Although I’ve taken a little writing hiatus, the nutritional discourse continues unabated. The stories of our communal incarnate experience resonate with frustration, guilt, and misunderstandings. This is an older piece that I published previously in three parts. I hope offers some response with a bit of healing balm. Some of its points have been raised and debated among those in the scientific community rather recently. Here it is mended back together. It is longer than my other posts but I think it reads best together.
I speak for the fat people. Like Dr. Seuss’ Lorax who spoke for the trees, someone must speak for the fat people. Unlike the trees who needed a spokesperson because they had no tongues, you would think that the fat people would be able to speak for themselves. Of course, fat people have tongues. If they did not have that taste bud-laden sensory organ, they would not be fat. Given the current weight of the world, this group should not be particularly hard to hear. However, in the huge public dialogue about weight and obesity, the fat people are merely statistics. There are no real people behind the statistics, and this is where they have lost their voice. Therefore, they are stripped of any ability to speak with authority on the topic.
I am not a statistic. Though I have had some years where I toed the chubby line, for the most part, I have done my part in tipping the scales toward societal svelteness. Besides my obligation as a citizen to keep the fat numbers down, as a nutritionist, it is my professional responsibility to pull people out of the fat pool and to keep them from falling in at all.
It is no big secret that the medical and nutritional community has not done a great job in their role as bariatric (the science of obesity) lifeguards. I myself do not have a great track record of turning people into mere shadows of their former selves. But, I have spent my career as a nutritionist hearing the stories and struggles of the fat people and observing the ways of food and eating that define this turn of the century. I am a spy in the house of girth.
The fat community does, in fact, have some spokespeople. There are magazines, journals, books, and websites–written mainly by women–who have spent one day too many in the deprived and depraved world of dieting. There are individuals who are doing incredible and poetic work about re-informing and re-educating on misconceptions about weight and health and respectful self-care. Still, many of these efforts are marginalized or featured in venues that only topic-obsessed people like myself pay attention to. Even Roseanne Barr once said, “It’s OK to be fat. So you’re fat. Just be fat and shut up about it.” For every undertaking that sings the praises of body love and acceptance, there are thousands of counter-voices screaming the imperative to whip this fat away.
Therefore, I believe I must use my credentials to speak out. I hope that the fat people can accept me, a thin person–who is often cold and prone to osteoporosis–and an ex-stress and emotional eater to be their voice. Born of thin mother and fat father, I will try to do the cause justice.
Let’s begin by putting the issue of overweight into perspective. If we look at weight historically, I’m pretty certain that from the beginning of time, there have been fat people. We have all seen the pictures of early Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal men. Even those quintessential hunters and gatherers seemed capable of packing on a few pounds. After them came Confucius, King Henry the Eighth, Mamie in Gone with the Wind, Jackie Gleason, Pavarotti, Aunt Bea, and my grandmother. Chances are your grandmother was fat, too.
Since our early beginnings, human beings have come in varying shapes and sizes and large-size was not necessarily an aberration of medium-size. It is good that there are large-sized people. A world without them would mean a world with fewer great opera singers, chefs, women of ample bosom, football players, construction workers, and cuddly grandmothers.
It is not very difficult to become fat. You do not have to go out of your way to try. If Chinese youth can become fat, then anyone can. Only about 4% of the population has naturally model-thin bodies. That means that many models are starving themselves in order to be models. It also means that the rest of the Size 2 wannabes are expending a lot of physical and mental energy in the pursuit of thinness. Carolyn Knapp, in her book, Appetites, tells the story of a woman who describes the angst she feels putting on her stockings every morning. She wonders what she could have accomplished in her life with the time she has spent worrying about her weight.
There are the naturally skinny–and then there are the neurotically and pathologically skinny; and the metabolically hyper-activated skinny–those who sustain themselves on a steady diet of excessive caffeine and nicotine—or maybe extensive exercise. For the rest of us, the possibility of becoming overweight is just around the corner. We are physiologically and neurologically wired to pack it on. The ability to store fat came in pretty handy a time or two during our multi-millenial evolution. We have about 107 compensatory mechanisms that prevent us from starving to death. A bunch of those certainly kicked in to save our forefathers when they were unable to kill a bison. In people who attempt to starve themselves toward thinness, the body fights back–it regains the lost weight plus more, and then absolutely refuses to budge.
In addition, we are wired for comfort. Research shows that the food habits that sustain us are those that we developed while still wrapped in the loving veil of early childhood. Whether that happened to be gazelle, chicken soup, mashed potatoes or cheeseburgers, you will probably turn to those foods as an adult. Believe me, the corporate world certainly knows this. The Happy Meal ensures that today’s toddlers will become tomorrow’s adult fast-food consumers. The concept of comfort foods is one I hear a lot about during my spy missions. Women have confessed to me that they would choose a good loaf of bread over sex. The quality of the sex is not indicated in this context.
Then, of course, there are our natural temperaments as well as good old genetics. I listened once to the tender story of a woman who was adopted as a child. She never met her birth mother, but she possessed a very old, poor quality home movie that she believes is of her mother. Though she struggles to see the face better in search of subtle resemblances, it is the woman’s thighs that confirm her finding. She states, “Look at the thighs. Those are my thighs.”
On top of all this, let’s sprinkle on a life change, or just daily, chronic stress. Take your pick. Break-ups, abuse, graduate school, poverty, working long hours, caregiving, illness, depression or menopause are possible choices. And, God forbid you should simply possess a deep sensuous life-affirming passion for cooking and eating. Throw any of these on your plate and if your primal wiring wasn’t enough to enlist you, then current circumstances will. Even the once-thins can become the now-fat–especially in this current milieu where food is literally out to get ya. Not even the high school cheerleader is immune. Any emotional state that is heightened, increases for many the desire to seek food for reward. When one is working their way up the weight chart, it is because they are possessed by physical or emotional hunger, or physiological changes that they can neither understand nor control.
I can hear you begin to protest that it has to be more than just this. Aren’t we soooo bad? We ate the piece of chocolate cake (and we loved it). How could we? How dare we? That translates into four hours of floor mopping according to the calorie expenditure charts. That must be fair penance for the crime. As a spy, my days are peppered with the monologues and dialogues of self-hate and recrimination that people utter like a mantra before and/or after each foray into eating. The guilt is palpable. We must have all been ____________ in a previous lifetime. (insert your own response.)
I was heartened once to hear a man describe his joy-spreading tactic. Essentially, he spends half of his time acquiring special little chocolates and the other half gifting them to people as morsels of universal love. I am either becoming a very cynical nutritionist or a very empathic human being. The collective psyche is longing for the morsel of joy even at the expense of the perfect waistline. The truth is that we have appetites and hungers because we are merely human, not because we are bad people. However, when all of these human tendencies accumulate into extra pounds, getting rid of that weight is very difficult.
A few years ago, I attended a conference on an obesity-related topic. As a group, we were to brainstorm how to counsel a postpartum woman with a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 30. The exercise had me squirming from the get-go. As the attendees were getting rather dead-ended in their attempts to master this case-study, the presenter, a physician and researcher at a major university said, “Let me offer this idea. I am often in my office at my desk and on the phone. I could just sit there and talk on the phone, but instead, I stand and pace as I am talking.” My agitated brain said, “Yes, let’s file that idea to use.” Not with my clients but in this article. I could picture Homer Simpson stuffing one more donut in his face while muttering “Ah, vigorous pacing. That’s the ticket.” I wondered when was the last time this guy got out of his office and realized the experiences of real people, real fat people.
Hardly are all defined cases of overweight problematic. Some in the field maintain that the goal is for all individuals to attain an “appropriate” BMI. Short of that, they will be at risk for various health problems. My intuition and much science beg to differ. Many people are fine–if not perhaps better off–with a little extra weight on them. Pavarotti once said, “The reason fat people are happy is that their nerves are well protected.” My own observations reveal that the neurotically thin tend to be more frayed than their rounder counterparts. Besides, BMI is just a tool. At times it is a cruel tool—or at least a not very nice one. It makes no allowance for age, fitness, or even natural body type. Whether we like it or not, our bodies will shift and change as we age. Nature, with no ill intent, seems to want to round us out a bit as we mature. That is how we get to be grandpas and grandmas. Appropriate BMI does not necessarily confer lack of health risks–only ones of a particular nature. Last long enough, and we tend to eventually shrink back down.
Do not get me wrong. I am not undermining the seriousness of the obesity crisis that we are facing. I understand its consequences perhaps more than most. I see the implications of excessive weight that people struggle with on a daily basis and I strive to alleviate the challenges through educational, lifestyle, and nutritional support. I bemoan the forces that are propelling our society into ever-expanding levels of girth, especially those that are now affecting our children.
Still, I feel a need to call TIME OUT! To stop the madness that makes those who are the statistics speechless. To stop pointing the finger merely at the individual without an understanding of the deeper forces that are at play. There are multi-factorial causes that lie at the root of the weight gain epidemic. Many are so abstract or insidious that it is very difficult for the experts—let alone an ordinary individual–to understand what is going on. Though overeating, bad eating, food addiction, and poor lifestyle choices are definitely a part of it, the magnitude of the communal weight gain doesn’t seem to make sense based on calories alone. In the causative mix lie politics, hormones, pharmaceuticals, poverty, nutrition misinformation, abuse, dieting, food sensitivities, sensory science, profits, changes in the components of our food, environmental toxins, personal and spiritual alienation and lifestyles spinning out of control. There are strange bedfellows in each and every fat cell.
Now, back to our friend the Lorax. For the record, the Lorax, our venerable spokesperson, was rather portly himself. Based on his picture, I’d put him at a BMI of about 29. I’d describe him as neither apple nor pear-shaped but rather pickle-shaped. According to Dr. Seuss, “He was shortish. And oldish. And brownish and mossy.” The final message of the Lorax in his plea to save the environment was UNLESS. “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
I too am rather shortish. Oldish, brownish, and mossy may someday also describe me. For now, my intention is not to imply an ultimatum. It is, however, to bring a greater sense of compassion and understanding–and a broader lens to the discussion and to the approaches to care.
I do not intend to deny the role of personal responsibility—be that for everyone. It is a big piece of the puzzle. Though it is critical that we address the current weight epidemic–we should not do it with an assault on the fat people. We must not slap everyone silly in an attempt to squeeze them into a size six dress or Speedo swimsuit. Besides, who would be left to sing the blues? And though I’d have been happy to find my grandmother at the gym, it could not replace the experience of cuddling up on her big, warm lap with wonderful smells wafting in from the kitchen.
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In health, Elyn
My Plate Haiku
Soothes us from the heat–weightless
We float like feathers.