Short Cuts: Tall tales edition

By | April 26, 2011

Vintage ad for Lucky Strike cigarettes features a winsome curly-bobbed woman and the advice: "To keep a slender figure, no one can deny... Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet."

I was paging through CNN’s Compulsory and Gratuitous Weight Loss Stories (i.e. Health) section the other day, looking for blog fodder, and ran across a story about a woman who used “4 tips” (four? I thought all I needed was “1 old rule”!) to lose 232 pounds. The story itself is a standard weight-loss fairytale. Fat lady has fat and ill elderly family member she has seen suffering; doctor informs her she’s gonna die soon even though she’s not sick; she sees an unflattering photograph of herself and decides today is the first day of the rest of her life and she’s ready to make a lifestyle change! There are a couple of interesting deviations, however.

…Mills went into her purse and pulled out the tips the doctor had given her:

1. Eat 8 ounces of food every 3 hours

2. No sugary drinks

3. Do not skip meals

4. Do not tell anyone what you’re doing

Mills embellished these rules a bit by adding exercise. Her doctor evidently considered exercise optional for improving her health, an oversight both astonishing and illustrative. Tips 2 and 3 I don’t have a problem with, myself: I don’t care for sodas or other sugar-heavy drinks, and it’s pretty rare that I skip a meal. But Tip 1 sounds like a fad diet, and too like a breastfeeding infant’s eating schedule to be a coincidence. How do you live like that? What if you’re not hungry every three hours? Should you wake yourself up every three hours during the night in order to feed? If you’re going to be out all day, must you carry a bunch of individual ziploc bags each containing 8 ounces of nourishment with you? Isn’t that kind of weird and likely to further divorce the dieter from her natural hunger cues, if she was divorced from them to begin with? And isn’t Tip 1 in direct conflict with Tip 4? Wouldn’t your friends and colleagues eventually notice your iPhone alarm going off every three hours, and you immediately chowing down from a pre-measured bag of food like some weird doctor-instructed Pavlovian response? (And mightn’t they attempt to talk you out of such behaviors, which is probably why the tip is up there to start with?)

Mills seems happy enough with her weight loss, and that’s awesome for her. She’s even started doing public speaking engagements in schools on the subject, which is less awesome. Mills’ experience was successful, but it still relies on adopting a disordered eating pattern, one that requires consumption on a schedule that disregards natural biological impulses, for the rest of her life. And it won’t work for everyone in the same way. If it did—if any of these “rule” diets actually worked—we’d have a lot fewer fat people. There is no magical arrangement of foods and times and values and bites and and and! that will uniformly reshape fat people into thin people. The secret is that there is no secret, but so long as people believe there is, they’ll keep trying everything, no matter how strange, no matter the cost.

I never understand the logic behind this stuff anyway. If fat people are a recent development (as so much of obesity hand-wringing seems to suggest), and humans existed for thousands of years with neither fatness nor ridiculous eating “rules” for keeping trim, then why do we need rules now? Unless, of course, it’s not simply a matter of what fatties eat, and that there are lots of intersecting factors that contribute to statistical fattery, only a few of which are within the personal control of each fat individual.


From my inbox, sent in by reader Annabel, we have a new study in Pediatrics in which some sciencey types have published the results of a study on risk-taking behavior in death fat teenagers. For the most part, fat teens tend to participate in high risk sexual behaviors, drug and alcohol abuse, and suicide at the same rates as their thinner peers. Evidently the researchers expected this not to be the case, because nobody wants to hang out with the fat kids, am I right? The hypothesis was that that obesity stigma and isolation would render fat teens into armored beacons of virtue (because engaging in drug use and sexually-risky scenarios have nothing to do with feeling isolated—are these folks sure they’re scientists?). But no, the behaviors of both groups were mostly about the same. Gosh, it’s almost like fat kids are real people!

The new findings surprised lead author Meg Zeller, an associate professor of pediatrics at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. She said in an interview:

“Given what we do know about what their day to day life is like, extreme obesity in particular being highly stigmatized, we expected that these teens would be more socially isolated and more peripheral in a peer group, and therefore less likely to be exposed to high risk scenarios that a typical teen is exposed to.”

Zeller said she could have guessed an opposite conclusion—that socially, obese teens “are so impaired they are hanging out with kids who are more peripheral as well.”

There were a few exceptions to the overall similarities, however. Both male and female teens of extreeeeme fattery were more likely to have tried cigarettes, and more likely to be active smokers. Also, fat girls tend to be riskier in the sex they do have, being a little more likely to have sex before age 13, and a little less likely to use condoms. However, they were markedly more likely to use drugs or alcohol immediately prior to engaging in sexual activity.

Although the researchers still seem a little flummoxed by these results, I think they’re pretty self-explanatory. For one, it makes sense that fat kids would be more likely to smoke: smoking can be pretty effective as an appetite suppressant, and the concept of using cigarettes to eat less and lose weight was a popular idea even when your parents were kids.

As for the drugs and alcohol before sex? Teenagers are the age group most likely to be obsessed with the imperfect nature of their bodies, and understandably so: they have recently faced all the weirdness of puberty, are beset by wildly fluctuating hormones, and are possessed of bodies that seem to become more monstrous and unfamiliar by the day. And this is all normal! For fat girls, however, who are also affected by the aforementioned obesity stigma, the anxiety and self-loathing may be overwhelming. As fond as I am of saying that I’m not a scientist, I do have a damn MA in developmental psych, and it seems pretty obvious to me that fat girls would be much more likely to self-medicate their body-anxiety away with drugs and alcohol prior to having sex.

Speaking of fat kids! (And ending on an up note!) Helpful reader Alex sent me a heads up regarding a new film starring Jacob Wysocki, whom we all know as Dante from the dearly departed Huge. It’s called Terri, and it co-stars John C. Reilly (whose appearance in anything will always remind me of how I found him so unexpectedly attractive in that mediocre-but-compelling vampire movie whose title I forget right now). The trailer looks charming and heartwarming and all that good stuff, and so I’m looking forward to this film now, as I hope it’ll tread that narrow line between capturing the isolation of a marginalized teen without being overly depressing and tragic about it.

Also? While I love to see sympathetic fat characters in good roles, I do wonder where the charming and heartwarming movies about fat teenage girls are at.


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