[Never Say Diet] Thoughts on the Fat Trap

Human Trap by Memkaos

Apologies to the friends who were sharing the New York Times around my breakfast table over the weekend and thus, have already heard all of my rantings on the subject of Tara Parker-Pope’s New York Times Magazine cover story, “The Fat Trap.

But for those of you who missed that diatribe — or perhaps, just want to digest the more articulate I’ve-had-my-coffee-now version — here’s my Never Say Diet take on the weird left turn she makes in that piece. Which is mostly, so excellent. I just read her “Behind The Cover Story” Q&A with the Times6th Floor Blog and it makes me like the first three-quarters of the article all the more. It’s the first time I can recall a major media outlet taking on a story like this. And we really do need to be talking about all of the research that shows, over and over, why permanent weight loss is such a moving target for most people: Because “a number of biological factors that have nothing to do with character or willpower can make it extraordinarily difficult,” as Parker-Pope explains.

Where Parker-Pope and I part ways is in what we want to do with this information. She views obesity “as a medical condition” and thinks the kind of all-consuming, food gram-counting measures adopted by the people she profiles are inspiring, if exhausting, preventive health strategies. So she wants to use this new scientific understanding of why weight loss attempts almost always fail… to keep on trying to lose weight. Even though it will be really difficult and ineffective for the majority of people.

In contrast, I think* the jury is still out on whether obesity itself is a medical issue (at least 20 percent of obese people have no health issues at all, and there are studies show that overweight women actually live longer than normal or underweight women) or whether it tends simply to correlate with lifestyle habits that are bad for our health in other ways. And since we don’t know for sure, but we do know for sure that diets don’t work and the war on obesity has mostly just led to a war on obese people, why don’t we stop chasing the weight loss dragon once and for all, and instead focus on the specific lifestyle habits that definitely do impact our health’s bottom line?

To be clear: I don’t mean this in that “it’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle change” bullsh*t way that the diet industry uses when they want to sell a healthy-sounding diet. I mean actually ditching weight as a health marker (since we’re not sure how much it can tell us) and just focusing on the lifestyle changes. Eating well. Moving more. Sleeping plenty. Managing stress. Not smoking. But not worrying about whether any of that causes you to lose weight. Just paying attention to how it improves your mood and energy level, and decreases your blood pressure, cholesterol, and other physical markers of health.

The biggest hurdle with my plan is that the Beauty Myth is so inextricably linked to our current definition of health that a lot of us have what feels like an almost primal, knee-jerk reaction to the idea that we just forget about weight loss. That wouldn’t just be a health decision for most of the population. It would also mean divorcing ourselves from a very pervasive beauty standard that has so successfully wormed its way into our brain because we’re convinced that it isn’t a beauty standard at all. “I’m not trying to be a size two, I just want to be healthy,” is the line that a lot of women give when they tell me about their diets. What we mean is: “I know I can’t be a Victoria’s Secret Angel without a full body transplant — but I will feel prettier if I can get into my old jeans.” We give a lot of lip service to health. But when you’re having a mean reds moment in front of the mirror or vowing to never eat another carbohydrate — those really dark, hot-angry-tears moments that inspire the diet in the first place – health is not what you’re thinking about. Pretty is. And it’s powerful stuff.

So my biggest criticism of Parker-Pope’s article is that she failed to take this secret Beauty Trap into account when she exposed the Fat Trap — even though she acknowledged, “nobody wants to be fat [...] to be fat is to be perceived as weak-willed and lazy. It’s also just embarrassing.” Right. So we need to work on fighting that stigma both by broadening our definition of beauty and by rethinking our criteria for health. Because I’d like to say we could take weight out of the health conversation but still occasionally want to lose ten pounds for bikini season, just because it makes us happy — as you might recall, I made the conscious decision to diet purely for aesthetic reasons last January — and maybe we can. I absolutely do support every person’s right to pick and choose what beauty means to them. And as Ragen is always reminding me, we must respect other people’s right to make different choices with their health and their appearance if we want our own choices respected.

But until we unravel this weird health-beauty connection, and can be sure that our choices aren’t going to fuel further size discrimination, I think we need to tread carefully here.

Thoughts? Anyone else need to rant about the Parker-Pope piece? Do you think it’s remotely feasible to take weight out of our conversations about health and/or beauty — and should that even be the goal? 

*PS. I’m not the only one, of course. L. V. Anderson on Slate’s XXFactor blog is speaking my language, and my girl Ragen on Dances With Fat has a fantastic breakdown of Parker-Pope’s piece that explores all of this in almost paragraph-by-paragraph detail. And of course, all of what we’re all saying originates with the Health At Every Size movement, founded by Linda Bacon, PhD. 

[Photo: "Human Trap" by Memkaos.]

 

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19 Comments

15 Comments

  1. Posted January 5, 2012 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    This is so, so smart. You are awesome.

  2. Adele
    Posted January 5, 2012 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    I agree with you completely.

    What drove me absolutely batty about the piece was that Tara Parker Pope apologized for and seemed embarrassed about her own weight. Here is a woman who had the cover story for the Sunday New York Times Magazine. The cover story!! For the NY Times Sunday Magazine!!! How freaking aweesome is that?!?! Yet she APOLOGIZED for her weight. She has got to be kidding me.

    Why are we women still apologizing about our body size? It’s ridiculous.

    • Posted January 6, 2012 at 10:27 am | Permalink

      I know. I felt for her — that anecdote about the woman meeting her at a party and being surprised by her appearance is one I think any writer can relate to, because we’re so “hidden,” most of the time. I often finally meet editors in person and have them say, “I thought you were older!” in an almost outraged fashion. Which is just weird. (How young do they think I am? Why am I suddenly in a position of having to discuss my age? How is that relevant anyway? Etc.) But my main reaction was, “what’s with all the apologies? Doesn’t she know she’s TARA PARKER-POPE?” SIGH.

  3. trc
    Posted January 5, 2012 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    @ Adele – indeed, that i also find puzzling, to say the least.
    food for thought ?
    > (…) but women aren’t actually allowed to look good and SAY they look good. They have to appease all the women with low self esteem. ‘I can’t say I look good and am happy with my body, because it may upset all those legions of women who feel they don’t look good and don’t like their bodies.’ It’s such a crazy, twisted, self fulfilling prophecy it actually makes my head hurt. Perhaps if more women actually spoke about how much they liked their bodies, we might see an increase in acceptance. (…) <
    http://rachelhills.tumblr.com/post/14471043462/guest-post-body-love

    @Beautyschooled/Virginia – i really enjoy your thoughts and your post. unfortunately my personal experience/s do not fit here (i am e.g. a lateral thinker, an experimenter and an aspie-adult/woman)

    • Posted January 6, 2012 at 10:29 am | Permalink

      Thanks for commenting and sharing that link — loved it. So dead on: The media only ever asks female athletes/celebrities/whomever what they dislike about their bodies. And wouldn’t dream of asking a dude the same question. Grr…

      • trc
        Posted January 7, 2012 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

        indeed.
        that’s why i enjoy blogs, like yours, thanks to the web.
        no more e.g. magazines and media-brainwashing for me.
        i truly hope more women wake up to this and really just “live & enjoy your body” (e.g. find out what works on an individual basis; recipes are fine for cookies & cakes ;)

  4. Confused
    Posted January 5, 2012 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

    I have recently had a blood test that suggested (having more tests in a month) to diagnose if I have a issue with my low white blood cells. This potentially could lead to the word cancer. This has me worried (obvs!) and so recently have kicked up my healthy new life to hopefully heal something in myself. I am trying to get into my healthy weight range (as advised by my countrys standards for BMI) by exercising every day and changing my diet to be healthier. It also was stated that I am considered ‘overweight’ and need to lose 12 kilos to be in the healthy weight range for my height and age.

    What I would like to understand is, is this the WRONG way to think about my health? I literally feel like I have no health problems, just something that isn’t fully diagnosed but was advised to get within the BMI standards. This isn’t about looking pretty but I do have pants that are tight on my hips, and not in a JLO sexy kind of way.

    Shouldn’t health and weight be a factor together? Say, if I continue to be my weight (which was totally fine in my head until now) and my diagnosis is bad.. could I have prevented something by being a normal weight?

    I am not sure how health and weight could be seen separately? Wouldn’t having a normal percentage of body fat for a sedentary computer loving person be better for your overall health than having a higher percentage of body fat?

    I would love to know what you think.. this is a new journey and way of thinking about who I am and what I look like! As you can clearly tell, I never did womens study at school!

    • Posted January 5, 2012 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

      There are so many great questions in here, I’m going to give this it’s own post so I can really think through some helpful responses…stay tuned, it’s coming soon!

      • Confused
        Posted January 5, 2012 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

        Thank you for doing this Virginia. It is appreciated and I look forward to reading more and learning about this issue.

    • Posted January 6, 2012 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

      I have been pointing everyone to this cool study:
      http://www.jabfm.org/content/25/1/9.abstract?etoc
      They looked at four “healthy behaviors” across three BMI cohorts. Basically, the take home is that obese (BMI >30) people who exercise regularly, eat their veggies, don’t smoke, and drink in moderation have exactly the same health “hazard ratio” as people in the “normal” and “overweight” BMI cohorts.

      So, no. If you’re taking care of your health in those ways, you probably would not have reduced your risk by being a normal weight. At least based on this data.

    • Coral
      Posted March 16, 2012 at 1:13 am | Permalink

      BMI, is not really snakeoil or pseudoscience. It’s incorrect use is often the problem. BMI is a prophylactic, but it fails in that you usually know if you are overweight(and if being overweight is a problem).
      BMI also does not consider skeletal build or muscular build. So it is a very generalized tool. It can be (and is) used incorrectly

      Weight can confer some health benefits. Especially when you are old, it’s to your benefit to weigh more and not less because this extra weight protects your bone health, ie. fractured hips. But obviously being obese has some health detriments as well. Especially in childhood.

      Anyway, I agree that beauty is not tied to health and appreciate your article.

  5. Posted January 5, 2012 at 11:53 pm | Permalink

    I commented to this effect on Ragen’s blog a few days ago, but I continue to be troubled by Parker-Pope’s assertions that being fat is “embarrassing” and that “nobody” wants to be fat.

    I mean, I certainly understand that a lot of individuals do find their body fat and/or size embarrassing — and I’d have had no problems if she had said that. Similarly, I’d have no problems if she said that she was embarrassed by her weight. Those are real and valid feelings. However, they’re feelings I do not share, and starting that paragraph with “Nobody wants to be fat” is patently untrue and sets up the idea that fat is universally or objectively embarrassing.

    Effectively, I am happy with the choices I’m currently making in terms of my health. The body I have that goes along with those choices happens to be fat. Since for me, the alternative seems to be to make unhealthy choices, my reality is that yes, I do want to be fat. Similarly, while I think fat shaming is (or at least should be) objectively embarrassing behavior — not so for the fat itself.

    • Posted January 6, 2012 at 10:31 am | Permalink

      AMEN SISTER. As soon as I read that “Nobody wants to be fat…” line, I thought, “has she met Ragen? And Tori? And about twenty other people I can name?” She framed a societal problem — fat shaming and size bias — as if it’s only the problem of fat people. That’s not how you fight prejudice.

      • trc
        Posted January 7, 2012 at 11:41 pm | Permalink

        > That’s not how you fight prejudice. <
        if i understand you correctly do you agree that "healthy is the new …" ?!
        because as far as i am aware in acc. with up-to-date-scientific research, there are various genetic components also influencing "weight".
        my conclusion : e.g. find what works for you/me on an individual basis/metabolism. and an absolute stop also to soc. body-policing (imo, fat-shaming is one aspect of this destructive/irresponsible behaviour, re-enforced ad nauseam by mainstream media and peer-groups. why ? "follow the money")

4 Trackbacks

  1. [...] Schooled Skip to content HomeAboutBeauty UTipping PointNever Say Diet ← [Never Say Diet] Thoughts on the Fat Trap [Never Say Diet] The 2011 Diet Hall of Shame → January 6, 2012 · 7:31 AM [...]

  2. [...] symptom in the bigger “what’s wrong with this picture?” Which makes it tricky to tease apart the Beauty Myth and the health thing — it feels like I’m failing on both fronts. I suppose you might say it’s shallow to [...]

  3. [...] for aesthetic benefits — but I do think it helps to stay clear on your motivations and not get health and the Beauty Myth all tangled up together when they are actually two separate [...]

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