Thursday, February 2, 2012

If I can't have it, so...

There's a Calvin & Hobbes comic in which Susie, Calvin's neighbor and schoolmate, sees something down by a pond and asks Calvin if he'd like to see it. Not wanting to validate the value of what she has discovered, Calvin indicates derisively that it's not of interest. Susie stalks off and Calvin sneaks to the pond to have a look. Susie catches him and essentially says, "gotcha!"

There have been numerous comics, stories, and performances depicted children in which one essentially says of another's possession, 'I don't want one. It's not so great.' In such cases, it's clear that the speaker thinks that it really is 'so great', but is trying to diminish the value of whatever it is in order to cope with the sense that it is beyond his or her ability to acquire it. A lot of people mistake this for envy, and while there may be an element of that, it is more about finding a way of balancing their despair with what they view as a cold, hard, and limited reality.

No one is immune from this. In the past, I have been guilty of it in ways both big and small. When I didn't fit in the bath tub due to my weight, I used to tell people I didn't like taking baths and that I didn't care about having a deep bath to soak in. I even convinced myself that this was not such a pleasurable experience that I couldn't partake in. Now that I can fit in the tub, I have to admit to myself that it's not only relaxing, but deeply and satisfyingly warming on cold evenings.

One of the most pervasive messages that people spread about something not being of value because they have concluded that they can't have it is having a life partner. They say marriage is nothing more than a loss of freedom, a life in shackles, and endless and unfair compromise and suffering. I never told myself such negative messages, but I did say I didn't aspire to being married. That was, in part, because I grew up having a very bad marriage role-modeled in front of me, but it was also because I thought I would never be wanted by anyone. If I couldn't have it, it wasn't worthwhile for me.

Unfortunately, most people aren't content to say that it's not worthwhile for them because they can't have it. They say that it has no or little value for anyone because they can't have it. I talk a lot about control, and this is something many people have concluded that they can't have in various areas of their lives. And, if they can't gain it, it can't be had by anyone and therefore should neither be sought nor desired.

This message is pervasive in the fat acceptance movement. There is a steady drumbeat of "can't lose weight, don't try." There is a constant trotting out of some dubious statistics about dieting and a 95% failure rate to the tune of many actually gaining more weight. These numbers may or may not be true, but that is a failure of method, not the value of losing weight. However, fat acceptance is populated by people who have tried and failed, tried and failed, and tried and failed. They can't have permanent and effective weight loss, so it has no value (i.e., no positive health effects that cannot be gained by healthy lifestyle without weight loss) and they can't do it so it can't be done by anyone (e.g., the "95% failure rate"). If they can't control their relationship with food and subsequently their weight, no one can, and they don't need to.

Frankly, I don't care what people weigh, but I do care about quality of life and I believe that you can't be happy unless you can move closer to who you want to be. If you can't draw a line between who you are now and who you would like to be in the future and start to make progress along that path, you will not be satisfied with your life. There's a word for people who can't move along and realize their goals. It's called stagnation. You can stamp your feet and insist that you are just great the way you are and that wanting to have more control is neurotic and destructive, but you're only succeeding in fooling yourself (if that). Harnessing chaos (including our own chaotic relationships with every aspect of our lives) and turning it into something organized, creative, and harmonious is what humans do. It is the essence of our nature and it is harder to do it with ourselves than nearly anything else in our lives.

Control is about avoiding stagnation. It's about not being trapped in your own head and body and being unhappy with where you are. It's also about not spending all of your time and energy convincing yourself that you are happy staying right where you are because you feel there is no place else you can go. It doesn't have to be about weight, but often in fat acceptance circles, that is pretty much what it is about. They preach a message of "can't control, don't try, just accept". I don't like that message, not because I care about people being fat (I truly do not), but because I think that the message should be that you can be what you want to be, not simply be told you'll never have enough control to be anything else. That goes for everything, not just weight.


Norma said...

Great post. I try my hardest not to even read "fat acceptance" blogs/columns, etc. because too often they even go beyond "acceptance" to what seems almost a pursuit or exploitation of their situation: e.g., I've seen a FA blogger bragging about ordering huge, indulgent meals followed by double desserts at restaurants just for the benefit of those observing them; almost daring someone to say something, you know? I believe if a person is honestly happy with her weight/health/size/appearance, she'll not call attention to it and live her life as the person she is. If a person needs to incessantly introduce the topic of her size (larger or smaller), weight (heavier or lighter), etc. into conversation, she's got an issue with it and is overcompensating.

NewMe said...


Well, I wrote such a long response to your post that I decided I'd be better off posting it on my blog.

screaming fatgirl said...

Norma: I read them for a variety of reasons. One is that I'm onboard with messages about societal acceptance, ending body shaming, and broadening the notion of "beauty" to include all people. I'm also very much in agreement on the idea of self-love and acceptance, but not the idea that these things mean throwing self-improvement out the window. I'm also interested in spreading information on socioeconomic status and its affects on weight and diet.

The place where I part company is the constant drumbeat of "diets kill", "the diet industry wants us to be fat", and, of course, "you can't change". While I agree that homeostasis (something I studied long before it became a pat mantra for fat acceptance people) and set points are an issue, I have no doubt that few women have set points over 250 lbs. (let alone over 300). I also disagree vehemently that there is no relationship between calories in and calories out. There is a point of diminishing returns, but I doubt anyone other than someone who has a compromised glandular system or is unable to move or extremely short will weigh over 250 on a diet of around 2000 calories per day. I also categorically reject that people "need" more than 2000 calories per day to be healthy unless they have extreme and rare health problems. It all boils down to psychology and learning to deal with food in a different way and simply deciding it can't be done so it shouldn't or needn't be so. Dieting fails because the method is flawed (severe restriction, addressing mechanics over mentality), not because reducing calories fails to result in weight loss, but the answer to the issue of the flawed method is not to throw the baby out with the bath water, but to fix the flaws. No, FA, says the baby has got to go.

To be fair to the FA bloggers who centralize their weight in their lives, they might say that they make it their identity because that is what others do. I know that frustration very well. Up until I reached the 200 lb. level, people made it about my body. I didn't decide to become a militant fatty, but I can see why people do it, especially when they feel powerless. However, I don't think you can make people stop identifying you by your weight by identifying yourself by it. It's just a false sense of control.

NewMe: I'll be interested to see what you say, but I hope you'll argue my point and not a tangential one. My point, just to be clear, is that I don't like the drumbeat of "can't lose weight, don't try" and the very persistent statistic about high failure rates of dieting. I think these should not be a part of the FA message at all. It is not that FA is not helpful or useful, but just that this part of it is not a good message.

Norma said...

Again, I'm not terribly familiar with the entire FA/HAES agenda (if there is a cohesive one) but if their general feeling is that the "diet industry" (by which I'm assuming you mean brand name or packaged food "plans" that charge for their services/membership, etc.) wants people to fail...I do agree with that. There is a particular blog you and I both read (or at least used to) which is where I found the link to your blog, and that blogger is the ideal consumer that this type of "diet company" loves to get its claws into: long term yo-yo dieter who has had some success on her own; gets instant gratification from their very structured, very rah-rah, VERY low calorie processed "meals," prides herself on still "being allowed" to have things like snack chips or sweet treats (their brand), loses significant weight in, say, a month or two...then her body just can't take it anymore. She falls off the brand name packaged meal wagon, indulges in old favorite trigger foods, throws in the towel...regains half the weight she starved filled with regret and self-disgust...and starts "the plan" again...the snake eats its tail in another 6 weeks...repeat, repeat, repeat. People DO have great short term success on these programs but if they have a lot of weight to lose they cannot realistically stay on such restrictive plans long enough to achieve it, and if they have a smaller amount of weight to lose (say 20 lbs) they do it in a month, think they're "fixed," go right back to eating "whatever" -- either way, weight is regained but they insist the brand name plan "worked" and it was, somehow, their own fault that they regained. Money keeps being made. Diet companies are for-profit corporations (Weight Watchers, MediFast and Nutrisystem are all publicly traded...their only obligation is to increase share value for their stockholders; not to stimulate better health and nutrition in the general public), not altruistic entities (e.g., Overeaters Anonymous or TOPS) but a lot of sheep think these companies really care about their long-term success...when what they're really all about is REPEAT BUSINESS.

screaming fatgirl said...

You hit every nail right on the head, Norma!

It is true that they want fat people to fail if they produce diet foods, but the talk isn't limited to that. It expands to corn subsidies, cheap processed food, etc. I'm not sure that the whole world operates to make us fat and then make us lose weight as a way of taking money from us on both sides. That's a little more Machiavellian than I give business credit for. I think that the fast food/junk food people want to make products that we enjoy so much we keep buying them. End of story. I think the diet food industry also does as you say. End of story. I don't think there is collusion or any grand scheme between the respective businesses.

All of that being said, the culture I live in has junk food galore. It is food-loving and people eat everything everyday in moderation. The presence of treats and snacks doesn't mean we will overeat and become addicted as people in this culture generally do not. One cookie, a small handful of chips, a glass of beer, a piece of cake, etc. and they are not deep into sugar craving and carb addiction. It becomes that once people are "food abusers" (and I speak as a recovering food abuser myself), but no one sets out to put us on that path. We find our way down that road on our own for largely psychological reasons.

This is why I think the issue has to be addressed mentally for most people and why most diet culture is an abysmal failure. It focuses on mechanics, not mentality. A wedding of the two (cognitive-behavioral) is where relief can be had, but it's not fast and it's not easy, and you can't make quick money from it. :-p

Thanks, Norma. I always appreciate your comments.