anorexic woman, by definition, can't be healthy....cause she's not getting nutrients and has a compulsive disorder (would that be neurosis? Pathology? Not sure)...but that's a really interesting question, Norma.

  5. Well, can a person who weighs 400 lbs be healthy? Is the eating of an extremely overweight person just as disordered as that of an extremely underweight person? Every "health/beauty at any size" media I've seen is only about acceptance of those considered "larger than ideal"; I've often wondered if the umbrella includes those bodies who skew to the other extreme for whatever reason.

    1. Again, NewMe, no snark here (tone is so very difficult to convey on a screen); a valid question that's been on my mind a few times as I've trolled the interwebz. By appearances, the HAES movement/agenda is exclusively for the larger or heavier population. Are "naturally" underweight/skinny people -- and those who are underweight because of an eating disorder -- involved or included?

    2. True HAES definitely supports health at *any* size. But the 'health' part is not purely decorative -- HAES isn't about declaring that every person on the planet, at whatever size, IS already healthy. It just suggests that you can, and quite possibly should, judge health by more factors than weight. It definitely advocates eating nourishing food and moving your body, but it's about doing those things for their own sake, for your health's sake, and not specifically to make the scale move. Lots of people get frustrated with moderate, livable routines of eating healthy and exercising, because they don't see dramatic scale results, but those things are still really good for you.

      Size *acceptance*, which often overlaps significantly with HAES, does generally advocate accepting whatever size people are, period. It doesn't say you *ought* to go out and eat everything you see, but it says it's your own business if you do. But lots of size acceptance people are just as annoyed at the ads claiming 'real' women have curves (like skinny women aren't real?) as they are at fat-bashing. It's just that fat-bashing is awfully pervasive in our society, so people who are looking for a supportive environment in size acceptance do often tend to be fat.

    3. Thanks for the response (Anonymous); interesting concepts. I too take umbrage at the "real women have curves" crap because it's usually thrown out there by someone who brashly wears revealing clothing several sizes too small and calls the resulting overspills "curves." A lot to think about; perception is a malleable thing. Thank you for your explanation.

  6. Sorry, but you didn't read what I wrote. I appreciate your viewpoint, but you're replying to a post I didn't write and sentiments that I didn't express.

  7. OK, my left index finger is cut, so I'm going to have a bit of trouble typing, but here goes.

    Norma, thanks for specifying no snark intended. Although I didn't sense any, the chances are often high that people take umbrage to comments on the Internet. I definitely feel that SFG has taken terrible umbrage to my response (see her uncharacteristically curt response above).

    I really have very little to add to what Anonymous said. HAES does not mean everyone is healthy at all times and at all sizes. It's all about being able to assess health based on many indicators--weight being only one and sometimes not a valid indicator at all. Currently, it is often the only acceptable indicator, which leaves us in situations where doctors ignore or just don't see the health issues of a "normal" weight person and invent health issues that don't even exist for an overweight person (for instance--and this is something that I've actually heard an overweight person report--"so how are you treating your sleep apnea?" when they have never had that problem).

    I have more to say, but I'm having trouble typing. I'll continue tomorrow.

  8. Norma (and anyone else who's interested):

    I'm working on an answer to your question (plus a few other thoughts) that should be posted quite soon.

  9. SFG - perhaps that was not the spirit intended, but on 1st reading I took it much as NewMe did. That if I do not want to lose weight, I am stamping my feet and whining because I am lazy and undisciplined.

    I do not believe it is wishing people failure to step back for a moment and say that there ARE risks and perhaps fewer benefits to intentional weight loss, by whatever means, any more than it is wishing failure if you warn a young man dreaming of the NBA that his odds are vanishingly small and he might consider doubling down on his math homework and getting a degree in engineering rather than shooting hoops all the time. Exaggerated example, yes, but look at how many people are in the National Weight Loss Registry versus how many people are 30 or more pounds "overweight" and dieting to try to change that.

    I believe there are many causes and intricacies to weight and health. For some, weight loss may be advisable. For others, pointless and even harmful. We need the discussion from both sides. Pointing out the hazards and alternatives does not determine what is the correct decision for you.

  10. Hey Fat Chick in Lycra, you understood! Thanks.

  11. The SFG post in question can be read in more than one way and thus I believe NewMe's response is valid as a jumping off place. SFG's post about FA (and FA ambivalence) is filled with conflicting emotional images (some just beneath the surface) and ends with a powerful, provocative paragraph that creates additional ambiguity. It would be worthy of a careful rhetorical analysis, using specific examples, but I don't believe that would do it justice. As a text, it rests within much greater (con)texts--the history and experiences SFG left OUT of this particular post inform (construct the meaning of) this post as much or more than the specific language used for this post.

    I read her post as a lovely, sad, and beautifully strange piece of writing that seems to struggle to clearly express the complex underlying theme(s). On the one hand, SFG is talking about her own inner experience of transformation--a private world that doesn't easily translate. On the other, she contrasts her own experiences with the experiences of others who SEEM (to her) to resemble her old self (and her old life). That comparison is very human and understandable.

    But the others to whom she refers are NOT her, and probably not much like her, except maybe on a surface level. And THAT recognition of difference can result in a startlingly lonely place to dwell; it can represent a painful uniqueness to accept.

    SFG has accomplished a series of remarkable achievements while transforming her life, with the issue of weight being only one of several significant changes (which, from my point of view, she has accomplished with dignity and quiet passion.) I can only imagine that--in her shoes--I would feel somewhat alienated and perhaps confused by how different my experience has turned out in comparison to others. I would naturally try to find explanations for WHY I was able to do something(s) that so many others find impossible. Again, very human.

    Obviously, SFG is highly intelligent. SFG also has a strong source of support in her close marriage with a companion who seems to be a pillar of mental, emotional, and spiritual stability to share her life with. And these are merely 2 variables in the mix of thousands that make her who she is. In other words, she has internal and external resources that may have combined--over many years and with much hard work--with just enough good fortune to make her experience with self transformation the exception to the rule. There may be elements of serendipity that cannot be seen or described or imitated.

    Obviously, I do not wish to take away from the wonderful life she has created "from chaos". It's astonishing and quite special to behold. I'm happy for her. She seems like a genuinely kind and intensely loving individual.

    I also think the above characterization about her might be as biased or slightly misguided as hers appears to be (toward fat people who want to be happy even though--for whatever reasons--they don't believe long-term weight loss is a realistic goal as a means to improve health.)

    It would be wonderful to have a more in-depth dialog on this whole topic--with more questions of clarification back and forth. I guess what I would love to see would be a conversation in which we seek to come to an understanding--a true understanding of each other--rather than a conversation in which we mostly end up talking past each other or trying to convince each other that our beliefs, or our reality and our "evidence" represents the most valid point of view.

    Striving toward mutual understanding with each other on these emotional and painful issues would be unique and worthwhile, something I haven't seen in blogland.

  12. What a great conversation! I'll need to go and read the "new" post to continue the discussion but as a former weight loss blogger/turned FA/ turned HAES I'm glad to see dialogue exists between the camps.