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 Times‘ 6th 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.