I’m not clear on precisely how much shame can actually help. It’s shame that’s created our absurd McWeightLoss culture where Octomom takes to the cover of celebrity magazines to show off her new bikini body, and retired athletes claim to have found the secret to losing five pounds a week. It’s symptomatic of who are, of our abiding belief in short-cuts, and our technological ability to elide truth. The truth is that weight loss–like almost anything really worth doing–is long, hard and very lonely. It requires you to live in a way that many of your friends and family almost certainly do not.
Well, he’s right about that, and while TNC — who has had his own struggles with weight — is probably less strict about this stuff than I am, I think he and I would agree that we hate the aspect of our culture that involves the “technological ability to elide truth.” This is part of why I’m such a hard-ass about weight loss. I get so sick of myself, and all the excuses I make to not do what I ought to be doing. I push back hard against well-meaning people like Harriet Brown, not because I think Fat People Are Bad, but because I want to push back against this culture that tells me I can’t overcome my own sloth and gluttony, that I ought to settle for the spiritual disorder that results in my being overweight. Weight loss really is hard, and as TNC says, you have to push back against this permissive, indulgent culture at every turn. I have never done it to a satisfactory degree, and any progress I’ve made has never been permanent. But if I weren’t determined to hold the line as best I can, I would be a lot bigger than I am, and a lot less healthy.
I don’t know to what extent shame is productive, and when it’s destructive. Lying there hating yourself and not doing anything about it is certainly destructive. But if I got satisfied with my condition, I would never bother to cook healthier food, reduce my portions, and even get on the exercise machine. I hate this therapeutic culture that tells us to be satisfied with mediocrity and laziness, and to despise self-disciplined excellence as judgmental. (And, it’s corollary, to expect the easy way out.) I know I’m lazy, and I don’t want to be comfortable with that.
UPDATE: And to be clear, I recognize that there are some people who really can’t help it. They’re genetically programmed to be bigger. My father, for example, worked really, really hard when he was younger — I mean, hard physical labor — but he always struggled with his weight. Mind you, he got it under control when he changed his diet and started eating more sensibly, but still, it always has been an issue for him, as it was for his mother. I take after them both. I will never be skinny, and I’m fine with that. What I’m not fine with is the certain knowledge that I could be in better shape if I were more self-disciplined about my eating and my exercise. Your mileage may vary.
The thing that got these fat threads started was my revulsion at the Jersey woman who is fattening herself to 1,000 pounds, and who pays her grocery bill by charging weirdos to watch her gorge herself via webcam. If you’re the sort of person who says we can’t judge her behavior as wrong, then we really have nothing to say to each other. I recognize that she’s a far outlier in the whole issue of obesity. What I don’t really know is where to draw the line on personal responsibility, and in faulting one’s lack of self-discipline re: eating and exercising, for one’s obesity, and when it really is something that has to be accepted. If obesity were merely a matter of aesthetics, that would be one thing. But it’s a major public health problem, and it’s getting worse. Did you know that in some communities, half the minority children are obese? We know too that doctors are seeing adult diabetes showing up in children now. This never happened before. You can’t tell me that it’s genetically inevitable that all these kids are to be obese. I am sure that the seeds of my own struggles with weight were planted in my childhood, with my constant gorging on junk food. There were always cookies, snack cakes and Cokes around, and I got hooked, and hooked hard, on sugar. This is why I’ve been real careful with my own kids to limit (as distinct from to forbid) their intake of sugar. I want them to have a healthy relationship with food, especially sweet food, to learn to enjoy it, but in moderation.
So how do we discourage obesity? How do we treat those suffering from obesity with compassion, while at the same time maintaining enough stigma on obesity to encourage people to hold the line against it in their own lives? It’s a very difficult question, I know, because you don’t want to add to the suffering of obese people, but at the same time, to declare obesity as nothing that needs to be overcome is to accept a destructive, expensive condition that ought not be accepted so easily.