Sunday, May 15, 2011

One of Us

This is a post I wrote almost a year ago about diet culture but decided not to post because I was concerned that it would offend people who felt they were being included in the types of people I'm writing about. I was also worried about generating negative attention and that's not what this blog is all about. However, I was motivated to bring it back out after reading about an invasion of privacy on another person's blog, which I believe is the action of people who I describe in this post. That is, people who believe so strongly in the rightness of their way that they will interfere with another person's life, even if that person is essentially a stranger.

Before you read it, keep in mind that I'm not talking about an individual, but about a mindset portrayed by groups of individuals which I feel is destructive. If you think I'm pointing a finger at you, you're almost certainly the one pointing at yourself. I don't know "you", or, if I do, I don't know enough about "you" to include you in this group. If this post makes you uncomfortable, you may be seeing some truth about yourself that I personally am absolutely incapable of seeing.


In the movie “Freaks”, there is a disturbing scene where a “normal” woman comes into their group of pinheads and little people and they accept her as their own and start chanting “one of us, one of us, gooble, gobble.” This scene is perhaps better known by the fact that it was used in an early episode of the Simpsons. Sometimes, the dieting culture, reminds me of this scene.

Early on in my efforts to lose weight, I turned to weight loss support forums for “support”. I learned pretty quickly that those who reshaped themselves to fit into the mold that was “accepted” and who roughly came from the same place as the members were supported. Those that did not, were hammered away at until they forced themselves to fit in or simply ran away. It was a tribe that I wasn't welcome in, because my experiences and perspective were too different from the core of the diet culture.

The interesting thing about following people who just “join” the diet culture is that you can see the earnestness and desire to fit in. The sense that they will lose weight and succeed if they follow the successful herd is so strong it is palpable. They want to cast off all that they were and become what these other people are, because that will give them what they desperately seek. Those who are incapable of abandoning enough of themselves to follow all of the guidelines and rules of a particular sect of the diet cult consider themselves to have failed to do the right thing, not that perhaps the rigidity of the tribe does not suit their particular needs.

Lip service is given to the idea that all weight loss processes are individual and that we each need to find what works for us, but the deeper waters stir with the idea that failure is the result of not doing what I do (and what I do is "right" because I have lost weight and that makes me an authority and valid judge). When someone expresses frustration, the diet vultures are quick to move in and pick the choices of that party apart in a feeding frenzy of, at times constructive, and at other times judgmental, criticism. The message isn't that you haven't found what works for you. The message is that you aren't doing what works for us.

One reason that I approach things slowly and psychologically is that I also have my biases in regards to what I believe works. My biases are also informed by what is effective for me. My strongest bias is the absolute and unwavering belief that psychological elements always play a role in our relationship with food. I reject the notion out of hand that overeating is never anything more than unrestrained indulgence in the joys of eating. I also reject the idea that it is about character flaws that need to be whipped into shape with discipline. All character flaws stem from psychological wells in my opinion, and they can be drained or filled using therapeutic methods and the perceived "flaws" can be addressed to lesser or greater extents.

I can empathize with the bias of others, because I have my bias as well. The point at which I lose empathy though is when people become fanatical to the point where they insist their bias is an absolute reality. One of the things that I have difficulty with is the assertion that thinness solves all problems and that merely attaining the goal of a certain body shape will transform your life for the better as long as that shape is maintained.

Do I think life is better in many ways at a lower weight? Of course. However, a lot of that is steeped in the loss of negatives, not the attainment of positives. If your life is empty and your identity incomplete, losing weight will not change that. If your life is full of meaning and your weight was impeding your ability to take full advantage of it, then this will change.

The thing I reject is that thinness is the ultimate goal and an answer to all problems. I think the that goal should be to no longer be defined by a negative body image, developing a body that you feel good in, and building a relationship with food which places it in its proper context in your life (which may not be the same context as I want it placed in my life).

The goal for me is not to be an exercising machine or to define myself by healthy food choices. I've already spent much of my life being defined by my body and food choices and don't want to simply be the same person in a more socially acceptable body. That is not being whole. That is being just as damaged in a way which is sanctioned, probably feels better physically, and is considered admirable by society. I no more want to define myself by my food choices than I would like to do so by the amount of money in my bank account or the color of sofa I choose. “Normal”, that is psychologically healthy people, don't define themselves by their food options or exercise habits.

Many people find my viewpoint not only weird, but actively offensive and destructive. They believe that what I'm saying is unsupportive of people who want to lose weight. Frankly, from all outward appearances, they cannot see anything wrong with continuing to focus intently on BMIs, exercise habits, and food choices. In essence, they can see nothing wrong with being a part of this tribe and want everyone to be one of them in order to be just as happy as they are. In fact, they think this is the path to joy, and can't see how anyone would think otherwise.

This type of thinking is actually so close to fundamentalist religious thinking that it scares me a little. The deity involved is thinness. The daily “prayer habits” are exercise and eating vegetables and lean protein. The rituals are weighing oneself, checking body mass index numbers, and counting minutes on hamster-wheel-like machines. If you subscribe to the religion, and turn yourself over to thinness, you will be happy.

While I certainly do not care what other people do with their lives and their time as long as they aren't hurting anyone else, I feel uncomfortable with the zealotry I sometimes witness. There is a type of “recruiting” going on where people say, “let me help fix your life by guiding you to thinness”. There is an undercurrent of disapproval or knee-jerk recommending that is put out there for people who aren't doing all of the daily meditations properly. I can't tell you the number of times that someone writes about being tempted by a cookie in the office and successfully resisting, a psychological triumph greater than the avoidance of cookie calories, and the response is not just “good for you,” it is also, “now go throw the cookie away.” The members of the cult of thinness don't care about mental advancement. They care about following the rules. Good members don't allow “bad” food to exist in their presence. It isn't part of their gospel.

As I've mentioned before, I live in a culture of thin people. These people adore food. In fact, there are so many television programs devoted to it that show people lavishly enjoying food that it borders on pornography. This culture has a far healthier relationship with food than Americans, and it has nothing to do with exercise clubs, BMIs, or living in a home devoid of treats. It has to do with food and exercise occupying a psychologically healthy context in their existence. These things do not define them. They are defined by far richer aspects of their lives.

Sometimes I wonder if the reason the culture I currently reside in has a better relationship with food is that they are homogenous rather than diverse and feel a strong sense of identity from their broader culture. Americans, being highly individualized, struggle to work out who they are in a sea of diversity. We don't know who we are, so we cast about to redefine ourselves. Since we are from a consumerist culture, we tend to attach ourselves to that which we can buy. We associate ourselves with visible choices rather than with who we are inside. Frankly, we don't seem to know who we are inside so we define ourselves as a fan of a type of music, a follower of a particular religion, or by our pursuit of “healthy” habits.

Deep down, we're just following a tribe that gives us definition for a time and we still don't really know who the hell we are. The bigger that tribe is, the better we feel about our choice of identity. The more people who join the group, the stronger sense we have that the identity it gives us is a “good” one and therefore it makes us “good”. The more people who become “one of us, ” the easier it becomes to love ourselves and be happier with who we are.

Considering those emotional investments, is it any wonder that people have a strongly vested interest in making sure others live the same lifestyle as they do. Refusing to be one of them means rejecting them, not merely rejecting their habits. It's not that you personally make them uncomfortable or that they deeply care about your success, but rather that your rejection of their lifestyle choices makes them uncomfortable with themselves and uncertain about the path they are treading. 


SaucyVixen said...

This is interesting. What's most interesting to me is that your observations are not unique to "diet culture" but to majority social structures in general. There are few things worse than a reformed fattie, and they tend to preach whatever their diet gospel is.

I lost 50 lbs about four years ago. I found something that worked for me and I openly encourage others to do the same.

The one quibble I have with your essay is that, for me, my weight was not psychological insofar as the reasons I ate. I really did lack self control and discipline and simply wasn't knowledgable in certain areas. I know it's not like that for everyone, but it was for me.

screaming fatgirl said...

Lack of self-control and discipline are also psychological issues. It has to do with an inability to delay gratification and responds to behavioral condition (whether formal or informal).

Psychological issues aren't all about trauma and deep difficulties. Sometimes it's about routines, habits, and patterns. One mistake many people make is thinking they can't benefit from psychological help because they can't locate some deeper issue. Sometimes, it's just about breaking something which is hard to break and reshaping it more productively.