Tag Archives: Tom Wolfe

When the Scales Fell from My Eyes

Lynne Murray says:

Humans learn best by stories and attractive examples. We inhabit these stories as if they were real. Sometimes the stories we tell ourselves and live by give us strength and sometimes they can be elegant little capsules that contain poison. Example, “He shoots, he scores” and “Love conquers all” could be the inner narratives on two sides of a doomed relationship.

In the past few weeks, I could not escape exposure to the television promos for this season’s edition of The Biggest Loser. They tell a vicious story: sneering “personal trainers” gleefully rubbing their hands together at the chance to kick some fat butt and luring viewers with the prospect of feeling self-righteous while watching prejudice in action.

I think the show should have the guts to reveal its real agenda and call itself Shaming Fat People—A School for Bullies. But the title dispenses its poison with deft skill. “Loser” is an extremely potent insult in our success-worshipping society.

Even more excruciating than watching the bullies in the bullpen warming up are the internalized fat-hating monologues by hopeful contestants yearning to go from “big losers” also known as total failures, to “winners” also known as those who have lost enough weight to redeem themselves from the abject misery and humiliation of life in a fat body.

The continued popularity of The Biggest Loser means that it must reflect the current mainstream beliefs about fat and how the only possible redemption must come through extreme dieting and painful physical exercise ordeals.

I used to buy into a similar mindset, and when I say “buy” I mean exactly that: to invest a horrifying percentage of my cash, energy, and actions in the effort to bring my body down to an “acceptable” size. Watching even a few seconds of that vile television program set me to thinking about how I managed to get out of that mindset.

There was no one exact moment when the scales fell from my eyes, as the Free Dictionary describes so aptly:

If the scales fall from someone’s eyes, they are suddenly able to understand the truth: When I saw his photograph in the paper, the scales fell from my eyes and I realized I’d been conned.”

Strangely enough the solution to my delusion had its roots in the way I pursued it, as taught by my family.

Before my parents even met, my father, a bombardier in the US Army Air Corps, was shot down over Germany and spent several months in a Nazi prisoner of war camp. This experience helped shape his life in three ways. First he learned in his early twenties the fragility of any life situation—one minute flying high, two hours later, wounded on the ground, getting interrogated by the Gestapo. He always told me growing up that he wanted me “to learn to use yourself as a resource” and that has been invaluable.

The second way it influenced him–and our family–was the continuing connection with the military self-control-based culture that persisted even when my father worked as a civilian scientist for the military. When I read Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, I instantly recognized the mindset that I grew up with. As Wolfe puts it on page 49: “[The pilot’s] main psychological bulwark under stress was his knowledge that he controlled the ship and could always do something.”

The third way all our lives were affected, which I’ve only recently understood, was the physiological reality that starving in a prison camp for several months left my father unusually thin for a few years afterward, compared to his naturally stocky build. I can now see how extreme food deprivation at a young age contributed to his lifelong tendency to easily gain weight, and a lifelong quest for diets that would resolve a problem that gave him one more disadvantage to overcome when dealing with hyper-macho military personnel. When I was nine a doctor handed me my first diet sheet (along with a prescription for amphetamines, which my parents let me stop taking when the pills made me nervous). Our family began to try various diets together.

What I’ll call my father’s “Right Stuff” approach to dieting, like his approach to so much else in life, become my own. Wolfe describes the test pilot culture at Edwards Air Force Base in The Right Stuff:

…you had to be “afraid to panic” and that phrase was no joke. In the skids, the tumbles, the spins, there was, truly, as Saint-Exupery had said, only one thing you could let yourself think about: What do I do next? Sometimes at Edwards they used to play the tapes of pilots going into the final dive, the one that killed them, and the man would be tumbling going end over end in a fifteen-ton length of pipe with all aerodynamics long gone and not one prayer left, and he knew it, and he would be screaming into the microphone not for Mother or for God or for the Nameless Spirit of Ahor, but for one last crumb of information about the loop: “I’ve tried A! I’ve tried B! I’ve tried C! I’ve tried D! Tell me what else I can try!” And then that truly spooky click on the machine. What do I do next? … And everybody around the table would look at one another and nod ever so slightly, and the unspoken message was: Too bad! There was a man with the right stuff. p. 49

Our family tried several diets over the years and I tried more diets and various support groups after I moved out on my own. Every one of these efforts resulted in zero to few dozen pounds lost and more eventually regained. But I didn’t start to question the process until 1979 when I began to shuffle some fat positive literature into my reading starting with Susie Orbach’s Fat is a Feminist Issue, and, in the 1980s, BBW Magazine and Radiance Magazine .

The scales didn’t fall away from my eyes all at once, but the scale in my bathroom went into the trash when I realized that the very process of obsessing over a number on a scale and restricting the food I ate made me crazy. For awhile I thought I had a compulsive eating disorder because my diets were interrupted by binge episodes when I would eat the “forbidden” things I had been trying to avoid while dieting.

Reading Geneen Roth’s Feeding the Hungry Heart, helped me realized that once I stopped denying my body what it wanted to eat, my body in turn stopped demanding the very “bad” foods that I had informed it would never be available again. For me the change was almost immediate. As soon as I stopped dieting, I stopped bingeing.

But that didn’t make it okay to gain weight. And I began to gained weight after I stopped that 20-year dieting career.

To my mind both Orbach and Roth’s work have a dangerous flaw: they essentially suggest that once someone stops dieting the body will “find its own natural weight.” They strongly hint that the body’s “natural weight” will be lower. The idea that one might gain weight after giving up dieting was too horrific to contemplate, so they ignore the possibility. I had to give up dieting because I just couldn’t live that way anymore. But I didn’t feel good about gaining weight.

I began to go back and forth, reading BBW Magazine and wondering “could it be okay to be fat? No. Not possible.” Then, finally in 1985, I read a book by Nancy Roberts, whom I just learned passed away last March. Breaking All the Rules, now sadly out of print but available used, is a big, gorgeous book about the experience of a big, gorgeous woman who stopped dieting, accepted herself as she was–fat–and fantastic.

When I saw a big woman who refused to be confined by anyone else’s idea of what she should be, what she should do, or even what she should wear, I stopped longing for the impossible, stopped wondering what I could be if I were not what I am.

The scales finally did fall away from my eyes and I was free to see exploring who I would be if I owned myself as I am.