Digression: “The Fat Trap”

Welcome to January. It’s resolution-making time. Holiday-excess-detoxing time. Vegetables-whole-grains-and-water time. The time when “turning over a new leaf” seems very often to involve bringing down the number on the bathroom scale.

I don’t know if it’s true that losing weight is one of the most popular New Year’s resolutions–as I’ve heard cited, oh, every year around this time–but it seems entirely believable. I’ve been there: one of the seeming millions, wrestling year in and year out with excess heft, alarmed about the potential consequences for my long-term health, putting my fist down on the table and resolving that this year I’ll finally shake off those pounds.

So when I read this week’s New York Times Magazine cover story, “The Fat Trap,” I thought it was brilliantly, perhaps cynically on-the-nose for this time of year. I also knew I had to write about it here.

“The Fat Trap”–or, as the cover of the magazine has it, “DO YOU HAVE TO BE SUPERHUMAN TO LOSE WEIGHT?”–is an examination of the truth, more or less universally acknowledged, that losing weight is hard. Incredibly hard. Though she doesn’t say as much, Tara Parker-Pope seems to be writing directly to–and on behalf of–all the resolution-makers among the Times’s audience. Weight loss is not a task to be undertaken lightly, she says. Your body will fight you. Odds are, you will not win.

She’s right, of course, and the article presents plenty of solid science to back her up. The act of losing weight is often taken by the body as an overture of violence; so it fights back, and fights dirty. As a PCOS patient, I know my reality is even harsher: as hard as a normal body hangs on to excess weight, mine hangs on three times as hard.

But, as Parker-Pope points out, successful weight loss does happen. She profiles people who have lost significant weight through diet and exercise alone. Everybody I know, knows someone like that. For me, it’s my father: six or seven years ago, he lost 70 pounds, turned his health around completely, and kept the weight off until his recent brush with cancer. I could make some platitudinous statement about diet and exercise and willpower, but I’ll be honest: in order to lose the weight, he had to completely reorder his life. I tried to keep up with him, and flamed out in frustration.

The term “lifestyle change” gets bandied about a lot, as if weight loss were on par with revamping your wardrobe or picking a new hobby. But as the article notes, it’s more than that: these people are overwhelmingly reorganizing their daily routines around food and exercise, devoting the rest of their lives to beating a calculated and time-consuming numbers game. Eating becomes calories in; physical activity becomes calories out. They’re never not thinking about their weight.

I’ve been there. I’ve tried that level of dedication. I fought to keep up with my father’s weight loss. It put me on a slow, slippery slope towards a pattern of disordered eating and self-hatred that’s taken me years to break. And, in the process, it cut off one of my greatest sources of pleasure–eating–by making food an enemy.

So sensational cover text notwithstanding, the question the article poses isn’t, is weight loss possible? The question is, is the sacrifice worth it? For many people–including myself–the answer is no.

It’s so easy to give up there. We’re inundated with medical advice and pop culture imagery that says thin is healthy and fat is dangerous. I’ve heard it for years–if I could just shed the excess weight, my health problems might just evaporate. Until very recently, I’ve carried around a little goblin at the base of my skull that likes to whisper, “You’ll never be thin, so you’ll always be sick. You’ll never be thin, so you’ll always be sick.”

But what “The Fat Trap” doesn’t acknowledge is that it’s not a zero-sum game. Even if weight loss is a treacherous journey to a blurry horizon, health doesn’t have to be. I only really internalized this about a month ago–shortly after this happened–and already I feel the goblin shrinking and growing hoarse.

This is not a new concept, of course. Health at Every Size has been around for years. I break with that philosophy in one crucial regard, though: I don’t think wanting to change your weight is unreasonable. In fact, in many cases it’s medically necessary. I do believe that, for me, getting truly healthy will involve losing some weight. How much, I don’t know. But it will also involve learning to walk long distances without pain; becoming a better dancer; eating the foods that make me feel great, physically and emotionally.

“The Fat Trap” ends with Parker-Pope thinking ahead about her own plans for weight loss. I wish her luck, sincerely. But I’m going to try my best to wiggle out of the fat trap altogether. Weight loss is part, but not parcel, of what I’m up against.

And, now that I’ve written a novel about weight and health, my next couple posts will be about cake. So there.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Digression: “The Fat Trap”

  1. Veronika

    Hah! I had just finished reading this article and linking it on facebook, and then opened my inbox to find you having written about it here!

    First of all, good going – it’s something which needs to be talked about. And second, thank the gods and little green apples that there are reasonable people like yourself around. I’m just fresh from a verbal battle I had yesterday with a friend over the internet, that I didn’t so much win, as gave up on, as he’s taken a half-year course in a “health” college and is now buying into any sort of fad that comes around – most recent one being, “dairy is bad for you, it’ll cause cancer and kill you”. Yeah, it and every other food scare out there, like eggs 20-ish years ago, etc. So, it’s incredibly important to get this sort of sane message out – that you don’t need to become stick-thin to be healthy, and that food fads/scares are not your friend.

    And then, then we can talk about the fact that making food an enemy is not a solution for mental health.

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