Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Against "naturally fat" UPDATED, TWICE!

As all Daily Mail readers know, there are certain... categories of article that must appear on every online front page, generally having to do with the (pasty) female body. Some celebrity must look "worryingly thin." Some step-daughter of a B-list celebrity or obscure British aristocrat must be drugged-out in some capacity. There will be shocking revelations about 50-year-old A-list celebrities with cellulite.

Another such category is "skinny woman eats." This is not, let me be clear, like when emaciated models explain that they live on cheeseburgers. No, it's when a woman who is slim-to-average is revealed to eat normal food. Or suspected of doing so. As an on-the-small-side but still too-big-to-be-a-dancer-model-gymnast-ingenue-actress sort myself, no I don't find it strange that a woman could eat tacos or bread and not require a crane to get out of her house, which is, let's face it, what the paper's implying. Why should we be shocked that women of unremarkable proportions have unremarkable diets? (OK, Sofia Vergara's proportions are remarkable, but not in a way that suggests she abstains from tacos.)

If this were merely an issue of tabloids being tabloids, we'd need to segue here into a discussion of what, if anything, these articles tell us about the society in which they emerge. But that level of analysis isn't where we need to go first, because I suspect that most women have experienced just-a-salad-ism. The assumption, that is, that the default for women who care even an average amount about their looks is lettuce-only. Maybe celery. But god forbid carbs. The expression, 'ooh, I'm so bad' may be summoned if a bagel really must be consumed.

I remember this from my long-ago office-worker days, but also from more recently, when a woman behind me on line to pay at the City Bakery in NY, a woman of about my own dimensions, started oohing and ahhing at the cookies (I'd just ordered one, but was experiencing guilt... because the thing cost $3), and then told me that it was OK for me to get a cookie, because I'd gotten less at the salad bar (which is not all salads) than she had. And I wanted to be like, look, the salad bar price here is nearly twice what it is at Whole Foods (because it's basically a restaurant with a salad-bar theme), and if I weren't feeling like such a grad student, if I hadn't just paid $33 round-trip plus Metrocards to get to NY in the first place, if I weren't carefully measuring what I put on my plate so that it would add up to under $6, I'd have gone with a trough. A trough and a cookie. I wanted to tell her, it's OK for me not to be neurotic about food, at least no more than the minimum legal requirement for women who grew up in the part of Manhattan I did. But I had a meeting with a professor that was more urgent than lecturing a random stranger on Body Image 101, so off I went, cookie in hand and, as I approached the meeting, mouth.

But this - the pathologization, tabooification, let me think of a real word... "stigmatization" is not quite what I'm looking for,  of utterly unremarkable food consumption, assuming the one chowing down is a woman - is a problem for so many reasons, such as:

-It's yet another way in which the female body is defined as forever in need of improvement. Near-inevitable features of postadolescents (hips, cellulite, "curves" anywhere but on the chest) defined as "problem areas." Even thin women - thin women especially - are expected to carefully monitor their weight. Women do not have the luxury of looking in the mirror, noting that they don't have a weight problem (let alone that they do and don't care), and not worrying about their bodies. All women must assume they are "naturally fat," as it were, that consumption of such indulgences as breakfast, lunch, and dinner... that this will probably happen most of the time, but that we should feel bad about it. So there's on the one hand the pressure on women who are actually heavy, or who would be but for very strict diet-and-exercise programs. And on the other, the fact that there's not a woman in our society who hasn't been told that she's on the verge of entering that marginalized caste if she orders the linguine.

-It encourages annoying behavior, more specifically, claims of "natural" thinness. More specifically, it encourages someone who eats a bowl of pasta almost every night for dinner, yet is not overweight, to claim a really fast metabolism. When, if you think about it, if you're eating three meals a day, not snacking, not a nervous eater, and not unusually-metabolism'd in either direction, you may not be thin in the sense that if the Daily Mail took a picture of you in swimsuit from the back, there'd be nothing for them to snark at, but it's not so strange that you wouldn't be heavy. I mean, it's not strange that there'd be variation - different women, like different men, would be different sizes on a "normal" diet. Given that up until very recently, very few people anywhere were obese, and I'm not talking about just times/places of extreme deprivation, it seems unlikely that the "natural" set point for virtually all women is "fat," unless we're defining as "fat" anyone the Daily Mail wouldn't call "worryingly thin." But what ends up happening is, women who choose to eat "normally" end up seeming as though they wish to flaunt some kind of metabolic privilege. And sometimes there are women who do wish to do just that, and who point at their having had a sandwich for lunch as evidence that despite eating like "the guys," they maintain their dainty feminine physiques. Argh.

-It ends up, paradoxically, contributing to obesity or, if you prefer, ill health, neurotic weight issues. 'Just a salad' is inevitably followed by 'just an entire desk-drawer full of Skittles.' I know, I worked in an office. Whereas a normal-food lunch - and I'm not even talking Michael Pollan, Real Food, whole grains, "good" fats, but just something like a slice or two of pizza or a sandwich - has at least a fighting chance of keeping you full until dinner. But real food at lunch is something men do. And, maybe the much-maligned Euro-fetishizing food movement does have something to each us here. In parts of Italy (not to mention Frahnce), you'll see thin women eating normal lunches, because yogurt-as-lunch never really caught on. Presumably the normal lunch does something to prevent bingeing later, or a metabolism slowing down, or what do I know, I'm in the humanities. But I'm pro-lunch.

-Finally, I'm going to tie in the Rhoda Morgenstern, Grace Adler, and Liz Lemon question: what's with all the slim sitcom stars portrayed as "cows"? What, other than misogyny? Other than the fact that female characters who are fat are typically portrayed, confusingly enough, by thin actresses? The hint of truth is that women who eat meals yet are not obese are, if not to the extent or in the same way as women who are actually large, seen as transgressing norms of femininity. Unapologetic meal-consumption is seen as a statement that one is not living every moment in fear of becoming fat. Horrors! So with these characters, there's on the one hand an element of realism (slim women do eat food), and on the other ample opportunities for apology.


Via Scott Lemieux, oh-so-sound advice from a publication called "Good": go on one of those BS juice fasts. Because it's good to starve yourself, at least if you're a woman. (Men have important things to do and aren't bothering being Good.) It's part of a series that is, I suspect, intended to discredit every Lululemon-and-Whole-Foods-going type for all eternity. A day without chemicals? Watching lentils sprout in a mason jar? Watching organic/sustainable paint dry? Some targets are just too easy.


Today I had the good fortune to have a million practical things to do in NY, and because of peculiarities of the shuttle schedule, I ended up on an early train, which meant flan. Next to me were two undergrads from the nearby college. Much discussion about how "bad" they are. Hard drugs? The notorious hook-up culture? Nah. One of them has a "sweet tooth." So does the other. They continued for some time about how awful it is that they eat the junk their guy friends keep around. These young women are bad. As a perceptive reader may have guessed, what they were not was overweight. This is, needless to say, not the preferred background accompaniment to flan-consumption, but so it goes. (The preferred accompaniment is, one is outside, in gorgeous weather, in Paris, with one's poodle).


PG said...

The metabolism thing really can be compared only by looking at two people of about the same age and height who eat similar diets and exercise similarly. I wouldn't be surprised if Chris Christie actually consumes no more calories than Obama, but spends far less time working out. (The last thanks-for-your-donation "gift" I got from the DNC was a picture of Obama running around the White House lawn with his dog. I am thinking that Christie donors will not see such an image.)

Some people do have faster metabolism than others. I've lived with women of roughly the same age and height as myself, and even when we're getting about the same food and exercise, some women end up heavier than I do and some end up lighter. Further peculiarity that's probably beyond the Daily Mail's scientific ken: some will end up heavier than I but carrying a lower percentage of body fat (which means that in the technical sense of obesity, they are less obese than I).

I don't know about Rhoda, but in my limited viewing of "Will & Grace" and my fairly complete viewing of "30 Rock," I didn't get the impression that Grace or Liz was being portrayed as a "cow." Their eating was treated more as transgressive than as terribly fattening, both because of their milieus (especially for Liz as someone working in entertainment) but more overtly because of their choice of foodstuffs. It's not like Liz generally is teased for over-consuming the sort of foods that Jack would eat and that presumably contribute to his middle-aged heft: steaks, fine wine, fancy cheese. Instead, she eats cheap, junky food. So there's a class element as well.

Anyway, Grace and Liz seem to be standard on lists of characters who are "skinny gluttons," not characters who are called fat while being played by thin actresses.

Britta said...

The Jezebel article was interesting, but it had a bit of the same problem as Phoebe is pointing out. The article kept stressing, over and over again, that if a size 0 woman isn't actively anorexic, she must be subsisting on a carefully controlled diet of grilled chicken and salad, and has never indulged in one fry too many. It's possible, however, to be really skinny and occasionally binge eat, or overindulge in food, or eat like crap, or have irregular eating patterns (i.e. going long periods and not eating and then eating a lot) and it doesn't mean you'll become fat overnight, or ever. If every day you eat a significantly higher # of calories than you burn, you'll probably put on weight, but if you do so once and awhile, you won't. Also, calories in = calories out, and if those calories come from brie or cheese puffs, they don't automatically make you fatter than if they came from salad or yogurt, or whatever.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I think, re: "skinny gluttons," that there are numerous overlapping subgenres of this, ranging from the model-with-burger to a Liz Lemon or Rhoda, both of whom, though slim by everyday standards, could, we're meant to remember, be slimmer (see: Siree and Mary, respectively). With Liz Lemon, yes, it's partly that she eats junk (although I interpret it less as being about class than as being that she eats "man food"), but remember the episode where she finally looks hot in jeans? That magical jeans are required to make her look good from behind is just one clue we have that her character is not meant to be physical perfection but for a frazzled look and a stain or two on her shirt. Grace Adler falls somewhere in between. When a woman in this size range (and what it consists of varies regionally, a point "30 Rock" makes when Liz goes to Ohio) chows down, it's not quite the model with burger, but it's also not fat-person-eating. But when Jezebel takes this on, they can't get past the fact that Tina Fey is well below a size 20, and over-conflate this phenomenon with the model-burger one.

PG (and Britta, this gets to your point as well),

The more complicated question, metabolisms. I think both that they vary, and that in individual cases, even as roommates, partners, one can know so little. I've had shared-living situations during which I am generally the one who eats the most at meals. In the dorm in Paris and everywhere else I've lived communally, my nightly pasta-consumption was the subject of much unsolicited fascination. But! I don't have any alcohol tolerance to speak of, and so am not getting down much calorically that way. For example. There are so many factors with other people that you can barely ever know, or might not think of - fidgeting, snacking, how much food on a plate actually gets finished, etc.

Britta said...


I completely agree. I read somewhere that, in addition to genetics, semi-unconscious behaviors and habits really determine our weights. Fidgeting is a huge thing, as it burns 100s of calories a day, but people don't think of it as exercise or an activity at all. Also, little things like, do you put extra cheese on something? Cream in your coffee vs. black vs. 2%? etc. all add up, and they're not necessarily about dieting in a "I can only eat cottage cheese and fruit" sort of way. It's also true that you can't really tell how much someone eats from eating a meal, or even a meal a day with someone. I also heard a study that said that the more overweight someone is, the more they underestimated their food intake. I feel like that might be the case--people think "I only ate a salad for lunch, I must naturally be fat" don't calculate in the 6 cokes they drank, or the fact their salad had half a cup of ranch dressing, etc.

Finally, we're supposed to eat around 2000 calories a day, which is about 700 calories per meal. Most people eat a lot less for breakfast, so if you don't snack a lot, a normal person should eat about 800-900 calories for dinner (or lunch if it's your biggest meal). That's a decent amount of food, but somehow as women we're supposed to be horrified if we realize we've consumed more than 200 calories in one sitting. I think disordered eating is so pressed on us that it's hard to remember what normal eating looks like. I mean, you can eat a yogurt every hour and nothing else (which is apparently what we're supposed to do), OR you can eat a filling breakfast, lunch, and dinner, which may be pasta, or a cheeseburger, etc, and you won't get fat, nor will you need to eat yogurt every hour to not feel lightheaded.

As a very slim by normal standards but fat by model standards woman, I actually can identify the sort of humor in 30 Rock, to a point (but I can also see how it would be offensive). I feel like a big part of it is that there are such extreme cultures where even being normally slim is still seen as cow-like, and the show is making fun of that mor than it is making fun of Tina Fey for being a cow. I think too, if you look like Tina Fey and get called fat a lot, it's easy to make wry jokes about it that come off as offensive to those in a different environment. I grew up in a family with remarkably healthy and normal eating habits and attitudes towards food (more akin to Euro attitudes than US ones), but totally insane ones towards fat and body image (both my grandmothers and to a lesser extent my mother find normal female body fat (not to mention cellulite!) to be completely disgusting). Although I was a skinny-ish teen (at 15, I was 5'4' and 100 lbs), between the ages of 12-22, I got called fat and dealt with constant digs at my weight and appearance on a regular basis by my grandmothers and occasionally my mother and other female relatives. I was definitely "the fat one" in my family, because my sister was insanely skinny through her teenage years. As a result of being considered fat during a fairly formative period in my life, I still sometimes make self-deprecating jokes about being considered fat, which in part are based on the fact that although I've never been even close to overweight, I was considered so by my family. I've had to cut that out because of course people who don't realize my experiences with my upbringing assume I either have some crazy disordered attitude towards body size or I'm fishing for compliments, not that I'm mocking my insane family. I imagine working in the entertainment industry and having a healthy body image leads to the same amusement at the disconnect between reality and perception, but that's not apparent to the wider public.

Britta said...

I heard a very similar conversation in a campus coffee shop. One girl got a cupcake, and she said to her friend, "OMG I'm being so bad!" Of course this being Chicago, her friend said, "I don't see how there's any moral weight assigned to cupcake eating." I felt very warm and fuzzy about undergrads for a bit.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I don't remember there being cupcakes anywhere near Hyde Park in my day, and would have guessed that their arrival would mean that 'I'm so bad' talk would have come with. So it's a relief to hear the friend's comment - so UChicago, in a good way! I mean, I didn't love, at Chicago, that it was frowned upon to look good, to care about clothes, etc., but if weight-think is viewed skeptically, that I do approve of.