Note: This post by Lynne Murray inspired Debbie to start a dialogue with Lynne. All text is by Lynne unless otherwise indicated.
I recently had the good fortune to have a conversation with Marilyn Wann, who has an almost Jeffersonian gift for explaining the common sense of Health At Every Size in terms of “Truths we hold to be self-evident.”
One thing we talked about, as fat activists will, was how often fat activists re-embrace weight loss and then feel betrayed not to get approval from fellow fat activists for weight lost, diet mania re-embraced and even gastric bypass surgery. I’m not taking about results from exercise or healthful eating but those who put aside the idea of Health at Every Size to embrace Weight Loss as a Health Goal.
(Debbie: I have seen this happen with fat activists, but nowhere near often enough to be what I would identify as a trend or a regular issue. I also believe that there are individuals for and situations where weight loss is, in fact, a legitimate health goal. One of the most amazingly talented, extraordinarily fat-accepting body workers I know has been known to recommend WLS in at least one very specific and limited circumstance.)
“The idea appears to be, “I’m still fat, I’ll never be what society thinks of as thin,” therefore you should support me in whatever I do to my body.”
(Debbie: I’d describe what I’ve seen in this regard more as “I’ve made this decision taking my belief in size acceptance into account, and whether or not you support me, I hope you can wish me luck in my goals.”)
We need all the allies we can get, but why are we expected to endorse their dieting behavior?
(Debbie: Someone asking me for support is not, to me, the same as someone expecting me to support her. Heck, Glenn Beck wants my support. He just doesn’t get it.)
The process seemed to me to be a prime example of drinking the Diet Kool-Aid, going back for seconds and sharing with others. When I use the term “drinking the kool-aid” I don’t mean to disrespect or trivialize those who lost loved ones at Jonestown.
We don’t have armed cult enforcers dispatching those who refuse to drink the Diet Poison Flavor Kool-Aid. We do live in a an ocean of propaganda that daily tells us our choice is “lose weight or die.”
Sincere, caring relatives push the Diet Kool-Aid at us at holiday dinner tables all over America. Medical doctors contemptuously dismiss fat clients with diet sheets without bothering to look at the scientifically proven 98% failure rate of weight loss methods. The fat hatred is such that giving a fat person an unworkable solution is thought to be better than accepting them as fat and working with them to be healthier where they are.
When a former fat activist drinks the Diet Kool-Aid and expects support for it the real statement is: “If you’re really my friend you’ll continue to support me when I diet/have by pass surgery, etc.”
(Debbie: The statement I’ve heard is more like “I feel like I need to do this and I’m afraid of losing all my friends.” I don’t believe that there’s any one “real statement” of a bunch of people engaging in comparable behaviors.)
I am saying in return, “Weight loss talk is rarely neutral. I’ll support anyone’s body positive actions, but talk to someone else about your weight loss.”
(Debbie: I’m not convinced that intentional weight loss is never a body-positive action. However, I’m more than happy with “talk to someone else about your weight loss.” I don’t think any of us should have to listen to diet talk if we don’t want to. And I agree 100% about the amount of push we get without having to hear it from fat activists.)
There’s reason why someone climbing back on the diet bandwagon would want to hang onto the support of fat activism. The diet world is full of cheerleaders in the form of authority figures and fellow weight loss advocates. But the positive energy is all aimed at meeting weight loss goals, and each cup of support contains several teaspoons of body hatred.
(Debbie: Again, I genuinely believe that it’s possible to try to lose weight loss for reasons other than body hatred. I think, though, that that’s even harder than embracing our fat bodies without body hatred, which is god-damned hard enough.)
Changing television channels the other day I stumbled across one with a weeping fat woman in a gym being screamed at by a thin personal trainer. I realized this must be a “reality” show I have never seen or wanted to see called The Biggest Loser, where people compete to lose as much weight as possible, as quickly as possible. I kept changing channels. An hour later I clicked past this channel and the SAME thin personal trainer was screaming at the same crying fat woman–two hours of fat hatred.
Sue Widemark on the Fat Activist Network describes this horrible program in a post entitled “Biggest loser video… open fat phobia?”
No reputable doctor can justify this sort of crash diet, and the pressure on contestants has nothing to do with health.
It also offers an opportunity for viewers to learn self-bashing tactics from the contestants, who are convinced that they were hopeless failures until weight loss. The program producers are well aware that they are providing role models for fat people in the audience when they tout it as “inspiring” as recent New York Times article points out.
Love Diet-Kool-Aid style is conditional on meeting impossible goals, not listening to what the body wants, and pushing the body beyond its limits. No wonder former fat activists who return to the diet lifestyle would like to also keep the warm and fuzzy body positive vibe of the fat acceptance community, even while sipping the Diet Kool-Aid.
(Debbie: Completely 100% agreed!)
All this led me to think about how the “Diet or Die” mindset can so easily be revived. Some years back when many cults were in flower, there was a movement toward deprogramming the religious cult brainwashing, which like dieting, uses peer pressure, repetition and magical thinking to undermine thinking ability and shape a person’s reality.
(Debbie: I would say that the contemporary conception of dieting involves peer pressure, repetition, and magical thinking, but that those things are not theoretically necessary to the idea, if the culture was less pathological. I also have been sorry for a long time that we use “diet” to equal “weight-loss diet,” when in fact there are dozens of other kinds of diets, none of which get any attention or awareness.)
I revisited some of those ideas wondering if there was a parallel between Diet Mindset brainwashing and kind used in cults. The main difference I noticed was isolation. Dieters are not separated from the society as a whole. Sadly, they are in perfect accord with the dominant cultural worldview.
So it doesn’t seem likely that the deprogramming tactics that helped people who have been in cults learn to start thinking for themselves again would work on the Diet or Die mindset.
I do still think it’s appropriate to call “Diet-or-Die” a cult in that it isolates us from reality. It encourages people to do non-healthful things in the name of “health.” The fact that a large percentage of Americans believe in the diet mindset saddens me, but belief, even by millions of people, does not make a lie true.
(Debbie:: A lie and a cult are two different things. While I deeply wish that the world was not diet-mad, we have to deal differently with a mass craziness that 90% of all American women (at least), as well as most men, the medical establishment, and the government have bought into than we would with a small extremist cult.)
Diet-or-Die is a society-wide delusion firmly maintained in open denial of the medical facts. One reason I think it has flourished is that the diet or die brainwashing fits like a key into a lock with the “Flesh Bad/Spirit Good” view that exists in many Eastern as well as Western religions. So it’s easy to think of “good” or “bad” or even “sinful” food.
Breaking out of a pre-conditioned mindset requires thinking, and learning how to think is not a simple or easy process. I can testify that for me it took years. My touchstone was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Crack-Up”, because he really describes how it felt:
“I was forced into a measure that no one ever adopts voluntarily: I was impelled to think. God, was it difficult! The moving about of great secret trunks. In the first exhausted halt, I wondered whether I had ever thought.”
The problem with dieting and trying to think at the same time is that restricting one’s food intake forces the body to constantly notify us of its hunger and trains us not to listen to our own bodies. It’s very hard to starve and think at the same time.
(Debbie says: I don’t think it’s either accurate or useful to define everyone who diets as “starving,” or to define everyone who is hungry as unable to think. Hunger is a complicated, rich mechanism which can make us stupid, make us sharp, make us spiritual, make us crazy. I think the problem is much more social than individual, and the difficulties with thinking around dieting can be laid more realistically at the door of social denial and the human need to be liked and wanted, which the culture so frequently denies to fat people.)
It’s also not easy to think clearly in a social environment where we are constantly told that our bodies are out of control and that we are about to drop dead simply because we are fat. To find refuge from this, many us have worked very hard to build pockets of body acceptance both private and shared. Small resting places in the midst of the red sea of body hatred that we live in. Supporting one another is sometimes literally a life saving act. We need the love.
This is a brilliant idea–young women bonding over body positive moments rather than sharing what they hate about their bodies or beating themselves up over what they just ate or didn’t eat. There do seem to be more peaceful islands nowadays, and I believe the fat acceptance movement can take credit for this.
As a fat activist, I don’t want to burn bridges with someone who may need fat acceptance big time when the latest diet has run its course. But I can’t bring myself to praise or support the behavior of someone who has gone back to drink the Diet Kool-Aid. I’d rather save my energy to help turn over the vat where it’s mixed and empty it out on the ground so it cannot poison more.
(Debbie: Again yes. To go back to my original point, though, I think there’s a long distance between deciding not to praise or support someone, or even deciding not to listen to someone, and making a flat statement that the individual choice that they are making is either definitionally stupid or definitionally wrong. Health at Every Size has to be just that. Lynne, I hope you’ll respond in comments and we can carry this dialogue further.)