Wednesday, February 06, 2008

News flash: Oprah's gaining weight

Though I despise the culture of celebrity obsession, I found this story from the Orlando Sentinel to be of interest (well, most of it) because it raises in a public and visceral way the question at the heart of the weight-loss "debate."

To wit: If Oprah Winfrey, with all her money and personal chef and personal trainer, can't keep the weight off, who can?

According to the story,

Oprah, by her own admission, has tried everything.She tried the Atkins diet, she tried diet pills. She tried the Scarsdale diet, the banana, hot dog and egg diet. She tried a 1,000 calorie a day diet. She tried Weight Watchers, Diet Work Shop and Diet Center. She tried Nutri-System.

Yep, and still her weight goes up and down.

The story quotes a dietitian who says, "The longer you do this over the years and get into this classic yo-yo dieting syndrome, the more likely you are to end up with metabolic chaos." Thank you, thank you. It's nice to see the truth in print occasionally.

The reporter goes on to say

But the key to losing weight permanently, experts say, is to figure out why you overeat. Do you eat junk food when you're depressed? When you're stressed out from work? When you break up with a boyfriend or girlfriend? To figure out what triggers your overeating, keep a journal.

(For the record, Oprah has kept a journal for years -- and opined publicly about how you need to understand how emotions play into your eating habits. It's not clear how much it has helped.)

Maybe that's because fat people are no different from thin people when it comes to emotional eating. Show me a thin person who never takes comfort from a plate of warm mac and cheese or a slice of chocolate cake, and I'll show you someone who's lying--to themselves or to you.

Emotional eating is no different from emotional sex, emotional TV watching, emotional long-talks-with-a-friend. They're all part of life.

There's a difference between emotional eating and binge eating. I know, because I've done both. It's been about 10 years since I binge-ate, and in that time my weight has come down maybe 25 or 30 pounds. But I'd still be considered obese by the BMI charts.

It would have been nice if the reporter followed up on the ideas she raised--that very few people can lose a lot of weight and keep it off, that dieting is part of the reason. It would have been nice if the word genetics was mentioned anywhere in the story.

But it's a start. Of sorts.


Rachel said...

First, let me mention that we would never see a story focusing on the weight of someone as influential and accomplished as Oprah had she not been female.

I think the best advice came from Sandee Nebel, the mental health counselor when she said: "What they really need to do is start dealing with their own issues." Assumed biasness included.

Anonymous said...

My favorite part was this:

"Some people turn to food to cope with stress or anxiety or loneliness. "For somebody who has an emotional relationship with food, that food serves a need," Beerbower says.

"Although I don't know Oprah and can't diagnose her from a distance, chances are that Oprah used food as a coping tool," she says.

She says she can't diagnose her from a distance, and then goes and diagnoses her with...surprise surprise, what every yo-yo dieter must automatically have (cuz hey, we all know everyone's naturally a size zero) --- an eating disorder!

This marginalizes people who actually do struggle with eating issues, and it also marginalizes all yo-yo dieters (many of which are just fat naturally and don't want to be), and further marginalizes fat people because hey, since we're fat, all doctors need to do is look at us and they can make a diagnosis.

By the way, when did normal eating --- you know, when you're not in diet mode --- become a coping mechanism? Maybe it is for some people, but the assumption is made near the end of the article by Beerbower that yo-yo dieting is caused, not by fighting your body's natural setpoint, but because you get lazy or stressed and go back to being a fat pig. Zah?

And then Nebel brings up Queen Latifah out of nowhere, just because she's fat, and assumes quite subtly that Queen Latifah has 'issues':

"People are so quick to point out what's wrong with her -- or with any famous person," says Nebel. "In therapy, we call that a distraction. Clients want to talk about Queen Latifah or Oprah, anybody but themselves. What they really need to do is start dealing with their own issues."

Their own issues, since, yanno, Oprah and Queen Latifah, if they "dealt with their issues" would automatically become thin.

I think the "issue" here is that the 'above-all-else' attitude towards thinness is ruining the lives of people who are naturally not thin by exposing their health to chains of questionable diets, and their minds to constant torture based on the number on the scale.

Anonymous said...

Although I don't care for the public speculation about her weight, I also think that Oprah is responsible for putting herself in that particular spotlight to begin with. She's repeatedly discussed her obsession with her weight and weight loss on her show, and when she has lost weight in the past made a big deal of proclaiming that she finally had it figured out and if you wanted to do it badly enough, you could too. Plus, she has profited enormously from the sale of books, cookbooks, etc. While I feel for her struggle with her weight, I just can't muster up much sympathy around people discussing it.

Kate Harding said...

Emotional eating is no different from emotional sex, emotional TV watching, emotional long-talks-with-a-friend. They're all part of life.

THANK YOU for saying this. One of my big crusades (okay, it's actually a small crusade, but disproportionately big in my mind) is getting women to understand that eating the proverbial pint of Ben & Jerry's after a break-up does not make one a binge eater, or someone whose "emotional eating" is out of control and ruining her life. Food IS comforting and DOES provide a cheap endorphin rush that can not only come in handy, but really be a valid form of self-care sometimes.

Taking aspirin for a headache isn't the same thing as being addicted to prescription pain medication, you know? Reaching for a simple fix to reduce your pain is not inherently pathological behavior.

Susan B said...

I've said for years that Oprah could be the poster woman for size acceptance and why dieting doesn't work, but that it will never happen as long as a big chunk of her advertising revenue comes from Jenny/WW/Nutri/Slimfat/"bariatric" surgery drive-by docs. If she were to adopt an HAES perspective, those advertisers would flee, taking their $$ with them.

And it irks me no end when people conflate "emotional eating" with "binge eating disorder." As if the normal state of affairs for thin people is that they never eat except in a carefully controlled, nutritionally conscious way. No Oprah, not everyone who eats a piece of pie because they're homesick or whatever is "food addicted." [insert eyeroll here]

Personally, I think Oprah is addicted to dieting and drama about her weight.

Anonymous said...

I agree with absolutely everything that has been said. Oprah could have chosen to be a force for tremendous good, a strong role model of self acceptance and empowerment, but continues to espouse garbage and do more harm to women than she has ever done to help most of her viewers.

That said, whether this is valid or just an excuse being made, she recently said she'd been diagnosed with a thyroid problem:

Anonymous said...

Except, the problem is, when you're fat, you're NOT PERMITTED to use food for comfort - it is bad, wrong, and evil for you to do that. Or at least that's what every pundit who comes even remotely close to weightloss issues says.

And you know? Frankly, that pisses me off. Because there ARE times in my life when a couple pieces of buttered toast with cinnamon sugar - or a plate of buttered noodles - or a brownie warm from the oven DOES bring comfort. And it angers me that people are telling me I should deny myself that and "have a carrot instead!" or "Go for a walk!" just because I'm bigger than they are.

I don't binge eat but sometimes, yeah, I do go to food for a little comfort.

I see telling people they shouldn't use food as a source of comfort as being kind of like ripping Linus' blanket away from him because he's a "big boy now."

And I TOTALLY agree with the commenter who said that this wouldn't be an issue (or at least not as much of an issue) if Oprah were a man.

Harriet said...

Oh, perfect analogy. There is little enough comfort in this world. And we seem determined to deny it--to other people, anyway.

When my kids were little I remember a lot of pressure to get rid of the pacifier. And I remember thinking, But why? What's wrong with a little comfort?

Note to trolls: I am not advocating drowning your sorrows in nightly gallons of ice cream, or vodka, or any other specific substance. We're talking the equivalent of a hot bath.

I think what the culture is really pressing for is for us to find a way to do away with food altogether. So troublesome, no? Such a bother. So complicated. Much better if we could just rip open freeze dried packs of goo, stoke the machine, and move on.

And here I thought the definition of being grown-up was in grappling with the stuff that's hard, not just putting it away.

wriggles said...

"The longer you do this over the years and get into this classic yo-yo dieting syndrome....."

If only she knew that's the same as saying that if you do something that doesn't work and you keep doing it, it keeps not working.

I think the problem with Oprah is she believes that weight is under direct control (through dieting). Her capacity to believe in herself is what got her where she is, and that's one of the horrible things about trying to lose weight, it's the part of you that acheives- sometimes against the odds- that keeps you going. Realising that in this case you are wrong, is counter-intuitive to people that push themselves and like to be in control, that's what the diet wallahs, nutritionists and such, play on.

Harriet said...

Diet wallahs.

I love it.

Rachel said...

I find it especially ironic that despite Oprah's fluctuating weights, she continues to present crazy weight-loss diet schemes on her shows. Tomorrow's show insists that if you just clean up your house (and buy the guest's book) you too can lose weight.

Anonymous said...

I just think it's sad that the most powerful woman in America continues to focus so much of her self worth on whether or not she's able to lose weight and keep it off. I remember reading something after her 50th birthday where she made a big deal about how she didn't have a piece of her birthday cake, and this somehow demonstrated her inner strength and commitment to herself and her health (she had signed one of those silly contracts with herself that Bob Greene is so fond of). That's just sad. A woman with all of her accomplishments is most proud of turning down a piece of cake at her own birthday party. How is that healthy behavior?

Harriet said...

"That's just sad. A woman with all of her accomplishments is most proud of turning down a piece of cake at her own birthday party. How is that healthy behavior?"


Anonymous said...

I don't know ladies and gentlemen. I like the fact that despite her enormous success in her professional life, there is still the personal struggle with her weight that confounds her to this day. I admire her for not giving up on her health. She diets, fails, and then recommits herself to eat healthy and exercise. She doesn't give up. That's what has gotten her to this level. And it humanizes her.
She is unhappy with the way she looks. She's doing something about it. I wish her the best. Unlike the majority of you, she has picked herself up yet again, while you remain lying down. She is a role model. In fact, it should be she who sells t-shirts that say, "I am Oprah Winfrey." Not Kate Harding. Kate Harding gave up. Oprah didn't. Who would you rather be?

Rachel said...

Hey Michael - we support fat acceptance here, not stupid acceptance. Moving on...

Susan B said...

Hey Michael,

You know the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Oprah may have a lot going for her, but in this one area, she's got blinders on.

Personally, I'd rather be the woman who enjoys the occasional piece of birthday cake.

Harriet said...

Me too.

Definition of intelligence: Learning from the past, not simply repeating it.

Further troll comments will be deleted.

Anonymous said...

Who would I rather be? Without a doubt, Kate Harding (she's the coolest!).

Kate (and myself and the rest of us in the anti diet crowd) didn't "give up". Is it giving up to stop doing something that's harmful to oneself? I'll have to let my sisters know they're losers for "giving up" on cigarettes.

I think that Oprah and other people who are still on the diet merry go round all have a bit of magical thinking going on. You know, it didn't work last time, but it'll be different _this_ time.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm...I didn't think my post was trollish in anyway. Just offering an opposing view. Is dieting crazy behavior? I don't think so. It just has to be don correctly. Consult a nutritionist; exercising, but not too excess, and most importantly, patience. People have been led to believe that weight loss should be fast. It's counterproductive.

I discovered the fat acceptance movement via the New York Times article I read two weeks ago. I became intrigued and I visited all the sites mentioned by the article. And from there i visited the links to other fat acceptance blogs.
I used to be obese. I fought hard to regain my health. What I read in the comments of many of these fat acceptance blogs is depressing. I've heard dieting horror stories about weight loss and weight regain. Operations that didn't work etc. I've followed the links of many of the women and men who comment and it's sad to see that many of them are in their teens. And they've already given up on living a healthy life.

Anniee451 said...

Very few have given up on HEALTH, Mr. Connor. A majority are pretty committed to their health. What they've given up on is dieting, because dieting is harmful, has shown less than negligible "benefits," and doesn't "work" for lasting, substantial weight loss. Health and fatness are not the same thing. I'm sorry if you find it depressing to find out that you will likely regain the weight and lose your fantasy of lasting thinness. Cope with it.

"But the key to losing weight permanently, experts say, is to figure out why you overeat."

Annnnnnd back to square one. You are overweight because you overeat.

"Do you eat junk food when you're depressed?"

Not really. I'm more likely to cook up something delicious from scratch. Cooking and eating can often be tremendous comforts. So?

"When my kids were little I remember a lot of pressure to get rid of the pacifier. And I remember thinking, But why? What's wrong with a little comfort?"

Especially for babies. I never understood hard-hearted people who will let their children scream for hours rather than comfort them - often just because it's nighttime, and they arbitrarily decide that at night babies don't need or shouldn't receive comfort. Guess what? No one goes off to college still sucking on a bottle, breast or pacifier, or sleeping with their parents in their parents' bed. It just doesn't happen. Let children be children FFS.

Harriet said...


I respect your wanting to learn more. But dude, what did you think would happen when you started posting comments like the above on a fat acceptance site? That folks were going to say, "Oh my god, I never thought of it like that! Of course you're right!"

Those of us in the FA movement have been through it all. We've lost the weight, gained it back, lost it again. Some of us have had surgery. Some of us, as I said before, aren't particularly fat. In fact it really isn't even about fat, if you will. It's about learning to accept and love yourself for who you are. For many of us that does require stopping the head-bloodying exercise of dieting, gaining, dieting again. For the younger among us--teens and early 20s--I hope that means learning to love their bodies now, before they've screwed up their metabolisms in that vicious cycle.

I'm happy for you that you are happy with your body. That's a cornerstone of FA: not judging anyone else's journey or decisions. Cool for you! But dude, fat does not automatically equal unhealthy, and thin does not automatically equal healthy. If you can get that basic principle straight you will come away much wiser and with a lot more understanding.

For my own part, I am much healthier now than when I was in college, even though I weigh 30 pounds more than I did then. Back then I never exercised, I binge-ate, I did some other things we won't mention here. Today I exercise, I eat well (lots of variety--my favorite food is spinach, yum)--and I don't do those other naughty things. So . . . you can't judge a book by its cover. Or by its weight.

You are welcome to continue your journey of exploration so long as you can respect the basic principles here.

Rachel said...

Michael - I struggled with anorexia and bulimia and lost 60 percent of my body weight. And yet, even while I developed a heart condition, and was malnourished, anemic and dehydrated, as well as depressed to the point of suicidal because of the malnutrition, I continued to receive praise and accolades from people like you who associate good health with thinness. In fact, I have never been so sick in my entire life.

I, too, have fought damn hard to regain my good health. I eat a healthy vegetarian and environmentally-sustainable diet and exercise regularly. I enjoy good mental health, which is an element I find to be abysmally lacking in talks of good health. And yet, I am fat.

So, you see how offensive and trollish your assumptions are that we have simply "given up." The only thing fat acceptance activists have given up on is a disordered culture that fosters poor physical and mental health.

Anonymous said...

Oprah, I had no idea. Whatever weight you are, you are gorgeous to me :)Please dont go down the path like other celebrities in the pursuit of hottyness :(