This article appeared in Slate a few weeks ago, and I found myself deep, down in my feelings about it. The essay is long, and I’m sure you’ll read it on your own time, but there are a couple of parts that I thought should be shared:
I once weighed 352 pounds.
Or 356. The trouble is I don’t really know my starting weight. When you cross over from merely obese to morbidly obese, it’s hard to find a scale in the bath part of Bed Bath & Beyond to accommodate your girth. Even many doctors’ offices don’t carry a scale large enough for the truly fat. This usually ends in a nurse whispering, “Well, how much do you think you weigh?” as if you, the nonmedical professional, were a better judge of this than anyone else—despite the fact that according to many medical professionals, you are lazy, unattractive, stupid, and stubbornly unwilling to comply with treatment.[…]…I haven’t quite reached my goal weight. When I do, I can imagine the praise that will come in. In MyFitnessPal Internet speak, “WTG!!!!11!!” In co-worker speak: “OMG, what’s your secret?” or “Congratulations on your achievement,” like I’ve just delivered a really superb Nobel laureate address. A quick scan of Amazon or the international reach of The Biggest Loser tells us that we revere people who manage to drop obscene amounts of weight, and the more housebound and disgusting to begin with, the better. These are tales of midnight binges and food combinations (Twinkies wrapped in bacon and dipped in guacamole) to make even the strongest stomach twist, and the grosser they are, the greater the moral redemption at the end.
Harmless encouragement, perhaps, but there’s a darker underside. If obese people who drop their excess poundage are to be commended and given book deals, those who can’t manage it—well, let’s regard them as the child rapists and five-pack-a-day self-destructive hedonists that they are. We need someone to hate, and smokers are a dying breed. Obesity, as every reputable news source has been reminding us for the last 25 years, is the new normal. Except that it’s still OK to hate the obese. In a perverse way, people like me make it harder for every fat person out there. If Formerly Fat X can do it, why can’t my morbidly obese sister-in-law?
This despite the fact that every shred of evidence available to medical science indicates that it’s nearly impossible to take off large amounts of weight and keep it off. That was largely the point of Tara Parker-Pope’s New York Times Magazine article from earlier this year, from which the main takeaway was that even a more than typically well-informed healthy eater and marathoner like Parker-Pope is 60 pounds overweight. And her experience is not unusual. Of the statistically minuscule number of people who ever manage to take off serious poundage in the first place, an even tinier number manage to keep it off in the long term. The article describes the complexity of metabolic changes that occur in dieting obese patients that seem to effectively convince their bodies that they are perpetually starving and should conserve every calorie consumed and burn fewer calories than most people would easily shed through normal activity or exercise. “A sobering reality,” writes Parker-Pope, “[is that] once we become fat, most of us, despite our best efforts, will remain fat.”
Parker-Pope personalizes that point through the story of Janice Bridge, one of the statistically small number of people qualified to join the National Weight Loss Registry, which tracks 10,000 people who have permanently lost a lot of weight. Bridge weighs her lettuce, eats 500 fewer calories per day than every means of medical measurement says she should be able to eat, and burns off another 500 calories in exercise. Medically speaking, she is nearly starving to death. In reality, she’s maintaining at a number that indicates that she is still overweight.
This is the story of my adult life. Bridge initially lost most of her weight by following what is technically termed a Very Low Calorie Diet (VLCD), or fewer than 800 calories per day, usually in liquid form. These diets are poorly studied beyond their implications for patients, say, with diabetes (the diabetes usually goes away), but anecdotally, they seem to work for a lot of obese patients who haven’t seen weight loss with other eating plans.
The blandness of that pronouncement can’t possibly describe the reality of actually being on a VLCD. Mine wasn’t medically supervised or liquid, and perhaps this made it harder than usual. Every morning I ate a packet of raspberries—an officially low-glycemic, low-calorie food—and drank three cups of coffee, because caffeine staved off my appetite. Then I’d go home at the end of the workday and eat exactly half of my dinner so that my husband wouldn’t realize what I was doing to myself and intervene. I knew that if anyone told me it was a bad idea, I would stop. Eating 800 calories a day and burning up about 400 of them on the treadmill at lunch doesn’t leave you with much will to resist. Brain function slows. Your entire life becomes about a set of numbers on a page. Was it only 758 today? Excellent work, but you’re still a fat pig. 811? You fat loser, you.
The desperation that drove me to such an extreme diet was a long time coming. Like Dara-Lynn Weiss’s daughter in the now infamous Vogue article, I was a tween dieter. I went on my first diet at 8 or 9: 1,500 calories and 20 fat grams and a lot of Healthy Choice hot dogs, which are truly and technically the worst food on the planet. When I was in middle school, my mother and I went on Jenny Craig together. She quickly got to her goal weight; I languished after about 6 pounds, lied to her about how much I was losing, and was eventually caught and ended up even more humiliated than if I’d just admitted the truth in the first place. No matter how long or faithfully I ate Jenny Craig food, I couldn’t lose the weight, and I was distractingly hungry every minute.
Weight Watchers was next because my mother thought it might offer more flexibility, but I clashed with our local strip-mall location’s staff, who found me to be belligerent and ill-suited to a group weight-loss support environment. I was 14, and I questioned everything. Why points? Why not just calories? Why calories instead of carbs? Why carbs instead of protein? Above all, why—despite playing organized sports and walking the dog 2 miles every morning before school and consuming my exact point tally—could I not lose weight? Why didn’t I get to bask in the warm collective and reinforcing praise of the Monday night meeting?
Throughout college, I tried all of the trendy plans to little or no avail. My bookshelves are littered with South Beach, Atkins, and Zone manuals, Protein Power handbooks, and every form of the lie that the sensation of hunger is really just dehydration. (One month, I drank 5 liters of water every day. This must go on the record as my least favorite of any of the diet plans I tried.) Every time, the same pattern: about 10 pounds of initial loss, very quickly, great joy throughout the land, and then … nothing. Although I’d made no changes to my eating plan or introduced any new food, I would stagnate. I followed every rule to the letter but always got stuck.
And then, slowly, the pounds would begin to creep back on.
When I finally turned to the raspberries and coffee diet, I did it for less-than-stellar reasons. I was trying to flee a job I disliked for a competitive graduate school program just as it was becoming clear that a recession was a’coming. I felt out of control, and, like other anorexics, sought complete dominion over something clear and measurable. Five months later, I was still obese, but I wasn’t seriously worrying about fitting in an airplane seat anymore.
I (mostly) kept it off by staying on what other people would call a “diet” but what is just maintenance for me (1,500 calories per day, at least five days per week of heart-rate-raising exercise). But my ridiculous low-calorie diet had made some of my hair fall out, turned my skin dull, and rendered my life miserable. And, predictably, my weight plateaued again. So I tried vegetarianism for a year. Then I tried low-carb. Three years later, I finally began to consider surgery.[…]
The fact of the matter is: I don’t know anything about weight loss. Neither does anyone else. What is emerging from the best research is that the old nutritional mantra—burn fewer calories than you consume—is correct in the thermodynamic sense but useless on the individual level. You and I don’t have a clear idea of how many calories we’re actually burning up. Gary Taubes tells us that some calories count more than others. Michael Pollan says mostly vegetables. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg thinks that putting our soda in two cups instead of one is the magic ticket. The federal government is so swollen with corn-industry money that I can’t even look at the food pyramid—old or new—without laughing. Absent these precise measurements or solutions, how can you look at someone who is obese and hold them personally responsible for each pound? Or personally virtuous for each pound lost?
Let’s say you had to starve yourself daily for bare maintenance of your health and physical appearance. Could you do it? Forever? And would you be happy? I doubt very much that you would. But still, it’s what I have to do.
As someone who has actually lost what can be considered an “obscene amount of weight” and managed to keep it off, I felt angered by this essay. I won’t lie. I really and truly had to check myself, because I couldn’t help but wonder why her failure to do what I did should mean that no one should be congratulated on the hard work that is, in fact, losing weight and changing the habits that may have resulted in it being put on in the first place. I felt frustrated that someone would write something like this that begs for the comments section to be littered with “the plural of anecdote is not data.” Most of all, I felt this sense of annoyance wash over me – someone tried every marketed and marketable system out there and, when those systems failed her (as they always inevitably do), she reached for surgery and now thinks no one should be congratulated for their efforts.
But, as I am learning to do, I tried to parse out what angered me so much first, and try to understand where she’s coming from with her story second. Then, I can determine whether or not my anger really makes sense within context.
I saw Tara Parker Pope’s article for NYT, and the entire thing made me cringe. I purposefully didn’t write about it, because when I read stories of nothing but failure and tales of people who dieted themselves down to 100lbs, don’t exercise, only eat 800 calories a day… it erases my victory.
I’m a recovering emotional eater. I’m a former 330lb dynamo. I’m a survivor of trauma. I get up – not always daily, but considerably often – and I make time for myself. I changed my habits. I learned how to cook. I learned myself.
All those verbs…. recover…survive…change…learn. The hard work isn’t just shedding the weight. The hard work is lifting and removing the barriers that, for many of us, are in the way. And denying the reality that they exist, they are real, they are important and they can and often do result in weight loss – while simultaneously propping up South Beach/Atkins/Grapefruit/Mashed Potato diets as the key to weight loss, or allowing them to prop themselves up unchallenged – makes it far more difficult for people who want to change their lives (or, really, need to change their lives) to get access to the real help they need.
And when people do do that work, they deserve praise. They deserve love. They deserve support.
And this is where I dovetail with Chamberlain, the author – it seems like people are only granted that kind of praise or virtue when they’re seen as actually shrinking… and that’s wrong. (And weird.) That love, support and praise shouldn’t be heaped on just because you are skinnier. It should be heaped on because people see you committing to yourself in ways that are generally discouraged. Think about it – how often do people say, “Wow, you work out, and you have children?” as if to imply that, as a mom, your time is beholden to those kids and nothing else… and heaven forbid your children be young, lest you really be in for a good trashing behind your back. Our jobs have the audacity to outfit us with “work Blackberries” and “work laptops” so that we can work from home… during hours that should be designated for us, our families, our loved ones… our sanity. What in the world do we look like taking time away from work for ourselves?
I remember when I first really started putting in the effort to lose weight. I wasn’t changing how I ate, but I was consistent in the gym, an hour and a half every night after my daughter was fast asleep. That was hard for me, but I was doing it… and though I wasn’t making much headway, people saw me committing to myself and they praised me for that. Changing how you live, every day, to accommodate an additional responsibility is hard. This society can’t even support people who choose to commit to another person… let alone encourage commitment to yourself. Making that commitment… is hard, and it deserves praise regardless of what size you are. For that, you can be held personally virtuous. That’s not a marketable component of a diet, though.
Doing the emotional work of therapy, understanding my emotional eating habits, learning my triggers, learning how to be vulnerable in a way that negates the cultural “strong Black woman” meme that hangs over my head like a newborn funnel cloud… that is hard. And, if I know someone has that work to do, and I see them doing it, I’m going to praise them for it.
If I see someone every day at lunch time, and I see their lunches getting healthier, I’m going to give them their props. I’m going to ask them all about their resources, and if there’s anything good they’d like to share… because I like good, healthy food. I’m greedy. Sue me.
Something that often appears in the comments, here – if you find ways to enjoy healthy, fresh food, on a limited budget or even in a desolate area… that deserves praise. You might not care whether or not anyone praises you for it, but it deserves to be upheld as a doable thing.
And this… is why I really had to check my anger with Chamberlain’s essay. There’s all this marketing about how the XYZ diet is all people need to do in order to lose the weight for good, and then when all the diets fail… people are left fighting the idea that they’re damaged or broken because they couldn’t succeed at starving themselves. They are failures and wastes of flesh because they didn’t do this thing that everyone says is so easy. I expect the people who can admit their rough and unsuccessful journey with weight loss to challenge the idea that something is wrong with them because they were unsuccessful… and I expect them to challenge the converse: that something is right or even virtuous about being able to succeed at it.
We’re praising the wrong things. Just like, when people ask me “What did you do?!” and I tell them “Nuts and berries and mad running,” they basically walk off mid-sentence. People want easy, fast, effortless. We all do. We’re just shifting, as a culture, away from appreciating the hard work. “Hard work,” as a product, doesn’t have a lobbying firm. “Hard work” doesn’t have an association marketing its usefulness in your life. And, if “hard work” can also look like a fat person, when apparently no one wants to be fat, then hard work isn’t “hard enough work.”
And this is where I begin to understand what Chamberlain is saying… only with a caveat: components of changing how you live should be praised, and they should be praised regardless of whether or not they resulted in a svelte size 6 shape. If someone in your life is doing that hard work, just tell them “I really admire how committed you are to X.”
There are many other issues in here – a 9 year old being put on a marketed diet instead of learning how to eat from her parents, weight loss groups that don’t answer the questions of teens who have to learn so that they don’t struggle as adults with teenaged problems – but I’m curious as to what y’all think about this. I cut out huge chunks of it, but the entire thing is worth reading.