diets · weight loss

On wishing for weight loss (and wings that can fly)

Do I want to be smaller? Yes.

Ask me a hard question, as they say.

(I’m much more comfortable with big/small language instead of fat/thin. Why? Read Fat or big: What’s in a name?)

Look, it’s not irrational in a size phobic society to not want to be fat.

Why? More clothes fit, you’ll get paid more, get higher teaching evaluations if you’re a professor (like me), be seen as smarter, be more attractive to a wider range of partners (don’t get me wrong, I’ve never had a shortage of people finding me attractive but I’m a bit of a niche taste), and more to the point, in my case, climb hills faster. Zoom!

Added bonus: It’d improve my running times a lot.

Oh, and since I’m writing this on a plane, let me note that it’d be easier if there were less of me taking up seat space.

No more fat shaming and discrimination? Who wouldn’t want that? How bad is it?

The overweight and obese face significant discrimination. A 2014 study from University College London that followed nearly 3,000 adults found that overweight individuals experienced teasing, harassment, or felt that they received poorer service everywhere from restaurants to doctors offices for their size. It’s a process informally known as “fat shaming,” and it does nothing to improve the lives of the shamed. From here.

You can divide the above list of facts into two categories, those that depend on the attitudes of others and those that don’t.

Arguments about homosexuality used to have that kind of flavour back in my youth. “I don’t know why they’re called ‘gay’,” says homophobic uncle. “I’ve never met a happy one.” Another relative says, “It’s a sad life. They’re treated so badly.” But homosexuality isn’t inherently sad. It’s sad in a homophobic society. Sad to be gay when gay people are treated badly.

Lots of the arguments about it being bad to be fat are like that. Bad to be fat when fat people are hated. It’s interesting that some of the attitudes we have towards fat are more dangerous in terms of health impact than fat itself. See Fear of Far More Dangerous Than Fat. Even the health impact of obesity is a more complicated than you might think. For example, being overweight though not obese, is linked to lower overall all cause mortality.

Mostly I’m okay with the attitudes of others. I’m smart, tough, successful, and I’ve got a terrific group of family and friends. I love my body, that’s true, but even for me, multiply privileged me, it’s tiring in a fat phobic world.

It’s consistent with wishing the world were different that if I can’t change the world, my next best choice is changing me.

That’s true of race as well.

I remember reading Lawrence Thomas’s piece years ago and being moved by it.

Next Life, I’ll Be White Maybe Then, I’ll Be Trusted By Others

My 40-year journey through life has revealed to me that more often than not, I need only to be in the presence of a white woman and she will begin clutching her pocketbook. My sheer presence has reminded more white people – female and male alike – to lock their car doors than I care to think about. I suppose it can be said here that I make an unwitting contribution to public safety.

I rarely enjoy what is properly called the public trust of whites. That is to say, the white person on the street who does not know me from Adam or Eve is much more likely to judge me negatively on account of my skin color, however much my attire and mannerisms (including gait) conform to the traditional standards of well-off white males.

I’m not comparing in all aspects size discrimination with race discrimination but that’s clearly one way they’re alike. In both cases prejudice, discrimination, and implicit bias make your life worse.

The other set of regrets are tougher. They’re more like the laws of physics. Hill climbing is all about power to weight ratio. To beat someone who weighs 140 lbs up a hill I have to be an awful lot faster and and more powerful. If I lost fifty pounds I’d shave lots of minutes off my five km time.

So just how much can you expect to benefit from being lighter? Joe Henderson, the author of various books on running, has this to offer: “The loss of a single pound doesn’t mean much for a single mile, but the effect multiplies nicely. Ten pounds equals 20 seconds per mile, which grows to a minute-plus in a 5K, more than two minutes in a 10K, nearly 4.5 minutes in a half-marathon and almost nine minutes in a marathon.”

So, yes, lots of reasons to want to be smaller.

But also lots of reasons to want to be taller too. It’s a real help in rowing though not in cycling or running. Cycling favours smaller bodies and height isn’t a factor in running. Yes, tall people have longer legs but they weigh more and that offsets the height advantage in running.

Yet, while I’m teased about my height no one expects me to do anything about it.

My height for those who don’t know me in person is a life long, family related joke. I’M NOT SHORT. (“You keep telling people that mum.”)

I’m 5’7. That’s well above average height for a North American woman. But in my family, it’s short. My daughter Mallory is 5’11. All the men in the family are above 6’3. In that context, I’m short.

Cue the Hobbit Mother jokes. They even play the Hobbit song when I’m sad. “Here the music of your people will cheer you up!” (Or the Taking to Hobbits to Isengard song on 10 hour loop when they want to annoy me.)

But weight isn’t like height. Usually we think that one is changeable and other other isn’t. I’m not sure they’re that different.

Is long term weight loss impossible? I suspect impossible is too strong. Some people have done it so it’s not impossible. It’s just very very hard, highly unlikely, improbable. I know in my case it’s tough.

It might both be true that weight loss is near impossible and true that excess weight hurts health. That’s sad but something being sad doesn’t stop it being true.

The poodle video makes this Health at Every Size point in terms of dogs. See Poodle Science.

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No one wants greyhounds to put on weight, or chihuahuas to get taller. No one expects Saint Bernard to slim down. That’s true even though the larger dogs have shorter lives.

Now when it comes to humans and weight, it’s more complicated than that. But the truth is there’s lots of things I want that I can’t have. For example, I’d love changeable length hair. And while we’re really dreaming, changeable height. And wings. And maybe we could be playful with gender.

I’ve often thought it would be great to have size adjustable breasts, big and fancy for going out, pretty much flat while running.

I’d also like to have houses in New Zealand and Australia, find a cure for cancer, end racial discrimination, make the world happy and safe for people of all sexual and gender orientations and have more time for camping, canoeing, biking, etc. Life is full of things worth wishing for.

We do what we can. I’ve exercise a lot not just because it’s healthy but also because I’m happiest moving a lot. I eat well, again because eating well helps my body move in ways I enjoy.

If I lose weight, that’s terrific. But frankly while it’s something I want I have no big expectations beyond losing weight for the cycling season which I know I can do. Keeping it off is tough. I’ve been trying to lose weight most of my life. And wanting what I can’t have has never seemed a good game plan for life happiness.

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7 thoughts on “On wishing for weight loss (and wings that can fly)

  1. I love this post. I especially like how you’ve talked about the difference between others’/societies’ attitudes and our own. It’s an important distinction. And also the weight/height distinction–things we can supposedly change and things we can’t. I’m short and it would be convenient to be taller but I’ve never really thought about it. I’ve also never thought about weight loss in terms of a fat phobic world. I am fortunate in that sense–any struggle I may have is all internal, which is what gives me the luxury of asking questions like, ‘does wanting to lose weight make me s bad feminist?’ And then not think much about the material consequences of being seen as fat in a fat phobic society.
    And yes, wings maybe, the ability to fly definitely! Thanks for a fantastic post with lots to think about.

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  2. Thanks for another thought provoking post. I have struggled as a feminist to want to accept myself as I am in a fat phobic society (internalized fat phobia as well – it’s not only external). And I also learned that 1/2 marathon training and races didn’t help me lose weight – and I did feel more ease just generally moving when I was doing it…. I have recently determined that I want to be lighter so that movement is easier and I am kinder to my joints. And when I say movement is easier, I mean movements like rolling over in bed, as well as walking, going upstairs and downstairs, everyday things…. I realize the odds of keeping weight off are low and I am determined, so we’ll see. And I might train for a 10k because I love knitting and 1/2 marathon training takes too much of my free time 🙂

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  3. I’m glad you wrote about this, and that you used the height vs. weight examples. I think people take it for granted and assume that our weight is entirely within our control and thus feel OK making comments/discriminating based upon size and shape. We don’t blame people for being short and I do wonder what the world would be like if we realized that we have been far overestimating our potential to affect our weight. Do we “blame” people for being fat? gay? short? women? men? brown-haired? freckly? I think anything that challenges us to think about the things we make our bodies mean is a good thing, and your post might be the first time someone thinks about bodies in what I see as a more compassionate way.

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  4. Loved your quiet understated honesty here. I struggle as even though I’ve lost my post baby weight , I’ve gained muscle and I love my focus now on “what I can do” but I’ve had comments of ” you’re looking bit too muscular, perhaps you should lay off the weights” ( not my husband -FYI) Grrrr I’m still smaller than I was but unless it’s skin and bone it’s not acceptable.

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  5. Thanks for this post, Sam– it’s going to take time and cultural change and loads of positive reinforcement (like this blog!) to help us shift even a little from the default of “losing weight is good, losing weight is possible, losing weight is a constant imperative”. I’ve shifted a little, but struggle with both the internal and external pressures. Right now I want to lose weight to get back into clothing in my closet that I could wear a couple of years ago when I was more active than I am at the moment. I’ve made some progress (there it is, that normative language again–argh) but I know that weight loss occurs only intermittently, and is followed virtually all of the time by weight gain. Refocusing on health and activity goals instead of weight goals (I want to be able to do this hike, this ride, this ski trip) has in fact helped by reframing activity and healthy eating as self care. But old habits die hard. Your post helps remind us of the benefits of reframing.

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