Toxic dieting narratives
Well, this strikes me as the most irritating non-story I’ve read in a long fucking time. I suppose I’m supposed to be shocked and mildly distressed at the release of a study (conducted by Nutrisystem) that shows that half of American women would “give up sex” rather than gain 10 pounds. But I find the whole thing too suspect to take seriously. And it’s not because, or at least just because, of what Tracy Clark-Flory pointed out, which is that 66% of survey respondents felt like they have to lose weight to feel sexy, which is a sad result of the widespread fat-shaming in our culture. (The survey suggested the average amount that had to be lost to reach that goal was 23 pounds, which is such an abstract number as to be meaningless. Is that a number that includes all the women that feel they’re 5 pounds away from getting into a size four averaged with people who want to lose 100 pounds, or is it just a lot of people who feel they need to lose 23 pounds? No idea.) But it’s because they poisoned the well to make sure they got the results they wanted.
See, they didn’t ask if people would give up sex rather than gain weight. They asked if you’d give up sex for the summer rather than gain weight. Considering that’s only 3 months, I’m surprised more people didn’t say yes. A lot of Americans go 3 month stretches without getting laid all the time, often even if they’re in relationships. I’m sure people who’ve had 3 month dry spells outnumber people who haven’t many times over. It’s not a super fun idea to go 3 months without sex, but most of us have plenty of assurance we’d survive. (Unless they’re rolling masturbation into their definition of “sex”, which I’m almost positive they aren’t.)
But what really pissed me off about this survey was that it’s indicative of the entire problem with the American diet industry, which is basically built to encourage yo-you dieting. You’ve heard the statistic that 95% of diets don’t work? That’s because they’re designed not to. The entire pitch of diet programs is, “Deprive yourself of pleasure for short periods of time, and then, when you reach a goal, go right back to your old habits. In a few years, when you’ve gained it all back, come back and we’ll do it all over again.” There’s no natural reason to connect sexual deprivation with weight control—on the contrary, I’d guess frequent sex actually burns a fair number of calories—but the diet industry’s logic is just this. The whole notion is that you “earn” pleasure by being skinny enough to deserve it, and the only way to earn it is to lose weight.
Silvana has a really long, interesting post on the way that getting married can provoke body anxiety in even the most stalwart opponents of that kind of crap, and she mentions something that has always bothered me, too.
As a fat chick, I am well aware of the MUSTLOSEWEIGHTBEFOREWEDDING cultural imperative. I was aware of this before I ever knew what Fat Acceptance was. And I knew before I ever got engaged that I would be doing no such thing. Frankly, I wasn’t even tempted. I know people who have gone on serious diets in the year or so before they get married, women who have attended “boot camp,” and companies who have made a lot of money off of fueling those anxieties. I wanted no part of it.
I’ve always been perplexed by the “lose weight before the wedding” mandate for a few reasons:
1) It’s assumed that every bride to be, no matter what size she is, will spend the time before her wedding anxiously dieting. This mandate is so universal that it’s applied to the skinny and the fat, as well as anyone in-between. Even within the logic that accepts that weight loss for aesthetic reasons should be a goal, this has never made sense to me. If you’re already skinny, why do you have to lose weight? If you’re fat, it’s not like you’re going to get skinny by the wedding. But this is universally applied and assumed of every bride, no matter what her realities.
2) This whole mandate is straight from the ugliest corner of heteronormativity, but it doesn’t make sense even assuming the logic of heteronormativity. After all, you were validated by a man’s love when he proposed to you; I highly doubt most marriage proposals come with the caveat that you’ll be loved and adored if you can just be 10 pounds thinner. You just got your heteronormative female validation! Can’t you enjoy it for a second, or do you have to punish yourself by doubling down on the belief that you, being female, will never be good enough?
3) If you reject #2 and believe that there’s a caveat to “you’re the one”, which is “if you lose 10 pounds”, then aren’t you being a little deceitful with a diet program that’s basically built around the belief that those 10 pounds are only going to be off your body long enough for you to get married, at which point you’ll abandon the diet and probably put it right back on?
None of these points are me suggesting that there’s anything good and right about the logic that makes women obsess over their bodies. I’m just saying that even within that system, the wedding day diets have always struck me as irrational. They are emblematic of the entire problem with the diet industry, which is that it encourages you to set a target day that you’re supposed to be at some goal weight, and then basically you’re pretty much expected to put it all back on. But yo-yo dieting isn’t like having your hair get a little shaggy before getting a haircut—it’s hard work and it’s really bad for you.
But now that I’ve read this survey that irrationally conflated depriving yourself of sex with not gaining weight, I think the internal logic of the yo-yo dieting system makes sense. The diet industry really works off the puritanical self-punishment mentality, where you only deserve pleasure if you’ve punished yourself sufficiently through self-deprivation. So, a bride (no matter her beginning weight) only deserves to enjoy her wedding if she went through the hellish ropes of self-deprivation for a year beforehand. Or you only get to enjoy sex if you lose 23 pounds. Or, most troubling in terms of people’s health, is this survey result:
Nearly half (46 percent) of the country chose not to diet, even when they knew they needed to lose weight, because they didn’t want to give up their favorite foods.
There’s the logic of diets in a nutshell—you deprive yourself of your favorite food until you lose the weight, and then you go right back to eating like you did before. It’s an all-or-nothing culture, feast or famine. Moderation, maintaining healthy habits will not depriving yourself of pleasure, and god forbid, actually enjoying the process of staying healthy? Doesn’t even register. There’s no suggestion that favorite foods can be enjoyed in moderation or that many delicious foods aren’t necessarily bad for your health. And there’s not even a whiff of discussion about the importance of exercise and heart healthiness regardless of one’s dress size. If you were trying to design a toxic culture around food and exercise, you couldn’t do better than the one that’s evolved in the U.S.