Trying to tune out the impending doom music and clear some brainspace

Up, DownTo begin, a warning:

In person, I am often told I am kind, warm, and sensitive, sometimes, to a fault. I have received feedback from people I work with and from friends that I’m not a douchbag. People, of a variety of ethnic backgrounds, class backgrounds, ages, size, tend to smile at me. When I’m meeting with people in person who I know are different from me (i.e. everyone) — I do try to read body language and non-verbal cues to see if I’m conveying that I appreciate the differences, and make “course corrections” — as well as apologize and listen — if I’ve made a misstep.

When I write, I lose the ability to “course correct” or modify what I’m saying in the moment. We all do, I suppose, but I think I come across as more forceful and way less sensitive in my writing. So I want to warn readers that I will be writing today about a couple of things I have not experienced first hand — bulimia and the experience of being African American and the racism directed at African American women in particular. I will also be mentioning dieting and the fever-pitch of publicity around the “Weight of the Nation” documentary.

I welcome feedback, comments, feelings, and will take comments to heart pertaining to what I’m writing if they come from an authentic place (i.e. not trolling, even of the “concern trolling” kind). It’s hard to be both bold and sensitive, but that’s what I’m aiming to do.

NYT, and “Why Black Women Are Fat”

The headline for that article is presupposing a question, and answering the wrong question. A better question, I think, is why did the New York Times, with a predominantly white readership, want to publish this article that stated “What we need is a body-culture revolution in black America?” When I read that line in the article, I thought, okay, the writer isn’t talking to me. I have no business dictating anything about cultural revolution in black America. I don’t even think I need to have an opinion about it. When we are talking about overall U.S. culture (which is, of course, made up of many cultures) I have many opinions. So, I was sort of puzzled about how to react. What I chose to do was to wait, and see what other responses emerged, from black American cultural sources (such as Ebony or blogs written by black women) and try to learn from those sources. Which I did. And I still felt like I didn’t have anything to contribute. I still don’t. In a golden rule sort of way, I thought about treating black women the way that I want to be treated. So, if an article were written about Jewish women and fatness, and it appeared not on a blog or in a Jewish newspaper but in the New York Times, I wouldn’t appreciate non-Jewish people participating in the conversation, during which anti-Jewish hate would be very likely to rear it’s ugly head, which is the least helpful thing and is doing more harm. So, I wonder, why did the New York Times publish this piece? I suppose it’s because I read it, and many others did too, and they are trying to increase their readership. Good job NYT. The question I would ask is, am I more likely to order a digital subscription now? The answer — no.

The impending doom music (dum dum dum) and what I’m doing about it

This week has been funny. I was really happy (in a cynical way) about Vice-President Biden and President Obama’s (limited) endorsement of same-sex marriage. Then, I started receiving lots of “Weight of the Nation” info and it started to drag me down. Luckily, work has been interesting, stimulating and busy. Too busy. And I rode my bike to work several days in lovely spring weather. Like my bike ride this week, the week itself has had ups and downs, wrong turns, and left me tired and sore. But overall, energetic and happy. So, the impending doom music, right. Here’s what I’m doing… I’m reminding myself that the framing is all wrong. ALL WRONG. Like the NYT, the producers of the documentary have answered the wrong question. The question is not “How do we win the war on obesity?” (Their answer: To Win, We Have to Lose.) The question is, as I see it, how can we achieve better health for all residents of our nation? To that question, the answer is not “To Win, We Have to Lose.” The answer is: we need to end racism and other forms of discrimination that are systemic, systematic and pervasive. We need to improve the standard of living for the poor and working class (some of the poor are not “working class” in the literal sense of the word — they may be children, elders, people whose disabilities — and the discrimination against them because of these disabilities — take them out of the workforce). We need to make progress on the social determinants of health — those things that lead to good or poor health — that don’t have to do with what happens inside of a doctor’s office. And we need to overhaul our health system.

When I hear the (dum dum dum) music, I think, they’ve asked and answered the wrong question. That helps me get through. That, and singing the “manah manah” song.

Another way of defining the problem

I’m not sure exactly who to tip my hat to, as it’s been a very hectic week, but someone very good pointed me to this book that came out in November 2011, that I can’t wait to read, “Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism” by Julie Guthman from the University of California Press. The description on the UC Press web site includes this sentence, which sums up pretty well how I think of things: “Arguing that ours is a political economy of bulimia—one that promotes consumption while also insisting upon thinness—Guthman offers a complex analysis of our entire economic system.” I don’t like to use bulimia as a metaphor (again, Golden Rule, I don’t want people using diabetes or PCOS or just general fatness in that way), however, I agree with the political economy being one of encouraging a cycle of overconsumption and then compensation for it.

If I continue down this path — we are simultaneously pushed to eat more and not be fat, there are many responses and impacts on the system that don’t only result in fatness. These include, but aren’t limited to:

  • People who eat and then overexercise — causing injury, disability and sometimes death
  • People whose lives are impacted by having to constantly diet and “resist temptation” — huge psychological burden, social isolation, eating disorders
  • People who are marketed to, and whose children are marketed to, in predatory ways — malnutrition, cavities, disruption of parental roles
  • People who fight the marketing hard, and then fall prey to predatory weight loss or health improvement schemes — huge psychological burden, social isolation, eating disorders like orthorexia, financial burden

None of the above have a net positive result on health. If the problem is that people are eating too many calories, as programs like WOTN are proposing, needn’t we look to the source of the problem, the food industry and marketing industry? Not for the sake of making everyone thin (it won’t) but to say, from a perspective of what’s best for health across the population (including the people who aren’t fat), something needs to change. I’m not interested in fighting in, or winning, a war on obesity. I want to find and fight the root causes of ill health, and obesity is not a root cause. I want to get into the messy, long, hard work of truly agreeing on how we see the problem — and we are not there yet.

HAES is a very elegant response to the War on Obesity. It ends the purging side of the cycle, it turns the sharp swords of dieting and fat hate into the plowshares that help us plant seeds of peace and grow. (Yes, I had to look up what a plowshare was, but now it makes sense).

I encourage any of us who have the energy to do so to raise our voices in our own settings, our places of influence, and say what we think the problem is. To say, this isn’t being framed right. To say, hey, did you notice there are more ads for weight watchers and other diets popping up right around this “To Win, We Have To Lose” rallying cry? To push back, in whatever way we can, against the music of impending doom while singing our own song of life, joy, love, peace and hope.

Okay, I’m off to deliver some gluten-free puffed rice cereal treats to a bake sale at my daughter’s school’s annual plant sale. That’s right, I’m trying to make fat all the people who can’t eat gluten, one tasty rice marshmallow butter snack at a time, while raising money for the cash-strapped school. I must be part of the problem. And, I need to pick up some vegetable starts while I’m there.

4 Comments

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4 responses to “Trying to tune out the impending doom music and clear some brainspace

  1. First, I want to comment on your “voice.” To me, even your writing voice is kind. There is nothing unkind about being direct and honest. You aren’t rude in any way or even intemperate. (Your words above on the NYT article stand as lovely examples of temperance.) I think when you say something that surprises or challenges the conventional wisdom (what I call cultural mythology), some people’s first response is to want to marginalize you in order to preserve their comfortable falsehoods, especially when those falsehoods convey the kind of hope and optimism that the diet industry (cynically) purveys. People may get accusatory, but that’s a comment on them, not you. My motto, when I was blogging, was “tell a truth; advance compassion.” I see that in your writing too. The first half of that motto, by necessity, will sting some folks sometimes.

    Now, my comment on the rest of what you wrote in this post: amen.

  2. RedPanda

    I don’t appreciate the way you have pathologised those of us who have to ‘constantly diet and “resist temptation”’ to maintain radical weight loss.

    Do I find this a ‘huge psychological burden’? Um, no. Do I suffer from ‘social isolation’? To some extent, but I no longer enjoy the kind of ‘socialising’ that is really shorthand for overeating and overdrinking. Do I suffer from an eating disorder? Definitely not.

    And despite your assertions, I strongly believe that my lifestyle (sorry,Debra!) has had, and continues to have, a very strong net positive result on my health.

    • Hi RedPanda,
      Thank you for letting me know.
      I re-read what I wrote, and I can see how you would see that as pathologizing. What I was attempting to do was rather to appreciate that people who are resisting the temptations in our current food environment are swimming against the tide and that it takes tremendous effort. You might find it easier than some do, and the rewards you associate with your efforts may be entirely worth it to you. But you already know that your success isn’t common.
      I don’t enjoy socializing that’s shorthand for overeating and overdrinking either, but I also don’t feel it’s necessary to avoid social situations that include eating, as I know that some people who are trying hard to resist temptation do.
      I wasn’t trying to criticize any lifestyle — I was trying to criticize an environment that simultaneously pushes people (grown ups and children) to overconsume while hating fatness.

      I’m glad you have found a lifestyle that has had a strong net positive result on your health.

  3. RedPanda

    Hi AW

    Thanks for taking my comment on board. I often see people like myself described in terms such as “narcissistic freaks”, and that characterisation does make me bristle.

    But yes, you have highlighted a very disturbing contradiction in our society.

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