Fear of fat

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, APR 12, 2004

I am going to marry a man I love, but he says if I gain a lot of weight he might leave me.

Dear Cary,

I am engaged to a fantastic person. For the first time I feel I am with someone who loves me for who I am, and not for who they want me to be. He loves it all, the good and the ugly, and that leaves me feeling very at ease in this relationship. I also feel I’ve come to a point in my maturity where I can reciprocate such a love.

In the course of planning our wedding, certain issues have come up that never seem to come up until the reality of spending the rest of your lives together is concrete and imminent. We’ve weathered all of these touchy areas (our mutually dysfunctional family histories, our finances) very well. But there is one thing that has come up a few times that I’ve been unable to resolve and I don’t know if I’m oversensitive about it or whether I have real cause for concern.

Once, when we were discussing various statistics I’ve read about the success rates of marriage, he asked me on what grounds would I ever divorce him. I had to wrack my brain to think of something that would make me want to lose this valuable person from my life. Almost anything seemed workable when I thought about it. So, I threw out something that seemed not even remotely possible: child molestation. When I returned the question, I expected to get back an equally morally reprehensible reason, something he knew I would never act upon. Instead, he said, “Well, if you gained a lot of weight, I would probably divorce you.”

I was more than surprised and I argued with him that he should love me as a person, not for my body, and that there were a myriad of reasons that I could gain weight, other than pure lack of concern for my health and/or laziness. To him, though, me gaining 50 or so pounds meant that I would become undesirable to him and that I had no concern for his desire for me and that I had changed as a person.

It hasn’t really come up since then, but last night we were watching a program about obese teens, and he made the comment that he was glad I didn’t weigh as much as one of the profiled teenage girls did. I made a joke about being glad as well, but his comments about my gaining weight have been buzzing annoyingly in my mind.

Growing up, I had issues with weight control. I starved myself for a few months as a teenager, but upon hearing from friends that I looked unwell, I began eating again. My stepmother would weigh and measure me every time I went to visit my father until I was finally old enough to tell her to shut up. I had a relationship in my early 20s with a vegan boy who asked me to become vegan in order to maintain the relationship. When he caught me eating (horrors!) something with dairy in it, he’d berate me, calling me weak and unfaithful. My current partner has never made me feel this way and part of me feels he thinks my gaining weight is as unlikely as him committing a sexual crime. I guess I just find his attitudes toward obesity judgmental and not compassionate.

It is unlikely that I would gain an unusual amount of weight, but I don’t like the worry of doing so hanging over my head. Am I being overly insecure because of my past experiences or do I have real reason to feel wary of moving forward with this person? In nearly every cell of my being, I feel positive and secure about marrying this person, but I can’t let this issue go.



Dear Worried,

I think you have real cause for concern. If you have a history of susceptibility to body weight issues, and he has an unusually intense interest in your own weight, I think that’s a recipe for trouble. Neither you nor he seems to have a great problem in and of itself, but when you’re paired, you’re like catalysts for each other.

I think you should talk to him again about this theoretical question and find out if he was kidding. If not, it could be trouble. I’m no expert, and so the opinions of some experts would be helpful here. But as a connoisseur of madness, I believe we all carry the seeds of self-treachery, that we sometimes secretly seek out people who hold the keys to our own destruction. Anorexia seems to be a disease of body-hatred, or self-hatred. To put a finer point on it, perhaps we seek to become divine by freeing ourselves of the gross material and animal forces that circumscribe our reality, that burden us with birth, life, eating, shitting, disease and death. We try to displace those irksome terms of service with standards of eternal beauty through thinness and wasting. If so, if that’s what the disease is all about, then you may have found the perfect person to trigger that disease, and are thus in some danger of succumbing to it.

You may in fact have that disease in some latent form, and have sought out this man — or your disease has sought out this man — so it can fulfill itself. (As addicts sometimes do.) If he were to threaten to leave you if you did not stay thin, perhaps you think you need a man to threaten to leave you so that you can stay thin.

Part of the problem is the assumption that there is a real you that can be loved apart from your body. I’m not sure how much sense that makes. If there were a real you that could be loved apart from your body, what’s the sense in getting married? Why not just be loved at a distance? Love is not an abstract essence; it is a behavior. Love is an action performed on a body. I don’t necessarily mean sex itself, but I do mean that you have to be there for love — you bring your body with you. That’s a bit of a tangent, but I get the feeling that the mind-body split has much to do with the weight problem: That if the mind were truly sovereign over the body, it could keep the body thin, and thus the refusal to eat is a declaration of sovereignty over the animal. At the root of that is the false notion that the two are split. No better evidence could arise of its falsity than the fact that when the mind gains sovereignty over the body and stops it from eating, the body dies, and with it, presumably, the all-sovereign mind.

The mind is presumed to die unless, allied with the disease of anorexia, there is a belief in afterlife. I haven’t really looked into what dead anorexics believed. It’s a terrible and tragic thing, and I don’t mean to treat it cavalierly: What you hear in my voice, I think, is not a cavalier attitude, really, but an exasperated and tragic anger, such as that I feel when I see heroin addicts die, such as that I feel as I watch Courtney Love fall apart in front of our eyes, such as I’ve felt when I’ve seen my friends die from drugs and alcohol. It’s not pretty and it’s not funny.

So I’m begging you now, get some help from an expert on eating disorders.

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Leave me alone!

Write for Advice

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, JUN 15, 2004

Just because I bounced between anorexia and bulimia people think they can comment on what I’m eating.

Dear Cary,

Why won’t people stop watching what I eat? I used to bounce back and forth between anorexia and bulimia in high school. Eight years later, I can finally sit down and eat a steak, have a glass of red wine, even have dessert, and savor every bite without thinking that it’s going to make me balloon into that blueberry girl from Willy Wonka.

I still have some minor food issues. I’m not overweight; I’m a completely normal size. I exercise a normal amount. But I get very irritated when people comment on what I’m eating. My husband went on Atkins a year ago and turned into a total nut case. He started looking at carbs on everything. He’d pick up my soda can and make a face of absolute horror, like he’d just been flashed by Rush Limbaugh. After I told him to shut the hell up a few times, he got the picture and stopped doing it.

But what to do when it’s not someone bound to you by law? What about when it’s someone who holds your livelihood in her calorie-counting little hands? My boss has commented on food I’m eating several times. Once before a meeting, when my entire department was waiting around for someone, I opened a granola bar (other people were eating too) and she said, “Oh, those things are packed with calories. They’re all sugar. I never eat those.” I didn’t really know what to say.

A group of women from my office go to yoga together once a week. I had a bottle of Gatorade, and my boss again said, “Oh, that is so fattening. I never drink that. All those empty calories.” This kind of thing happens a lot, and it really makes me want to force-feed her cheesecake. This woman is a normal size. She’s actually pretty small, and she exercises enough that I wouldn’t think calories should be a problem. But why are my calories a problem? And what do I say to make it clear that I really don’t appreciate it? I’m going to get fired for throwing a Snickers bar at her, right?

Richard Simmons, Leave Me Alone!



Dear Leave Me Alone,

There are several things you could plausibly say to someone who makes comments about your drinking Gatorade. You could say, “Well, you’re very thin and lovely, and that must be how you do it.”

You could say, “There’s vodka in it.”

You could say, “Have you read ‘The Obesity Myth,’ by Paul Campos?”

Empty flattery, humor and direct engagement are just three of the many ways one can respond to such a statement. But it does depend on what the relationship is like. If it’s your boss, after conjecturing that her refusal to drink Gatorade might account for her preternatural beauty and poise, you might ask her, as a follow-up, if she has recently grown taller — an avenue of discussion to profitably pursue in greater detail when you sit down for your twice-yearly employee evaluation. If she hasn’t gotten taller, you might conjecture, it’s perhaps because she’s just gotten thinner. I, for one, might wonder why she showed such intense interest in my beverage, hypothesize that she had recently had a traumatic experience with Gatorade, and tactfully let the moment pass. Her remark would not, in any case, elevate her in my estimation; it certainly doesn’t make you think, “One day, that woman is going to be a senator!”

While it is always nice to have a smart reply, it’s hard to think on your feet when you feel you’ve been insulted. Why do you feel insulted? You probably feel that your boss is, by indirection, speaking disparagingly about your weight, your food choices and your willpower, as if each of us bears a patriotic duty to fight our appetites, to struggle mightily against our eating even as we slather our very souls in the rich nectar of slaughter and science.

I have felt for some time that the obsession with fat is a peculiar cultural sickness that has to do with feminist struggles, social class, professional anxiety, war, privilege, envy, Protestantism, virtue and capitalism. Fortunately — for those are vague notions at best — FM radio came to the rescue on Sunday in a bit of serendipitous synchronicity that might drive more superstitiously minded thinkers to believe in a higher power. OK, so maybe it was a higher power. Authors Paul Campos and Wendy Shanker, interviewed on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “To the Best of Our Knowledge,” said everything I might have said only better.

Shanker, who wrote “The Fat Girl’s Guide to Life,” spoke eloquently about getting over the whole thing about being fat. She told how one day she got into an elevator and a lady said, in obvious reference to Shanker’s weight, that she herself would have taken the stairs. Rather than absorb the cutting remark in silent shame, she turned to the lady and said, “I wish you had.” That was pretty good. The overall point being, we don’t need to walk around being afraid of being fat. If you’re fat, OK. If you’re thin, OK. Don’t you have some work to do?

And Campos in “The Obesity Myth” says what I had been thinking better than I could: “Thinness has a metaphorical significance in America today,” he writes. “Americans — and especially American elites — value thinness for precisely the same reason someone suffering from anorexia nervosa does: because not eating means not giving in to desire. Strangely, what the American elites consider most desirable is a body whose appearance signals a triumph of the will over desire itself. Thus, bodily virtue is not so much indicated by thinness per se, but rather by an achieved thinness. Ultimately the war on fat is both a cause and a consequence of the transformation of the Protestant work ethic into the American diet ethic.

“The obesity myth thrives in contemporary America because America is an eating-disordered culture. Moreover, the prime symptoms of this situation — our increasing rates of ‘overweight,’ bulimia and anorexia — are also symptoms of, and have become metaphors for, a broader set of cultural anxieties … For upper-class Americans in particular, it’s easier to deal with anxiety about excessive consumption by obsessing about weight, rather than by actually confronting far more serious threats to our social and political health. We may drive environmentally insane SUVs that dump untold tons of hydrocarbons into the atmosphere; we may consume a vastly disproportionate share of the world’s diminishing natural resources; we may support a foreign policy that consists of throwing America’s military weight around without regard to objections from our allies — but at least we don’t eat that extra cookie when it’s offered to us.”

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