Sunday, November 20, 2005

Fat America

Every semester in my ENGL 1213 class, which requires a research paper, I have two or three students who write on dieting or on weight loss or on various weight loss methods -- one this semester is writing on bariatric surgery as the sure-fire way to reduce the rate of morbid obesity in this country. Usually the students who write are wan girls of around nineteen, who weigh in at about 122 and walk with their heads down, and who earnestly tell me, when I try to point them toward the articles that show that being a bit overweight really isn't bad for one's health, that "people" really just want to lose weight because "they" will "feel better about themselves." All the while never once looking me in the eye.

Here's an article looking over the whole obesity mess one more time.

It doesn't really say much that's new, but it says it clearly. I like this paragraph especially:

In spite of the fact that there are virtually no controlled clinical trials examining the effects of obesity in people, we can make some inferences from animal research. Investigations performed by Ernsberger and his colleagues have shown that, over time, weight cycling (temporary weight loss followed by a regain of that weight, otherwise known as yo-yoing) in obese laboratory animals increases blood pressure, enlarges the heart, damages the kidney, increases abdominal fat deposits, and promotes further weight gain (Ernsberger and Koletsky 1993; Ernsberger et al. 1996; Ernsberger and Koletsky 1999). This indicates that the yo-yo effect of crash dieting may be the cause of many of the problems we attribute to simply being fat.

That's the one you can't get people to hear -- people like my mother, who has been on diet after diet for the past fifty years, and who insists to me that if she "ever" stopped dieting she would weigh a thousand pounds, and yet keeps losing and regaining the same twenty pounds. And meanwhile along the way, like so many of my students, has done speed and diet pills and diuretics and Atkins and this lunatic diet and that insane regime and is currently, I believe, doing a mix of Weight Watchers and those no-fat/no-carb foods everyone thinks will work so well -- yikes.

I've got feminist issues about this (what else?) mainly because I had food issues as an adolescent: I remember trying to make myself thin enough to be acceptable to the world. I remember what it was like, trying to like on 1200 calories a day. I remember a life when all I could think about was food. This was high school, mind you. When I ought to have been thinking about algebra and physics and Latin: I was thinking about how much beef broth I could have for dinner and whether I could have four crackers or five with it. All afternoon I would think about that. And how many miles I would have to run, if I ate ten crackers instead.

Because I focused, from grades nine through eleven, on trying to make my body fit some magazine image, I did not focus on what I ought to have been focusing on (not, I admit, that it would have made much difference: I was, after all, attending what was likely the worst high school in Jefferson Parish, Riverdale High: but nonetheless.

My young women students, many of them, are in the same place. They are focusing, not on studying biology or algebra or work for my class, but on how much they weigh, how much they have eaten, how much they can eat, how much they ate yesterday, do their bellies stick out, did they run far enough last night -- if they're obsessing over their weight, as America tells them to do, they are not obsessing over my class.

Which is just wrong.


zelda1 said...

Real skinny girl in one of my classes, I mean real skinny, in graudate school, tells me that she can not spare the calories to eat one tiney piece of pie. I am sad, spare the calories, what does that mean, she can't eat because it would be too much? Having just been told by my ortho man that I need to lose weight, and as if that were news to me, and that I can't walk to do it, so that means what, I starve, or have surgery, or what? Well, having just been told this and still being depressed about it, well weight issues are of interest and they suck. I am not gaining, so that is good, have not gained since I quit dieting, and every once in a while, I drop a few pounds, which is good. But, I am not ever going to be what I was before the drunk driver, never, I will always be fat. I can't run, do aerobics, even diet, like I once did so that makes taking off pounds a pretty difficult thing. It also means that I have to put up with rude ass comments fromt he medical profession, a profession that still believes Twiggy was a picture of health.

Bardiac said...

This is such a complex problem. It worries me that so many of our students (primarily female) hang their heads and seem ashamed and scared.

I ask my students to write a research paper on some real question in their lives (which sounds like the assignment your student is working on); of late, those interested in weight issues are primarily interested in how to help friends with anorexia or bulimia. Occasionally one is worried about stress eating.

Maybe it's a slightly different sub-culture issue?

Lots are worried about other health issues, especially disease inheritance (alcoholism's a biggy).

At any rate, they seem like a frightened lot. (Men, too, though to a lesser extent.)

The biggest thing I've learned to making my assignment work is that they can't "know" the answer ahead of time; if they have a strong opinion, they can't use that question. (That avoids the diatribes about drinking age laws, for example, and would also force your student to either think of a real weight question or change topics.)

Good luck with your student! And you're right! They should be focusing on your class rather than on stupid diets! (Or better yet, mine!)