Laurie Toby Edison

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Singing the Diet Talk Blues … Reading Your Way Out

Lynne Murray says:

What is the diet talk blues? How is The Fat Studies Reader like a box of chocolates? How (and when) can a book rescue you? Bear with me and I’ll tell you.

Over the holidays in the dining room of an assisted living facility my friends overheard two elderly women at a nearby table discussing how they had gone off their diets during the holidays and needed to watch what they ate to get on track.

My friend said, “They’re in their late 80s, why can’t they just relax and enjoy their food?”

Her husband said, “They’re not talking, they’re singing together.”

His insight made me think about how ritualized diet talk is, even though it’s spoken rather than sung, it is much closer to song than speech and I realized a lot of the anxious and sorrowful feeling that holidays can evoke may be drowned by post-holiday diet talk.

People sing sometimes to cheer themselves up (I know I do) and rather than think about all the emotional issues some people sing the old familiar diet songs to reassure themselves. We all know the lyrics of these songs, not that the actual words matter much:

Don’t know why there’s no sun up in the sky,
Gotta diet
Since the holidays I’ve run riot
Seems like I’m falling way behind….

Apologies to Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler

Interrupting someone’s diet talk duet with a non-diet health suggestion would get you the same reaction you would get if you tried to strike up a conversation with people singing a duet. They would regard it as a rude interruption.

I also realized that these two elderly women were bonding by turning to a ritual conversation over the shared frustration of a virtually impossible task, which they have been conditioned to believe is essential.

Many, possibly most, people spend much more time exchanging highly ritualized verbal “songs” to themselves and others. The “gotta diet” talk often functions as a kind of social cement based on agreeing with the Hallelujah chorus of popular opinion that”fat is bad,” “losing weight is necessary” and “dieting makes you healthy.”

There are just a few windows of opportunity to accept new information before the songs become a substitute for thinking. Youth is one time when minds can be opened to think.

I hope to see more and more young people questioning the lies that have served us all so poorly. That spark of hope burned brighter when I heard about The Fat Studies Reader and Fat Studies conferences and programs such as the one at San Diego State University. Here’s a quotation from:

Advocates say the field reached a tipping point in 2006, when three national conferences addressed fat studies.
“It’s a field that believes all people should be treated with respect, regardless of body size,” said Esther Rothblum, a San Diego State University professor who is considered a leading scholar in the field….


“People are suffering terribly due to weight prejudice,” said Sondra Solovay, a San Francisco attorney who co-edited
The Fat Studies Reader. “Weight prejudice can mask many other forms of prejudice that we already consider to be undesirable,” Solovay said, noting that many employers discriminate against heavy people who are also minorities, lesbians, women and elderly. “What difference does a number of a scale make when we’re talking about civil rights?”

Here’s one more reason I rejoice to see The Fat Studies Reader and fat studies being taught at colleges and universities–scholarly folks (and students who want to get good grades) will actually read the research that backs up each essay. Reading footnotes is like varsity sport in higher education and critical thinking is their job.

When university scholars stop, read the footnotes and actually think about scientific data and things like the sociological and psychological effects of prejudice, they can present the evidence to their students and encourage them to think as well.

Footnotes are optional for those who, like me, only occasionally read them. John Barrymore is famous for saying that reading footnotes was like going downstairs to answer the door while making love. However, I found a link that suggests it may have been Noel Coward who said that. They may both have said it–and this link, the computer equivalent of a footnote is optional

The irrepressible Marilyn Wann, who wrote a rousing Foreword to The Fat Studies Reader, told me the book is “Like a box of chocolates, each one has a different yummy filling.” Okay, I wasn’t taking notes, I do recall that she said “yummy” it’s the kind of word I could imagine her using. But if she didn’t say it, I will. Thought-provoking and yummy. A rare combination

Aside from civil rights issues, medical myth-busting, access and gender-related issues, The Fat Studies Reader also delves into popular cultural portrayals of fat people in books, movies and television. Other essays describe unique challenges faced by fat people in employment, dating, health care and out on the street in real life in a wide range of social contexts.

It’s a very accessible book, sometimes entertaining, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes enraging. I love that the Judy Freespirit and Aldebaran’s 1973 Fat Liberation Manifesto is included as Appendix A!

See what I mean? Like a box of chocolates, and yet strangely empowering.

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