The Fantasy of Being Thin
A while back, Joy Nash provided us with this excellent quote of the day:
Obese patients are often encouraged to believe that weight loss is an appropriate way to combat depression, save a failing marriage, or increase the chance of career success. The irrationality of hopes pinned on weight loss is so striking that dieting might almost be likened to superstitious behavior…. Passing from childhood into adolescence, leaving home, marrying, starting a new job, having a baby, experiencing marital difficulties, adjusting to children leaving home, and growing old — all these life situations may become unexamined reasons to diet. In other instances, concerns over weight mask even more serious problems.”
-Wooley and Garner, from “Obesity treatment: the high cost of false hope,” published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, vol. 91, no. 10, 1991.
For the last few days, I’ve been thinking I wanted to blog on this subject but haven’t quite been able to pull my thoughts together. (Hence “help me find a dress” post.) Here goes nuthin’.
Once you’ve really started believing in fat acceptance — as opposed to thinking it sounds nice for other people, but you still need to lose X lbs. before you’ll be acceptable — it can be hard to remember how you thought about these issues before (just as it can be hard to imagine what it would really be like to accept your fat body before you’ve done it). I’ve written several times about how I spent ages in the cognitive dissonance phase, thinking it made perfect sense that the OBESITY CRISIS hype was way overblown, and even if it weren’t, dieting doesn’t work anyway — but still wanting to lose weight, still feeling like I, personally, needed to be a size 10, max, before I could really get started on my fat acceptance journey. The thing is, that memory is almost totally intellectual now; I don’t really recall what it felt like to believe those two contradictory things simultaneously.
But then, the other day, I got to thinking about a particular kind of resistance that shows up every single time anyone dares to say that dieting doesn’t work — the kind that comes from other fat people and amounts to, “DON’T YOU TAKE MY HOPE AWAY!” Those of us in the anti-dieting camp are frequently accused of demoralizing fat people, of sending a cruelly pessimistic message. I’ve never quite gotten my head around that one, since the message we’re sending is that you’re actually allowed to love your fat body instead of hating it, and you can take steps to substantially improve your health without fighting a losing battle with your weight. I’m pretty sure that message is both compassionate and optimistic, not to mention realistic. But there will always be people who hear it as, “I, Kate Harding, am personally condemning you to a lifetime of fatness! There’s no point in trying, fatty! You’re doomed! Mwahahaha!”
Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m saying. *headdesk*
And then I started thinking about what it was really like before I’d actually made peace with my body. And what it was really like was this: The Fantasy of Being Thin absolutely dominated my life — even after I’d gotten thin once, found myself just as depressive and scattered and frustrated as always, and then gained all the weight back because, you know, diets don’t work. The reality of being thin didn’t even sink in after all that, because The Fantasy of Being Thin was still far more familiar to me, still what I knew best. I’d spent years and years nurturing that fantasy, and only a couple years as an actual thin person. Reality didn’t have a chance.
We’ve talked a lot here about how being fat shouldn’t stop you from doing the things you’ve always believed you couldn’t do until you were thin. Put on a bathing suit and go waterskiing. Apply for that awesome job you’re just barely qualified for. Ask that hot guy out. Join a gym. Wear a gorgeous dress. All of those concrete things you’ve been putting off? Just fucking do them, now, because this IS your life, happening as we speak.
But exhortations like that don’t take into account magical thinking about thinness, which I suspect — and the quote above suggests — is really quite common. Because, you see, the Fantasy of Being Thin is not just about becoming small enough to be perceived as more acceptable. It is about becoming an entirely different person – one with far more courage, confidence, and luck than the fat you has. It’s not just, “When I’m thin, I’ll look good in a bathing suit”; it’s “When I’m thin, I will be the kind of person who struts down the beach in a bikini, making men weep.” See also:
- When I’m thin, I’ll have no trouble finding a partner/reinvigorating my marriage.
- When I’m thin, I’ll have the job I’ve always wanted.
- When I’m thin, I won’t be depressed anymore.
- When I’m thin, I’ll be an adventurous world traveler instead of being freaked out by any country where I don’t speak the language and/or the plumbing is questionable.
- When I’m thin, I’ll become really outdoorsy.
- When I’m thin, I’ll be more extroverted and charismatic, and thus have more friends than I know what to do with.
Et cetera, et cetera. Those are examples from my personal Fantasy of Being Thin, but I’m sure you’ve got your own. (Please do share in comments!)
In light of that, it’s a lot easier to understand why some people freak out when you say no, really, your chances of losing weight permanently are virtually nil, so you’d be better off focusing on feeling good and enjoying your life as a fat person. To someone fully wrapped up in The Fantasy of Being Thin, that doesn’t just mean, “All the best evidence suggests you will be fat for the rest of your life, but that’s really not a terrible thing.” It means, “You will NEVER be the person you want to be! All the evidence suggests you will never find a satisfying relationship or get a promotion or make more friends or feel confident trying new things!”
So if that’s what you hear when I say, “Diets don’t work,” then yeah, I can see how that would be a major bummer.
Overcoming The Fantasy of Being Thin might be the hardest part of making it all the way into fat acceptance-land. And that might just be why I’d pushed that part of the process out of my memory: it fucking sucked. Because I didn’t just have to accept the size of my thighs; I had to accept who I am, rather than continuing to wait until I magically became the person I’d always imagined being. Ouch.
That is, of course, a pretty normal part of getting older. You start to realize that yeah, this actually is it, and although you can still try enough new things to keep anyone busy for two lifetimes, you’re pretty much stuck with a basic context. There are skills, experiences, and material things you will almost certainly never have, period. It’s a challenge for all of us to understand that accepting this fact of life does not necessarily mean cutting off options or giving up dreams, but simply — as in the proverbial story about the creation of the David — chipping away all that is not you. But for a fat person, it can be even harder, because so many fucking sources encourage us to believe that inside every one of us is “a thin person waiting to get out” — and that thin person is SO MUCH COOLER.
The reality is, I will never be the kind of person who thinks roughing it in Tibet sounds like a hoot; give me a decent hotel in London any day. I will probably never learn to waterski well, or snow ski at all, or do a back handspring. I can be outgoing and charismatic in small doses, but I will always then need time to recharge my batteries with the dogs and a good book; I’ll never be someone with a chock-full social calendar, because I would find that unbearably exhausting. (And no matter how well I’ve learned to fake it — and thus how much this surprises some people who know me — new social situations will most likely always intimidate the crap out of me.) I might learn to speak one foreign language fluently over the course of my life, but probably not five. I will never publish a novel until I finish writing one. I will always have to be aware of my natural tendency toward depression and might always have to medicate it. Smart money says I am never going to chuck city life to buy an alpaca farm or start a new career as a river guide. And my chances of marrying George Clooney are very, very slim.
None of that is because I’m fat. It’s because I’m me.
But when I was invested in The Fantasy of Being Thin, I really believed that changing this one “simple” (ha!) thing would unlock a whole new identity — this totally fabulous, free-spirited, try-anything-once kind of chick who was effortlessly a magnet for interesting people and experiences. And of course, the dark side of that is that being fat then became an excuse not to do much of anything, because it wouldn’t be the real me doing it, so what was the point? If I wouldn’t find the right guy until I was thin, why bother dating? If I wouldn’t have a breakthrough on the novel until I was thin, why bother writing? If I wouldn’t be the life of the party until I was thin, why bother trying to make new friends? If I wouldn’t feel like climbing a mountain until I was thin, why bother traveling at all?
Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
Accepting my fat really wasn’t the hard part. Accepting my personality — and my many limitations that have jack shit to do with my thighs — was. But oddly enough, once I started to do that, my life became about a zillion times more satisfying. I found the right guy, I took up yoga, I started taking my writing more seriously, I stopped apologizing for taking vacations in the U.S. and Canada instead of somewhere more exotic, etc. And lo and behold, things got a lot more fun around here. The thin person inside me finally got out — it just turned out she was actually a fat person. A reasonably attractive, semi-outgoing fat person who has an open mind and an active imagination but also happens to really like routine and familiarity and quiet time alone.
That was never who I expected to be — it was just always who I was.
So giving up dieting and accepting my body didn’t just mean admitting I would never be thin; it meant admitting I would never be a million things I might have been. (Which, I’m told, is a phenomenon sometimes known as “maturity.”) I am absolutely not one for settling — which is where the confusion about pessimism comes in, I think — but I am one for self-awareness and self-forgiveness. Meaning, there’s a big difference between saying you can’t be anything other than what you are right now, and you don’t have to be anything other than what you are right now. You will probably never be permanently thin, unless you are already, but other than that, the sky’s the limit. You can be anything or anyone you want to be, in theory.
The question is, who do you really want to be, and what are you going to do about it? (Okay, two questions.) The Fantasy of Being Thin is a really convenient excuse for not asking yourself those questions sincerely — and that’s exactly why it’s dangerous. It keeps you from being not only who you are, but who you actually could be, if you worked with what you’ve got. And that person trapped inside you really might be cooler than you are right now.
She’s just not thin.