Your diet, yourself.

So on Sunday, I’m at the grocery store. There’s a short line. I’m glancing about in boredom, willing my eyes to float past the gossip headlines — so my eyes settle on the other magazines. Bright and shiny things, they are, after all, and they draw the eyes — thonk! — straight to them.

I note a pattern. I start to count.

One, two, three, four… holy crow, five! No, six. Wait! Seven – and there’s eight! Eight magazines geared toward women with cover lines about weight loss.

Nine, if you count bon appetit‘s “Low Fat Cooking Secrets.”

Oprah, on the other hand, Oprah is classy. She doesn’t offer me diet tips. She presents me with a “Special Report”: “Your Relationship with Food.”

Frankly, my favorite — even to the exclusion of the (I’m certain) very Special Report — was the magazine that told me that I could “Walk off Weight” (that’s at least about increasing movement, right? That’s a good thing, right?) and then added, in a slightly smaller font: “PLUS: Get Your Diet Back on Track.”

Because, you see, it’s presumed that I am, in fact, on a diet. I’m a woman, right? It’s presumed that I’m on a diet, and that said diet is likely “off-track.” It’s presumed that I’m on a diet, it’s off-track, and I want to put it to rights. That diet of mine, boy oh boy, I can’t stick to it, but I sure wish I could!

There’s a level at which I’m not even angry about these things anymore. We’re struggling with a psychosis, a body dysmorphia of national proportions, and the truth is that we’re not even really struggling — we kind of gave up before the fight even began.

And so I will say it, loud and bold: “Dieting” is not a way of life! “Weight loss” is not an essential female concern! Our “relationship with food” should be, dare I say it, one of enjoyment! Or none at all — because it’s fuel!

But no. This is not the approach we take. We take a term that is (at the very least) fuzzy in definition — “thin” — and turn it into a totem: God and stick, item of worship and tool for punishment.

If you aren’t thin, you not only must be, you must want to be — and we will tell you what thin is. We will tell you what is enough, or too much, for you, with little or no input from you. Because more than any real God — Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindi, Flying Spaghetti Monster — this is what Americans worship. More than money, heaven knows — because if you’re rich but fat? You’re really just fat. (If, of course, you’re a woman). This is our shared narrative. This is perhaps the one thing all Americans — Democrats, Republicans, Tea Partiers, Anarchists, Independents, the quick and the lame — can get behind: If you have lady parts, you need to be “thin.”

So I fume and I fuss within the confines of my head, and then, in a clear case of the internet reading my mind, I run across the following on Jezebel: I Used To Be a Skinny Person.

I used to be really, really thin. People were always telling me I was so thin. Like a compliment. And I brushed it off and even pretended to be a little offended, because “thin” shouldn’t mean “pretty.”

Now I’m less thin. And I’m betting I’ll keep getting less and less thin. That’s the way these things seem to work. And suddenly I start to wonder what happens when “thin” means “pretty” and you’re no longer thin. What do people say, then? You know what’s scary? They say, “You look so thin in that.”

My inclination when I gained weight was to feel pretty good about it. I’d been too thin after not remembering to eat through much of grad school, and I had just met my fiancé, and I was happy. We were eating together constantly, out of joy. He clearly thought I was gorgeous, my breasts were not quite as non-existent as before, life was good.

I was obviously oblivious. I hadn’t learned a really, really important lesson. Which is the following:

It is NEVER ok to gain weight.

Emphasis, the author’s.

She does offer up one universally acknowledged exception: It is NEVER ok to gain weight, Kate Fridkis writes, unless you’re “recovering from a disease” — but having never been a skinny person, I can attest to the fact that, in fact, even that’s not so. When I had major surgery for a potentially life-threatening condition that landed me in the hospital for a week and spat me back out pale, wan, and hungry — I was getting complimented right, left and center. “Have you lost weight? You look great!”

As I’ve said in this space before, I don’t think we even really know how to talk about these things (anymore? Did we ever? I don’t know). I’ve said that we can’t even use the word “normal” with any degree of confidence. I know, intellectually, that there is some point at which health, good sense, and attractiveness meet, but I can’t even begin to talk about it seriously — every word is too fraught, and too many lives are daily ruined or diminished in this battle. I don’t want to risk adding to the destruction, even inadvertantly.

But here’s what I do know: I am not the only one who knows how to read. My daughter — along with all the other little girls who pass through American grocery stores — also does.

And I reclaim my anger when I begin to think of what these words may be doing to her.

8/16/11 update: Please also read this, about new studies showing that “fat” and “healthy” are not – hey, surprise! – necessarily mutually exclusive terms.

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4 Comments

  1. Susan

     /  June 29, 2010

    Obesity traditionally has been defined as a weight at least 20% above the weight corresponding to the lowest death rate for individuals of a specific height, gender, and age (ideal weight). Twenty to forty percent over ideal weight is considered mildly obese; 40-100% over ideal weight is considered moderately obese; and 100% over ideal weight is considered severely, or morbidly, obese.

    Current statistics suggest say that of all American adults, 33.8 percent are obese, which breaks down to 35.5 percent of women and 32.2 percent of men, so women are not suffering very disproportionately here. In short, there are a lot of fat guys too. About one in three adult Americans of both genders, then, are at least 20% over their ideal weight. About 3% are morbidly obese, that is, having a BMI of 40 or more, 18.5 to 24.9 being healthy. (This all according to statistics by the Centers for Disease Control.) These rates have been rising steadily for some years.

    This is all very curious in light of the overwhelming media emphasis on being “thin.” Obviously, Americans are anything but!

    Are we longing here after something we wish we had the self-control to achieve? (Only a very few cases of obesity are caused by conditions outside the person’s control.) Are we on some level pretending that we have gotten there, all except for a very few bad people over there? (That would be, one-third of the population….) Is this the resurgence of guilt as a cultural phenomenon, the kind of guilt you read about from the Middle Ages, when you were probably damned and couldn’t do anything about it?

    Obviously Americans are suffering some confusion on these points. Nor is it only Americans. Europe, especially Great Britain, is catching up fast.

  2. I am with you. Also, you’ll notice that right next to the diet/fitness tips is a teaser for the best triple fudge brownie recipe evah! It’s a big scam to get women coming and going. I have written about food, weight, society’s obsession with women being thin, etc., more times than I care to count. I think I’m running out of fresh new angles on it because I’m just so damned tired. It’s worse to be underweight by ten pounds (from a medical standpoint) than overweight by ten pounds, but you will never, ever, ever hear/read/see that anywhere. In addition, the BMI, which is now considered the Holy Grail of weight measurements was never meant to be used for individuals (it’s a crock, in other words, because it doesn’t take muscle mass into account). One more thing: I heard on NPR from a doctor that it’s common (and good) to gain five or ten pounds a decade as you get older. She said this was common knowledge with doctors.

    I have been fat; I have been skinny; I have been everywhere in between. I can tell you that no matter how I get to be skinny, all anyone cares when I get there is that I look great. When I’m heavier, no matter how fit I am, I don’t get complimented as much.

    I think if we focused more on fitness and health (truly) instead of simply weight and looks, we would all be better off.

  3. And it also creates friction between women and these unrealistic expectations for all of us that are so frustrating.

    My roomie has a whole other set of body image issues coming from relatives saying she should be more “thick” and “curvy” instead of slim and athletic, and then when she goes to work (she has a job that involves a lot of physical activity so she’s all muscle), her coworkers give her a hard time because they’re all trying to lose weight.

    It’s so awkward to be the thin(ner) girl at the table when everyone else isn’t there and frustrated about it.

    My younger sister is the prettiest of the three of us, and the most unhappy with how she looks and gives me and my other sister a hard time for not being tan enough, for being heavier than she is (even though neither of us are all that heavy), for eating food we enjoy instead of diet this and artificial sweetener that.

    For awhile, she was part of the “pro-ana” thing online where girls post pictures on their Xangas of their bony bodies, complain about parents and therapists trying to make them eat, and encourage each other to starve themselves. It really scares me in part because I see what pressures cause this but I also don’t understand it at all.

    She has stacks of fashion magazines that say her ankles are too thick and her lips are too thin and is profoundly unhappy because that’s what she’s based her worth as a person on, instead of her character, talents, or abilities. It breaks me up inside every time I see her.

    And what I’ve always found interesting talking to most normal guys is that they don’t generally like stick-thin and think it’s kind of gross. Their perception of weight and overweight is totally different than ours but the magazines aren’t going to say that.

    Then again, I live in the rust belt and not California so there’s a lot less social pressure in general.

  4. My daughter had/has an eating disorder. Not dissimilar to anorexia. She just found herself unable to handle food. She became obsessed by sell by dates and hygiene. She is a lot better than she used to be thank goodness but still gets days where she can’t eat and will just feel sick at the thought of eating somethings. it’s a horrible thing for a beautiful young girl to go through.