body image · diets · fitness · weight loss

Imagine if size really didn’t matter. Can you?

tape-measureOne of the most intriguing news items this week reported on a six-year study that measured what happened to the contestants who lost dramatic amounts of weight in Season 8 of the reality TV show we here at Fit Is a Feminist Issue love to hate: The Biggest Loser.

For those of us who have gained and lost, lost and gained, and lost and gained again, the most obvious result wasn’t a shocker. The contestants are heavier than they were when the show ended.  The season’s winner, Danny Cahill, went from 430 pounds to 191 pounds over the seven month period of the weight loss competition.

And he’s gained 100 of it back. According to The New York Times article “After ‘The Biggest Loser,’ Their Bodies Fought to Regain Weight,” the regain is despite his best efforts. “In fact,” the article goes on to say, “most of that season’s 16 contestants have regained much if not all of the weight they lost so arduously. Some are even heavier now.”

The study has been revealing, not because it told us what we already knew–that it’s hard to keep off lost weight–but because the researchers discovered just how hard the body fights to regain lost weight. The key: resting metabolism. We all know that the metabolism slows when we diet. But here’s the thing:

What shocked the researchers was what happened next: As the years went by and the numbers on the scale climbed, the contestants’ metabolisms did not recover. They became even slower, and the pounds kept piling on. It was as if their bodies were intensifying their effort to pull the contestants back to their original weight.

Mr. Cahill was one of the worst off. As he regained more than 100 pounds, his metabolism slowed so much that, just to maintain his current weight of 295 pounds, he now has to eat 800 calories a day less than a typical man his size. Anything more turns to fat.

The sad truth for the vast majority of people who try to lose weight and keep it off is this: “despite spending billions of dollars on weight-loss drugs and dieting programs, even the most motivated are working against their own biology.”

All of the contestants in the study burn hundreds fewer calories per day than expected for a man or woman their size.  The upshot seems to be that extreme dieting and weight loss permanently slows the metabolism.

There’s a lot more to the article reporting on this research, and you can read it here. But what I really want to consider now is how we are supposed to react to this news. I venture to say, from a quick look at the first few of the over 2600 comments (I know, I know), that people will look for an explanation that makes this group of people different.

The most frequent thing that was pointed out in the first few comments I read is that they lost the weight really quickly.  What about following the progress of people in, say, Weight Watchers? That’s a slower loss. Do they keep it off?  Actually, the answer is: no. Not really. Not many. Any WW promotional materials that include “success stories” will say “results not typical.”

So the first reaction people have is denial.  This can’t be representative. It’s hard to know why anyone who has tried to lose weight and keep it off would think this isn’t representative since, chances are, if that’s you, you gained it back too! Really, these findings should come as reassurance that we’re not all a bunch of weak-willed moral failures.

But instead, people find them threatening because they may show something that’s really hard to accept: that for most people, it just cannot be done. You can lose the weight, but your body will do its damnedest to regain what was lost.

Why should we recoil from this likelihood?  Because it’s really hard to imagine a world in which size doesn’t matter.

One of the comments I read said, “so can we stop fat-shaming people now?” But the groundswell of support for the idea that the Biggest Loser contestants just “did it wrong” suggests that fat-shaming is alive and well.

People with normative bodies–the right size, shape, colour–gain all sorts of social and economic benefits and privileges. They’re more likely to get jobs, high grades, good performance evaluations. They have a better chance of finding partners, earning more money, having friends, being acceptable to strangers. Their chances of suffering abuse and discrimination because of their size are lower; their chances of finding clothing that fits, of fitting into the seat on their next flight, and of being able to eat what they like without being judged are much higher.

In other words, being perceived as obese by others has enormous social and economic costs.  Our obsession with size is so far reaching and ranges over so many areas of life, that it’s hard to imagine what a world where size doesn’t matter would be like.

If size didn’t matter, people wouldn’t be denied employment because of their size. It wouldn’t be commonplace for people to police the food choices of others and to hide behind the claim that “I’m just concerned about your health.” No one would face abuse because of their size or be the butt of bad jokes. There’d be more roles for people of all sizes in movies, and fat people could be cast in roles other than “the fat friend.” Doctors wouldn’t zero in on weight when you go for a check-up. Weight-loss wouldn’t be a popular indicator of physical fitness. Fashionable clothes would be accessible to people of all sizes. No one would spend money on weight loss programs or special “diet” foods. And people wouldn’t post about their weight loss efforts on social media. A show like The Biggest Loser would hold no one’s interest. And the results of the study would be neither here nor there.

I’m sure not everyone believes the research results in this study are depressing. But for those who do, why do they? People want to keep believing that something can be done about being fat. Keeping this possibility alive supports continued discrimination and hate because it throws responsibility back on individuals who are larger than the normative standard.

It’s obvious from the number of people who are attempting to lose weight and keep it off themselves that it’s not only people with normative bodies who are fat phobic. Lots of folks have internalized the cultural messages and experienced the social/economic costs of being larger than what’s deemed okay.

When the costs are real, it can be challenging not to hold out hope for change. If there haven’t been enough other studies about set-points and weight regain and so on, by following a high profile group of “losers,” this particular study shows in sad detail that dieting can and does do serious and permanent metabolic damage to those who diet “successfully.” And that it doesn’t work.

The upshot is, though I would like to think the comment “so can we stop fat-shaming people now?” would win the day, sadly, that’s not about to happen. People are too invested in (1) despising fat and (2) making it up to individuals to make the right choices so they won’t be fat to accept what so many already know: dieting doesn’t work.

Can you imagine a world where size doesn’t matter? What does it look like?

6 thoughts on “Imagine if size really didn’t matter. Can you?

  1. Reblogged this on I think you'll find I can and commented:
    Can you imagine a world where size doesn’t matter? What does it look like?

    Well, this blog would be a whole lot shorter for a start. Maybe it wouldn’t even exist, although the cynical side of me reckons people would have found some other characteristic to bully me for instead.
    Sizeism is so woven into the fabric of our entire lives, it’s actually quite difficult to imagine the world without it.

  2. This post was so perfect and I thought about blogging on the topic myself, because of course it’s crossed my radar this week, but I will gladly share your thoughts on the topic because you’ve done it great justice! There is SO MUCH about this article, and I wonder who wins when we keep thinking that weight is something people can simply choose to change. I win, as a personal trainer, but I also lose, because it’s a tough place to be when a client cannot shed their excess pounds and feel as if fitness has failed them. My biggest fear is that people will give up on their pursuits of a thinner body via exercise and give up on exercise altogether. My biggest wish is that people would eat healthy and exercise for the sake of eating healthy and exercising–not the outcome. It’s a strange position to take as a trainer, but it’s the only one I can sleep at night with.

    Currently, I’m working on a weight loss program with the gym, and realizing just how out of line the focus on weight loss is with my own values. It’s been a valuable learning experience and has helped me clarify what I want to stand for as a professional but also in my own relationship with my body and my weight, which has a storied history. Thanks for reminding me that it’s not simple and that there are lots of forces making this as complicated as it seems to be, even though at the end of the day it is simple: health is not a one size fits all concept!

  3. What if it didn’t matter at all? Interesting thought experiment.

    Hard to imagine changing the laws of physics. Weight still makes hill climbing hard on the bike. But, not all bodies are suited to all pursuits. Short rowers have it tough too.

    I think it helps, in your thought experiment, to think about weight like height. It’s fixed and you work with what you’ve got.

    What if other people’s beliefs and preferences changed do that weight wasn’t stigmatized? That’s hard to imagine too. Great post. I’m still mulling.

  4. Reblogged this on Fit Is a Feminist Issue and commented:

    Today I’m doing a “Throwback Thursday” post where I invite you, once again, to imagine how different life would be if we actually lived in a world where size doesn’t matter. Happy Thursday!

  5. If “size” didn’t matter, then the only reason people would bother to lose weight, would be to have easier movement and function, if they wanted it. So people such as myself, who have always been just a bit bigger than the LA emaciated norm, would not bother at all. However, last year I switched to plant-based eating for cholesterol lowering and, to my surprise, I really took to it (FYI: it only lowered it a little, I have hereditary high cholesterol). For me, it doesn’t feel like “dieting”, more like a scientific experiment and eating adventure (that’s just me, I’m geeky like that). I dropped 15 pounds immediately. One of the functional things I like is that my belly doesn’t hit my legs when I bike. I found that very uncomfortable. Another thing I like is I stopped worrying about what my clothes would cover up. I just put the clothes on and go. That is a societal thing or, hopefully more of a change in my perception of myself. When I am naked and look in the mirror, I seem to look exactly the same as I did before (Now I can understand why people get eating disorders. But if size didn’t matter, that wouldn’t happen) but the clothes are loose so I know I am smaller.
    My goal is to think only of my personal health and function, wear what I want when I want, and be happy. I’d rather not gain the weight I lost, but I have to be just as fine and confident if I do. Dieting is bullshit and the findings of that study don’t surprise me at all. I love this blog and the posts on facebook so much. Thank you for starting it.

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