Tuesday, May 26, 2009

They don't even know they're doing it

Like most smallish local newspapers these days, the one in my town picks up a lot of copy from various sources. I'm not a fan of such content recycling, though I understand why it's done.

This item is the kind of thing I mean: a list that ran in a section called The Daily Dose, under a headline reading "Indulge, But Not Too Much." The intro copy reads "Almost everyone needs to indulge once in a while, so why not today, Memorial Day? Here are some ways to limit the damage, nutritionists say:"

Then follows a list of seven tips. Here's number 1 (the quotes are from the original):

Keep it occasional. There's nothing wrong with a little "cheating." Whether it's once a day or once a week depends on your weight, health, overall diet and activity level.

Can I tell you how many ways from here to next week this pisses me off? For starters, the assumption that everyone who reads this is on a diet. And not only are they on a diet, they're always on a diet. Hence the word cheating.

Wake up, people. Diets don't work. You know it, I know it, and researchers at UCLA said so several years ago, so it must be true. Yet this inane little piece assumes that everyone is continually on a diet. Or should be.

It's the assumption that gets me: the idea that any "indulgence" constitutes "cheating," that your entire life is supposed to be spent restricting what you eat, counting calories and fat grams. This assumption underlies 95 percent of the ongoing cultural conversation. It's so insidious we don't even name it, much less question it.

And check out the infantilizing language around this: We indulge like naughty children. We cheat like even naughtier children. When we're not being good, we're being bad. And like naughty children, we must be punished for our transgressions--in this case, by threats of the "damage" we're causing ourselves, and with warnings about how being fat will kill us.

I hated this kind of thing when I was 5. I damn well hate it now.

We don't hear much about findings like this one, which show that overweight heart attack survivors outlive thin ones, including those who follow the doctor's orders and lose weight after a heart attack.

My point is that by now, the bias against fat in every form is so widespread, so widely accepted, that to question it is the equivalent of throwing a rock through the neighbor's window: being a naughty child par excellence.

I wish the editors at my local paper had thought about this item before they plugged it into the hole on the features page*, but I really can't blame them. In 21st-century America, it's far worse to be fat than to be unfaithful to your spouse, to bilk your investors, to not give to charity. Several years ago, researcher Abigail Saguy coined the term moral panic to describe the way we talk and think about being fat in this society. I would add "unthinking, unquestioning moral panic." As items like this underscore all too well.

*In many ways, it doesn't even make sense. The list goes on to suggest that you "eat the real stuff" like ice cream (though only a half cup! Never more than that!) and "mix salt with fat" by adding peanut butter to your pretzels, but ends with the admonition, "Pretzels and baked potato chips are examples of tasty snacks without artery-clogging trans fats." Hello, how do you think we got to where we are now? It wasn't until the low-fat craze of the 1980s that Americans' weight began to rise.


Anonymous said...

On the assumption that we're all always on a diet: I've discovered over the years that often when someone who hasn't seen me in awhile thinks I look good, they assume I've lost weight. Sometimes, they've been right: but just as often, when folks ask if I've lost weight and compliment me for it, I've gained it.

So, at a recent party with friends of my parents, a truly dear, well-intentioned old woman said this (so horrifying it's funny!): "You look really really good! You must have been working really hard on that, hmmm?"

Of course, it was clear from her tone of voice that "look really really good" meant "thin" to her... but what exactly was I supposed to say to that?!? "Yeah, it takes a lot of effort for me to look good." ??? (For the record, I said: "Working hard on having a happy life, yup!" and then dashed off as soon as I could get out of the conversation.)

Harriet said...

We all speak in code now. "Looking good" ALWAYS means "looking thin." Or maybe I'm hypersensitive. :)

Your comeback is a good one. I'll have to remember that.

Anonymous said...

That UCLA article you linked to is another perfect example of the lunacy we see in the media.

"And they found that the majority of people regain all weight lost and then some. And that they would have been better off in the long run simply maintaining their heavier weight rather than stress the body by losing it and gaining it back.

...the single biggest predictor of weight gain was if a man had been on a diet at some point in the past.

So what actually does work for weight loss and long term maintenance? Surprise—moderate eating and regular exercise."
I'm sorry what? Here's massive amounts of data that say diets (ie weight loss) don't work and/or are actively bad for you. But if you want to lose weight, try a diet.

Seriously, how can they write that stuff and not have their heads explode?

Harriet said...

Yeah, it's like some creepy mantra people feel compelled to blurt out no matter what came before it.

And I have yet to find anyone who can explain to me the difference between "moderate eating" and "being on a diet."

Anonymous said...

I have yet to find anyone who can explain to me the difference between "moderate eating" and "being on a diet."That's because there isn't one!

But the amount of times I see/hear "diets don't work, you just have to eat less" just makes me want to scream. I really can't fathom how seemingly intelligent people cannot see the gaping hole in their logic. Talk about selective ignorance.

Harriet said...

Or maybe collective brainwashing. :)

Anonymous said...


I think you have the right idea about the admonishing tone. The whole notion of "cheating" annoys me for paternalistic reasons as well.

But I think you may be misreading "diet" in context. The primary meanings of the word include what is habitually eaten or consumed, and doesn't necessarily have a restrictive connotation. In that sense, everyone is always on a diet, all the time. You can be on a diet of twinkies as easily as you can be on a Nutrisystem diet. So I don't think the article assumes we're always counting calories, or is addressing itself only to people who are.

Rather, it's saying if Monday-Friday you have a cumulative calorie deficit of 1000, go to town on that chocolate cake every Saturday night! But if you're eating more bonbons throughout the week, you're only "allowed" to "cheat" on public holidays.

Anyway, sorry to be nitpicky. I just think the article's offensive enough without reading it as necessarily worse than it is.

Harriet said...

Oh, no, I'm not misreading. I get the greater context of "diet." I was reacting to the underlying message that we should all be on a diet, i.e., we should all be watching what we eat (and not "indulging) all the time.

windy city girl said...

Excellent post! I don't think the diet industry would survive if the moral component hadn't been incorporated into fat panic.

And the insidiousness of this kind of thinking is scary, and most people do not see how much it's harmed us as a society, both physically and mentally.

Ms. Heathen said...

Point of interest: Peanut butter doesn't have trans fats as long as you get the kind that's made with only natural peanut oil. The kind that separates and you have to stir it yourself every time.

The kind with natural sugar, or without any sugar at all is my favorite. I don't know why, but most peanut butter manufacturers really over-sweeten it!

Anonymous said...

The other assumption about this that bothers me is that it says that your cheating depends on your weight or activity level. In other words if you are fat you don't deserve to have a treat on holidays. Fat people have not earned the right to any kind of pleasure in eating. And if you do choose to eat something you better plan to work it off at the gym. This is another pet peeve of mine, that you have to burn off all the calories you eat with exercise. Just being alive consumes a lot of calories you don't have to earn your food on the treadmill.

Julia said...

As another subscriber to that smallish local paper, I completely agree. I'm particularly bothered by a certain columnist in the fitness feature who castigates herself for her past obesity and details her stringent diet/exercise plan. There has been some really great coverage of Ophelia's Place recently, though. (I'm also a writer for the teen page and I'm (pleasantly) surprised that that's continuing even with the rest of the paper's redesign.)

Harriet said...

I know exactly who you mean and I completely agree. Is that kind of public self-flagellation (and judgment of others) really journalism? I think not.

Anonymous said...

Off the topic
I saw this documentary by Darryl Roberts tonight, America the Beautiful. It was fantastic. Think you would enjoy it. Abou the fashion industry, cosmetic industry, teens, eating disorders, notions of beauty,etc. Fantastic! Check out his website: America the Beautiful.