I Am That Girl Now

Monday, February 25, 2008

An ENTIRE MONTH LATER I am finishing the review!

I started writing this on 1/25/08-- strangely, a full week before my life briefly blew up on February 1. It may have been one of the outlying warning signs, I think. Anyway, since I'm reviewing Shauna's book The Amazing Adventures of Dietgirl, I am going to throw in a bonus review for the hell of it, on Rethinking Thin by Gina Kolata.

Okay, so, about The Amazing Adventures of Dietgirl. I quite honestly rode past my El stop the first time I read this book on the train, because I was so engrossed in the early adventures of tiny!Dietgirl that I looked up groggily at Fullerton and realized moments before the door closed again that, wait, I was supposed to get off BEFORE this, and jumped off the train in the nick of time. And the thing is, it pissed me off mightily, because I wanted to keep reading! I did something I haven't done since my college days: I kept the book out and read out of the corner of my eye while navigating the steps down, corridor across under the tracks, and steps back up to the opposite platform. Then kept reading-- mind you, this was in single-digit temperatures and I had no gloves with me-- while waiting for the train.

Also out in the cold, I was about to cry, because while Shauna's trademark combination of graceful wit and hilarity was very much in evidence in those early chapters, there's a lot of painful stuff in there and it resonates, man, it resonates hard. I do not like remembering being at a place where I hated myself and couldn't stand being in my own body, I don't like remembering the stuff that made me grow up the way I did or the times when I was so depressed after college that I hid in my room all day and only ventured out after dark to get groceries and rent movies, but at this point it was like someone had pulled it gently from my brain and put it down on paper, only changed a little. And now I'm getting all welled-up again, because of this weird thing where I don't like to feel bad for myself about those times, but reading about someone else having such similar times meant it was okay to feel bad for her... so I could feel bad, at last, about those experiences, through her. I'm doing a terrible job of explaining it but maybe this is what Aristotle referred to with drama as catharsis, an acceptable release for emotions. Either way, many many thanks to Shauna for writing it because dear God, I needed that.

It's a wonderful book. I've read all the Dietgirl archives so you'd think that reading a book I already knew the ending to would be less engrossing, but, nope, every time I picked it up (I have had four books on rotation this week, another thing I haven't done since college) I got sucked right in. It's such a wonderful mix of big dramatic stuff (large amounts of weight lost! moving across the world! meeting a guy! Red Square! impending doom! weddings and more weddings!) combined with wacky hilarity (farting and Elvis and drunken babble and all) and unabashed honesty about the whole sticky business of owning and caring for a body in transition. I am also now of the opinion that Dr. G needs to be cloned and these clones distributed around the globe to women everywhere, because he sounds like an utter delight and a real keeper.

I kept wondering how the hell she was going to turn this into a story with an ending, but she did, and did so beautifully, and I damn near cried. I feel so proud and sort of ready to bound off into mid-air. Oh, Shauna: NICE JOB.

Next up: Rethinking Thin. This ended up being the last of the pile o' books on my nightstand from my ill-fated whoops-wait-that-didn't-use-the-gift-certificate! Amazon purchase, most of which were about fat. And holy cow, this is the most scientific one of the bunch. No Fat Chicks was electric with the fervor of a woman who'd just discovered how she personally, among millions of others, had been fucked over by the diet industry, and extensively covered how the whole thing works, from models to magazines to WeightWatchers to Lean Cuisine; The Diet Myth was a drier read by a lawyer reviewing the supposed scientific case that being fat will kill you, who takes short breaks among all the data and the fascinating sociological narrative (including a fascinating look at the Clinton/Lewinski mess with an eye toward the influence of fat and dieting upon the psyches of Clinton, Lewinski, and Linda Tripp-- AND Hillary for good measure) to burst out with worry over what the hell is going to happen to his daughter as she grows up among the fat-is-bad noise machine. Both are clear from the outset about what their conclusions are.

Rethinking Thin is more coy about its main premise, and instead leads the reader through the whole thinking process, handing us more and more evidence along the way, until we reach the end of the book gaping at the sheer overwhelming mass of accumulated evidence indicating that the diet game is complete bullshit. Even better for the average reader (i.e. those without a weight problem) who is likely to think that the problem with fat people is that they don't really, REALLY try to lose weight, this book also follows a group of people serving as test subjects for a study on whether Atkins does better than traditional calorie-counting. We meet them, we see their initial desperation, we share their initial triumphs and fall into the same belief that this time, this time, it's going to be different and they're going to make it, they're going to become skinny. Then, as time goes on, we see the inevitable plateaus, we watch them struggle as their bodies take back control of the situation and render each dieter helpless before their hunger and the need for a variety of nutritional components. In the end, the system didn't prove that one diet won out over the other-- it concluded that they both sucked.

There's so much scientific data in here that I nearly burst my brain trying to work it all in. Kolada lays out the details of study after study after study showing that the appetite is controlled by forces determined by a person's genetic code, and that no amount of willpower is enough to fight the body when the body really, really, really wants something. We also get a frightening history of the past 100+ years of diet insanity, from the "chew your food insanely thoroughly" movement and women taking digitalis (!!) to increase their metabolism, to the birth of the low-carb diet (not from Dr. Atkins, but before the turn of the last century) and the original low-calorie health-foods dieters (which incidentally produced the breakfast cereal as we know it, via the accidental invention of the cornflake), to the ham-handed attempts of doctors in the 1920s testing to see what would happen if they just sawed fat off a person and the first bariatric surgeries, to the long, long story of how more modern scientists are slowly untangling the process of how the stomach tells the brain "enough" and how that process can differ between a thin person and a fat person. It's just crazy.

I finished it about five minutes before calling my parents for our weekly hour-long chat, and it came in handy when I made the mistake of mentioning the buffet my Hub and I had gone to and how he'd eaten easily twice as much as I had. My dad immediately started talking about how Mom eats twice as much as he does, all the time; he meant to give it a jokey tone but we all knew it was another one of his supposedly sly attempts to poke Mom about her weight. For the first time I can remember, I had information immediately at my fingertips and I crushed his comment in the most chipper way possible. I didn't yell, I didn't point out that he was being a jackass, I just mentioned that hey, I just read this book that talks all about how people have completely different appetites determined by their genes, and how the process is so long and complicated that the scientists don't know the half of it yet, but they do have a LOT of things in that process documented that differ from person to person and affect each person's weight. Dad backed up really fast at that point, as he is wont to do when he discovers that he's up against someone who's loaded for bear with information on a subject he really knows very little about beyond surface assumptions.

IT WAS AWESOME. I was so proud of myself. I protected my mom! I stood up to my dad! I wasn't scared! It was great! For that, this book is already worth the cost (admittedly, I bought it used and hence discounted, but it would've been worth the full price). Bravo, Gina Kolata.

Putting all of this together with the other books-- No Fat Chicks, The Diet Myth, and the gentle "banish disordered eating and accept your body no matter what weight it turns out is your natural one" views of Intuitive Eating, I've got a wealth of material that all informs each other. From No Fat Chicks, I know the extent of the noise machine, how pervasive the "lose weight so you can count as an actual person" message is in our society, and how incestuous the relationship is between women's magazines and the diet industry, and how freakish amounts of diet studies are sponsored by companies that stand to make money off women's hatred of their own bodies, and how deep fat prejudice runs, how bad it can get. From The Diet Myth I know what the "fat kills" arguments are, how the studies are flawed, how they're ignoring other studies that indicate that the whole concept of "eat less, move more, lose weight" is hopelessly useless, how journalists always tip the story towards the "fatties suck" side, and I was introduced to the concept of a "moral panic", which is certainly what we're in the middle of right now when it comes to obesity. From Rethinking Thin, I've got a pretty good handle on how amazingly complex the human body is, and how appetite is an innate survival trait, genetically created, and difficult to fight. From Intuitive Eating, I've picked up on just how disordered the eating of even the average American has gotten, and how trying to get skinny can give you the opposite affect (not to mention the new studies these days indicating that whoops, artificial sweeteners make the body expect sweets and can actually make you fatter as a result).

Conclusion: Bodies come in a vast, vast variety of weights, just as they do heights. Humans are genetically wired to have a 20 to 30 pound range of weight individual unto themselves; below or above that range, drastic measures need to be taken to keep ya there. Years of dieting count as drastic measures, but generally they end up counting as drastic measures to keep the weight high, because all they really do is teach the body that starvation is right around the corner, so keep the metabolism low and don't let go of any fat, ever. Disordered eating (which actually includes diets) messes things up further.

What I can't hash out yet (and it sounds like nobody else can, either, so at least I'm not alone in this) is what happens in the cases where something does work. Is there such a thing as "doing it right", or did it just work for the people it worked for and they're a minority? Am I at the bottom of my weight range right now (if one assumes my top weight as the top), or was my top weight entirely due to severely disordered eating, and I'm at the top (or middle?) of my natural weight range right now? As I continue intuitive eating, will my weight go up, or down?

I'm also not sure how much it matters, at the end of the day. The two things I seem to have latched onto as great truths are that I should accept my body for what it is and love it, and that I can have a natural, satisfying relationship with food. And if I both feel good about my body and feel calm and satisfied in my eating, then that's honestly all I ever wanted. I used to think that's something that dieting could give me, but it never did; I was never at peace with my body or with food. Nor did it occur when I was ferociously non-dieting, eating food to prove that I could, or to sop up excess negative emotions. I never felt good about my body either way; I never felt at peace with food either way. I always, always was preoccupied with food to some degree (more so when I was dieting than when I wasn't). And I just can't deal with that anymore, can't handle hating my body anymore (even at my thinnest, I had lots of spots to complain about and a deep distrust of it, just waiting for the fat to come back), can't deal with having food be such a huge thing in my life. I want more than that.



  • As someone who has battled my weight for about 30 years, each year getting bigger and bigger, that post has given me food for thought, and I thank you for it.

    It hurts to be told that it's easy to lose weight - eat less, exercise more, because it misses the point so very very badly. The books you review here just might help me find the arguments to fight back without crying!

    I already knew about Dietgirl though, in fact that's how I found you!

    By Blogger Wendy, at 1:41 PM  

  • Wow. Looks like I have a lot of reading to do. Thanks for the reviews!

    By Blogger HappyBlogChick, at 2:34 PM  

  • I agree wholeheartedly with your Diet Girl review. Absolutely loved her book.

    Thanks for reviewing the others. I'll have to take a looksie for myself.

    By Blogger Laura N, at 1:44 PM  

  • Hi there! I lined to you from Carly (Chubby Chicks Run Too...) and then I don't know what other links brought me here, but I love this post. You've really added a lot to my reading list, and I appreciate your great reviews! Congrats on defending your mother!

    By Blogger Stace, at 7:57 AM  

  • Hey there,

    I'm not sure where I clicked in the blogosphere that brought me to your corner of the web, but I'm glad it did!

    I'll be adding these to my "must read" list for the next few weeks...though I though Dietgirl's book wasn't out in the US yet?

    Also, I haven't read it yet (it's in the "to read" pile), but I think Never Too Thin: Why Women Are At War With Their Bodies by Roberta Pollack Sied might be of interest to you. It was published in 1989, so I'm anticipating it will provide more of a recent-history perspective on disordered eating in America.


    By Blogger The Phoenix's Egg, at 1:53 PM  

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