We frequently get commenters who stop in to tell us that they lost weight and kept it off for more than five years, which in their opinion utterly disproves the claim that 95 percent of diets do not result in permanent weight loss. This is probably because when they use figures like “95 percent,” they are pulling them directly from their asses (“maybe SOME people are fat because of genetics, medication, illness, etc. but 95 percent of them just eat too much”; “95 percent of your weight is determined by what you eat, not your genes”; “95 percent of straight guys would never be attracted to a fat woman”; see also “vast majority”) so they assume we must be bullshitting too. In fact, a) that figure is backed up by science and b) it’s 95 percent, not 100 percent, so a couple of exceptions are hardly going to make us tear our hair and sign up for Weight Watchers. But bless them, it doesn’t stop them from trying.
Neither does the cognitive dissonance. Just today, for instance, Kate and SM and I were laughing ourselves sick over an email from a troll who says she DOES believe in beauty and health at every size, just not for fat fat fatties. See, she knows that the VAST MAJORITY (95 percent!) of fat people just eat too much, and she knows it because she ate the exact same stuff as her thinner sister growing up but was still not as thin, but now she’s thin even though she doesn’t diet. Yeah, we couldn’t figure it out either.
But here’s the part of that email that I want to talk about: Part of her “proof” that we are all gluttons is that she once gained 30 pounds during a bout of depression, but lost it again soon afterwards. We get countless indignant emails like this (though I might add that they represent much less than 5 percent of our readership): “I gained weight when I was in a car accident and couldn’t exercise, but then I lost it again as soon as I recovered, so you all don’t exercise enough.” “I gained weight when I lived alone and ate out all the time, but then I lost it again when I made a Lifestyle Change, so you all eat too much fast food.” “I gained weight when I was binge eating, but lost it when I stopped eating so much, so you all eat in binge quantities.”
One thing that claims of this nature have in common is, of course, a particularly navel-gazing kind of hasty generalization — “because something is true for me, it must be true for everyone.” Of all the common informal fallacies, this one might make me see the reddest, because it’s not only logically unsound but fundamentally arrogant and egotistical. But another thing they have in common, and this is what really drives me batshit bonkers, is that they actually prove our point. “So, you say you have been roughly the same weight for most of your adult life, and when extenuating circumstances made you deviate significantly from that weight, it was like you naturally settled back to your usual size? I’ll be blowed… it’s almost as if you couldn’t effect permanent changes in your body weight! Someone should write a blog about this!”
Shapeling Randomquorum recently wrote about a publicity stunt by an Australian personal trainer and wannabe actor, who is trying to gain 40 kg (about 88 pounds) so he can “better understand obese gym clients.” The article notes that “his body had tried to reject the fat at first” — you don’t say! — but with assiduous consumption of “bacon and chocolate milk,” he is halfway to his goal. He plans to get to 120 kg (264 pounds), keep the weight for three months, then lose it by training at his gym. Here’s where the article names and links to the gym, of course. (But it’s all about understanding fatties! Really!)
As Randomquorum points out, this aspiring Spurlock is going to come out of his experiment thinking that all fat people must eat the same way he did, and all could lose weight if they stopped eating and started exercising. “If it required constant consumption of heavy foods for me to get to 264 pounds,” he’ll reason, “then everyone who weighs 264 pounds must eat as much as I could possibly stand, and anyone who weighs 352 must eat EXACTLY TWICE AS MUCH.” After all, it’s calories in, calories out! If only they’d stop eating twice as much as he could stand and sitting on their asses 24 hours a day like he did, they’d be just as thin as he is now. He knows, he’ll say, because he REALLY UNDERSTANDS what it takes to gain the weight (eat everything you see) and to lose it (stop eating everything you see)! Then, he hopes, he’ll get a reality show.
Of course, it’s possible that when this guy’s weight stalls out and then chugs back down, he’ll put two and two together — “I’m eating this much but can’t gain the weight permanently, my clients say they’re not eating this much but can’t lose the weight permanently… is it possible these things are connected?” Certainly it’s clear from the comments on volcanista’s guest post that many of our naturally thin readers came to FA because they knew perfectly well they weren’t doing anything to maintain their weight, and thought it was fucked up that they were still seen as virtuous, healthy, and disciplined. I don’t think three months is nearly enough time for that revelation, though, especially given the comments we get from people who have miraculously, exceptionally, virtuously managed to remain at their naturally low setpoint weight for years.
The most ridiculous trick of the asinine “calories in, calories out” oversimplification is the idea that human experience is additive. Someone who weighs 180 pounds MUST eat 60 pounds’ worth of calories more than someone with a similar activity level who weighs 120 pounds, and someone who weighs 240 pounds must eat 60 pounds’ worth again! This is a delusion so hard-fought that, like Aristotelian notions about the crocodile’s tongue, it is simply perpetuated forward against all evidence. To assert, as the scientific evidence seems to, that in most cases you just can’t turn a 120 pound adult into a 240 pound adult and even if you can she won’t stay there, and vice versa — that flies in the face of the idea that one body type is normal, acceptable, and virtuous, and others are aberrations.
Just as a disabled person isn’t a broken able-bodied person, and a black person isn’t a darkened white person, and a woman isn’t a wangless man, a fat person isn’t just a thin person who ate too much. To think so, to cling so assiduously to thinking so in contradiction to the evidence, is to assert that there is one default body subject to any number of deliberate or accidental mutations. It is to assert that the most privileged body is also the “correct” body, the one to which everyone else should aspire. Oh sure, if you deviate through no fault of your own you are to be pitied (how many times have we heard the oh-so-charitable “but black people don’t CHOOSE to be black, fat people choose to be fat!” as though that weren’t as racist as it is fatphobic?), but if you deviate in a way that’s supposedly controlled, woe upon you. But we don’t have variations on a thin white able male body — we have human bodies, in all their many forms and functions.
And one way in which human bodies seem to behave is that they like to be a certain size. Not all human bodies, of course — because of the multiplicity of ways to be human, some people will be able to lose or gain weight permanently, some will keep gaining weight indefinitely, some will fluctuate wildly for no obvious reason, some will get stuck beyond setpoint because of medication or illness or some other mitigating factor. And not all the time, either — it seems pretty clear, for instance, that dieting will inch your setpoint upwards. But if you’re one of those people, at one of those times, it doesn’t make you better or worse, closer to or farther from the way a body should operate — it just makes you another variation on human metabolisms.
Gaining temporary weight, putting on a fat suit, strapping fake fat blobs to your stomach — in other words, emulating a “defective” thin person — doesn’t mean that you understand what it’s like to be fat. But pushing yourself outside the range where your body wants to be, seeing the inhuman effort it takes to get there, seeing your best efforts to stay there fail as you inch back towards what you weighed before… that can certainly help you see what it’s like to diet, and show you that your body and a fat body aren’t all that different after all. Spurlockabee has a great opportunity to actually become more sympathetic to the painful, futile experience of pushing your body towards what you think it should be. I don’t think he’ll take it, though.