Some Evolving Thoughts About Weight and Sex

Please note: This piece discusses my personal sexuality in a fair amount of detail. Family members and others who don’t want to read about that, you probably don’t want to read this. This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.

Bare foot on scale I want to start by saying this: I am just talking about myself here, and what’s true for me. These issues are heavily loaded, emotionally and psychologically and politically, so I want to spell that out right from the start. I’m not evangelizing for weight loss; I’m personally finding it to be beneficial, erotically as well as in other ways, but I’ve also found it to be complicated and a whole lot of hard work, and I know that the cost- benefit analysis about it is different for everyone. I’m not talking about what’s right or true for anyone else. I’m talking about what’s right and true for me.

As regular readers of my blog know by now, I’ve been losing weight for close to a year now, and have so far lost 50 pounds. This isn’t something I’m doing for aesthetic reasons, btw: I’m doing it primarily for health reasons (mostly a bad knee that was getting worse).

But the weight loss is having a complicated set of effects on my sexuality: on my libido, my sexual self-image, my feelings about my sexual history, my cultural politics about sex and bodies. Mostly good… but complicated. And I haven’t seen a lot of writing elsewhere about these effects. Most of the writing I’ve seen about weight and sex has either been your standard “Lose weight and magically fix your sex life!” jargon (which I think is bullshit), or fat-positive, body-positive, “fight body fascism and connect erotically with the body you have” activism (which I more or less support, but with a few serious caveats). I haven’t seen much writing about weight and sex from people who are controlling their weight and feel good about it… but who are still informed by the cultural criticism about how our society views weight and sexuality.

So, as usual, when I don’t like the news, I’m making some of my own.

*

Libido The main effect that weight loss has had on my sexuality has been on my libido. Which has gotten cranked up to eleven, and beyond. (Not that it was exactly low-key before…) Being in better health, being stronger and getting more exercise, feeling more conscious of my body, feeling more comfortable and more at home in my body, being happier with how I look and how I fit into my clothes, getting more compliments and attention… all of this is brewing into an explosive libidinous mix that’s making me feel like I’ve been shot out of a cannon. Just walking down the street is an exquisitely erotic experience: like my skin is humming, like I’m erotically at one with the universe, like I want to stop and hump tree trunks. I feel like I’m exploding in a hundred directions at once. I feel like I want to masturbate twenty times a day.

A lot of this has to do with just being in better health. The things I’m doing to lose weight — eating a healthier diet, getting tons of exercise — have increased my physical energy, my mental health, my ability to sleep, etc…. all of which are increasing my libido. A lot of it, too, has to do with not being in a state of cognitive dissonance. Before I started losing weight, I was in serious denial about my health and my body and how I felt about it… and cognitive dissonance about your body is not a mental state that’s conducive to feeling connected with it. And some of it, I’ll acknowledge, has to do with the increased compliments and sexual attention I’ve been getting as my weight has gone down. (Although… well, that’s complicated. More on that in a minute.)

Durandelle_Opera_Statues_decoratives_11_Pensee But a huge amount of it, I think, has to do with the simple fact that I’m paying closer attention to my body now, in overwhelmingly positive ways. (I’m not talking about being self-conscious, btw; I know that paying close attention to one’s body, in a critical and self-loathing way, can have a terrible affect on libido and sexuality. I’m not talking about that. I’m just talking about being conscious.) I think about my body way more than I ever did: how it feels, how it looks, what it wants in terms of food and exercise and sleep, how it’s changing, how it’s the same. I’m not living in my head as much as I used to: I’m inhabiting my body now, more than I ever have at any time in my life. And that means I’m inhabiting my sexuality more.

A lot more. Hoo, boy.

Thuja_occidentalis_trunk Which is good. More than a bit frustrating at times — my life is not currently structured to let me masturbate twenty times a day, and our societal norms do not permit the public humping of tree trunks — but good. Being intensely horny is a complicated pleasure… but as long as I’m getting laid fairly regularly, it is nevertheless a pleasure.

The compliments and increased attention, on the other hand… that’s a lot more tricky. It’s not that it sucks. Of course I like compliments and attention. Human beings are social animals, and while it might be lovely if our self-esteem came entirely from within and didn’t have any basis on the approval of peers blah blah blah, the reality is that our self-esteem doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s a complex, mirrors- reflecting- mirrors jumble of how others see us and how we see ourselves. So of course I like compliments and attention, and of course they make me feel better about myself.

Greta sun But at the same time, the compliments and increased attention I’ve gotten as I’ve lost weight have been a seriously mixed blessing. When people get really effusive about how amazing I look now, a big part of me is resentfully thinking, “So what did you think of me when I was fat? You think I look amazing now — did you think I looked disgusting then?” The line between feeling flattered by compliments and feeling defensive and pissy about them is razor-thin. Especially from people who knew me before I lost the weight… and only started paying sexual attention to me afterwards. (Some people — especially gay men, for some reason — do have the knack of paying good, tactful compliments to people who are losing weight. If you want to pay a compliment to someone who’s losing weight, you can’t go wrong with, “You look really good, really healthy — have you been working out?”)

Greta now The thing is, though? I honestly don’t know how much of this increased attention is because my body is now a type that more people find attractive… and how much of it is because I feel more attractive, and more libidinous. There is nothing hotter than someone who feels good about themselves, someone who loves their body and their sexuality. And there is nothing less hot than someone who, as a Facebook friend put it, is “slouching and sulking as if they are simultaneously angry at the world and apologizing for existing.” Am I getting more attention now because a lot more people prefer thinner women to fat women? Or is it because I’m walking down the street radiating sexual joy and looking like I want to hump tree trunks? I suspect it’s some of both. I really wish I could tease them out. It would give me a better sense of when to get pissy about compliments, and when to just let them in already. (People who meet me for the first time now, since I’ve lost the weight, have no idea what an advantage they have: they don’t have to deal with my hair-trigger, “So what did you think I was before — chopped liver?” defensiveness.)

And I do realize that this pissy defensiveness isn’t entirely fair. I mean, I have preferences myself about what body types I do and don’t find attractive. Most of them aren’t absolute deal-breakers… but it’s not like they don’t exist. So it’s a little unfair for me to expect other people not to have their own preferences.

Scales_Of_Justice.svg It’s a delicate balance. How do we critique overly rigid cultural ideals of sexual attractiveness… while still acknowledging people’s right to be attracted to whoever they’re attracted to? How do we ask people to question and critique their — our — desires, to look carefully at the ways that a sexist, consumerist, celebrity- obsessed culture shapes our libidos… while still acknowledging that people don’t really have control over who we do and don’t have the hots for?

I don’t know. It’s a mess. And of course I know that the “effusive compliment” people mean well. I know that in our culture, “You look like you’ve lost weight!” is almost universally considered a compliment. And my weight loss project has, in fact, involved a lot of hard work… so when people get really effusive about how great I look now, I try to hear it as praise for the accomplishment, not as an insult to how I looked before.

But that’s hard. Especially since the “You looked like such a fat slob before!” implication of “You look so much better now!” plays right into another part of what’s making this process sexually complicated — the disconnect I’m feeling with my sexual history.

A huge amount of my libido right now is focused on the changes my body is going through, and the ways it’s different from what it was before. Which is understandable: things that are in flux get more attention than things that are in relative stasis. But this has had the unfortunate effect of making me feel weirdly disconnected from my body and my sexuality of the past. My willingness to accept how unhappy I used to be with my body, and how much in denial/ cognitive dissonance I was about it, is making it hard to remember that I did, in fact, like my body at least some of the time when I was fat, and that at least some people found that body attractive, and that I did get a substantial amount of sexual pleasure from it.

Queenlatifahi I know that this disconnectedness is totally irrational. I know that fat bodies can be happily experienced as sexual, both from the inside and the outside. There are, for instance, plenty of fat people who I see as intensely sexual and would do in a hot second. And I know that it’s seriously counter-productive. I was a fat woman for years — years in which I lived out some of the most powerful and formative aspects of my sexuality, and years in which I had some of the best sex of my life. I know that I have to find a way to inhabit my current sexual body, and at the same time make peace with my old one. (If anyone has any suggestions or experience about this, btw, I’m all ears. This is a tough one.)

And while I mostly feel happier and less self-conscious about my body than I used to, there are still aspects of my body and my appearance that I’m not thrilled about. It’s been weird to accept the fact that even when I reach my target weight, I’m still not going to be the cultural ideal of female attractiveness, and I never will be. And while I’ve been letting go of a lot of my old body dislikes, I’ve also been picking up one or two new ones. (Let me tell you about loose skin sometime.) Losing weight doesn’t mean dropping the battle against body fascism — either externally or internally.

I don’t know. It’s a mess. A mess that on the whole I feel good about, but a mess nonetheless.

Thoughts?

Some Evolving Thoughts About Weight and Sex

I swear: This is the last I’ll be writing on this topic for a while. But I promised that I’d write a piece about the effects of weight loss on my sexuality… so here it is.)

Bare foot on scale I want to start by saying this: I am just talking about myself here, and what’s true for me. These issues are heavily loaded, emotionally and psychologically and politically, so I want to spell that out right from the start. I’m not evangelizing for weight loss; I’m personally finding it to be beneficial, erotically as well as in other ways, but I’ve also found it to be complicated and a whole lot of hard work, and I know that the cost- benefit analysis about it is different for everyone. I’m not talking about what’s right or true for anyone else. I’m talking about what’s right and true for me.

As regular readers know by now, I’ve been losing weight for close to a year now, and have so far lost 50 pounds. This isn’t something I’m doing for aesthetic reasons, btw: I’m doing it primarily for health reasons (mostly a bad knee that was getting worse).

But the weight loss is having a complicated set of effects on my sexuality: on my libido, my sexual self-image, my feelings about my sexual history, my cultural politics about sex and bodies. Mostly good… but complicated. And I haven’t seen a lot of writing elsewhere about these effects. Most of the writing I’ve seen about weight and sex has either been your standard “Lose weight and magically fix your sex life!” jargon (which I think is bullshit), or fat-positive, body-positive, “fight body fascism and connect erotically with the body you have” activism (which I more or less support, but with a few serious caveats). I haven’t seen much writing about weight and sex from people who are controlling their weight and feel good about it… but who are still informed by the cultural criticism about how our society views weight and sexuality.

So, as usual, when I don’t like the news, I’m making some of my own.

*

Thus begins my new piece on the Blowfish Blog, Some Evolving Thoughts About Weight and Sex. To read more about physical mindfulness, the minefield of compliments, the hotness of self-love, alienation from one’s sexual history, humping tree trunks, and more, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

The Fat-Positive Feminist Skeptical Diet, Part 3: The Actual Diet

(This is Part 3 of a three-part series. You don’t have to read Part 1 or Part 2 to get this, but it doesn’t hurt.)

Scale 3 So how, exactly, have I been going about losing weight?

In the last 10 months, I’ve lost 50 pounds. And in the last couple of days, I’ve been writing about the process: the emotional ups and downs, the letting go of old neuroses and the adjustments to a whole set of new ones, the arguments I’ve been having in my head with the fat-positive movement and with the skeptics who are battling the fat-positive movement.

But I haven’t talked yet about how, exactly, I’ve been losing the weight. Which I realize is a little cruel of me. After all, when anyone talks about weight loss, that’s what most people want to know: “How did you do it?”

So here, at last, is the actual “diet” part of the Fat-Positive Feminist Skeptical Diet. It’s not a diet, per se; I’m not going to tell you that I eat twelve meals a day every two hours, or that I limit myself to six servings of pork a week, or that I only eat plankton and spelt and a vodka martini on the full moon. What I’m going to talk about is practical strategies that have helped me lose weight… and emotional/ psychological strategies that have helped me stay on track with the practical strategies.

I should spell out before I begin: None of this is meant to be prescriptive. I’m not an expert: I’m not a physiologist or a nutritionist or a researcher on weight loss. I’m a lay person who’s found some things that are working for me. Some of it may work for you. Take what you need; leave the rest; pay attention to the current research; talk to other people about what works for them.

(A little of this, by the way, is stuff I’ve written before. I apologize to regular readers for the repetition; but it seemed like a good idea to have it all in one place.)

THE BASICS

Abdomens I’m basing my weight-loss program on some relatively recent research done in the last few years. As anyone knows who follows the science on weight loss, losing weight and keeping it off is difficult and rare. Regardless of the specific weight loss plan — high-protein, low-protein, high-carb, low-carb, the Fruit, Bourbon, and Astroglide Diet, whatever — only about ten percent of people who try to lose weight succeed in doing so and in keeping it off for more than a year.

National+Weight+Control+RegistrySo some researchers decided to reverse engineer the process. Instead of asking, “Why don’t these weight loss plans work for most of the people who use them?”, the creators of the National Weight Control Registry asked, “What, if anything, do those ten percent of people have in common? Is there anything the success stories are all doing — regardless of which particular plan they’re following?”

The answer was “Yes.” And the things the success stories had in common turned out to be almost embarrassingly straightforward. They are:

Counting calories.
Keeping a food diary.
Measuring food.
Eating a low-fat diet.
Not skipping meals — in particular, not skipping breakfast.
Losing the weight slowly — no more than two pounds a week.
Exercising regularly.
Weighing yourself regularly.
Getting support from family and friends.
Making all this a permanent lifestyle change — not just pursuing weight loss as a one-time thing and then going back to old eating and exercise patterns, but continuing to do all these things even when the weight is lost.

It sounds so easy. The devil, if I believed in one, is in the details.

So let’s talk about the details — both the finer points of these basics, and some of the psychological and emotional tricks for keeping the basics on track.

THE DETAILS

Whats_on_your_plate Counting calories. This does not mean “counting calories” as an idiom for “trying to eat less.” This means literally counting calories — keeping track of the calories of everything you eat, and keeping those calories within a daily budget.

“Calories in, calories out” is something of an oversimplification of the mechanics of weight loss. For one thing, if it were true, crash diets would work — and they really, really don’t. But there’s a big chunk of truth to it. To lose weight, the main thing you have to do is take in fewer calories than you expend; to maintain weight, the main thing you have to do is take in the same amount of calories that you expend.

And every study I’ve seen or heard of shows that people — pretty much all people — are terrible at estimating how much they eat… both how large their portions are, and how calorically rich the foods they eat are. (When I started counting calories, I had some serious sticker shock about some of the foods I ate on a regular basis. Nuts? Bagels? Snickers Bars? Cornbread? Oh, my God! I had no idea! But the flip side of that is also true; donuts and chocolate chip cookies aren’t nearly as calorically rich as I’d have thought, and I incorporate them into my food budget on a fairly regular basis.) What’s more, studies show that fat people — which includes me — are worse at estimating their food intake than other people. Counting calories — not trying to reduce my calories, not trying to eat a low-calorie diet, but literally counting the damn things as they go into my mouth — is essential.

Which leads me to the next two parts:

Writing_in_diary Keeping a food diary. This serves the obvious function of being the way I count calories. But it serves some other functions as well. Mainly, it helps keep me conscious of what I’m eating. Writing down everything I eat makes me think carefully about whether I really want to eat it. It also gives me an objective picture of my eating habits, so my rationalizations and other cognitive errors don’t take over. And it helps me figure out my food budget. If I know I’m going to be having a rich dinner that night, I can do more than just make a hopeful attempt to eat a light breakfast and lunch — I can actually make it happen, by writing it all down. (This works on a weekly basis as well as a daily one; if I know I have a super-rich meal coming later that week, I’ll make an effort to go a little below my daily food budget for a couple/ few days beforehand, so I can eat the rich meal and not worry about it.)

And in a weird irony, keeping a food diary is a way of keeping myself from obsessing over food. In the past, when I was trying to do “natural” eating and just follow my “natural” hunger cues, I’d get seriously hung up on whether what I was eating was right for me or not, or whether I even was hungry for it. I have finally accepted that my “natural” appetites and hunger cues are idiots. They think that I’m living in the African savannah 100,000 years ago back when our species evolved, and that I don’t know where my next meal is coming from, and that if I don’t eat this entire gazelle right now I might starve to death. The food diary keeps me much more sane. With the food diary, I plan what I’m going to eat; I write it down; I fit what I’m eating into my budget; I don’t eat what doesn’t fit. And then I forget about it, and go do something else.

Loseit I do my food diary on a free iPhone app called LoseIt, which I passionately love, since it does the math for me. But you can just write it down in a notebook (or get an electronic calorie counter). And the Internet makes this a lot easier, since you can look up the calorie count of virtually every food anyone has ever eaten in the history of the world.

Measuring cups and spoons Measuring food. Like I said above: Studies consistently show that people are terrible at estimating how big their portion sizes are. Ask someone to tell you how many cups of cereal are in their bowl, how many teaspoons of butter are on their bread, and they — we — will give you answers ranging from too low to absurdly low. And again, fat people — including me — are worse at this than non-fat people.

So when I eat at home — and when I prepare my lunch to eat at work — I measure. Everything. My cereal, the milk on my cereal; my yogurt, the honey on my yogurt; my pasta, the sauce on my pasta, the Parmesan cheese on the sauce on my pasta.

It sounds like a hassle, I know. But I got used to it very quickly. And now that I’ve been doing this for almost a year, I’ve gotten better at estimating food quantities when I can’t measure (when I’m eating at a restaurant or at someone else’s house).

Olive_oil Eating a low fat diet. I’m not going to talk about this much, since I personally haven’t been paying much attention to it. The LoseIt iPhone app tracks nutrients like fat and fiber, as well as calories… and I’m finding that if I stay within my calorie budget and eat plenty of fruits and vegetables and whole grains, my fat intake stays pretty low just of its own accord. But the National Weight Control Registry research shows that this a low fat diet is a common factor of people who successfully lose weight and keep it off. So it’d be irresponsible for me to not at least mention it.

Skinners raisin bran Not skipping meals. We have to eat. Really. Our bodies demand it. Skipping meals is a terrible, terrible way to lose weight. It’s a great way to screw up how our bodies process food, and how our brains process hunger. It’s a great way to make ourselves really hungry… and when we’re really hungry, we tend to make unhealthy food choices, like bingeing on rich or starchy food. It’s a great way to make ourselves miserable as well. And it’s not sustainable. (Skipping breakfast seems to be an especially bad idea — and it seems to be especially common.)

So I eat already. Regularly, throughout the day. Including breakfast. (See “Eating multiple small meals” below.)

Patience Losing weight slowly. I’m not 100% sure about the physiology of this. Some researchers think that losing weight too fast shocks our bodies into thinking that they’re starving… and as a result, our bodies start to store fat more efficiently. Losing weight too fast may also fuck up our hunger triggers, making us more hungry. But whatever the reason, losing weight too fast is an excellent recipe for gaining it back again… and maybe gaining even more. With the exception of the morbidly obese, one to two pounds a week is as fast as weight loss should go.

I found this very demoralizing when I first started losing weight. “One to two pounds a week? That’s going to take forever!” But I was startled at how fast this really is. Two pounds a week means ten pounds in a little more than a month. And a weight loss of ten pounds is where most people start noticing a difference in how they look and feel.

Dumbbell Exercising regularly. This is the other side of “calories in, calories out.” The less you eat, the more weight you’ll lose (again, as long as you’re doing it slowly). But the more you exercise, the more weight you’ll also lose. And the more you exercise, the more you can eat.

An acquaintance of mine put this in a way that I love: “I like to eat — so I exercise a lot.” That’s me in a nutshell. I love to eat: I’m a sensualist, and food is one of the great sensual pleasures life has to offer. I’m willing to eat my rich treats less often and in smaller portions… but I’m not willing to eat nothing but brown rice and vegetables for the rest of my life. So I exercise.

I don’t give a shit what kind of exercise you do. Some weight control experts insist that you have to exercise for at least half an hour at a time to get any benefit, or that you have to do a combination of cardio and weight training, or that you have to exercise in the morning. Fuck that noise. The best exercise is the one that you’ll do. Baseball or ballroom dancing or bocce; walking or weightlifting or water polo. Find a physical activity you like to do, and do it.

Walking_with_dogs That being said, there is something to be said for making exercise a daily or near-daily habit. There are almost certainly physiological reasons for this (in fact, daily exercise is very high indeed on the National Weight Control Registry’s list of stuff that successful weight losers have in common.). But for me, the main reason is psychological. When I was working out twice a week, it was much easier to convince myself that it was okay to blow it off. Now that I exercise every day (or almost every day — five or six days a week most weeks), it feels like more like brushing my teeth: a part of my daily routine, one that I don’t blow off unless there’s a really, really good reason.

Regular exercise does a whole lot more than just help me lose weight. It improves my energy, my mental focus, my sleep, my tendency towards depression, my libido. There are lots of excellent reasons to get regular exercise… even if you don’t lose weight. But it’s a pretty essential part of weight loss as well. (When I don’t feel like doing it, I always try to remember that I never, ever, ever have been sorry that I worked out. Well, except for two or three times when I was seriously sleep-deprived. No matter how crummy I felt when I headed to the gym, I have always felt better afterwards.)

Digital scale Weighing myself regularly. This is one of the basics that the research has shown to be essential. And in my experience, it makes perfect sense. If I just go by how I feel or how I look, I’m not necessarily going to notice if my weight starts creeping back up. It’s too easy to rationalize and fool myself. I need an external metric — one that doesn’t lie.

Once a week works really well for me. If I weighed myself every day, I’d get obsessed and freaked out over every minor meaningless fluctuation. Once a week keeps me aware of where my weight is and what its broad trends are, without freaking out over minor changes (see below). If I’ve gained weight for more than a couple weeks in a row, or if my weight loss has plateaued for more than a couple/ few weeks, that tells me that I need to change something: I need to dial down my calorie budget, or step up my exercise, or be more rigorous about keeping my food diary. (Or do some fucking cardio already instead of just doing my beloved weights all the time.)

Now, “once a week” is an area where I’m departing somewhat from what the research suggests. The research suggests that weighing yourself every day is correlated with successful weight loss and maintenance. But I know myself, and I know that it would take me to the bad place. So as long as what I’m doing is working, I’m not going to stress out over this one small modification to the program. And what the research most strongly suggests is that, however often you weigh yourself during weight loss, the important part is to keep doing it that often once you’re on maintenance. Consistency seems to be key.

Helping hands Getting support from family and friends. I cannot emphasize this enough. Doing this with Ingrid has been what has made this possible. If you asked me which part of all this process I’d be willing to drop if I had to, the part where I talk about it with Ingrid would be at the absolute bottom of that list. I would sooner quit working out than quit talking about this with Ingrid. Having someone to strategize with, to process the emotional ups and downs with, to celebrate with when it’s working, to vent with when it sucks…it’s huge. I don’t know how I could do it without her.

It doesn’t have to be a spouse or a lover; it can be a friend or a family member or a support group. (Although some sort of support from people you live with is obviously a big, big help.) But getting support from other people who are also working on weight management seems to be one of the most central factors in doing it successfully. And it also helps to get support from the other people in your life who aren’t necessarily losing weight but are supporting you in your efforts. (If for no other reason, it helps to not have well-intentioned people pressing rich food on you because they don’t know that you’re trying not to eat it.)

Road ahead Making all this a permanent lifestyle change. I can’t yet speak about this from experience. Everything I’ve read about weight control is that loss is the easy part; the hard part is maintaining the new weight. And I’m not there yet — I still have another 10 or 15 pounds to go before I’m done with this — so I can’t yet talk from experience about how to do this.

But according to the research I’ve seen, the key to maintenance is to keep up all these patterns once the weight is lost. The mistake that too many people make is to see weight loss as a one-time thing, something you get over with so you can get back to your old eating habits. That doesn’t work. I’m going to have to keep counting calories, keep measuring my food, keep up the food diary, keep exercising, keep weighing myself… for the rest of my life.

Again, I can’t speak about maintenance yet. (Assuming I do keep the weight off, I’ll give another update.) But I’m assuming that once I’ve reached my target weight, very little is going to change about how I manage my food and exercise and whatnot. My calorie budget will go up somewhat. That’s going to be the only practical difference.

So those are the fundamentals.

How do I make it work?

AnadelaSerraVisconti Talking to a health care provider first. If I’d tried to figure out for myself what a reasonable calorie budget was, I’d have had no idea where to even begin. But I have Kaiser, and Kaiser has an online weight management program that can give you, not only pointers on how to lose weight, but a reasonable, medical, evidence-based assessment of what a sane weight-loss goal is… and what a sane calorie budget is to reach that goal, based on your current weight and activity level. (BTW, that budget is going to change as you lose weight; more on that in a bit.) If you don’t have Kaiser, talk to your doctor or other evidence-based medical provider. (And if anyone tells you that your calorie budget should be less than 1,200 calories a day, head for the hills. Nobody should be eating less than 1,200 calories a day. As of this writing, my own daily calorie budget is 1,700.)

Apple Eating multiple small meals. If I let myself get too hungry, I get hungry for richer food: fatty proteins, big carbs. But if I eat every couple of hours, an apple or some veggies and hummus will be enough to make me happy. So on a typical day, I have three decent-sized but not huge meals, and a whole bunch of little healthy snacks (fruit, raw veggies, whole wheat crackers, etc.) every couple of hours in between. (And usually one small not-so-healthy snack. But I’m getting to that.)

Shallow_plates Small plates. There’s actual science behind this. (That is, if Food Detectives was telling the truth.) Apparently we feel fuller and more satisfied with the same amount of food if it’s served on a smaller plate. And the converse is true: whatever size plate we have, we tend to fill up. Ingrid and I almost never use dinner plates anymore; we almost always eat dinner on the little lunch plates. If it’s not enough and we’re still hungry in an hour, we can always get some more.

Which reminds me:

Clock Waiting. This was hard to learn — but it’s huge, and it got a lot easier with time. If I’ve had one of my planned and budgeted meals, and I still feel hungry… I wait.

The part of our brains that tells us “That’s enough food” has a delay — about 20 minutes, the last time I read the research. (And while I don’t know this for sure, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that this is slower for fat people.) Like I wrote in Part 2: Our appetites evolved on the African savannah 100,000 years ago, in an environment of scarcity. Our appetites evolved to get us to eat as much food as is available, whenever it’s available. Our appetites have not yet figured out that we live in an environment where food is easily and cheaply available on every street corner. Our appetites are dumb.

So if I’ve eaten what I’ve budgeted for, and I’m still hungry in 20 minutes, I wait. If I’m still hungry after that, I have a glass of water. If I’m still hungry after that… then I eat already. That’s not fake hunger, that’s real hunger, and I have a piece of fruit or something. But ninety percent of the time, waiting and water does the trick.

Lots_of_food Avoiding hunger cues. Again, our appetites evolved on the African savannah 100,000 years ago, in an environment of scarcity. We evolved, among other things, to get hungry whenever we see food. Which, in America, can easily be about forty times a day. (More if you count ads. See below.)

So when I’m at a party, I try not to sit within eyeshot and arm’s reach of the food table. When I’m at a buffet, I try to sit with my back to it. When I’m in any sort of place with an essentially unlimited supply of food, I browse first, looking over the options to see what I really want; I put the things I want on a small plate; and I go hang out somewhere else. Out of sight, out of mind.

Oh, and speaking of which:

Baconator Avoiding TV commercials. I almost never watch TV now without TiVoing it first and skipping the ads. There are food ads on TV approximately every seven seconds. Ads for foods that make the food industry rich — not foods that keep us healthy. Ads that are carefully designed to manipulate our hunger triggers and our psychology about food. So TiVo your TV if you can; reduce your TV watching if you can’t, and try to read or leave the room or something during the food ads.

In defense of food Eat food that’s, you know, food. This is the Michael Pollan diet, and while it doesn’t work for weight loss — I still need to count calories — it does give me a good guideline as to what to fill that calorie budget with. Fruit; vegetables; meat; eggs; nuts; rice; beans; cheese; bread; tofu… you get the gist. None (or almost none) of what Pollan refers to as “edible food-like substances.” This is the food our bodies evolved to eat… and it’s the food that nourishes us and makes us feel satisfied.

If you’re a big lefty pinko freak like me, it may help to think of this as a political issue. Fat positivism may feel like a big “Fuck You” to body fascism… but eating healthy can feel like a big “Fuck You” to the purveyors of quadruple- patty hamburgers and Chocolate Chip Pancakes & Sausage on a Stick.

Muscle Packing on muscle. If you can stand it, building muscle is one of the best things you can do to help lose weight. Muscle eats more calories than fat — so if you have more muscle mass, you’ll use up more calories just sleeping or watching TV.

If you hate weightlifting, don’t do it. I am, as I said, a huge advocate of doing whatever form of exercise you enjoy and will stick with. But if you can find a form of exercise that will put on muscle as well as burning calories, go for it. (And don’t assume you’ll hate weightlifting if you haven’t tried it. I’m having a ball with it. It has become one of the great sensual pleasures of my life.)

Waveform Not freaking out over minor fluctuations. I wish I’d realized this earlier in my weight loss program. A couple of weeks into it, I had a major upset when I gained a pound. I was like, “This is already so hard, and now I have to make it harder to make it work?” No. Not necessarily. Minor weight fluctuations are going to happen. Even if you magically ate the exact same amount of calories and expended the exact same amount of calories in exercise every single day of your life, your weight would still probably fluctuate a bit: depending on what time of day it is, how much water you’ve been drinking, how recently you went to the bathroom, your menstrual cycle if you have one.

I did an experiment a few months ago. When I was at the gym, I weighed myself at the beginning of my workout, and again at the end of it. And I found, very much to my surprise, that I’d gained half a pound. (I think it was the massive amount of water I drink when I work out.) If I can gain half a pound in an hour and a half workout, it makes no sense to get all worked up if I gain half a pound in a week. If I keep gaining half a pound week after week — or if I don’t lose anything week after week when I’m trying to lose — that’s something to pay attention to. I might need to step up my workouts or dial back my calorie budget. But if it just happens one week, I just need to keep doing what I’m doing… and see what happens.

Sin Avoiding moral language about food. I make a conscious point of not saying that I’m “bad” when I eat high-calorie food, or talking about “wicked,” “sinful,” or “forbidden” food. (Or for that matter, “virtuous” food.) Human brains are weird: as soon as we’re told we can’t have something, that becomes the thing we want more than anything. Even if it’s us doing the telling. And since I do include treats in my eating program (see below), I don’t want to feel bad about them. I want to thoroughly enjoy them.

Instead, the metaphors Ingrid and I have been using are about money. We have food budgets. We call high-calorie foods expensive; low-calorie foods are cheap. I can spend or save my daily budget as I like: I can spend my calories on a donut if I’m willing to have a light lunch, or I can save my day’s calories if I know I’m going to have a rich dinner out.

I don’t think of high-calorie foods as a forbidden sin that I’m a bad person for wanting. I think of them as expensive luxuries that I can treat myself to if I save up.

Dynamo donuts Not being a perfectionist. If I’d tried a weight-loss program where I never got to eat chocolate or butter or donuts (mmmm, donuts), I wouldn’t last a month. Even if I did last a month, I’d be so miserable that it wouldn’t be worth it. I’d be so obsessed with the things I couldn’t eat, I’d be thinking about them more than I if I actually ate them. For me, it’s just not sustainable in the long run.

So instead of saying, “I can never have butter or chocolate or donuts again,” I say, “I can have butter and chocolate and donuts if I can fit them into my food budget.” I can have butter if I have small portions; I can have chocolate if I had a fairly light dinner and have room in my food budget at the end of the day; I can have a donut if I’m willing to skip my end- of- the- day chocolate.

And once a month, I give myself a meal where I don’t count calories at all, and just eat whatever I want. Again: If I never let myself relax and just fucking eat already, I’d go nuts. Every time I counted calories, I’d be wishing that I didn’t have to, and longing for the old days when I wasn’t. But I know that I can forget the calories once a month… so it’s not that big a deal. (Twice a month in December. I let December be a maintenance month: as long as I didn’t gain weight, I wasn’t going to stress out if I didn’t lose any.)

Caution tape Now, I will say that this is a tricky one. More than anything else I’m doing to manage my weight, it falls squarely into the This Works For Me But Doesn’t Work For Everybody category. Different people have very different psychologies/ hunger triggers/ etc. about food. Some people are more like me: they can enjoy rich, high-calorie foods as an occasional part of an overall balanced and healthy diet. For other people, this is too hard to manage: a small amount of high-calorie food will trigger out- of- control hunger and bingeing. These folks need to treat high-calorie food more the way recovering alcoholics treat booze. For them, the way I do it would be too hard. And the stuff I’d find impossible — refusing to eat even a small amount of rich food, ever — they find much easier.

But if you’re like me, and the thought of a life without butter and chocolate and donuts scarcely seems worth living, this is at least worth trying.

Breaking rocksBreaking my goals up into chunks. When I first started losing weight, my health care provider told me that, for maximum good health, I should lose 60 pounds. That seemed completely impossible to me. So I broke that up. I said I’d lose 20 pounds… and see how it went, and re-evaluate.

It went great. It went faster and easier than I’d ever expected. So I kept going. But if I’d started out thinking that my goal was to lose 60 pounds, I think I would have gotten very discouraged, and might have even given up. 20 pounds seemed achievable. (And in fact, when I lost the 20 and decided to keep going, I again said “I’m going to lose another 20… and then re-assess.”)

Cracker on plate Being extremely rigorous at first, and more relaxed as the process continued. When I first started counting calories, I was extremely rigorous about getting it exactly right. If it went in my mouth, it went in my food diary. If I couldn’t find the exact food I was eating in my calorie-counting app, I’d look it up on the Internet. If I went to a party, I’d calorie-count every single hors d’oeuvre I ate.

And I think that was the right thing to do. I needed to completely change my habits — not just the ways I ate, but the ways I thought about food and eating. I needed to think about food as something I always keep track of. And my instincts and guesses about how large a serving was, or how much was in a cup or an ounce or a tablespoon, were way, way off. Not to mention my instincts and guesses about how calorically expensive certain foods were.

Now that I’ve been doing this for a while, I’m a little more relaxed about it. I have a better sense of what things cost, and I know which foods I really need to keep rigorous track of and which ones I can guesstimate. I’m more likely to do rough equivalents: if I can’t find sweet potato pie in my calorie counting app, I don’t bother to look it up on the Internet — I just call it pumpkin pie, and call it a day. I’m more likely to collapse all my hors’ d’oeuvres into one or two that are pretty similar. And I’m less likely to bother writing it down if I have just one bite of something.

Which is where weighing myself regularly comes in. See above. If I start gaining weight again, I’ll know that I’m slacking too much, and need to get more rigorous.

Crazy_man_in_shower Framing weight loss as a stress management technique. According to everything I’ve read, one of the hardest thing about weight loss and weight management is maintaining it under stress. Stress can be an appetite trigger, making you physically hungry; it can make you want to eat comfort food, which tends to be high-calorie; and it can make you put things like exercise and calorie counting on the back burner, as a low priority.

I know all that’s so. But last year was among the most stressful in my memory. I won’t bore you with the details; suffice to say that it sucked beyond my powers of telling it. And I was still able to lose weight.

I was able to do it, I think, because forewarned is forearmed. I knew that stress could be a hunger trigger — so I learned to tell the difference between stress hunger and real hunger. And I was able to do it by reframing. Instead of saying, “I’m having a bad week/ month/ year, I deserve those six donuts,” I said, “I’m having a bad week/ month/ year — and weight loss is one of the few things in my life that’s working. It’s one of the few things I’m being successful at. It’s one of the few things that’s making me feel better. It’s one of the few things that I have some degree of control over.” And, of course, being in good health and eating a good diet and getting regular exercise are all excellent stress-management techniques. So I framed weight loss, not as something that was adding to my stress, but as something that was alleviating it.

No_smoking Remembering other behavior changes I’ve successfully done. One of the things that kept me from trying to lose weight for so long was the depressing research about how rare it is. Behavior changes in general are extremely difficult for human beings to maintain… and weight loss involves multiple major behavior changes. I kept thinking, “Sheesh, only 10% of people who try to lose weight succeed. You have a better chance of quitting smoking or drinking or drugs, and staying quit, than you do of losing weight and keeping it off.”

But as Ingrid reminded me: I have quit smoking. I quit drinking caffeinated coffee. I quit eating pork (well, mostly). I started a writing regimen that I’ve stuck with. I learned to be a better housekeeper when Ingrid and I moved in together (and believe me, that was a major behavior change). Behavior change may be hard… but I seem to be someone who’s reasonably good at it. And in fact, many of the strategies I used to change those behaviors are ones I’ve applied to weight loss.

If you’ve made other behavior changes in your past, and have stuck with them… remember that. Use the memory to bolster your confidence. And think about what you did to make it work.

Failure Reframing previous “failures” as practice. One of the things that made me reluctant to try weight loss was the simple fact that I’d tried it before, and failed. Which made it seem impossible.

But as everyone knows who’s studied behavior changes — from quitting smoking to quitting heroin to quitting leaving disgusting piles of dishes in the kitchen sink — setbacks and slips are often part of the process. Setbacks and slips are part of how we learn what does and doesn’t work. And the reality is that when I was trying to lose weight before, this new research about weight loss wasn’t available (or if it was, I didn’t know about it). So when I started this new weight loss program, I started reframing my previous failed attempts, not as evidence that weight loss was impossible, but as part of the process of learning what does and doesn’t work.

Peace_sign_painted_on_rock_2 Making peace with the times that it’s hard. Even with all these strategies, there are times when this is hard. I have days when there’s rich, delicious food being offered to me that I hate to turn down. I have days when I don’t have much control over what I eat, and staying within my budget is extremely difficult. (Travelling especially can be a weight loss nightmare.) I have days when I realize that, no matter how much weight I lose, I’m still never going to look like the cultural ideal of female beauty, or even like my own personal ideal of it. I have days when my food budget just doesn’t make me feel full. (Rarely anymore, but I do occasionally have them.)

And in one of the cruelest ironies of weight loss: As you lose weight, you need to reduce your calorie budget. It takes fewer calories to maintain a lower body weight than it does to maintain a higher one. When I started, my daily calorie budget was about 1,850; it’s now just under 1,700. And every time I’ve had to dial down my budget, I’ve had a bad week or two, before my body and my hunger triggers adjusted to the new allotment. And that was especially true the very first time I had to dial down my budget — the first couple of weeks of the program.

But the bad times pass. I can move on from the birthday cake I’m not going to have… and enjoy the conversation I am having. I’ll have a day where I go over budget due to circumstances beyond my control… and then I’ll be back on my budget the next day. I’ll have a moment of regret over my body not being what I want it to be… and then I’ll get back into feeling how much pleasure I’m getting from it now. I’ll feel a little hungry for a week when I have to dial my calorie budget down… and then I’ll adjust, and be fine.

It can be hard.

But it gets easier.

At least, it does for me.

***

So how does this work for you? If you’ve lost weight successfully… what have you done to make it work? And if you’ve been unsuccessful at weight loss… what made it hard? And what do you think might make it easier if you try again?

Weight Loss and Strange Emotional Stuff: The Fat-Positive Feminist Skeptical Diet, Part 2

(This is Part 2 of a three-part series. You don’t have to read Part 1 to get this, but it helps.)

Fat_woman When I first announced that I was losing weight, I got a series of comments and private emails from people in the fat positive movement, either chiding me for betraying the fat positive vision, or concern trolling about how weight loss was going to ruin my physical and psychological health. Somehow, these people believed that incidental weight loss from a “healthy at every size” eating and exercise program would be acceptable, but that a deliberate weight loss program would be physically and mentally toxic… even if my eating and exercise in these two programs were identical in every way. (I know. It doesn’t make sense to me, either — and the research doesn’t back it up. For the record, I do think the fat positive movement has some good and important ideas; I just think they’ve run off the rails with them.) And somehow, they believed that the emotional damage I would incur from conscious weight loss would be so staggering that it would completely outweigh any other considerations… including the emotional damage I’d incur from my bad knee crippling my mobility and cutting off major areas of pleasure, from dancing to fucking to just walking around in the city that I love.

Which I found not only baffling, but offensive.

Broken plate I’m not going to pretend that I’ve got no neuroses and weird psychological shit associated with weight loss. I’ve become a mild control freak about food, and situations where I can’t control what food is available are somewhat distressing. Ingrid and I spend more time talking about this — venting, strategizing, planning meals, managing emotions — than I’d like anyone to know. Compliments on how good I look now are a seriously mixed blessing: there’s a big part of me that enjoys it, and that can accept praise for the accomplishment as well as for my fit body… but when the compliments are particularly effusive, a part of me angrily thinks, “So what did you think I was before — chopped liver?” Plus I hate how gender-normative losing weight makes me feel: I loved being a fat woman saying “fuck you” to body fascism and rigidly sexist standards of female beauty, and I really don’t love being just another of the hordes of dieting American women. (I avoid the “d” word like the plague, for that exact reason.) And while I feel more connected and present in my body now than I can ever remember feeling in my life, I feel weirdly disconnected with my body of the past… like I was an entirely different person. (Weight loss has also had some interesting effects on my sexuality; overall good, some not so much. But that’s a whole other piece, to come soon.)

Cakes But you know what? I had neuroses and weird psychological shit about food and my body before I started losing weight. Some of it’s the same shit; some of it’s different. I fixated on food in a different way back then: using it for comfort, to relieve boredom, to distract myself from feelings I didn’t want to have. Yes, I’m hyper- conscious about my food choices now; when I was fat, I was whatever the opposite of hyper-conscious is, eating reflexively and mechanically and without thinking. (The way Ingrid puts it is, “I never eat mindlessly or joylessly any more” — and that’s true for me as well. I have some weird food neuroses now… but I always eat with consciousness and pleasure. And that was emphatically not true when I was fat.) When I was fat, I was just as fucked up about food at parties as I am now, if not more so: the difference between obsessively deciding which three hors d’oeuvres I’m going to eat, and obsessively making sure I got a taste of every single one, is less great than you might imagine. Social eating is complicated now… but it was complicated then, too, what with feeling self-conscious about what other people thought about how much I was eating, and then piling more onto my plate than I really wanted or needed, out of stupid, self-defeating, “Who cares what they think” defiance.

Cognitive dissonance And I was in serious denial/ cognitive dissonance about how unhappy I was with my body, and how out of touch with it I felt. I’d tell myself that I was fine with how I looked; but I hated, hated, hated seeing pictures of myself. I couldn’t look at party or family photos without cringing… because looking at photos fucked with my cognitive dissonance about how big I really was, and how unhappy I really was about it. And getting dressed to go out was a minefield: I could never predict which evenings I was going to feel okay about how I looked, and which evenings I’d spend ripping through my closet for half an hour, near tears, because nothing I owned was going to make me feel beautiful, or even presentable.

So do I have some neuroses about food and my body now? Yes. Did I have neuroses about food and my body when I was fat? You betcha. And the overall effect of weight loss on my mental health has been enormously positive. I feel more present in my body; just walking around the city makes me feel exuberant and joyful and like I’m bursting out of my skin. I like looking at myself in mirrors. My energy and stamina are high. My libido is making me feel like I’ve been shot out of a cannon.

Seared_tuna_steak And very surprisingly, I find that I enjoy food more now. I pay more attention to it; I savor it; I take great relish in the occasional donuts and potato chips; I’m finding new pleasures in roasted vegetables and poached fish and Greek yogurt with warm fruit… and yes, even tofu. (The fact that Ingrid has always been a good cook and is becoming a spectacular one doesn’t hurt.) As Ingrid put it: It’s easier to enjoy your food when you’re not in a state of cognitive dissonance about it. Not to mention the overall effect on my physical health… which has been, as I described above, spectacular. And which can’t be divorced from my mental health.

Health-at-every-size Now, I can hear the fat-positive advocates already, saying that they don’t support neurotic, unconscious, joyless eating. They advocate being healthy at every size, which includes mental health and a sane relationship with food. Yeah. That’s a beautiful dream. I tried “healthy at every size.” It wasn’t healthy. There is no math in the world that makes a bad knee just as healthy at 200 pounds as it is at 150. And while some people might be capable of maintaining a healthy relationship with food without keeping track of what they eat, I am not one of them. Besides, this idea that eating “naturally” is all we need to do to eat healthy? Total bullshit. Our appetites evolved on the African savannah 100,000 years ago, in an environment of scarcity, and our bodies evolved to eat as much food as is available, whenever it’s available. A strategy that obviously doesn’t work so well in 21st century America. If counting calories and keeping a food diary is what I need to do to keep my diet healthy and stay conscious and sane about how I eat, I fail to see how that’s a bad thing.

There’s an old saying that courage doesn’t mean not having fear — it means not letting fear get in the way. I’m come to feel that way about sanity. Sanity doesn’t mean not having neuroses. It means not letting neuroses get in the way.

Measuring_tape And that’s just as true for being sane about food and my body. Food and bodies are fraught, emotional, heavily loaded issues, with feelings that are deeply ingrained by evolution, and feelings that are profoundly twisted by modern Western society. It’s hard for me to imagine ever being completely nonchalant about them. My emotional rollercoaster about food and my body is smoothing out a lot, as time goes on and I get accustomed to my new habits… but I’m always going to have some degree of neuroses about this stuff. And me being me, I’m always going to overthink it. So since I’m going to be neurotic and overthinking about food and my body anyway, I may as well be neurotic and overthinking… and in good health, and basically happy with how I look and feel, and not in a state of denial and cognitive dissonance about it.

I’m not going to be an evangelist about weight loss. I still believe — passionately — that the cost-benefit analysis of weight loss is different for different people, and that while it’s right for me, it isn’t necessarily right for everyone.

Scale 2 What’s more, I know that weight loss is hard, and that for reasons we don’t even come close to understanding, it’s harder for some people than others. Different people have different hunger triggers, different metabolisms, different rates of becoming satiated, etc. And I know that many of the things that are making weight loss easier for me are privileges not everyone has: things like being able to afford a gym membership, and living in a city where fresh, healthy food is widely available, and having a supportive partner who’s going through this process with me. Which, again, makes the cost-benefit analysis different for everybody. The cost is worth it to me… but the cost isn’t the same for me as it is for everyone else.

So I’m not going to evangelize about weight loss. What I am going to evangelize for is:

(a) Doing an honest, non-denialist, reality-based assessment of the costs and benefits of weight loss (including, and especially, the health costs and benefits);

and (b) Pursuing weight loss in a reality-based way if you think it would be right for you.

So to that end, for anyone who’s interested, I want to talk about what exactly I’ve been doing to lose weight — what techniques have been successful, what techniques haven’t been so much, what practical strategies and psychological tricks have made this go smoother.

Conversation And if anyone else is dealing with this, I want to hear from you. I know that this process isn’t over: I still have another ten or fifteen pounds to go. And I know that the hardest part is yet to come. Everything I’ve read says that maintaining weight loss is tougher than losing the weight in the first place, and as good as I feel about all this, I’m not willing to call it a success until I’ve not only lost all the weight I want to, but have kept it off for at least a year. This is a work in progress, and it’s not like I have all the answers. I want to let you know what’s working and not working for me… and I want to find out what’s working and not working for you.

So let’s talk specifics. Let’s talk about how to do this.

Tomorrow.

(Tomorrow: The actual diet. Part 3 of a three-part series.)

The Fat-Positive Feminist Skeptical Diet: An Update

Doll tape measure I promised I wouldn’t turn this into a diet blog, and I meant it. The thought of turning my beautiful atheist sex blog into a tedious daily update on what I’m eating and how much I weigh fills me with existential horror. It’s not going to happen.

But when I wrote my series a few months back about weight loss — and about the assorted issues it raises with feminism and skepticism and self-image and whatnot — a fair number of you seemed interested. And since I’ve recently hit a new milestone — as of this writing, I’ve lost 50 pounds — I thought I should give y’all an update.

*

Scale 1 I’ve been reading over the stuff I wrote when I was starting out with this. And I’m struck by how difficult this process was for me then… and how much easier it’s become. I actually feel bad that I might have frightened some people off from trying weight loss themselves, with all my talk of conflicted emotions and political battles and crying fits in grocery store parking lots. This has all gotten so much easier with time; when I read the stuff I wrote earlier on in the process, it seems almost alien.

I’m not going to say that this has been easy. But as I’ve gotten accustomed to it — as my body has adjusted, as my psychological strategies have become second nature, as calorie counting has become a habit — it’s gotten easier. It continues to get easier every week. And the benefits are greatly outweighing the costs — much more greatly than I’d anticipated — which makes sticking with it easier when it does get rough.

I don’t want to evangelize about weight loss, though, and I hope it doesn’t sound like I am. The cost- benefit analysis on this stuff is different for everybody, and what’s good for me isn’t good for the entire world. What I’m writing here — it’s all just what’s true for me. More on that in a bit.

Pear_on_a_diet The thing is — it’s hard to speak honestly and accurately about both the difficulty and the ease of weight loss. In a strange way, this has been both easier and harder than I’d expected. On the one hand, weight loss has required a major reworking of the way I structure my life: not just food, but all the things associated with food, things like friends and family, time management and money. I have to plan most of my meals ahead of time, and forego almost all impulse eating that comes my way. I’ve had to let my friends and family know about my new eating regimen, and I’ve had to ask them to take it into consideration when we eat together. (And even then I have to budget and be careful, since other people’s ideas of “eating light” are often very different from mine.) I have to treat parties where lots of food is available with kid gloves and careful planning. I have to structure my life so that I can get a good amount of exercise virtually every day (and this in a life where time is an enemy, the demon dog constantly yapping at my heels). I have to eat out rarely. Not to mention all the major re-thinking I’ve had to do about the politics and psychology and emotions of food and body size… re-thinking that’s involved some painful realizations about how much denial I was in about my body, for years.

And I’m one of the lucky ones, someone with lots of external factors making this process easier: supportive friends and family; a supportive partner who’s participating in this with me; living in a part of the world where healthy food is readily available; enough money to afford a gym membership.

Whats_on_your_plate On the other hand… once I got into a groove with this, it became so natural that I almost don’t have to think about it. The day to day of this has become no big deal. I count calories; I exercise a lot; I weigh myself regularly to make sure that what I’m doing is working. It’s second nature now. I’m almost embarrassed at how much of a stink I threw about it before I decided to just do it. And the difficult emotional stuff is smoothing out as time goes on.

This tricky balance — the weird balance of the difficulty and the ease of weight loss — is complicated by the fact that I’m talking to more than one demographic in this piece. To the people who are considering weight loss, or who’ve tried it and been discouraged, I think it’s important to say that this is do-able, and that it doesn’t necessarily mean a life of misery and deprivation and constant, depressing vigilance. And to the more extremist advocates of the fat-positive movement — the ones who insist that weight loss is never, ever, ever right for anybody — I want to get this message across even more clearly. This has not made my life a misery. This has made me neither neurotic nor physically ill. This has just not been that bad. (More on that in a bit.)

But to the people who deride fat people for being fat; to the people who dismissively say “Just eat less and exercise more — sheesh, how hard can it be?” without having any idea of just exactly how hard it is; to the people in the skeptical movement who fiercely battle (and rightly so, I’ll add) the fat-positive movement for their denialism of the health problems associated with being fat — but who don’t offer any acknowledgement of how difficult weight loss is, or any recognition of the social and economic factors that make it even harder than it has to be — it’s important to stress that this is not easy. This has been a hard row to hoe in many ways, both emotionally and practically. And again, I’m one of the lucky ones, with supportive circumstances that not everyone has.

Knee But back to the update. By far the most important thing on my update: My knee is much, much better. I can’t even tell you. My bad knee is the main reason I decided to lose weight: I was having serious trouble climbing hills, and was having to haul myself up stairs by hanging onto banisters. I am now running up stairs. The improvement has been astonishing. (Physical therapy has helped immensely, too… but even before I started PT, the weight loss was improving my pain and my mobility by leaps and bounds.)

There’ve been other health benefits as well — benefits I hadn’t been expecting. My feet, for instance. I didn’t realize how much my feet hurt until I noticed that they weren’t hurting any more. I used to have to wear shoes all the time; I couldn’t go barefoot even for ten minutes without my feet hurting. And I couldn’t clean the house for more than an hour without having to sit down for ten minutes. No more. I can now go barefoot (yay!), and I can now clean the house for hours without stopping (less exciting, but at least I get it over with sooner, and my feet aren’t killing me at the end of it).

My asthma is better, too. I had no idea that was going to happen. It made sense once my doctor explained it — my lungs don’t have to work as hard just to get me around — but it was a lovely surprise. And my overall energy and stamina are way, way higher. I don’t know if that’s the weight loss per se and having less bulk to carry around, or whether it’s simply a result of exercising more and eating more nutritious food… but since the two are directly related, I’m not sure it matters.

Hand mirror And I’ll admit that I’m happier with my appearance. That wasn’t the reason I started losing weight, and it’s still not the main reason… but I’m going to be honest here, and say that I do think I look better now. Healthier, mostly. More energetic, more libidinous. And more comfortable in my skin. For the record: I think plenty of fat women look great, I think there are fat women who look sexy and delicious and exactly the way they’re supposed to look. But looking back, and being as honest with myself as I can be? I don’t really think I was one of them. When I was younger, maybe… but not for some years now.

It’s not like I think there are objective abstract standards of attractiveness. Of course beauty is subjective, and of course a huge amount of attractiveness has to do with confidence and self-love. But even purely according to my own personal subjective standards, I don’t think I’ve been an attractive fat person for some years now. I had some degree of confidence and self-love… but it was interlaced with a sizable portion of unhappiness and ill health and disconnection from my body — and a great heaping portion of denial and cognitive dissonance about how unhappy and unhealthy and disconnected from my body I was. Some of my confidence and self-love was real… but a chunk of it was bravado, and me lying to myself. I now feel more like myself, more comfortable in my skin. And I’m happier now with how my clothes fit, and how many more options I have for what to wear. There were only so many kinds of clothes that looked good on me when I was fat… and that range got narrower and narrower as I got older. (I’m wearing jeans again, for the first time in over a decade. I love jeans.) This pleasure in my new appearance is complicated… but I’m not going to pretend that it’s not there.

All of which leads me to some of the stranger emotional stuff about this.

(Tomorrow: The stranger emotional stuff about this.)

An Open Letter to the Fat-Positive Movement

Dear Fat-Positive Movement:

Here is a fat-positive manifesto I could live with.

Feet_on_scaleWe need to make major changes in how our society views weight, fatness, and fat people. Our society has an excessively narrow definition of what constitutes an acceptable body type, and it’s a definition that is unattainable for the overwhelming majority of people. People can be healthy, happy, and attractive at a variety of sizes; the standard medical definition of a healthy weight range is almost certainly too narrow, and some evidence suggests that it may be too low. Furthermore, many popular weight loss programs are grossly unhealthy, both physically and psychologically, and are aimed, not at maintaining good health, but at an almost certainly fruitless attempt to attain the cultural ideal of beauty. And many people who try to lose weight have no earthly medical reason for doing so.

Shallow halWe demand that people be treated with respect and dignity regardless of their size. We demand an end to job discrimination based on size. We oppose the moral outrage that is commonly aimed at fat people, and the persistent media representations of fat people as objects of disgust and ridicule. And we demand an end to medical discrimination based on size: we expect doctors to treat fat people with respect; to discuss weight loss with fat people as one option among many instead of the one course of action that must be pursued before any other; and to treat non- weight- related conditions equivalently for all patients, without regard to size.

Weight loss is both very difficult and very uncommon, especially in the long term. And we don’t yet know why it’s so difficult, or why a few people are able to do it while most people are not. We therefore think it’s completely valid for a fat person to decide that weight loss isn’t where they want to put their time and energy. Many of the health risks associated with being fat diminish significantly when people eat a healthy diet and get regular exercise — even if they don’t lose weight. We therefore encourage fat people to be as healthy as they can be: to eat healthy diets and get regular vigorous exercise, even if they don’t lose weight doing so. And we encourage people who do choose to lose weight to do so in a healthy, sustainable way.

RugbyWe understand that there are health risks associated with being fat. There are health risks associated with many things — things we have control over, such as playing rugby; things we have no control over, such as carrying the breast cancer gene; and things we have limited control over to differing degrees, such as where we live. We think it is reasonable for people to decide for themselves whether they are willing to live with these risks, or whether they want to take action to reduce those risks — whether that’s by quitting rugby, having a pre-emptive mastectomy, moving, or losing weight. Both fatness and weight loss can involve health risks and loss of quality of life, and each individual must determine for themselves their own cost/benefit analysis of those risks and that quality. No person can decide that for another.

Fast food nationWe do understand that fatness is a health concern — and we think it should be treated as such, as a public health issue and not as a moral failing or a character flaw. We support social and political changes in the way our society is structured around food and exercise — changes that will improve the health of people of all sizes. We support bike lanes, cities and neighborhoods designed to be walked in, farmers’ markets, accuracy in food labeling, laws prohibiting wild and unsubstantiated claims in the advertising of weight-loss products, yada yada yada. We passionately support healthy eating and exercise programs for children, since fatness in children can cause even more long-term harm than it does in adults… and is easier to address as well, at an age when set points and eating/exercise habits are more malleable. And we oppose the American food-industrial complex’s use of psychological manipulation to sell excessive amounts of unhealthy, highly- processed, non- nutritious food, and their prioritization of profit over all other concerns.

Science it works bitchesFinally: We want to base our movement on the best understanding of reality we can get. We encourage people of all sizes to base their cost/ benefit decisions about food, exercise, and weight, not on wishful thinking, but on a realistic assessment of the best hard data currently available. We support careful, rigorous, unbiased scientific research into why people come in different sizes, and why sizes vary not only from person to person but from culture to culture. We support careful, rigorous, unbiased scientific research into maintaining and improving people’s health at the size that they are. And we also support careful, rigorous, unbiased scientific research into safe, sane, effective weight loss for people who choose to pursue it. Our bodies, our right to decide.

Now. Here is a fat-positive manifesto I can’t live with:

Slashed circleWeight loss never works. Never, never, never. Virtually nobody successfully loses weight and keeps it off for the long term; the number of people who successfully lose weight and keep it off is statistically insignificant. Weight is entirely or overwhelmingly determined by genetics, and behavior and environment have virtually nothing to do with it. There are no serious health risks caused or exacerbated by being fat: health problems that appear to be caused by fatness are always really caused by something else. And if there are health problems caused by fatness, they can always be better addressed by some method other than weight loss. Even when weight loss is successful, the harm done by it — physical, psychological, or both — is terrible: so terrible that, in all cases, it completely outweighs the benefits. If weight loss happens naturally, as part of a healthy diet and exercise program, that’s fine. But nobody should ever consciously attempt to lose weight, under any circumstances. People who are attempting to lose weight, for whatever reason, even to address serious and immediate health concerns, should be actively discouraged from doing so.

In my recent discussions of weight loss here in this blog, the fat positive movement responded vociferously with this second manifesto, both in comments and in private emails. And here’s why I can’t live with it:

It is completely out of touch with reality.

Scale 2It is flatly absurd to argue that nobody ever successfully loses weight and keeps it off for the long term. Just in my life, in my not- very- large circle of immediate friends and family, I could name you a dozen or so people who have lost weight and kept it off for years. And as far as I can tell, they are not psychologically damaged: they seem to be fine and healthy (or if they’re neurotic, they’re no more neurotic than they were before they lost the weight). Yes, they’re in the minority… but it’s not an insignificant minority. It’s a big enough number for me to pay attention to. And the studies on weight loss support this: most people who try to lose weight either fail or regain it in the long run, but there are a handful of people who succeed.

Circle two arrowsThere’s a weird circularity to the arguments as well. “Weight loss never works… but when it does work, it’s harmful… but even if it would be beneficial, it doesn’t matter, because it never works.” And the arguments are rife with logical absurdities. If set points can get re-set upwards with crash diets or poor eating and exercise habits, then why can’t they be re-set downwards? If it’s okay to accidentally lose weight as a side effect of a “health at every size” food and exercise plan, then why is it so unhealthy to consciously lose weight… even if the “conscious weight loss” plan is identical to the “health at every size” plan? If weight is genetically determined and diet and exercise have nothing to do with it, then why have Americans become so much heavier in the last 50 and indeed 20 years… and why do other cultures who start eating an American diet almost immediately start putting on weight?

But this second manifesto isn’t just unrealistic, or circular, or logically absurd. It seems to be unfalsifiable as well. Here’s what I want to ask the fat-positive movement: What evidence would convince you that you were mistaken? How many people would have to successfully lose weight for you to change your mind about it never working? How long would they have to keep the weight off for you to change your mind about it not being sustainable in the long run? And what would you consider as valid evidence that they haven’t been psychologically damaged by the process?

Portable goal postsOr are you just going to keep moving the goalposts? Are you just going to make the No True Scotsman argument? Are you just going to argue that nobody successfully loses weight… and that people who do are suffering from eating disorders or other psychological damage? Or that if they seem healthy and happy, they’re psychologically scarred on the inside, or have sustained unseen but serious damage to their health that will ruin their lives in years to come? Are you going to argue that conscious lifelong attention to weight loss and weight maintenance is an eating disorder by definition? Or that the people who do sustain healthy long-term weight loss are statistical flukes and don’t count?

Is there any way that your hypothesis could be proven wrong?

Because if there isn’t, then that’s not a hypothesis. It’s an article of faith. And there’s no reason I should take it seriously.

Extreme posterIn addition, an unsettling tendency has apparently developed in the fat-positive movement: a tendency to take the most extreme positions — no matter how logically absurd or morally repugnant — simply to avoid having to concede any points whatsoever. Many fat-positive advocates insist that weight loss never, ever, ever works. Others insist that there are no health problems caused by any degree of fatness. Still others insist that even if some health problems are caused or exacerbated by fatness, weight loss is never, ever, ever the more healthy choice for anyone to make. Ever. Even if you weigh 400 pounds and have had three heart attacks
 you still shouldn’t try to lose weight. And if you’re me, if you weigh 200 pounds and are having serious mobility impairment due to knee problems and have exhausted all other treatment options for it… forget about it. It’s better to have a fourth heart attack, it’s better to gradually lose mobility over the years to the point where you can no longer climb stairs or walk more than a block, than it is to try to demonstrate that any belief of the fat-positive movement might be mistaken.

KneeI was frankly shocked at how callous most of the fat-positive advocates were about my bad knee. I was shocked at how quick they were to ignore or dismiss it. They were passionately concerned about the quality of life I might lose if I counted calories or stopped eating chocolate bars every day. But when it came to the quality of life I might lose if I could no longer dance, climb hills, climb stairs, take long walks, walk at all? Eh. Whatever. I should try exercise or physical therapy or something. Oh, I’d tried those things already? Well, whatever.

I’m going to repeat something from my first manifesto, the good manifesto. It may have gotten lost in the shuffle, and it’s important, so I’m going to call it out here:

Both fatness and weight loss can involve health risks and loss of quality of life, and each individual must determine for themselves their own cost/benefit analysis of those risks and that quality. No person can decide that for another.

Yes, this manifesto applies to rabid weight-loss advocates: people who insist that anyone who’s even 20 pounds over the medical definition of a healthy weight should start losing immediately, even if their blood pressure and blood sugar and cholesterol and joints and exercise habits and family history of heart disease are all totally fine. But it also applies, every bit as much, to the fat-positive movement. It is not up to you to decide for me that the costs of losing weight are greater than the costs of losing my knee. It is not up to you to decide for me that the long odds against successful long-term weight loss (roughly 10 to 1) mean that my attempt to treat my bad knee by losing weight isn’t worth it. My body. My right to decide.

AlcoholLet me ask you this. If you read a post from a blogger saying that they were a heavy drinker, but it was adversely affecting their health and they’d decided to quit… would you send them comments and emails saying, “Don’t bother, it’s a waste of time and energy, the overwhelming majority of problem drinkers who try to quit eventually fail, and the ones who succeed get obsessed with it and have to go to all these meetings for the rest of their lives and aren’t any fun to be around any more, and anyway the connection between heavy drinking and poor health has been totally made up by our anti- drinking society, so instead you should just focus on being the most healthy drinker you can be”?

If not — then why would you say it to someone who’s losing weight?

And here’s the thing I’ve begun to realize about the “weight loss never works” mantra:

It’s not actually very fat-positive.

In fact, it’s actively fat-negative.

The stubborn insistence that healthy, sane, long-term weight loss is impossible — in flat denial of evidence to the contrary — seems to concede that if fat people could lose weight, then therefore they should. It’s essentially conceding that the only valid justification for being fat is that fat people have no choice. IMO, it’s a whole lot more fat-positive to say that people have the right to decide for themselves whether the difficult, time- consuming, attention- consuming, “10 to 1 odds against success” process of weight loss is something that’s worth pursuing.

I do think I see where a lot of this stuff is coming from. Our culture is powerfully biased against fat people and fatness; and even when they are being moderate and evidence- based, the fat-positive movement often gets dismissed as wackaloons, by both the medical community and the culture at large. So given that they’ve largely been ignored even when they make valid points, I can see how the movement would become increasingly insular, increasingly unwilling to listen to anyone but one another.

Greta simpsonsBut that’s no excuse. I am here today, not as an outsider, but as a fat person, and as someone who has thought of herself as both fat and fat-positive for many, many years. And I am saying to you now: It is possible to be fat-positive and still acknowledge that being fat does carry some serious health risks. It is possible to be fat-positive and still acknowledge that some people do successfully lose weight and keep it off. And it is possible to be fat-positive and still be supportive of people who are trying to lose weight. Being fat-positive doesn’t require you to treat people who disagree with you as objects of excoriation or pity. And being fat- positive doesn’t require that you deny reality.

Now, I’m sure some fat-positive advocates are going to insist that their position is reality- based, and they’re going to point to papers and books supporting this conclusion. To them, I say in advance: Yes, you can find papers and books supporting the idea that weight loss never works and is always harmful. You can also find papers and books supporting the idea that vaccines never work and are always harmful. You can find papers and books supporting the idea that global warming isn’t real, and that even if it is, it isn’t caused by human activity. You can find papers and books supporting the idea that the moon landing never happened. You can find papers and books supporting the idea that the earth is flat.

But that’s not the scientific consensus.

And as a skeptic, I need to be informed by the scientific consensus.

Scientific methodYes, the scientific consensus could be wrong. It certainly has been in the past. Scientists are fallible humans, shaped by the biases of their culture… and our culture is very strongly biased against fatness and fat people. The overwhelming scientific consensus that fatness is a major contributing factor to a whole host of serious health problems… that could be wrong. Or it could be exaggerated. Or it could be right when it comes to some health problems, wrong about others. Or it could be getting the nuance wrong: it could be right about fatness being one co-factor, but wrong about the emphasis it places on it compared to other co-factors. There are some real problems with the ways medical researchers have studied the health effects of fatness: they tend to conflate moderate overweight-ness with serious obesity, for instance, and they often don’t control for different eating and exercise habits among people of similar sizes. And an important part of the scientific method is questioning and opposition — both from inside the scientific community, and from smart laypeople outside it.

I_reject_your_reality_substitute_my_own_fridge_m_magnet-p147848655115195592qjy4_400But if the fat-positive movement wants to be a serious voice of opposition to the current scientific consensus, it needs to stop denying reality. It needs to stop with the circular reasoning, the cherry-picking of data, the “all or nothing” thinking, the taking of good ideas to ridiculous and repugnant extremes, the logical absurdities, the elaborate rationalizations, the insularity, the flat denial of simple facts that are staring them in the face. It needs to be willing to follow the evidence wherever it leads… even if where it leads is unpleasant or upsetting. It needs to stop with the true believerism. It needs to treat the principles of fat positivity as hypotheses that can be debated — not as articles of faith.

And I heartily wish it would do that.

Because we really, really need a sane, evidence- based, reality-based fat-positive movement.

I completely stand by my first manifesto. I think these are important issues, and I think we need a social and political movement that’s speaking out about them and is working to address them. And just speaking personally: I want and need a fat-positive movement. The smarter, more reality- based ideas of this movement have been invaluable to me: they helped keep me sane and happy as a fat person, and they taught me to think of my fat body as valuable and worth taking care of. And even when I’ve lost all the weight I plan to lose, I’m still probably going to be seen by most people as overweight. I could really use a community that supports me in my new size as much as it did in my old one.

Blackbelt in crazyBut in my years as an atheist and skeptical blogger, I have learned to tell the difference between thoughtful disagreement and close-minded true belief. I have learned to recognize denialist crazy. And as it stands now, the fat-positive movement has really started bringing the crazy. It’s moving away from being a serious voice in the social/ political/ medical worlds, and is instead becoming an insular, cultish community that only listens to itself. It has taken some very good ideas and has completely run off the rails with them. It has become utterly unconvincing to anyone who isn’t already predisposed to agree with it. Hell, it’s not even convincing to me — and I agreed with it just three months ago. I started writing about this issue, in part, to figure out what I thought about it: to think out loud, to get some new perspectives, to hear the best arguments from both sides and refine or rethink my own shifting ideas. And nothing the fat-positive advocates have said so far, in either comments or private emails, has convinced me that I’m wrong to try to lose weight. It has, instead, convinced me that the movement has gone off the deep end.

I really, really want to be part of a sane, evidence- based, reality- based fat-positive movement. But it looks like I may have to find a way to do that on my own.

The Fat-Positive Skeptic (Part 2 of 2)

Scale 2So how do you be a fat-positive skeptic?

Yesterday, I wrote about being a fat-positive feminist who’s losing weight. Today, I’m finishing up with a look at one of the trickiest and most loaded balancing acts in this struggle: being both fat-positive and a skeptic.

See, here’s the thing. As you may or may not know, there is something of a pitched battle between feminist fat- positive advocates, and advocates of a skeptical, science- based view that fatness is medically harmful. (I’m not sure what to call the anti-fat-positives. Fat-negatives?) The fat-positives think the fat-negatives are hysterics who exaggerate the health risks of being fat; the fat-negatives think the fat-positives are denialists who dismiss those risks too easily. The fat-negatives point out the well- documented connection between being fat and a whole host of health problems; the fat-positives point out that many of these health risks significantly diminish with a healthy diet and regular exercise… even for people who don’t lose weight.

Now, I don’t generally cotton to the “golden mean” fallacy: the misguided notion that in any dispute between two opposing sides, the truth will probably fall in the middle. But in this case, I genuinely do think that both sides have some valuable ideas… and that both sides are missing some seriously important truths.

AtherosclerosisI completely agree that the fat-positive movement does often trivialize the very serious, extensively documented, no-joke health risks of being fat. I think they focus on their political ideology about bodies and feminism, at the expense of the actual scientific facts on the ground. I think they’re often guilty of wishful thinking: of acting as if the mere act of saying “Fat is as healthy as not-fat” over and over again will somehow make it true, regardless of the medical evidence. And I think they dismiss the fact that, while it’s fairly easy to be a healthy, active fat person in your youth, it gets increasingly harder as you get older.

I also think that when the fat-positive movement keeps repeating the “Dieting doesn’t work” mantra, they support this view by stubbornly focusing on the stupidest, most extreme diets out there. It’s certainly fair to point out that a lot of popular diets are essentially semi- starvation, guaranteed to make you crazy and miserable and ultimately guaranteed to fail. But it’s also fair to point out that not all weight-loss programs are that dumb. (Of course, this is also true for fat-negative skeptics, who focus on the stupidest, most extreme forms of fat-positivism while largely ignoring the more moderate, pro- exercise- and- eating- right, “be as healthy as you can at the weight that you are” folks…)

Medical journalsAnd when the fat-positive movement insists that weight loss doesn’t work, they’re ignoring the fact that we now know a whole lot more about weight loss than we used to. Good, careful studies have been done, looking not at the details of specific weight loss plans, but instead at the 10% of people who do lose weight and keep it off, and what they have in common. And apparently, it doesn’t matter so much what kind of diet or exercise plan they’re on: low-carb, high-protein, low-fat, high-vodka, whatever. What matters is that they’re counting calories, keeping food journals, weighing themselves regularly, getting lots of exercise, losing the weight slowly (no more than two pounds a week on average)… and seeing all these things as a permanent lifestyle change instead of a one-time thing.

(Of course, that does beg the question: Why are some people able to sustain behavior changes like these, and others aren’t? Diets generally don’t work partly because many diets are stupid and unsustainable… but it’s also partly because people don’t stick with weight loss plans even when they are reasonable. But why is that? There’s a whole science about behavior change and why it’s so hard… and we need to not frame it as a moral judgement about weak character. It’s common across humanity. As a society, it’s been like pulling teeth to get people to quit smoking and wear seatbelts. If we’re serious about addressing the American obesity epidemic, we need to be looking at major social and political change about how we deliver food and design our cities… not just haranguing people about how fat they are.)

Super_size_meThe fat positive movement also often claims that being fat is purely genetic, not behavioral… a claim that ultimately isn’t supportable. Yes, there’s clearly a genetic component: in a perfect world where everyone ate a perfect diet and got loads of exercise, people would still come in different sizes, and one of those sizes would be fat. Besides, it’s not so easy to draw a bright line between “genetic” and “behavioral.” Appetite triggers, for instance, may be genetic, some people may be born being more easily triggered by external food cues than others… but the triggers shape our behavior, and we can make choices to deflect those triggers, or alter them, or avoid them. But if it were true that fatness is purely genetic, then why are Americans — and non-Americans who eat an American diet — so much fatter than the rest of the world? And why are Americans so much fatter now than we were 50 years ago, or even 20? If size were purely genetic and eating and exercise behavior had nothing to do with it, none of that would be true. Evolution doesn’t work that fast.

So yes, I think the fat-positive movement has been missing the boat. A lot of boats.

But I think the hard-line fat-negative skeptics are overlooking some important truths as well.

FastfoodI think they often overlook the degree to which American obesity is not a personal problem, but a political one. I think they often overlook the ways that American obesity is created and exacerbated by deeply-laid social and economic structures: city planning based around cars instead of walking or biking; an economy in which people are overworked at sedentary jobs and don’t have time for exercise; the phenomenon of food deserts (large urban areas with no access to healthy, unprocessed food); the multitudinous evils of the American food industry, with its emphasis on shelf life over nutrition and profit over absolutely everything. I think they overlook the ways in which weight loss is a privilege, far easier for people in progressive cities with ready access to healthy food… and for financially comfortable people who can afford trainers and gym memberships. (Both categories that I freely acknowledge I belong to.)

I definitely think the fat-negative skeptics can be dismissive of just how difficult and complicated this issue is, and how loaded it is — emotionally, psychologically, indeed politically. Especially for women. (The practical mechanics of how I’m losing weight are insanely simple: counting calories, keeping a food journal, regular exercise, patience. The emotional and psychological and political mechanics are a minefield. Did I mention the endless processing, the obsessive planning, the hysterical crying fits in grocery store parking lots?) I think the skeptics often ignore our culture’s obsession with an unattainable ideal of physical perfection — especially for women — and the effect this has on people who are never, ever going to even come close to that ideal, no matter how healthy they become. And I think the skeptics can be oblivious to the effect their words have on people: how, for a fat person, especially for a fat person who’s tried more than once to lose weight, hearing something like, “Weight loss is simple, it just takes will power, just eat less and exercise more” basically translates as, “And if you don’t, it’s your fault, you’re weak and lazy and you deserve to get sick and die.”

Shallow halI also think that fat-negative skeptics tend to overlook — or are maybe just ignorant of — the venomous contempt and hostile bigotry that gets aimed at fat people in our culture on a regular basis. I’m not just talking about third-graders who get teased at school, or the scores of personal ads seeking partners who are “fit and trim” (or, more bluntly, “No fatties”). I’m not even just talking about endless, degrading fat jokes in the media… and the way said jokes are a normal, unquestioned part of the media landscape. I’m talking about things like actual, well- documented job discrimination, and medical discrimination in areas that have nothing to do with weight. We need some sort of pride, some sort of positivity, just to keep from collapsing into depression and self-loathing.

And for all their passion about being reality- based and sciencey, the fat-negatives have a serious blind spot when it comes to one very important, extensively- documented fact about weight loss:

It rarely works.

Consistently, across the board, about 90% of people who try to lose weight either fail, or gain it back within a year. To my knowledge, every single method of weight loss that has ever been rigorously tested has a failure rate of roughly 90%. (Interesting tangent: If you join Weight Watchers, and you lose and re-gain the same 20 pounds three times? They don’t count that as a failure. They count it as three separate successes.)

10% success. That’s not a very good rate. And it’s something that fat-negative advocates need to deal with. I mean, what the hell is the point of raising the Dire Warning Alert System and telling everybody, “Being fat is horrible for you, being fat will ruin your health, being fat can kill you” — if, once you’ve successfully freaked everybody out, you don’t have anything constructive to offer about what they can do about it?

Medical scaleNow, as Ingrid often points out: Quitting alcoholism or other drug addiction also has about a 90% failure rate, and you’d still advise addicts to kick if they can. The fact that weight loss is difficult and rare doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying. (And we are learning more about weight loss, and are beginning to get a good, science-based, reality- based picture about what works and what doesn’t. Again: counting calories, keeping a food journal, regular exercise, regular weigh-ins, patience.)

But given that this 90% failure rate is true, and until it is no longer true, then at least some of the visions and goals of the fat-positive movement are still pertinent. The idea that it’s useful to eat a healthy diet and get regular vigorous exercise — even if you don’t lose weight? As long as weight loss efforts fail about 90% of the time, that’s a pretty damn important message to get across.

And here’s a freakish irony: The ideas and ideals I learned from fat-positivism? They’ve been incomparably useful to me in my efforts to lose weight.

Here’s what I mean. The degree to which I’ve had to alter my life in order to lose weight has been pretty dramatic. If I’d had to do it all at once, I probably wouldn’t have done it at all.

DumbbellBut I already had a head start. I was already exercising regularly: not as much as I needed to for weight loss, but more than probably 90% of Americans, and enough to improve my mood and my energy, my sleeping and my libido, my joint problems and my mental health. And I was already eating a healthy diet: not low-cal enough for weight loss, but better than probably 90% of Americans, and mostly consisting of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lowfat proteins. So shifting gears from “generally healthy lifestyle” into “weight loss,” while it was hard, was not nearly as hard as I’d thought it would be. I was already more than halfway there.

And a huge part of why I was more than halfway there was my fat-positivism, and the ideals I learned from that movement. I was flipping the bird at the corporate mainstream media industry that wanted me to look like Paris Hilton… but I was also flipping the bird at the corporate mainstream food industry that wanted me to eat a steady diet of Cheetos and Hot Pockets and Stuffed Crust Pizza. I was committed to being as healthy as I could be at the weight that I was… and that involved eating well and getting regular exercise. Goals that the fat-positive movement actively and passionately encourages. (The fat-positive activists I was reading, anyway.)

Plus, the fat-positive movement gave me the tools I’ve needed to frame my weight loss primarily as a health issue and not as a cosmetic issue: to pursue it, not to fit some mold of ideal womanhood, but for myself, for my health and the enjoyment of my life. If my efforts to eat better and get exercise had been entirely focused on the goal of looking better, I might well have given up long ago. After all, no matter what I do, I am never, ever going to look like Paris Hilton. Or even Heather Graham. I’m short, I have a square, stocky frame, and I’m 47. It’s not gonna happen. But because of the fat- positive movement, I was already thinking of how I eat and exercise, not in terms of what society expected of me, but in terms of my own pleasure and health. So paradoxically, once my weight started being a serious impediment to my pleasure and health, it didn’t take much to shift gears.

Kool-aid-manYet at the same time, I’m ticked off at the fat-positive movement as well. I do think that I put this off for a lot longer than I should have, at least partly, because I drank the Kool-Aid. I bought the idea that I could be every bit as healthy at 200 pounds as I would be at 140. I pored over the handful of studies saying that weight loss was no big deal, and ignored the mountain of studies saying, “Is Too.” I ignored the fact that my bad knee was getting worse, until it got almost too bad to do anything about it.

And the skeptical movement has also given me tools that I need to do this. Being part of the skeptical movement inspires me on a daily basis to face reality, no matter how difficult or emotionally loaded it might be. It inspires me to base my decisions, not on wishful thinking, but on the best hard evidence currently available. It’s gotten me thinking more clearly about the evolutionary aspects of food and appetite and weight loss… and has thus given me some seriously useful practical strategies to bypass the triggers that evolved on the African savannah 100,000 years ago.

So I’m not sure what to do here. I’m ticked off at both sides. I’m grateful to both sides. I see truth and value, and stubborn obliviousness, on both sides. In my personal life, I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing: taking what I need from wherever I can get it, doing whatever works for me to be as healthy and sane as I can. But as a writer, and as a member of two conflicting social and political movements, I’m not sure how to handle this.

Thoughts?

Fast Food wasteland photo by Apathetic duck.

The Fat-Positive Diet

Scale 3How do you be a fat-positive feminist who’s losing weight?

Don’t worry. This isn’t going to turn into a diet blog. I’d rather hit myself on the hand with hammers. But this thing has been happening with me: it’s kind of a big effing deal for me, and I think it may be of interest to my readers. So although I’m finding myself with an uncharacteristic reluctance to talk about something this personal, I’ve decided to take the plunge.

I am, as anyone who knows me or has seen photos of me knows, fat. I have been fat for a long time, and have been more or less okay with it for a long time. My attitude towards my fatness has largely been shaped by the feminist fat-positive movement: I wasn’t going to make myself miserable trying to force my body into the mainstream image of ideal female beauty, and I was instead going to work on being as healthy as I could be — eating well, exercising, reducing stress, etc. — at the weight that I already was.

But a few months ago, my bad knee started getting worse. I’ve had a bad knee for a long time (I blew it out doing the polka and it’s never been the same since); but as bad knees go, it wasn’t that bad. I had to be careful getting in and out of cars; I had bad days when I had to rest it; I had to quit doing the polka. No big deal. I can live a rich, full life being careful getting in and out of cars and not doing the polka.

But a few months ago, it started getting worse. Like, having trouble climbing hills and stairs worse.

Lombard streetThat was not okay. I live in San Francisco. I need to be able to climb hills and stairs. And I know about knees. They don’t get better. I could see the writing on the wall: I knew that if I didn’t take action, my mobility would just get worse and worse with time. I could easily lose more than just stairs and hills. I could lose dancing. Fucking. Long walks. Walking at all.

Short of surgery, there’s really only one thing you can do for a bad knee that I wasn’t already doing.

And that’s to lose weight.

How do you be a fat-positive feminist who’s losing weight?

Fat!so?It’s really hard not to feel like a traitor about this. When I reach a benchmark in my weight loss and get all excited and proud, or when someone compliments me on how good I look now and I get a little self-esteem-boosting thrill, it’s hard not to feel like a traitor to my feminist roots, and to the fat women who fought so hard to liberate me from the rigid and narrow social constructs of female beauty.

And even apart from feeling like a traitor, there are about eighty million emotional traps along the way: traps that threaten to upend years of hard mental health work spent learning to love myself the way I am.

For starters: I know that weight loss typically fails about 90% of the time. So far this weight loss thing is working; but I’ve only been at it for a couple of months, and I know that in the long run, it could easily fail. And if this fails, then I get to feel like… well, like a failure. I get to be back at Square One, with my bad knee and everything — but without the emotional supports I built up during my “Fuck You, Body Fascists” anti- dieting years.

But if I’m one of the 10% that succeeds… well, then I feel like an idiot for having whined about it for so long, and for not having done this sooner. (I’m already feeling like that now. In a purely practical sense, this has been easier than I’d thought it would be, and so now I’m feeling like a jackass for having insisted all these years that it was all but impossible.)

And if I am successful, the last thing in the world I want to do is get all smug and judgmental about how easy it was and how if I can do it, anyone can. If there’s anything I hate, it’s when people who’ve lost weight (or never gained it) get smug and judgmental about how if they can do it, anyone can. (I’m looking at you, Dan Savage.) That is a huge, ugly trap, and it’s one I’m desperate to avoid.

Voa_Guinea_chimpanzee_picking_30jan08Plus, it’s so hard to let go of thinking that food and the appetite for it should be “natural.” I mean, it’s food. It’s one of the oldest, deepest instincts we have. (Reproducing and escaping from predators also leap to mind.) The fact that I can’t just “eat naturally,” the fact that I have to pay careful, conscious attention to everything I eat and when… it’s hard not to see that as a failure of character.

And as much as I want my weight loss to purely be about my health, the reality is that, now that I’m in the process, it’s become more about my appearance than I’d like. I really don’t want that: I find it politically troubling and emotionally toxic, and I think in the long run it’ll undermine what I’m trying to do. But it’s hard. As much as I like to think of myself as a free-spirited, convention- defying rebel, the reality is that I’m a social animal, and social animals care about what other animals think of them. And since I’m non-monogamous, I have to be aware of the realities of the sexual economy… and the reality of the sexual economy is that I’ll almost certainly get more action and attention as I lose weight. I dearly wish I didn’t care about that, but I do.

Scale 5In case you’re curious: So far, I’ve been successful. As of this writing, I’ve lost 20 pounds in two and a half months. And in case you’re curious, I don’t have any great secret to my so-far success. Counting calories; keeping a food diary; regular exercise; patience. Absurdly simple in theory. In practice, it’s been a fucking minefield, especially at the beginning: crying fits in grocery store parking lots, heavy conversations with family and friends, planning that at times borders on obsessive compulsive, a painful and complicated emotional dance every time I have dinner with friends or eat out, and way more processing with Ingrid than I ever wanted to have to go through. (And I don’t even get to call this a success yet. 90% of people who lose weight gain it back within a year; so until I’ve lost all the weight I want and have kept it off for a year, I don’t get to relax and think of this as a win. And to some extent, I’ll never get to completely relax: I’ll probably have to do some form of calorie- counting and weight management for the rest of my life.)

But it is getting easier with time, as I get more and more used to my new eating habits. It’s getting physically easier: for the first week or two, 1800 calories a day just didn’t make me feel full, and I was cranky on good days and despairing on bad ones. Now 1800 calories feels like plenty, as my body has adjusted its sense of how much food is enough. And it’s gotten easier mentally as well, as I’ve found some strategies — emotional, psychological, practical strategies — that so far have helped.

Origin-of-speciesIt’s helped to remember that my appetites and instincts about food evolved about 100,000 years ago on the African savannah, in an environment of scarcity. The taste for sweets and fats; the tendency to gorge when I’m hungry; the impulse to keep on eating even after I’ve had enough; the triggers that make me hungry when I see or smell food… that’s not weakness or moral failure. That’s millions of years of evolution at work: evolution that hasn’t had time to catch up with the modern American food landscape. And as a rationalist and a skeptic, in the same way that I’m not going to let myself believe in deities just because evolution has wired my brain to see patterns and intentions even where none exist, I’m not going to let myself eat three brownies at a party just because evolution has wired my brain to think I might starve to death if I don’t.

Chocolate chip pancakes and sausage on a stickIt’s helped for me to think of this as a political issue. It helps to remember that the multinational food corporations have spent decades carefully studying the abovementioned evolutionary food triggers, so they can manipulate me into buying and eating way more food than is good for me. It helps to think of weight loss, not as giving in to the mainstream cultural standards of female beauty, but as sending a big “Fuck You” to the purveyors of quadruple- patty hamburgers and Chocolate Chip Pancakes & Sausage on a Stick.

It’s helped for me to remember that my other “natural” impulses aren’t so natural, either. It’s worked for me to remember that as a non-monogamist, I have to think carefully about who to have sex with and when; that as a city dweller, I have to think consciously about whether I’m genuinely in danger or am just being paranoid (or conversely, whether I’m genuinely safe or am just being oblivious). Food is no different. It’s “natural” for humans to be rational animals, and to think about our choices instead of just reacting.

Doing this with Ingrid has been a huge help. Being able to support each other, encourage each other, plan meals together, share strategies, vent… it’s been invaluable. I don’t know if the people studying weight loss have looked at whether it’s more effective to do it with a partner or friend… but it wouldn’t surprise me in the least.

Lose it ihpone appKeeping a food diary has helped enormously. It helps in the obvious way: that’s how I keep track of my calories. But more than that, it helps me be more mindful and present about how I eat. I’m a lot less likely to run to the corner and get a Snickers bar if I know I have to write it in my journal. (If you have an iPhone, btw, there’s a wicked cool calorie- counting app called LoseIt. I can’t tell you how much easier it’s made this process. If you don’t, though, not to worry: the Interweb has made calorie- counting a relative breeze.)

It helps to think of this as a permanent lifestyle change. It’s hard, but it helps. If I think of this as something I’ll just have to do once and will then be finished with… well, that wouldn’t just make this harder to sustain in the long run. It’d also make it harder in the short run: easier to blow it off for a day, and then another day, since all I’d be doing is postponing my “final” goal by a day or two. Thinking of this as “This is just how I eat now” makes it easier to keep it up.

It helped a lot to get a sane calorie count from my medical provider that took into account how much exercise I get. (As much as I love my little LoseIt iPhone app, if I’d have gotten my daily calorie count from that, it would have been way too low… since the gizmo apparently assumes that anyone using their program is about as active as a recently- fed boa constrictor.)

It helps to avoid using moral language about weight loss: to avoid thinking of “cheating” on my diet, “forbidden” foods, etc. It’s hard enough to not eat the things I’m trying not to eat, without making them seem more attractive because they’re naughty and wicked.

In defense of foodIt helps to eat real food… and to avoid “diet” food like the plague. No diet shakes, no power bars, no lowfat cardboard cookies from the industrialized food industry. Fruit, vegetables, bread, meat, rice, beans… that sort of thing. I don’t even eat lowfat cheese. I’d rather just eat regular cheese, and eat less of it.

It helps to eat slowly. Partly because it gives the “fullness” trigger in my brain time to catch up with my stomach… but partly because I get more pleasure from my food, and don’t feel deprived. And it helps to eat smaller meals more frequently: since I never get all that hungry, I can make smarter and more conscious choices about what to eat.

Measuring cups spoonsIt helps to measure my food, as much as I can. For calorie counting, it’s pretty much essential. My instincts about what constituted a cup of soup or a teaspoon of butter were way, way off. I don’t whip out the cup measure when I eat out, obviously… but I almost always do it at home, and since I’ve been doing it, my estimates on portion size when I do eat out have gotten a lot better.

It’s helped to break down my ultimate long-term goal into smaller, more manageable goals. When my health care provider told me I should lose 60 pounds to be at my maximum good health, I just about gave up in despair right then. Instead, I decided to fuck that noise, I was simply going to lose 20 pounds… and then I’d see how I felt, and how hard it was, and whether I wanted to continue or stay put. I am now shooting for another 20 pounds… and when that’s gone, I’ll once again re-evaluate and decide whether or not I want to keep going, and how far.

It’s helped to make incremental, non-drastic changes in my eating and my exercise. I think this is what trips up a lot of people who are trying to lose weight: they want to become health- obsessed gym bunnies overnight, and when that’s too hard, they give up. It helped instead to add one workout a week to what I was already doing… and then, when I got used to that, to add one more.

And on a related topic: It’s helped to be aware that weight loss can happen in fits and starts: there are natural fluctuations, with some weeks where I lose a lot and others where I don’t or even gain a little. One of my big hysterical grocery-store crying fits came early on in my program, during a week where I gained weight… and it took Ingrid forever to convince me that this didn’t necessarily mean I was doing something wrong, or that I had to make an already difficult weight-loss program even more strenuous. But she was right. It makes much more sense to keep my focus on the big picture, the overall arc. If I gain half a pound a week three weeks in a row, then I might decide that I need to step things up. But if I gain half a pound one week, I’m not going to decide that what I’m doing isn’t working. I’m just going to stick with it.

DumbbellIt’s helped for me to find exercise that I love doing. I am now doing bicep curls with 20 lb. dumbbells. I feel like a fucking Amazon goddess. Weightlifting rules.

It’s helped for me to do some sort of exercise almost every day. It’s not just that I burn more calories that way. It’s that it makes exercise into a normal part of my daily life: not a special thing I do a couple times a week and can blow off if I’m not in the mood, but an everyday routine like brushing my teeth.

When I’m not in the mood to exercise, it helps to remember that I never, ever, ever have been sorry that I worked out. Ever. No matter how crummy I felt when I started, I have always felt better afterwards.

Going to the gym helps. It’s not absolutely necessary; if you can’t afford a gym membership, you can get good exercise without one. But for me, the gym has been a lifesaver. The thing about the gym is it takes minimal willpower. All I need is the willpower to get in the car and get my ass to the gym. Once I’m there, of course I’m going to work out. I mean, what else am I going to do?

But it’s also helped to have some exercise equipment at home. Nothing fancy or expensive: some dumbbells, a stability ball, a resistance band, a mat. Having exercise equipment at home means I can easily do at least a little exercise every day, even if I can’t get to the gym. And that’s helped turn it into a regular part of my daily life, like brushing my teeth.

It’s helped to get a trainer. (Hi, Marta! We love you.)

Autumn_Red_peachesIt’s helped for me to to find healthy foods that I love. (Summer fruit season has made this so much easier: I can eat peaches and cherries and strawberries for months and never get tired of them.)

Dynamo donutAnd it’s helped to not be a purist: to eat the occasional cheeseburger, the occasional barbecued ribs, the occasional donut. I have to budget my day’s calories for it (or else budget for the occasional day when I don’t worry about it). But thinking, “I can never have another donut again as long as I live” would make this intolerable. Thinking, “I can have a donut today if I have a light dinner” makes this do-able. An entertaining challenge, even. Like my food for the day is a puzzle, and I’m trying to get all the pieces to fit together.

Knee jointFinally, more than anything else, it helps me to remember my knee. It helps to notice how much better my knee already feels now that I’ve lost the 20 pounds: to notice that I’m climbing stairs and hills again, with little or no problem. It helps to think of how much better my knee will feel when I lose another 20, and then another. It helps to pick up the 20 lb. dumbbells at the gym and think about how rough it would be on my knees to walk around carrying them all day… and how much better it would feel to set them down. It helps to think that I might even be able to do the polka again someday. And when I start thinking that this weight loss thing isn’t that big a deal and I can have that ice cream if I want it, it helps to imagine my old age, and to think about whether I want to be spending it dancing, walking in the woods, exploring new cities, on my knees committing unspeakable sexual acts… or sitting on a sofa watching TV and waiting to die.

There’s something Ingrid has said about this, something that’s really stuck with me. She’s pointed out that if I were diabetic or something, and I was told I had to change my eating habits in order to stay alive… I’d do it. I might gripe about it, but I’d manage, and I’d even find a way to enjoy it if I could.

Well, the reality isn’t that far off. I have a choice between a good shot at a healthy, active, pleasurable middle and old age… and a long, steady decline into a vicious circle of inactivity and ill health. I am, as the old ’80s T-shirts used to say, choosing life.

So that’s what’s working for me. If you’re doing this as well: What’s working for you?

Important note: I am most emphatically NOT looking for diet tips. Anyone who offers diet tips will be banned from this blog. I am only partially kidding. I already know the mechanics of what I need to do: count calories, keep a food journal, exercise regularly, be patient. Rocket science.

What I’m looking for is psychological tips. Ways of walking through the emotional minefield. Ways of framing this that make it more sustainable. Ways of answering the question:

How do you be a fat-positive feminist who’s losing weight?

And for that matter, how do you be a fat-positive skeptic?

(To be completed in tomorrow’s post.)