Thursday, March 27, 2008

the lure of Big Numbers

I was thinking on my drive home (through very wet snow) about the bloggers among us who have written books about losing very large amounts of weight (Frances, Shauna, Jennette) and the popularity of the show "The Biggest Loser."

Maybe part of the appeal is what Wendy said in I'm Not the New Me:
Tell us where the food came from, where you kept it, how greasy it was, or how sweet, or how much butter was involved. Don't skimp on the butter.
The sort of weird, vicarious food porn pleasure of reading about someone else's unrestrained indulgences? I think that's what they were getting at, in the olden days of "The Biggest Loser," when they had the contestants have a free-for-all binge in the first episode, cameras rolling. The producers thought that the home viewers would want to watch this so they could nod and say, "Yep, that's how they got that way." The food frenzy would set up the morality tale of the Bad Fatties becoming Good Thin People. But somewhere along the line, they realized that the viewers could identify more with the contestants than with Bob and Jillian. So they started making the show nicer, and just ran more food and diet ads during the show.

There are two things about these books, and the show, that fascinate me most. One is the sense of transformation -- of someone who felt sad and hopeless but somehow found a way out. The sense of a transformation that goes beyond fat to thin, and is really more about finding a life that makes sense than about fitting into smaller jeans. The other thing that is interesting to me is the disorientation that comes with losing Big Weight, and an account of how someone makes sense of that.

The lure of a weight loss that runs into Big Numbers is that it exaggerates and highlights the drama of weight loss in a way that might not seem as compelling and interesting when talking about 20 pounds, or even 50. The person losing 100 pounds or more may have to learn her way around several new Selves, and figure out where the core of her is that doesn't change when her dress size does.

I think this is the central challenge of weight loss for all of us. I think that one of the reasons that a lot of us are overweight, maybe the most important reason, is that we're focused on the idea of a fat self, and the weird relationship with food that goes along with that. We don't know how to choose food outside a rubric of Good and Bad, beyond Being on a Diet or Not Caring.

I would really be interested in a study that explored whether overweight people with amnesia lost weight because they were free of the memory of that fat self, and might not remember all the rules they should follow. Because I think that we not only are fat because we eat, but eat because we're fat.

I remember in the Fat Old Days, when I had maybe 50 pounds to lose, scoffing at someone who was complaining about her 10 extra pounds. I said I dreamed of 10 extra pounds. But here I am with 10ish extra pounds, and I still feel really, really fat. I'd do the amnesia experiment on myself if I could only figure out how to conk myself on the head like they did in sitcoms.


  1. It is strange that we can't get out of that "I'm fat" mindset. Whenever I see pictures of myself at my goal weight, I say, "Look how thin I was!" Then my husband reminds me that I was still complaining about being fat back then.
    When I was a senior in high school, I discovered my inner athlete as a member of the rowing team. My height and my big butt and thighs made me a very powerful rower. I think I got down to a size 8--around 160 lbs--back then. But I *still* thought I was fat. It's insane.

    Now that I'm 30-something, I think I've finally come to terms with the fact that I am not, nor will I ever be, a small woman. I'm 5'10" with broad shoulders and wide hips--no matter what my weight is. I will always have female friends who are considerably smaller and thinner than I am, and I need to stop comparing myself to them. Will I be able to do this? I don't know. Maybe amnesia is required for such a feat :)

  2. I think you're right about one of the appeals of the "big" weight loss story being that it tells the tale of a complete transformation. I know for me, as someone who had about the same amount of weight to lose as the three authors you mentioned, another part of the appeal is the feeling of connection, or at least, less isolation. The bigger you are, the fewer likenesses you tend to see. Someone else out there knows how it feels to have that much weight to lose. Someone else has had those same feelings of dislocation and loneliness that can come with being so far removed from the physical ideal of normalcy society seems to have.

    But honestly? I really don't know if that fat me/thin me self-fragmentation was that much different when I only had 30 pounds to lose than when I had 200. Part of the reason I re-gained weight after losing it several times and put on more was that I couldn't reconcile those selves--I think the difference in mindset is only a quantitative difference rather than a qualitative one.

    The mental battle is so much more difficult to win than the physical one, anyway.

    I don't think I did justice to your post (which I hope I understand)--but am trying to not make this into personal blog post rather than a comment . . . .

  3. G.G.'s comment made me realize that my comment *did* turn into a personal blog post--which was certainly not my intention. I guess I was just trying to demonstrate that I understand what you're saying here (or, at least, I *think* I do) and I agree with you.

  4. I love this post. I am in the ten more pounds to go syndrome right now. And after losing 44 ten more may not seem like much, but to me, some days I feel just as "fat" as I did when I weighed my highest. Then someone at work will comment on my weight loss, or pay me a compliment, and put me back in reality. I am still overweight, but not near what I was.
    I love the transformation of it all. That's what is behind permanent changes in my opinion. I tranformed in my thinking and attitude toward myself and food. It is a continuous process, but so rewarding. The amnesia idea is interesting, too. Having seen my father change with his alzheimer's, and the memory loss, I can imagine that if someone could selectively lose the memory or idea of themselves as an overeater, they would experience weight loss without effort. I am rambling but this post was most interesting to me. Thanks!!

  5. Hey, I love the comments, and I am happy to have you find so much to say about my little post. Don't apologize! :)

  6. As always, you provide a lot to think about. If you can't figure out how to conk yourself on the head to invoke amnesia, how about we conk each other? I'm game.

  7. This is a very interesting point. I'm also in the 10 lbs to go club, but I've also been at the 'finish line' before and I know what to expect now. When I was at my 'ideal' I still was not happy with my body, I may not have had any more fat to lose, but still I felt 'un-pretty'. Now I realise that the fat is just a distraction from the real issues and so I'm dealing with those. Those last 10 lbs are really just a small thing compared to the issues that they hide.


"Count your calories, work out when you can, and try to be good to yourself. All the rest is bulls**t." -- Jillian Michaels at BlogHer '07