By S.L. Wisenberg
And on the eighth day, Adam and Eve began eating.
They ate what they wanted of ready-made foods, played with animals with no thought of ingesting them. There was no death or sickness or dissension in the Garden, and everyone had a positive body image, down to the lowest one-celled amorphous creature. And God told Adam and Eve: You may eat all that you desire, but you may not enter that wooden structure over there, the one with the apple on top of it, because if you do, you will come to know regret.
In those days all manner of foods grew on trees and vines–spicy stews, succulent fruits, and ice creams, including flavors that have since been discontinued. Adam and Eve ate when they were hungry, and when they were thirsty they drank whatever they desired. Nothing was bitter or unripe or too greasy. They were content, except when they happened to glance down the valley at the structure with the apple on the roof.
One day Snake slithered around Eve’s neck and whispered, I have seen the best food of all. God saves it for himself and the angels. Just peek in that building.
And Eve did and saw signs and wonders. The signs said, Lose 30 Pounds in 30 Days–Ask Me How. Eve opened the door and entered and beheld–a mirror. She looked at herself in it and said, I shouldn’t have had those two espresso shakes. And Eve felt guilt.
And when she bellied up to the snack bar, she saw that Snake had lied–the protein shakes and wheat grass juice and fat-free croissants were pale copies of what she was used to consuming in the Garden.
From that day forward, God’s voice was no longer heard. The lion sat down with the lamb and promptly ate it, and its brother too. The cow became known to Adam as “steak.” Adam and Eve started diets and started cheating on them immediately because they were human.
Lately I’ve been reading diet books, many taken from my own shelves. They pose essential questions about the nature of humankind: What kind of animal are we? Are we good or bad, weak or strong of will? Has civilization–our own creation–refined or brutalized us? Should children be reined in or emulated? Can we be trusted to follow our bliss, color our parachutes, go by instinct? What would happen if we did what was easy and natural? The answers in the diet books may not be the best or most complete or well thought out, but they are being read by millions of people in various degrees of desperation.
There are specifically religious diet programs (Diet, Discipline and Discipleship) and diet books (More of Jesus, Less of Me; Help Lord–the Devil Wants Me Fat!) that take on original sin, weakness, and the devil directly. I’m more interested in the debates and beliefs in secular bibles–best-sellers by lay healers.
I misspent my Texas youth reading about diets and beauty and dating. One day my friend P. looked at a row of my books and observed, These are all how-to books. At the time she was reading the New Yorker and articles and books that would help her build strong arguments in debate tournaments. I subscribed to Seventeen and Ingenue and Teen and American Girl (free with membership in the Girl Scouts) and sat around with my other friends looking through the latest yearbook. We would provide critiques: “She should cut her hair and lose ten pounds.” “She ought to wear less eyeliner.” “Get rid of that lipstick.” We were all malleable, could be perfected, improved; anything was possible, just like in the before-and-after photos in magazines.
The summer before eighth grade my friend A. and I went on a diet just to see what all the fuss was about. How hard could it be? We got a booklet from the grocery store. It happened to be a guide to a low-carbohydrate diet. (Yes, even in the 1960s, and for that matter, in the 1860s, there were low-carb-diet books.) I lost five pounds in a week. “But Sandi doesn’t have a weight problem, does she?” a neighbor, Mrs. S., asked my mother. Over the years Mrs. S., purveyor of gossip and promulgator of norms, would always have a word to say about weight. As would most of the women I grew up around. Where I come from, one of America’s many neighborhoods of relative privilege, the customary polite greeting has always been “You’ve lost weight”–whether you have or not, whether you’re rail thin or zaftig. That’s Yiddish for “juicy” and was once a good thing to be, a long, long time ago in a poor country.
Among contemporary diet books there are basically two schools of thought regarding temptation. The more interesting is what I call the don’t try to resist/follow your bliss/let yourself go school. (When I was growing up, “she’s let herself go” was code for “she’s stopped wearing makeup and setting her hair and she’s put on weight.” The opposite of this was “she’s lost 20 pounds on Weight Watchers.” It was always 20 pounds and always Weight Watchers.) According to this school, diets don’t work: dieters naturally rebel and either don’t lose weight in the first place or soon gain it back. Instead you should embrace your most extravagant fantasies. Eat all the ice cream or fried chicken or chocolate pie that you want, and eventually it will become just another food, neither good nor bad, legal or illegal. Normalize that which tempts you. One of the first such books was Lynn Donovan’s The Anti-Diet (1971), followed by Leonard Pearson et al’s The Psychologist’s Eat-Anything Diet (1973), Susie Orbach’s Fat Is a Feminist Issue (1978), and Geneen Roth’s Feeding the Hungry Heart (1983). Psychologist Carol Munter, coauthor of Overcoming Overeating, originated compulsive-eating/antidieting groups for women in 1970 in New York; Orbach was a participant. After Roth read Orbach’s first book, she stopped dieting. “We believe,” Orbach asserts, “that our bodies can tell us what to eat, how to have a nutritionally balanced food intake and how to lose weight.”
The opposite approach is more familiar: face the facts/rein yourself in/believe hard science. Eat less, exercise more. Simple. It’s common sense. Take control. Count–calories, fat, carbohydrates, protein, glasses of water. Weigh your food, write down what you plan to eat, what will get in the way of your eating what you plan to eat, what you do eat, and notes on the above. Forge new habits. Exercise 150 minutes a week. Try behavior modification, prescription drugs, portion control, meetings, insight therapy–whatever it takes in this war against flab and sloth. The authors of two recent books, The Fat of the Land and Mean Genes, dare to advocate an old concept–willpower.
These poles are recognizable as the traditional opposites: soft versus hard; instinct versus–as they say in academe–the authoritarian, civilizing phallus; desire versus discipline; id versus superego. Of course most things in life are hybrids. Weight Watchers has always emphasized portion control, but at the same time provided a list of “unlimited” foods such as celery and mushrooms. Fergie promises in newspaper display ads that on WW you can eat anything advertised in that newspaper. And there’s Dean Ornish’s best-selling Eat More, Weigh Less–perhaps a reference to the old punch line about eating less and enjoying it less, which refers to earlier dieting promises of eating less and enjoying it more. On Ornish’s plan, you give in, to an extent. You don’t have to resist temptation. There’s no counting, weighing, or measuring. Eat all you want from the trees and the vines and the earth. Well, as long as it’s fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and most legumes, and not the fruit of the olive tree or its oil or any other oil or nut. You may eat “whenever you feel hungry and until you are full (but not until you are stuffed).” (Stuffing herself is the constant dieter’s problem in the first place.) And, says Ornish, you should exercise. Find something you like, he says matter-of-factly. Of course you will like some kind of exercise.
The popular high-protein diets, such as those set out in Protein Power and books by doctors Atkins and Stillman, are mirror images of the high-carbohydrate/low-fat diets of Ornish, Pritikin, and others. On these diets, you may eat all you want (or almost) of the high-protein and high-fat foods that traditional dieters have long eschewed, or sneaked: bacon, fried eggs, pork chops, steak, cheese. The diets differ in the proportion of carbohydrates they allow–from virtually none to moderate percentages–and in the amount of fat. They all promise that if you follow the instructions you won’t be hungry.
All these diets deal with the problem of sustained abundance–a concern that became widespread only recently, of course, and remains limited to certain populations. A number of theorists agree that abundance has shaped the American character–from Frederick Jackson Turner’s “Western wilds” to the raw promise of new cities to the “last frontier” of space. Daily we brush against muchness–from all-U-can-eat buffets and salad bars to the infinite opportunity and range of cyberspace. More is more, Mies van der Rohe’s dictum notwithstanding. “Bet you can’t eat just one,” the potato chip maker says proudly.
We want choice. But are overwhelmed. Maybe part of the diet books’ success is that they offer a path through the constant outpouring of new and improved, as well as familiar and never-ending, foodstuffs. And if we fall off the wagon, at least we were riding on something solid to begin with.
Once upon a time, say the diet books, when we were in a “primitive” state, we were good, in harmony with nature, we did not have to think about dieting. Back when we were young or innocent or preindustrial or Neanderthal, what we craved and what we ate were exactly the same. We got our exercise from stalking animals and thrusting spears into their soft parts, or bending to plant and gather up the harvest, or casting nets into the bounteous oceans that did not know from persistent organochlorines. Love was free and easy. Then came the combustion engine and it was downhill from there. But still in some happy corners where dubbed episodes of Baywatch do not reach, there are healthy peasants with rosy (but not full) cheeks, capering and frolicking, eating what their ancestors ate, swimming in deep, everlasting contentment.
The perfect diet, say the gurus, was in the past. We must learn from our ancestors, recent and not-so.
Ornish writes: “Weighing too much is a relatively modern problem. For the prior ten thousand years or so, the major concern for humans had been finding enough food….(Food abundance is still a problem only in certain parts of the globe.)…Until this [20th] century, the typical American diet was low in animal products, fat, cholesterol, salt, and sugar, and high in carbohydrates, vegetables, and fiber. Vigorous physical activity was common.”
In Protein Power, doctors Michael and Mary Dan Eades venerate the dining habits of different ancestors. As our precursors moved from a diet rich in small game, birds, eggs, reptiles, and insects, say the Eadeses, to an agrarian-based one 8,000 to 10,000 years ago, they became more and more unhealthy. The ancient Egyptians lived on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, and fowl. But they suffered from worn-down teeth, gum disease, obesity, clogged arteries, and cardiovascular disease. “What does all this mean in the great scheme of things? We think that it means that there are some real problems with the low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet….Throughout history, when man has turned away from the traditional [high-protein] ‘prehistoric’ diet that evolution designed him to eat to an agrarian (grain-based) one, this decline in health has occurred.”
Similarly, Barry Sears notes that the athletic neo-Paleolithics were eating about the same protein-to-carb ratio that his Zone diet calls for. But then came agriculture and the domestication of the cow, and early humans started eating grain and milk products, eating less low-fat animal protein, and they shrank.
Robert Atkins looks back “millions of years” to the days when humans were strong and healthy from eating fish, animals, fruits, vegetables, and berries. Sugar, not fat, is the problem, says Atkins. Eskimo and Masai, he says, eat traditional high-fat diets but don’t suffer from heart disease. Icelanders, whose traditional fare is high in fat, had little heart disease and diabetes in the early 20th century. Then refined carbohydrates and sugar came along in the 1920s and disease followed.
Antidieter Lynn Donovan–dancer, singer, actress, painter, writer, and a Scorpio (with Virgo rising)–doesn’t look that far back in her book. She’s found a model of prelapsarian eating right in New York City. “I know a little boy,” she writes, “two and a half years old, who is well on his way in the project of learning to eat. We had lunch together in a coffee shop once after a shopping expedition. We both consulted the menu, and he stopped me when I read something about salad. When it was served, I let him pour on his own dressing–and he did pretty well. Then he ate the lettuce, picking pieces out one by one with his fingers. This went on for some time. Then abruptly, he spit out a leaf, one just like all the rest, and he removed it delicately to the edge of the table. His attention turned to some bacon and crackers. I was impressed. I had witnessed the precise moment of ‘enough’ lettuce.”
The Alain Berliner film Ma vie en rose is about a little boy who wants to turn into a girl, so he dresses like one, complete with makeup and jewelry. His mother is his strongest defender until the cross-dressing costs the father his job. A neighbor makes the analogy to girls who work in chocolate factories: You let the boy dress the way he wants until he tires of it–just as you let the workers eat as much chocolate as they want because they’ll get sick of it. In any case, by the end of the film the boy has not only not grown out of cross-dressing but in a surreal scene nearly escapes entirely into fantasy. His mother has to retrieve him. And take him as he is.
When I was a child I ate like a child. I looked at the food set before me and either ate it or not. Then I’d go about my business.
And then my father was diagnosed with adult-onset diabetes and my mother emptied the sugar bowl and warned us when we ate anything sweet, “You’ll get diabetes,” as if the disease were contained in the grains themselves, like a bacterium. And so, once indifferent to snacks, we began to crave them and hunt for the Wheat Thins and Triscuits and boxed chocolates that my mother had hidden from my father.
I was a tall, thin girl whose long nose was the bane of her early adolescence. At 16 rhinoplasty, the Jewish girl’s scarification rite, ended that problem. My nose was carved down and narrowed–“done,” as we called it then–and with my nose taken care of, I sought another object of worry. Look down, there it was, always: my body. Self-consciousness led to dissatisfaction, to dieting, to rebelling against dieting, and to weight gain.
Once I discovered feminism, I went back and forth between “I look terrible” and “It doesn’t matter how I look, the skinny ideal is part of the patriarchal conspiracy to keep women frail and boyish and worried about their hips instead of how the political and economic pie (pie!) is divided.” Lurking in the background was always the threat of diabetes, the family curse and a growing danger for my fellow Americans, who, like me, kept getting rounder and softer as they became veterans of more and more weight loss programs and plans.
From The Psychologist’s Eat-Anything Diet:
“Question: Ever since being in your workshop I’ve lost weight, but I eat almost a whole box of candy on some days. When this happens, I feel satisfied and I don’t eat anything else on those days. Is this OK?
When I was in junior high my father noticed I’d been using Clearasil even though I didn’t have pimples. He guessed, correctly, though I denied it at the time, that I was applying it because I wanted to be like the older teenagers. That was the same reason the friend and I had gone on the diet. It was what my sister and her friends were doing. It was a coming-of-age ritual.
At my bat mitzvah I should have stood before the congregation and announced: From now on I am no longer a child. I will take my place as a woman in this culture. I will doubt my abilities when I am not hiding them, criticize my body and hair (especially on frizzy days), and chase boys from a discreet distance. I will count calories and opt out of honors math.
I didn’t say that. Instead, I spoke of food. I mentioned the Thanksgiving holiday that had just passed. And I retold I.L. Peretz’s story of Bontshe the Silent, a beaten-down Jew who dies alone and unloved, and when he enters heaven is welcomed and celebrated. He is offered one wish and he decides: a hot roll, with butter, every morning. The heavens weep because he could have wished for anything–an end to poverty, to war–but he could not see that far. His whole life he had kept his eyes downcast. He could not see beyond his own desperation. He could not comprehend other people’s hungers because his own was so deep.
Last August at the bar mitzvah party for my cousin’s son, the woman seated next to me points at a group of middle-school girls. Those are the tennis girls, she says. I want my daughter to be friends with them. They’re active; they don’t worry about their bodies.
I don’t remember why Lucy and Ethel take the job in the candy factory. But there in that I Love Lucy episode is that image, a midcentury echo of the hapless Charlie Chaplin tangled in modern machinery. As the conveyor belt goes faster and faster, speeding along more and more candies to be wrapped, the “girls” react more and more wildly, until they are madly stuffing themselves with the product: they can’t get rid of it fast enough, inside their clothes, under their hats. But their improvised solutions are no match for the machine that keeps spewing out candy. Of course they derive no pleasure from their panicked eating. Of course they can’t taste what fills their mouths. Of course it has to end, but for a moment it seems no one will save them and they will die, overtaken.
Binges, according to Geneen Roth, are “plunges into oblivion.” The blisser line is that we eat when we are bored, angry, sad, excited, deprived, tired, anxious, when we want to carve out privacy. And since in our culture consumption is the mission, or at least part of it, it seems that we’re doing something when we eat. The antidote for automatic eating is awareness. Pay attention to your feelings, your thoughts, your habits, and most of all, your hungers. Eat only when you are physically hungry, eat only what you want (and there are lists of questions–do you want something crunchy, soft, salty, bready, sweet?), and stop when you are no longer hungry. Find other ways to deal with anxiety. And wait. When you are hungry again, you can pleasure yourself once more. In Overcoming Overeating, Munter and coauthor Jane Hirschmann advocate “demand feeding” and bid their readers to carry around favorite foods so that they will have access to what they want when they want it. Do not, they admonish, make a mere snack bag. Fill it up. Be generous. Only when you feel that there’s enough will you relax enough to eat just what you want and not more.
Diet gurus offer more than descriptions of a perfect, natural past. Every diet book describes its own land of enchantment in the future. As Emily Dickinson might have written had she been born a century later and gotten out more, “There is no frigate like a diet book.” In Overcoming Overeating, Munter and Hirschmann capture the lure of each new eating and exercise program in the title of a chapter–“Signing Up for a New Life.”
Going on a diet bears the hallmarks of ritual–initiation, a new language (or measuring system), isolation and community, transformation. It is “a journey of self-improvement,” in the words of the Protein Power authors. You must be “willing to abandon life as you know it,” they add. Weight Watchers tells dieters that they must change more than their diets. “You also have to change your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, which are tied together.” WW offers tips to enhance “the new you” while you begin losing weight: instructions for using face powder and blush to thin your face, suggestions for “a new do” for both men and women.
According to other books, the journey is a move from living in the past to living in the moment. The philosophy of the blissers, as well as Dean Ornish, is to live now the way you want to live. Don’t wait until you’ve obtained the “perfect” body. Imagine what your life will be when you’ve lost the weight–then go out and make that life.
I tell a male acquaintance what I’m working on and am surprised that he has heard of Roth. You have to have so much faith, he says. It’s like Catholicism. You have to really believe.
He’s right. Trust, the antidiet books preach. You can’t pretend you’re eating what you want while thinking like a dieter. You have to throw your mental scales away too. It is only you and your hunger, not the voices you have heard all your life, not the bodies shining out at you from the slick magazines. Just you and your hunger, which is to say you and your body, which is to say you.
In mid-September Roth is reading and answering questions at Transitions Bookplace. In response to a question from a girl in the audience, Roth says that happiness is unrelated to weight.
Later I run into the girl and, I assume, her mother, at Whole Foods. I would call the girl average weight, not thin-thin, certainly not fat. She says her tennis coach wants her to lose weight, that the coach is prejudiced–he wouldn’t let one girl join the team because she was overweight.
I tell them about the remark at the bar mitzvah party about the nonneurotic tennis girls. The mother looks surprised. Is that high school?
Oh, I say, I guess they were in junior high. Middle school.
I remember girls from high school by the diets they advocated–M. went without sugar or flour, J. took in only meat and Tab, L. prescribed six oranges in two days. I remember, too, pigging out together, four or five of us, late at night, when parents were long asleep, especially at J.’s house, where they had two pantries because her father was in the wholesale grocery business.
Boys were rumored to bond in circle jerks; girls got high together on sugar and danger–tempting the fates. As Roberta Pollack Seid writes in Never Too Thin, when a friend tells her she’s been “bad,” she knows that the friend hasn’t committed a felony– she’s gone out-of-bounds with her eating.
The quintessential American treat is the chocolate chip cookie, so it is only right that it figures prominently in diet books. When Roth decided to quit dieting and eat only what she liked, she had images of homemade chocolate chip cookies before her eyes. So for the next two weeks, she made and ate dozens of cookies and occasional balls of raw dough. Of course she panicked, was afraid of getting cancer, killing her brain cells, of never stopping, of ballooning up. But she did stop and then went on to eat lasagna, vegetables, ice cream. She gained 15 pounds then lost 30. Most for good.
By allowing herself to eat as much as she wanted–when she was hungry–she broke the curse. It sounds like a fairy tale, like the girls in the chocolate factory. Eventually the enchanted object loses its power. And it is only a cookie, and in her case made from dough for which she had bought the constituent parts–flour, eggs, sugar, chips. It’s a morality tale turned on its head, a tale about how to live with abundance. Surrender to it, but keep your wits about you. Pay attention to your hungers. By embracing what she fears, she triumphs.
Then there is the temptation of Joan described by Peter Miller and Howard Rankin in If I’m So Smart, Why Do I Eat Like This?, a book designed to flatter its readers from the title onward. Joan is a victim of the “SWEET (Smart Woman’s Excessive Eating Trap) Syndrome.” The afflicted are generally aged 21-50, orderly, intelligent and well-educated, success-oriented women who watch their weight most of the time but are prone to out-of-control eating. Joan’s problem was late weeknight eating of chocolate chip cookies while she read in bed. She went through desensitization, first by sitting near the cookies for five minutes on a weekend during the day, then by placing them near the bed at night and resisting them.
Such different ways of dealing with the same temptation, and yet eerily similar. Each woman suffered because she gave power to the cookie, power over her own happiness, her sense of self and control. Each confronted it, came to realize it was only a cookie. Joan learned to tame her hunger. Geneen Roth let hers loose to learn that it was not endless.
Anthony was born in Egypt in 251 AD and, inspired by hearing the words of Christ in church, left his worldly goods behind and went to live in the desert and pray. He ate only bread and salt and drank only water. The devil tried to tempt him to leave his simple, contemplative life, but he resisted. Sister Wendy shows a picture of Saint Anthony Abbot in her Sister Wendy’s Book of Saints. Standing beside him is a meek pig who was once the devil himself, she writes. “But St. Anthony tamed him and made him a companion, a piglet friend, which is highly encouraging to us all!”
The pig, our hunger–it’s all the same thing. Anthony took the wild thing that was tormenting him and befriended it.
It’s late August and four of us are walking up Clark Street after dinner. Should we stop somewhere for coffee or go home for leftover birthday cake and ice cream? I keep lobbying for the coffee but the others want the leftovers. I confess in a whisper to my true love: I ate up most of the ice cream. In private. I didn’t touch it when it was part of his public birthday ceremony. We get home and he assesses the damage. There are only a few spoonfuls left. My true love says to me, What are we going to do with you?
The advocates of free eating refer to the experiments of pediatrician Clara M. Davis, either directly or by way of her mention in Dr. Spock’s guides. “Dr. Clara Davis concluded that, left to their own devices, young babies choose all the foods they need to ensure healthy growth and development,” say Munter and Hirschmann. Thus adults should be able to do the same, and we shouldn’t panic if we eat freely of whatever spells pleasure for us.
In 1926 at Mount Sinai Hospital in Cleveland, Davis set out to discover whether infants could eat a broader variety of foods than widely believed. At the time pediatricians prescribed a limited diet for children seven months to three years old, gradually allowing more and more foods and paying no attention to the child’s appetite. After weaning, she wondered, would babies, if offered a choice of foods, choose enough to keep them healthy and free from digestive upset? How many foods could they tolerate?
Her longest experiment, described in two journals, followed 15 children in a Chicago nursery. Nurses offered the children food from trays three times a day. In the course of a day, 34 items were offered–fruit, whole grains, vegetables, meats, milk, even a container of salt. All were fresh and simply prepared without sugar. She found tastes were individual. The children went on “jags,” and ate “truly enormous” meals. Though some began the study underweight and poorly nourished, all 15 became healthy, vigorous and neither fat nor thin.
Davis sought to find out if babies could choose a healthy mix of foods from an array, “as do adults.” Now some refer to her studies to prove that if we regressed, we would be free enough of the fetters of learned neurosis that we too could choose meals that nourished us; we too could choose meals that were nourishing over the long haul, and spit out what disagreed, eating, say, five to ten eggs for supper, as did one small charge, or nearly a pound of lamb for dinner, as did another. Recently Hirschmann has acknowledged that Davis did not set out any sweets on the meal trays, and refers to later studies about children choosing their own food. And those studies, by Dr. Leann Birch, come to the same conclusion. One showed that the more mothers tried to control their preschoolers’ eating, the less balanced the children’s meals were.
In the seventh edition of Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care, published just after his death, Spock reports that Davis “found in the long run [that children] wanted only a reasonable amount of the sweeter, high-fat foods.” Sort of–but they weren’t offered foods that were both sweet and high fat, and the sweetest food on their trays was a fresh banana. It’s not like the toddlers limited themselves to “reasonable” portions of brownies, pecan pie, and chocolate candy at every meal. He also writes that Davis and Birch suggest that “children will seek a well-balanced diet if they are raised on plant-based foods and haven’t been taught to savor fatty foods.” This lends support to his controversial advocacy of a vegan diet for general health as well as weight loss, but in reality Davis set out foods that would make even some carnivores blanch: sweetbreads, brains, kidneys, and bone marrow, raw and cooked. Davis herself lamented the introduction of sugar and white flour into the contemporary diet. And she cast an approving look backward; the experiments “reproduced to a large extent the conditions under which primitive peoples in many parts of the world have been shown to have had scientifically sound diets and excellent nutrition,” she wrote in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in 1939.
Things I know: I was nearly five-foot-six and weighed 120 pounds the summer after high school graduation. My mother suggested I lose weight before college because “first impressions count.” At 26 I was five-six and weighed 126, and I was satisfied, though I imagined looking better in clothes at 110 or 115. Years passed, I gained a little weight, I dieted and rebelled, jogged, did aerobics, didn’t jog, walked everywhere. In the past five years, as I’ve moved into alleged early middle age, I’ve gained 20 more pounds. I walk a lot.
I don’t think I’m eating more than I did five years ago. I’m not sure if I walk less than I used to. I know I hate the gleeful feeling I get when I see the needle on the scale hit an almost unbelievable number. I’m scared that I secretly want to gain weight. I’m giddy because the sky did not fall, I still look like a human, maybe even an average-sized human.
While I’ve been gaining, my mother has maintained–or even dipped below–her wedding-day weight of 110. She wears a size 6. We are so used to these numbers that we can form an image from them. For 25 years I’ve rebelled internally against my mother, who represents diets and fashion and conformity, and yet–just a few months ago, she referred to someone who was “tall and thin like you.”
In 1953 the National Institutes of Health called obesity the number one national health problem. In 1974 the Lancet called it the most important nutritional disease in developed countries. Currently half of all adult Americans are overweight. More than a quarter are obese. At any given time, nearly 29 percent of men and 44 percent of women are trying to lose weight. We spend $33 billion a year on diet products and services, says the Federal Trade Commission.
And now the purveyors of diet books are asking the government for an accounting. In April nutrition researchers sent a public letter to the NIH, calling for the agency to evaluate diet plans and make recommendations. Signers included the authors of several best-selling diet books, such as Robert Atkins, who said that most diet information is based on “speculation rather than scientifically established observation.” Was he talking about his competitors? Eating Right columnist Lawrence Lindner huffed in the Washington Post: “It’s not right to create something, put it up for sale, tell people it’s solid, and then ask the very folks who bought it [taxpayers] to pay to find out whether it works.”
The Psychologist’s Eat-Anything Diet introduced the concepts of “humming” and “beckoning.” A food that hums is a food that you think of before you see it. The urge comes from within, the desire is not stirred by a TV commercial or a box in the pantry or a glance at the bakery window. If you eat a beckoning food when something else hums, you will overeat and be unsatisfied. It takes discipline and practice to be able to differentiate the two and eat only the preferred, not the proffered, food.
In 1950 sociologist David Riesman, with Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney, published a scholarly book imagining it would be read by the academic community and go no further. Instead, The Lonely Crowd became a crossover classic. It described a new breed of American man who was “other-directed” rather than “inner-directed,” who worried about what his peers thought and needed their approval, and was concerned less with innovation or inherited values than with fitting in. At the end of the book Riesman asks, “Is it conceivable that these economically privileged Americans will some day wake up to the fact that they overconform?…If the other-directed people should discover how much needless work they do…then we might expect them to become more attentive to their own feelings and aspirations.” In other words, could we become a nation that responds to humming instead of beckoning?
The blissers write about breaking free of mainstream ideals that beckon–hollow cheeks, washboard abs–they urge women and men to embrace their shapes, appreciate what they are now, face the pain that makes them eat compulsively. Susie Orbach urges women to examine the ways they use fat as protection, as a way to rebel against being seen solely as a sex object, as a way to deal with having too much or too little power, a way of avoiding competition, creating boundaries. According to Orbach, you do not need the fat, or the behavior that makes the fat. There are other ways to protect yourself, to consolidate your power. If you examine why you reach for what tempts, you will find that the temptation crumbles. It is something else you are reaching for. “People are feeling more and more deprived,” says Roth. “There’s a direct correlation between people eating and the poverty-strickenness they feel inside.” Food, she says, is the cheapest and most available substance to reach for.
Yes, and–no. Food may be a metaphor, but it also tastes good. We think about eating partly because we’re not supposed to (dieting for health and vanity) and partly because we are supposed to (advertising, hunger, and it’s always there). Various advisers have said people hide themselves with fat. But if there was another way to get fat–say, by covering your body with lard and letting it seep in–I don’t think the same people would do it. The other old line is that fat people are afraid to be sexual. But if you’re thin and you really want to hide your sexiness, you can do so rather easily. We overeat and smoke, overdrink and overshop and overdope because these are pleasures in this vale of tears. Because they stop or numb anxiety, give us something to do with our hands, because they are addictive. For people like me it’s easier to have no cookie than one cookie. I am grateful I don’t love drink.
And yes, Americans born after World War II were raised on instantaneous gratification. We’re devouring and impatient. Some of us.
My lover can live in a house with a half-full bag of soft chocolate chip cookies and forget about it. My lover can listen to three CDs in a boxed set and say, around midnight, “Let’s save the rest for tomorrow.” I’m sure Geneen Roth can do this too. I can’t, though she would disagree. I don’t have the faith or discipline to follow through with the listen-to-your-hunger plan, the trust to hang in there while I gain. At least not now.
The glib new book Mean Genes: From Sex to Money to Food: Taming Our Primal Instincts, says that we shouldn’t go with our instincts. We should follow “the path of most resistance.” We should rise above the behavior of animals, who eat “when hungry [and] until the food is gone.” In this research-packed self-help book, the eye cast back at our ancestors is not nostalgic. Eating everything in sight made sense in a time of scarcity, according to the authors, economist Terry Burnham and biologist Jay Phelan. “Our genes have built us to love food and hate exercise; accordingly, the root of our problem is that our wild genes now live in a tame world.” They place hope in drugs of the future that will help us outsmart our genes. In the meantime, we have to do the outsmarting ourselves by monitoring our eating, filling up with low-fat, low-calorie foods, and preparing for weakness in times of strength. Burnham and Phelan refer to recent movies for many of their examples, commending the Ben Stiller character for masturbating before his date in There’s Something About Mary. One of their rare classical reference points is Odysseus, who had his sailors tie him to the mast of his boat before they passed the sirens, whose bewitching song could lure men to their deaths. He told his men to plug their ears with wax. He didn’t because he wanted to hear the song.
A friend of mine told me the story of another bound man, a character in C.S. Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia.” The protagonists meet up with a knight who says that he is under a spell so that for one hour a night he becomes furious and turns into a deadly serpent. He asks his companions to tie him up during that hour so that he won’t cause any harm. But once he’s bound to a silver chair, he claims: “It is at this hour that I am in my right mind: it is all the rest of the day that I am enchanted.”
In the book it becomes clear which is the truth. But let’s put this aside and ask in general which voice is the devil’s and which is the voice of Saint Anthony’s tamed piglet? And which is the voice of our authentic, hummed-to self? And whose voice is it–A siren’s? Snake’s? Eve’s? Our genes’?–that’s murmuring: Because the food is there. Because it’s cheap. Because it tastes good. Because we’re not supposed to. Because it’s all-you-can-eat. Because in our big country we like big portions. Because in times of inflation and weak economy we want to consume a lot of food, cheaply. Because in times of a booming economy we want to celebrate. Because we’re caught in the cycle of I shouldn’t/I want it. Because we’re tense. Because it releases tension. Because there’s a new flavor. Because it comes with a prize. Because we’re tired and need a pick-me-up. Because we reach for a sweet now instead of a Lucky. Because we talk about food and watch cooking on TV like it was a new spectator sport. Because it is. Because there are more vegetables than there used to be. And fresh herbs. Because there are stores devoted exclusively to chocolate. Because it relieves frustration. Because I’m sleepy. Because I can’t sleep. Because I want my own private, fenced-in time. Because we know the jingle. Because it’s low fat. Because it doesn’t count if you’re on vacation or standing up. Because we can take it off quickly with a liquid diet. Because it’s on sale. Because there are free samples. Because it looks good. Because it’s a birthday. Because we need protein. Because our palates went to grad school and we’re gourmets now. Because we’ll work it off on the machine in the basement. Because of TV. Because of our mothers. Because of the old country. Because anything could happen. Because it’s one thing you don’t have to wait for. Because it makes us forget. Because it’s there. Because we’re hungry. Because we’re only human. Because we want it. Now. Now?
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustrations/Terry Laban.