So, I was inspired to write about the issue of control by some comments on The Fantasy of Being Thin thread, where people explicitly said things like, “My weight/eating feels like something I can control, even when I can’t control anything else.”
Oh, I have so many things to say about that. My first thought is, as you might have guessed, that the desire to control something is a classic explanation for disordered eating behavior.
My second thought is, “Man, we really need to get it through our heads that we’re all going to die.”
That might seem like a bit of a leap, but consider the hardcore calorie restriction folks — not mere dieters, but people who have chosen a lifestyle (CRON, or Calorie Restriction with Optimal Nutrition) that puts a minimal food intake front and center, based on research (mostly on vermin) that suggests it might substantially increase our life spans. In his New York Magazine article about this phenomenon (linked above), Julian Dibbell writes about having a dinner party with some members of the Calorie Restriction Society, where the conversation inevitably made its way here:
“Kurzweil thinks we will reach actuarial escape velocity pretty soon,” says Don. “What do you think, Michael?”
Michael pauses to collect his thoughts, and while he does, let’s fill in a blank or two. Ray Kurzweil is an occasionally best-selling futurist, given to flamboyant but well-researched predictions about the “transhumanist” century ahead of us, in which hyperbrainy artificial intelligence, fiendishly intricate nanorobotry, genome-twiddling Frankentech, and other incipient techno-marvels combine to reinvent humanity in the image of the machine. Swirling in the midst of it all is the key concept of “actuarial escape velocity,” a transhumanist term for that moment in the acceleration of biomedical progress when, for every year you live, technology adds another year or more to your maximum life span. It’s a tipping point that, theoretically at least, never stops tipping.
In other words, these people — and there are more than a few of them — sincerely believe that severely restricting their calories could lead to immortality. If calorie restriction can expand their life spans long enough for them to see “actuarial escape velocity” come about, they’re home free.
That’s not even quite as batshit as it sounds. There is a lot of research, if almost none on human subjects, suggesting the possibility of increased life span through extreme calorie restriction. And the thought that medical technology could eventually improve at a fast enough rate to keep people living well past what we ever imagined possible for human beings is… well, not completely insane.
Any discussion of “actuarial escape velocity” is incomplete without an acknowledgment that, just as vampires have stakes and sunlight and werewolves have silver bullets, human beings have and will always have accidents and violence. Lessons of the Futurama movie aside, it seems highly unlikely that technology will ever produce a cure for decapitation, for instance. Or for a knife or bullet or metal car part right through the heart. I mean, maybe, but… seriously? I’m not holding my breath. Or restricting my calories.
‘Cause if we’re only talking about an increased average life span — which is happening anyway — not bona fide immortality, then we need to talk about quality of life. Now, according to Dibbell, the CR folks will tell you their quality of life is awesome — they have better sex, the occasional hunger-induced bout of euphoria, improved vision, and a greater appreciation for food than those of us who aren’t fucking desperate for it have. But they also literally have to build their lives around their diets. They have to plan and weigh all their meals to a degree that would make someone who did Weight Watchers in the ’70s blanch. They have to be hyperaware of the caloric content of half a strawberry. They can’t go to parties and merely alternate wine with Perrier or strategize about which appetizers will best fit in with their program and how many hours in the gym it will take to burn them off; they can’t eat or drink booze they didn’t plan for at all, lest they fuck up their project and, you know, not live forever.
And still, the really sick part is how familiar it all sounds, isn’t it? The line between gung-ho dieting and immortality-seeking fringe behavior is a lot finer than you might expect.
Because of that, I know there’s no way in hell I could ever put myself through that, even if it really did mean living 25 years longer than I would have otherwise — let alone forever. I know what it’s like to be chronically hungry and obsessed with food, and Jesus, if you told me I had to do that for the rest of my life? Then the thought of an extra 25 years would just be fucking depressing. And the thought of immortality would have me hoping they never find a cure for decapitation, so at least there’d always be an out.
Oh, but wait — there are people telling me that’s what I, and all fat people, are supposed to do for the rest of our lives. Remember Robert Haddocks, who firmly believes “most people are overweight by choice,” and if you have the bad luck to be genetically predisposed to fatness, the obvious solution is to eat as little as it takes to be thin?
Never mind that for some fat people, there is no line between the calorie consumption required to be thin and out-and-out starvation. Reality check: when Dibbell decided to experiment with living an extreme calorie-restricted life, that meant 1800 calories a day — which is higher than where both Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers started me (1700 calories a day), let alone where they had me once I’d lost some weight (1200 a day). And one of the points he includes to make the CR people look less nutty is that they worried about him losing weight too fast and being too hungry — April Smith, the apparent queen of the CR movement, insisted he eat extra dessert after he stuck his finger in a bowl to rescue the last available molecules of ricotta.
Dibbell started out at 5’11” and “an almost officially overweight 178 pounds.” I started out at 5’2″ and somewhere between 180 and 190 lbs., depending on which diet we’re talking about. On my second major diet, I naturally plateaued while still in the “officially overweight” category, on 1200 calories a day. Just so we’re clear.
The Calorie Restriction movement is not about weight loss. I’ll give them that. But it is ultimately about exactly the same thing as dieting “for your health,” and the endless campaign to make fat people quit being so goddamned fat, so as not to clog up the hospitals and hike up the good thin folks’ insurance premiums: it’s about a fantasy of control that goes as far — whether you consciously acknowledge it or not — as believing that if you eat a certain way, you will not get sick and die.
The CR Society fascinates me because they’re actually honest about it. And yet, those are the people we look at and say, “Are you FUCKING KIDDING ME?” Not the people telling us weight loss is, for every human being, a simple matter of calories in/calories out. Not the people telling us that losing weight has massive health benefits for all but the underweight. Not the people telling us that fat people are, without a doubt, a burden on the health care system (whether that health care system is government-subsidized or not). Not the people telling us that getting sick is almost always our own damn fault. Not the people telling us that the solution to all of the above, and myriad other problems, is to consume fewer calories.
All of those people are sane and rational and just telling a hard truth that fatties don’t want to acknowledge. But people who think extreme calorie restriction will extend their lives, maybe indefinitely? Cuh-RAZY!
I’m not saying they’re not crazy, mind you. I’m just saying all those other people are, too. They’ve bought into an equally insidious fantasy in which self-control leads directly to extraordinary good health — and we never call that crazy. (Well, we do, but most people don’t.) As far as I can tell, the main difference between someone practicing “Calorie Restriction with Optimal Nutrition” and someone on Jenny Craig is that the former will say flat out they’re doing it because they don’t want to die, ever, whereas the latter will just make some noise about wanting to live to see her kids grow up — as if no fat person in history ever did that.
Also, the person practicing CRON might be eating more. There’s that.
Today’s Trib has an essay by Jim Sollisch about coming to the stunning realization that, according to BMI, he is damn near “obese.” My first thought about that was, “Must be nice to be a guy” — is there a middle-class, western woman alive who doesn’t know her BMI off the top of her head? My second thought was, man, this article is so close to being right on the money — Sollisch talks about how, by every measure of health other than BMI, he’s in peak condition, so it’s absolutely ridiculous to claim his weight, which hasn’t gone down despite his healthy diet and more than adequate exercise, puts him at extra risk of disease. Bingo! Except wait.
The last thing I want to be is an apologist for obesity. Obesity is a killer, a huge risk factor for diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attacks and a life of misery.
Bingo! The other kind.
The guy has just written an entire fucking article about how he is borderline “obese,” despite not appearing fat to his friends and having “a cholesterol score a vegan would covet and the blood pressure of a marathon runner” — and yet, he still repeats uncritically the assertion that weight is, in itself, a “huge risk factor” for everything up to and including “a life of misery.” IT’S SCIENCE!
The key is, of course, that there are actually fat people, who are clearly at risk, and then there are those “suffering invisibly” like him, who aren’t. Good fatties and bad fatties — you might have heard of them.
Any clues on how to tell those two groups apart, there, Jim? You really think it’s just a matter of who looks fat and who doesn’t, by your standards? ‘Cause, um, it’s not. Also, with regard to your standards, I guarantee you that if you put your photo in the BMI Flickr stream (I imagine you’d look something like a shorter, older Angelos), there would be plenty of trolls lined up to tell you the “overweight and nearly obese” designation is PERFECTLY ACCURATE UR JUST IN DENIAL FATTY. Trust me on that one. So how is it we’re supposed to tell the difference between “healthy, not-really-fat fat” and “ZOMG going-to-die fat” again? Who gets to judge? You? Me? People who think this woman really looks overweight? And what’s the penalty for flunking?
I mean, that’s the thing — if being fat really is the express train to early death, shouldn’t that be penalty enough? Shouldn’t all those good, disciplined people whose “healthy lifestyles” are clearly going to keep them chugging along to 120 show us a little mercy, since they’ll get to enjoy so many extra years that we won’t? Not to mention, shouldn’t they be thinking about how much social security they’re going to suck, living decades beyond the average life expectancy, and maybe keep their mouths shut about how fatties affect their health insurance premiums?
You’d think so, wouldn’t you? Which means the only explanation for those people freaking out about obesity is that they really do know, down deep, they’re eventually going to die. And if they die at 80 after a lifetime of abstemiousness, and a fat person dies at 80 after a lifetime of (supposed) self-indulgence, IT’S NOT FAIR! And you know what’s really, really not fair? When thin people get cancer and die at 50. Or have heart attacks and die at 60. Or get in car accidents and die at 40. IT IS NOT SUPPOSED TO WORK THAT WAY! IT’S NOT SCIENTIFIC!
Hey, here’s a scientific fact: We are all going to die. And in the meantime, we all make decisions about the kinds of lives we want to live. Some people eat as little as possible in the explicit hope of outliving this silly, primitive limitation known as mortality. Other people eat less than they want to in hopes of living a little longer than people who “indulge themselves.” And other people eat what they fucking feel like eating, because to them, chronic restrained eating would — unlike obesity — indeed be a “huge risk factor for… a life of misery.”
And in those last two categories, at least? There are people of all sizes. People who are unequivocally fat despite consistently eating less than they want to, and thin people who seem to have the proverbial hollow leg. There are even, horror of horrors, fat people who eat whatever they want. Because they’re grown-ups, and they’re allowed. What a concept.
But wait, let me make sure I’ve got this straight. The CRON people — the ones who think that restricting calories will lead to immortality — are whackjobs no one should take seriously. But the rest of the world — the ones who think that restricting calories somewhat will stave off virtually every known disease and increase the average lifespan, whereas “eating whatever you want” will inevitably lead to obesity, which we all know is “a killer, a huge risk factor for diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attacks and a life of misery” — are perfectly sane and rational about food?
And it makes sense to sneer at the former group but nod vigorously at the latter, even when the latter is saying, “I am borderline obese, according to the metric on which all the scaremongering about obesity is based, and I happen to be perfectly healthy — but I know that excess weight remains deadly because of, um, statistics based on that aforementioned metric that claims I should not be healthy at this weight.”
I’m sorry, but which one is the obviously batshit crazy group and which is the obviously rational one again? I mean, at least the CRON people have some fucking rat research on their side.
Y’all, I hate to be the first one to break this to the internet, but you are going to die, and you cannot control it. Everyone you love is going to die, and you cannot control it. You and everyone you love are going to get sick at some point in your lives, and you cannot control it. You or they might be in a terrible accident someday, and you cannot control it.
You certainly cannot magically control any of the above by fucking dieting.
There are things in this life you just can’t control, period. And it’s okay. Really.