Wednesday, March 09, 2011

On not worrying about it

I can't have been the only one struck less by the particularities of the weight-loss plan discussed here than by the obvious unsuitability of some of its adherents and would-bes for any weight-loss plan, especially one this radical. One woman who considered but ultimately decided against the regimin "is 5-foot-3 and 130 pounds, but said she hoped to shed 20 pounds in time to be a bridesmaid at an April wedding." Just, just... it would be Bridezilla enough if a not-even-heavy-to-begin-with woman wanted to become underweight or the low range of normal, not sure precisely where that falls, for her own wedding. But this is for someone else's! And good grief, she's not even fat! As a fellow short woman, I know that even a few extra (or fewer) pounds can show, but a 20-pound, experimental-diet-induced weight-loss on an already-small person is, in the medical opinion of this French-lit PHD student, not a wise idea.

An even less wise idea: Another woman who did sign up "said she was thrilled to lose six pounds in seven days, and hopeful about reaching her goal of losing 30, which would bring her close to her ideal weight of 135 [at 5'8"]. She said she did not feel hungry and did not obsess about food as she had years ago, when suffering from anorexia." Emphasis mine, but also emphasis implicitly added by anyone with a brain who got through that paragraph. It's obviously a brilliant idea to put people who used to be anorexic on a 500-calorie-a-day diet.

I realize it's not that simple, and that female eating in our society is pretty much disordered-by-default, but it would be all kinds of fantastic if women could do the following:

Step 1: Assess if they are, medically speaking, overweight enough for it to be a concern. If so, and if they're concerned about it, by all means they can look into (sensible) diet and exercise modifications. If not...

Step 2: Assess the likelihood that they will ever be ballet dancers, models, gymnasts, or ingenue actresses. (Hint: if you're over 18, that ship has sailed. Same goes for most under-18s as well, of course.) If yes, they stand to benefit in the form of money and glory if they stay thinner than otherwise necessary. If not...

Step 3: Assess whether anything whatsoever in their lives would be better if they went down a size or lost 10 pounds. And, for women in this category, who are not up for roles in "Black Swan II: The Even Skinnier Version," life would most definitively not be better at a smaller size. Yes, society penalizes women for being large. Yes, it rewards (a tiny subset of) beautiful young girls for being very thin. What it does not do is treat differently a within-normal-limits adult woman who wears a 4 and another who wears an 8.

What's left, then, is a woman who realizes she's been dieting for its own sake, because that's what women do, because it's fun to be able to fit into some arbitrarily-sized pants.

To be clear, the alternative is not to declare it noble and righteous to ignore all nutritional science, to live off foods with "Reese's" written on them, and to be blissfully indifferent to major weight fluctuations. There's a point at which not-caring veers over into something as unhealthy as caring too much, and that point is hard to pin down. I suppose what I'm getting at is that there's on the one hand the issue of people - men and women both - who arguably, for health reasons, have reason to be concerned, and on the other a whole lot of women who are, in a sense, worrying a whole lot about what is essentially a health concern they don't have. This results in a society in which "diet" (or all the various euphemisms that amount to the same thing) becomes not merely something for someone who by some not-unreasonable standard needs to lose weight, but the default attitude of women of all sizes.

I have more to say about this, but am having trouble articulating it further, so if commenters have thoughts...


X.Trapnel said...

Something tells me--perhaps the comparison to heroin addicts in the very first sentence--that the article was written to provoke. Not that there's anything wrong with that!

The idea of a 500-cal diet just seems shocking to me.

I hadn't been following up on the Manny Ramirez drug test, so I'm pleased to have learned what was up with that. I do think he--among many other baseball players--could probably stand to lose a few pounds. That's actually always surprised me, how baseball players often don't seem in such great shape.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Yes, the diet seems shocking. Less to me because I'd already seen an article defending it in some fashion mag, but yes, the ostensible point was, what a crazy diet. However, the real story, as far as I'm concerned, was that these were not even women who ought to be on diets to begin with.

James said...

I think there are ideas around youth here, as well, in that a 130-pound person who weighed 115 in some (perceived) heyday will attach importance to that number etc. Should this be true, then almost everyone over 20 (or choose another age) will have these concerns about not being as slim as they once were, regardless of how slim they might be at present.

This is unlikely to be a new insight.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


True enough. This is also, unfortunately, at least as much the case for 16-year-olds who no longer have the bodies they did at 12. But men seem capable of weighing more at 30 than 20 without devoting huge amounts of energy and worry to undoing that. I'm not sure what this point, though well-taken, changes.

Andrew Stevens said...

Guys who live by their hitting in baseball don't need to be in very good shape. Hitting is mostly about reflexes, hand-eye coordination, and quick wrists. Strength helps, but not nearly as much as people think, and mass is almost as good. Plus, you can take hours and hours of batting practice every day and not actually burn off that many calories so practicing isn't even helping keep you in shape. You can't build an entire team around big, fat guys who can hit home runs, but every team has room for one or two.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Britta wrote, Blogger ate:

I wondered if you were going to write a post on this article. I wonder if the normal sized but want to be tiny women add to the ridiculousness of it all. It reminds me of this lipo article I read about skinny people who got body parts liposuctioned, including a former model who thought her knees were too fat (whatever that means).

In terms of the actual diet, I had an ectopic pregnancy that was terminated at around 8 weeks, and my two month experience with HCG hormones is that my main pregnancy symptom was a 5-7 lb weight gain/bloat, almost entirely in my breasts, abdomen, and hips, kind of like bc pills/pms on steroids that lasted for weeks. The weight disappeared only when HCG completely left my system. I know every woman is different, but since pregnant women are supposed to put on weight and store fat, I guess I would be skeptical that my experience was all that untypical, or that HCG would cause weight loss, especially from the hip/thigh area. I mean, you could probably be injected with weight gain hormones and still lose tons of weight on a 500 cal diet, because that is a non-sustainable starvation diet.

I once read on a fat acceptance blog about the fantasy of being thin, and how many people assume that when they lose weight, they will magically do all the things they don't/won't/can't do now and their lives will be perfect. I wonder if the fact that for most people, the very thin women they see are famous models and actresses, there's a bit of a blur, where thin gets associated with a glamorous, wealthy lifestyle. Like, "oh, if I were a size 0, I would do yoga and vacation in St. Tropez." Without realizing that Jennifer Aniston could be a size 26 (well, at this point in her life), and still do everything she does, because she is incredibly wealthy and doesn't ever need to work again for a living. There also seems to be a conflation with "very thin" and stunningly beautiful, but working your way to the former does not lead to, and often detracts from, the second. If Angelina Jolie gained 30 lbs, my guess is she'd still be a sex symbol.

On a slightly different topic, what percentage of women steadily gain weight pre-childbearing years? I know women go through puberty differently, but I weigh less than I did 10 years ago, through no particular effort on my part, and I feel it was how I went through puberty. I'm only 28, so maybe my body will change in my 30s, but certainly my weight has not increased in my 20s. I'm skeptical that it's part of the the whole "common wisdom" toted by conservative men that as women become toothless old hags past 25, they also put on weight, but I don't want to be like one of those assholes who thinks menstrual cramps are a lie made up by big pharma, or the 1 women in the world with no cellulite and is like, "oh, women don't have that," if that is actually the experience of a majority of women.

Amber said...


A steady weight gain through the 20s is probably quite easy ... 10 pounds or so in college, then a sedentary desk job. Then maybe metabolism downshifts a bit and things go further downhill. I was on this path before moving back to a walkable city and getting a set of personal trainer sessions. Also, BCP can play a role, and many women spend their 20s on those.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I'm sorry you had to deal with that. It must be extra absurd for you to then read about these injections being part of a diet plan!

What you say re: the fat acceptance blog... It's partly right, especially the conflation of "thin" with "thin supermodel," but I think it's a bit disingenuous to claim (not that this is you claiming it) that one's life would not improve if one went from morbidly obese to "normal" or even just pudgy. It is stigmatized to be very overweight, and there are health consequences once you reach a certain point. My point is more that there are a whole lot of women (not just UMC ones, lest the FWP-brigade get all dismissive of this as a snooty-people problem) who are already thin enough that they in no way stand to benefit if they lose any weight, for whom the consequences of doing so or trying will be crankiness, a general sunken look, or worse.

Like Amber says, sitting at a desk all day leads to weight gain. However, this is often counteracted by the fact that people in their 20s, esp early 20s, tend to be on the dating market and thus taking measures to counteract that. My guess would be that the people who both enter the workforce and marry at 22 would gain that weight, but I'm not even sure the tiny bit of anecdotal evidence I have for that demog. supports this.

Britta said...

Thanks for the sympathy. It was many months ago and kind of a freak occurrence, and by now it feels less traumatic than it might sound. For me, using HCG is as a diet aid just kind of funny, like if someone told me they were starting high dose BCP to lose weight, or something. Or, true story, I know a girl who took up running because she thought her calves were too big.

On weight, I guess I was thinking of more of somewhat overweight/not thin, rather than morbidly obese. You're right that there's a difference between 400 lbs and 150 lbs, in terms of health and social stigma, etc., but not between a size 8 and a size 4, or especially a size 4 and a size 0 (or even, probably, a size 16/18 and a size 4, in terms of job discrimination/finding dates, etc). I also think that high fashion is so unrelatable to women that someone who is a size 0 and not 6 feet tall will still feel short and fat and flabby looking at models, so it's not like being really thin in everyday life terms even helps there. Although I think "health at every size" and not shaming/discriminating against fat people to be good things, I do find the claim that a morbidly obese woman is just as healthy as a thin woman claim to be unpersuasive, especially when these very same people making that claim blog about being unable to walk up stairs without stopping, or have to use a scooter to travel distances of a mile, etc.

There's the Naomi Wolf idea that dieting is a way for men to keep women from focusing on taking over the world, which always sounded a little paranoid to me, but there might be some truth to the thought that the amount of time women spend worrying about their weight could be used for better, more interesting things. I would say "diet companies/food companies" rather than "men" though, would be responsible.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


"I would say "diet companies/food companies" rather than "men" though, would be responsible."

Agreed that it's not men, unless what's meant by "men" is "CEOs of diet companies and fashion houses." Most men would probably prefer a girlfriend or wife a size or two bigger than one who has washboard abs but only keeps salad in the house, makes a fuss when ordering in restaurants, and talks about how fat she is all the time.

Britta said...

Oh, Phoebe & Amber,
All that makes sense. In terms of college, I know the "freshman 15" is pretty much part of the culture, though it depends I guess on how women react to cafeteria-style eating and whether or not they're totally done with puberty at 18. (e.g. My sister was a stick until about 19, when she suddenly developed a curvy figure, whereas I pretty much developed my full shape at 17, and then lost a few lbs of baby fat as I aged, ending college weighing maybe slightly less than I began it. One roommate put on prob. 15 lbs over college, another lost about 15, partly eating disorder related, and my third roommate was about the same, so no definite pattern).

It does make sense, as metabolism slows as we get older, and being active gets harder, that over time people gain weight, but I guess what I've always objected to is the assumption we were all waifish teenage nymphs who have matured into voluptuous women. My puberty trajectory was: pudgy, skinny, pudgy-ish, skinny-ish, and certainly would NOT say my teenage years were my peak of beauty, unless being awkward, geeky, and wearing stunningly ill-fitting clothes are considered attractive.

I also wonder if there isn't something slightly self defeating about the idea of inevitable weight gain. Not that every woman should dream of fitting into her cheerleading costume or wedding dress her whole life, but are we really supposed to add 10 lbs per decade every year? That's a 40 lb weight gain between 20 and 60, which seems a bit much. it more, 10 lbs here, 10 there, and maybe you hit 60 20 lbs heavier?

Finally, I read once that a woman gains, on average, 9 lbs in her first year of marriage, since she is now cooking & eating with her husband. I wonder if that is also true of people who cohabit before marriage--is it more eating with a guy, or a sense one doesn't have to maintain one's single appearance?

Ok, I feel like I'm monopolizing the conversation with random navel gazing, so I'll shut up now.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


There probably are stats for how much weight is gained at different ages, and yes, it probably is good to say it's fine to get heavier with age, but not fantastic if it's a pound per year for all of adulthood.

I think the really important point you raise, though, is that one's teen years - and I'd say it's true even if they're one's skinniest - are not often one's most attractive. The culture tends to conflate the people who look great as teens and thus become models or actresses with some kind of general-femlae- population attractiveness peak around 17. Meanwhile, high school yearbooks! Most people do not look good at that age!

X.Trapnel said...

"Though it depends I guess on how women react to cafeteria-style eating" - I suspect "college-style drinking" is also a factor here, and not only for women.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

X. Trapnel,

"I suspect "college-style drinking" is also a factor here, and not only for women."

Only for women insofar as only women, generally speaking, care about what large quantities of beer do to a physique. If one compared the amount of time this was discussed in an average fraternity vs an average sorority...

Britta said...

This is an interesting article on weight gain:

"Previous studies suggested that Americans gain an average of 0.4 to 1.8 pounds each year during their adult lives."

Rachel @ Musings of an Inappropriate Woman said...

"I guess what I've always objected to is the assumption we were all waifish teenage nymphs who have matured into voluptuous women."

Ha! Me too, Britta. I weigh about the same right now as I did when I was 15. Which some people gasp at, but is really indicative of the fact that I was neither a particularly lithe 15-year-old, nor a particularly large 28-year-old.

Britta said...

Heh, that pretty much describes me as well...small for a 28 year old, not super tiny as a 17 year old.

X. Trapnei, et. al.
Thinking about college weight gain, I wonder how much the drinking age has to do with this? I don't know a lot about high school drinking statistics, but if young women don't really start drinking until college, then the binge drinking + not understanding that sugary drinks have a million calories each would make a bigger impact than they might elsewhere, or at least affect 20 year olds instead of 16 year olds. Also, since it seems like students elsewhere still live at home, the difference in eating & drinking habits between high school and college would be slight, so a noticeable weight gain would be less common.

PG said...

The use of this diet by anyone sounds foolish, and by the former anorexic sounds like a medical malpratice case waiting to happen. However, on the other end of the spectrum: '“The average person is going to eat 1,800 to 3,000 calories,” said Kristen Smith, a bariatric surgery dietitian at Montefiore Medical Center.'

That might be true for the average person who ends up needing bariatric surgery, but it sounds all wrong compared to the 2000 calorie/day assumption on which the FDA RDA labeling is done.

Also, I disagree with the general consensus in this post and comments that there's no social difference in being a size 4 versus a size 8 for women who are short (5'3 or less). That's enough of a weight difference that it can show up even in how round your face is, as well as in the size of other body parts. There are social rewards to being perceived as "slim" as opposed to merely "average."

I do, however, agree with the consensus that one's teenage years may not have been one's thinnest and/or most attractive.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


"There are social rewards to being perceived as "slim" as opposed to merely "average.""

I'm curious what you think those rewards are. I don't doubt that the difference is visible, most of all to the woman herself, and that it's standard for people, women especially, to be upset when pants no longer close. But on the dating market, for example, depending where the weight falls, the extra pounds that get a woman up to "average" could end up helping more than hurting. In terms of stigmatization of the overweight, this isn't going to be an issue, nor is obesity as a class signifier. I mean, the idea that a not-even-fat woman will become more attractive the thinner she gets is pretty pervasive, but I think inaccurate if you go by how, to those other than the woman herself - who is, again, happy to see lower numbers on sizes and scales - see her. When what really happens is, a woman whose not-worrying-about-it weight is average will, if at a lower weight, be worrying constantly about maintaining that, be hungry and cranky, etc.

(Another issue is what it means to be a size 8 under 5'3" - depends how much under, and how much vanity sizing, so this could either be "average" or significantly larger. It's possible that a woman short enough, in a size that sounds not so big, could actually experience negative social or even health consequences for being overweight.)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


One more thing - there's also the question of age, and the famous adage about how at a certain point, a woman has to choose between her ass and her face. As in, past a certain age, they say, thin looks sunken and is, in fact, aging. A 4 might get more attention than an 8 at 25, but the reverse might well be true at 55.

Also - yes, there are societal advantages to being attractive. But someone within normal limits, at slightly different weights, looks more or less the same. It takes more than a couple dress sizes to go between penalized-for-unattractiveness, normal-limits, and spokesmodel.

PG said...

I'm thinking of clothing sizing as it's done in places like Old Navy, not couture sizing (which currently seems to be about 2 or 3 sizes higher than the Old Navy sort). So a size 8 at 5'3 is not at all obese, but it's at the tipping point between "normal" and "overweight," whereas a size 4 is solidly in "normal but not underweight."

I'd say that thinness in itself is treated as a kind of virtue.

(1) Particularly among women, it's assumed to be a proxy for disciplined eating/exercise habits, and many powerful people, including our former president, openly judge others in part on whether they appear to have such habits. (

(2) This is getting outside American social norms, but Indian marriage ads (including those for expatriate or hyphenated Indians) commonly describe a woman's ideal appearance as being both "slim" and "fair."

(3) Beyond getting pants to close, a size 8 edges close to the size territory where some manufacturers' clothing doesn't exist to fit you. ( Everyone makes clothes to fit a 4.

Size 4 to 8, as you note, isn't a massive jump in pounds even on a small woman -- perhaps 10 lbs will suffice. I'd take stronger issue with Britta's assertion that there's no difference between "probably, a size 16/18 and a size 4, in terms of job discrimination/ finding dates, etc." Personal observation of some family and friends, who range widely in size yet are much more similar in other factors (socioeconomic status, educational accomplishment, social eptness) goes very much against that.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I don't know what "couture" sizing even means, given that that refers to hand-stitched, made-to-order clothing. I figured we were talking, well, chains. (I don't know much vanity-sizing has impacted high-end, but would guess not so much.)

No idea re: the particulars of what's meant re: "slim" in Indian marriage ads. But in the American dating world, "slim" is, I think, a euphemism for "don't worry, I'm not fat." So a size 8 could use that term and not be stretching the truth.

As for size availability... fine, some hotpants aimed at especially confident teens only go up to a 6. I don't think size-8 women have trouble finding clothes, especially if we're being consistent and still talking about the normal chains where most people shop. Size four, yes, is everywhere, but anything smaller sells out instantly in any part of NY with a wealthy or likely-to-be-slim immigrant population. The very petite-all-around may fit into more as in can close more zippers, but for stuff to fit properly, you want to be whatever is closest to the middle of what stores sell, and in a neighborhood where that middle size is not the most popular.

And, as for what happens at 16/18... Probably depends a good amount where you live. But PG, I agree with you that, in NY at least, in many if not all demographics, this would make dating, at least, more challenging.

Britta said...

I will admit to being totally ignorant of what being size 16/18 is like, and possibly completely wrong. I was just thinking that being a little chubby probably doesn't hurt people's actual life experiences as much as they imagine it does, in that (in my experience) there are plenty of men who like women on the chunky side, and no one isn't going to hire you because they think you will keel over in 3 months, etc. Maybe that's more like a 10/12 (or 8 for short women) than a 16/18? Of course, I don't live in a particularly image conscious part of the US, nor am I in a field where looks are all that important (though, I do imagine obese people are still subjected to class stigma in academia, I can't really recall ever having an obese professor), so maybe being slim provides tangible benefits over being average in some circumstances beyond the modeling world. I'd also say, outside of modeling, at a certain point thinness becomes counterproductive, when it passes from slim into skeletal, and things like shiny hair and good skin take precedence over losing 5 more pounds.

All I can say is being more on the extreme other side, wearing a coveted pants size is not all that it's cracked up to be in terms of personal and professional success & one's body image, and it is a huge PITA to find clothes that fit.