Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher

A final word on obesity

I’m not going to be able to blog much today, because I’ll be busy in Washington, but I wanted to say a final word on the obesity thread. First, I want to thank you who have shared your painful personal stories about struggling with weight. I am deeply impressed (and not in a good way) by how much people’s screwed-up attitudes toward food come from childhood, especially from bad relationships with one or more parents. It really does make it clear that overcoming obesity is far more complicated than simply an act of will. I thank you for helping me to understand that. Reflecting on this thread, I also have come to understand that while I absolutely should exercise more and eat less — again, I am deeply hostile to accepting the belief that I’m a victim of circumstance, and powerless to affect my own weight — I have nevertheless realized that no matter how thin I might become, I will never be thin enough in my own mind. That’s crazy. But there it is.
I also had an epiphany yesterday while looking at a couple of those evil “thinspiration” websites, which promote anorexia. They are truly revolting, in the same sense that the Jersey woman who gorges herself with food in an attempt to gain 1,000 pounds is revolting. But my reaction to the pro-ana women was overwhelmingly one of compassion — I thought, “Those poor women are in desperate trouble, and they need to be saved, whether they know it or not.” Yet that wasn’t my response to the morbidly obese Jersey woman, who is surely committing slow suicide in the same way the anorexics are. I did feel sorry for her, but mostly I saw her with disgust. Maybe it’s because her eating food struck me as something she does for pleasure (because food is pleasurable); that’s not the same as avoiding food. But on second thought, how can anyone who consumes food like the Jersey woman does possibly take real pleasure in it? Or if she does, it’s plainly a disordered pleasure; similarly, though I can’t imagine starving oneself is pleasurable, the truth is those who suffer from anorexia must, at some level, take masochistic pleasure in hunger. I can see myself — my gluttonous self, which I can’t stand — in the Jersey woman, and ironically, that ability to identify at some level with her did not lead me to have more compassion for her, but rather to despise her. I repent of that. My inability to see the morbidly obese woman who disgusted me as in the same category as the anorexics who elicited my compassion represents a failure of imagination on my part. So I’m sorry about that, and I appreciate having learned something from this discussion.
Regarding obesity and one’s struggle with weight, it sounds corny, but I guess the words of the serenity prayer really do apply: “God grant me the strength to change the things I can, to accept the things I cannot, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

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posted March 18, 2010 at 10:54 am

I think that regardless of the circumstances that lead to their behavior, people will always have more disgust for the obese than the anorexic. We may live in an age of abundance, but we still hate to see resources being wasted. That obese woman may claim that no one is being harmed, however, imagine the good she could do if she donated her extra food or money she would have spent on it to a local food bank.

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Elizabeth Anne

posted March 18, 2010 at 11:03 am

I think there is a very real danger in orthodox (little o!) Christianity with regards suffering. While the culture at large is far, far too easy to regard suffering as an evil in and of itself, Christians are at risk of regarding suffering *itself* as a virtue. Suffering can lead to virtue, and can be profoundly useful. But the gnostic hazard is always there.

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posted March 18, 2010 at 11:05 am

There is much wisdom in this post, Rod. I’m impressed. I’ve learned a lot from this thread, too. I spent some time thinking about my childhood food issues yesterday, and decided not to tell that story here, because it was just too painful. The strangest thing was that I looked at some pictures of myself from back then and realized that, although I may have had a few extra pounds at times, I really was not a fat child–just tall and big for my age. By the time I got to high school, I was a perfectly normal and attractive young girl by any sane standard. Yet I spent my entire childhood being told I was fat and ugly, being taunted with “Fatso” at school, and with my father telling me, “You’ll weigh 300 pounds by the time you’re 30!” I grew up thinking of myself as The Fat One in my family and believing that I was fat . . . and I never really was. Imagine the years of pointless shame and anxiety I felt, all for nothing.
Last night, with the assistance of Mr. Sig, a dish of colcannon, and a delicious shot of Booker’s, I came to a conclusion. Fat or thin is not what matters. What matters is being with someone who loves you and wants you just the way you are, and loving and wanting them in return. Of course, it’s good to be healthy so you can spend more time here with the ones you love. But even if you could gain extra years, only to spend them in obsessive misery, what good would it do you? And in the end, there is no guarantee that a thin person will have even one more day, any more than there is a guarantee for the fat person. So I am determined to focus from now on on enjoying every minute of my time here, however long it is, and on fully noticing the love that is already here for me. Maybe if we spent our energy to love and be loved, the diet would take care of itself. Anyway, I intend to give that plan a try. I appreciate you for opening my mind to that idea.

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Grumpy Old Man

posted March 18, 2010 at 1:05 pm

There’s an old Zen parable that’s apposie. Two monks come to a stream, and a young woman asks for help crossing it. One of the monks carries her across on his shoulders.
A few miles further on, the other monk angrily rebukes the other for coming into such close contact with a woman, to be met with the reply, “Put than woman down! I did, hours ago!”
An obsession with NOT eating or NOT overeating can be as sinful and damaging as gluttony itself. This is true of most sins. Consider certain obsessively puritanical religious types, Larry Flynts standing on their heads.

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Grumpy Old Man

posted March 18, 2010 at 1:06 pm

Forgive my typos above: apposite, Put that woman down.

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posted March 18, 2010 at 1:31 pm

A lovely post, Rod. Sigilaris, I like your conclusion and plan to try it myself!

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Lord Karth

posted March 18, 2010 at 3:42 pm

Sigaliris, @ 11:05 AM, writes:
“Last night, with the assistance of Mr. Sig, a dish of colcannon, and a delicious shot of Booker’s, I came to a conclusion. Fat or thin is not what matters. What matters is being with someone who loves you and wants you just the way you are, and loving and wanting them in return. ”
This works for me, Sig. Incidentally, my Very Wise Wife and I are going to pay our local Chili’s a social call tonight and reduce their inventory by a couple of chicken Caesar salads, a margarita and a beer or three. In the spirit of Economic Stimulus, you understand. You coming ?
Your servant,
Lord Karth

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posted March 18, 2010 at 4:56 pm

Until a solution is found – yes, with medicine – it’s always helpful to bring this subject for intelligent discussion. Rod’s observations have stimulated my thought on this matter. As have the comments. I think the main advantage to getting engaged in this topic is that it keeps many of us from engaging in dangerous and extreme behavior (crash diet, stuffing oneself silly, unhealthy mix of foods, “miracle” pills, “abandon all hope” mentality).
Sometimes the best you can do is try to be “normal” and talking out one’s food issues helps you do that. It’s not a cure. More of a series of nudges in the right direction.

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posted March 18, 2010 at 5:26 pm

Lord K., your insight is uncanny. How did you know I like margaritas? I’m sure your wife must be a very interesting woman, and I’ve always been curious to see you IRL. I picture you in a voluminous cloak, with rather intimidating mustachios, not unlike those of Goldry Bluszco in “The Worm Ouroboros.” Mr. Sig enjoys chicken caesar salad. We’ll be there!

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A former anorectic

posted March 19, 2010 at 10:17 am

As a woman who strugged with anorexia in her early teens, and who later worked for an eating disorders support group, I’d like to dispel the common misperception that eating disorders — particularly anorexia — are primarily about weight and personal appearance. That’s certainly part of it, but I believe that most people who develop disordered eating habits are instead looking for a measure of control in their lives. It’s no coincidence that many girls develop eating disorders just as they reach puberty — their bodies are suddenly changing in new and unpredictable ways, their emotions are suddenly at the mercy of their hormones, and they’re faced with a dizzying array of potential social pitfalls. The total upheaval of college, along with the threat of the “freshman 15,” may also tip some people into disordered eating behaviors or a full-fledged eating disorder. Just like young children express their independence from their parents by refusing to eat certain foods, those persons vulnerable to disordered eating will find comfort in the one thing that seems firmly within their control — the number of calories they consume and expend. I took no “masochistic pleasure in hunger” — it tormented me, and I hated my body’s stubborn refusal to abide by the rules I had set for it.

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posted March 19, 2010 at 10:46 am

You said, “I am deeply hostile to accepting the belief that I’m a victim of circumstance, and powerless to affect my own weight — ”
As you should be. But it’s also incredibly important to realize (as I think you have) that it’s not an either-or situation. Circumstance, biology, upbringing, economic status, social group, and location can all deeply affect someone’s ability to manage their weight.
Frankly, our weight issues make us too emotional, as it is. The internal struggle sucks more energy than actually exercising. This form of body-obsession is draining, and it is really part of the problem with our culture. People spend so much time hating their bodies and hating themselves, that they’re too exhausted to work out.

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posted March 19, 2010 at 4:37 pm

Mr. Dreher – Surprised by your earlier post, glad you thought it through a bit more. A person trying to eat her way to 1,000 pounds is pretty obviously not ok mentally.

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Alice AN

posted March 19, 2010 at 5:29 pm

The most beautiful post I have read anywhere. Thank you!

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posted March 19, 2010 at 7:44 pm

i am beyond glad that you were able to come to a more compassionate stance regarding the obese in general, and this woman in particular.

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Rawlins Gilliland

posted March 19, 2010 at 8:24 pm

Rod, this is a meaningful thread. I’ve always said the two most preventable medical conditions on God’s green Earth are pregnancy and obesity. But of the latter, I also had a quasi- realization reading your post that being obese is simply not all about will power. Will power helps…and God knows a lot of people who claim to have ‘gland’ problems are delusional. But there is more to this than meets the eye. Yes.
Still, I keep coming back to how no one was obese when I was growing up. And I fail to believe that the psychological traumas that are at the basis of today’s obesity epidemic were not in play back then. It’s hard to buy that life was once simple and now it’s not. In fact, at 65 I am relatively slim because I walk several miles each week and go to a 3 hr. Colombian salsa dance each Saturday night. While no few people I know circle the block looking for a parking space at the front door where they intend to go, I park ‘way out there’ and walk. I take the stairs. I eschew ‘moving sidewalks’ in airports, etc. I hike. I ride bikes. I do not consider moving a discipline. I see it as a gift to be able to walk, move, dance.
I am old enough to have great grandchild and I eat a LOT of food. But I do not sit watching ‘The Bachelor’ or ‘American Idol’ while eating a bag of Lays or a tub of Blue Bell. But yes…in the last quarter century, Americans came to see ‘leisure’ as the same as ‘inactivity’. ‘Relaxing’ means sitting or reclining when to me it means a walk in the woods. I cook real food rather than buy ‘convenience foods’ that are fat laden and w/o redeeming nutrients.
I don’t doubt that the tender mercies of empathy should come into play. But humans have not metamorphosized in the last 30 years, their habits have. Meaning that this nation’s eating habits changed: what they ate changed, the portions in restaurants changed, snacks became normal (they were not in days of yore, trust me). Sugar and fat became endemic to our food intake. We eat fast foods that are fried and cheesy…literally. The human body did not reinvent itself from what it was 30 years ago. But the way people approach eating and what they eat and the amount…that is what changed along with a ‘do anything not to walk anywhere ever’ mentality.
Seriously. In 1970, most people in America were not fat. So yes, I’m sympathetic to the result. But let’s not reinvent the wheel of fortune here. Our bodies did not change. Our lifestyles did. Clearly.

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posted March 19, 2010 at 11:50 pm


posted March 25, 2010 at 5:08 pm

To Rawlins Gilliland, just because you didn’t know fat people existed when you were growing up doesn’t mean they didn’t! I’m 62 and knew plenty of fat people when I was growing up, many of them my “midwestern” farm country relatives.
What didn’t exist when you were growing up was the internet or television or the GIGANTIC pharmaceutical and diet industry blasting their messages in our face every minute of every day shouting about this horrible obesity epidemic. So how many of you know that the weight of our nation leveled off 10 years ago? There hasn’t been a significant change in the weight of our men, women or children in 10 years but there certainly has been an overwhelming increase in propaganda!
I don’t disagree with much of what your saying about habits and lifestyle, but this hasn’t all happened in the last 30 years and it’s not as simple as so many want to make it out to be.
And now our own government who subsidized farmers to raise the crops that are being used to manufacture processed foods which are ruining our health are subsidizing the diet and drug industries to force us to take off the weight the government is largely responsible for putting on our bodies.
Want to know who is making it big in all this? Follow the money, honey!

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Your Name

posted March 27, 2010 at 2:05 am

Sorry Peggy, but Rawlins has it right. The simple fact about obesity (with the possible exception to medical conditions) is lack of exercise and education. making proper choices about diet and nutrition and spending more time moving around rather than succombing to the sedentary lifestyle that has infected Amercians would go a long way towards puting Americans back on track for a healthy lifestyle. We spend more time sitting around than any other activity. we sit in the car to work, we sit at work and we sit on the couch after work. Trying to blame anyone else or the government for an individuals lack of proper diet or exercise is ludicrous, especially with all of the resources readily available for free education on the subjects, and as this generation of obese children is the frst in our nations histroy to have a lower life expectancy than their parents, i’d say it is defenitly a more recent problem.

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posted June 9, 2010 at 9:08 am

Happy to have discovered this blog.If you really want to lose weight then i advice that you drink a lot of clean water, make a lot of exercise and try out natural health supplements.

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