My friend’s husband once said I’d be a great catch if I would just “lose a little more weight.”
I was surprised by his comment, particularly since he carries around a spare tire and since I am healthy (and happy) in size. Unfortunately, he, like many others, believes that being a stick is a pre-requisite to being a “great catch.”
Now, after reading Harriet Brown’s Body of Truth: How Science, History, and Culture Drive Our Obsession with Weight — and What We Can Do about It, I want us all to eradicate this kind of bizarre commentary and judgment.
Body of Truth is hard to describe in a nutshell. At its best, the book reads like a well-researched editorial in a respected medical journal. It’s loaded with case studies, commentary, and stories from medical professionals and average individuals. Brown tackles myths about body size and health — myths like Americans are getting fatter! Obesity can take a decade off your life! Being fat causes heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and much more! But it’s okay, because the solution is dieting — it makes us thinner and healthier!
Not so fast, Brown writes.
At a time when magazine images are synonymous with Photoshop and we endlessly navigate health recommendations from friends, relatives, and medical professionals (Try Isagenix! Eat clean! Calories in + more calories out = weight loss), Body of Truth is a must-read. Whether you’re an oft fat-shamed adult or a diehard “eating clean fixes everyone’s weight issues” believer, this is an informative book with a message worthy of discussion — though it may contain some truth you don’t want to hear.
Indeed, as a reader who was overweight as a child and silently suffered an eating disorder in mid-adulthood, even I was a little hesitant to accept Brown’s assertive stance that maybe it’s okay “for heavy people to sit around on their couches eating more bonbons.” That maybe body weight and health don’t correspond as neatly as we think they do. After all, if Brown shows us that statistics can be skewed to incorrectly favor thinness, can’t statistics also be skewed to incorrectly favor obesity?
This concern is not lost on Brown, who acknowledges that readers may initially interpret her message as advocating for obesity. That isn’t the case, she writes. And as the book hits its stride around chapter three, the message becomes apparent: being heavy doesn’t necessarily mean unhealthy, and being healthy may need some redefining in our culture.
Brown has written about Alzheimer’s, job discrimination, and eating disorders for various publications, and her ease in writing about this topic is apparent from the start. She candidly reveals her own struggles with weight gain, as well as its antithesis — excessive weight loss. To show us the hard truth about the latter, she shares fragmented stories of her own daughter’s anorexia, including a trip to the ICU. But this book isn’t devoted to the topic of eating disorders. This is no 8 Keys to Recovering from an Eating Disorder or Life Without Ed. It’s an intimate look at the mindset of a culture that labels heavier individuals as “stupid,” “ugly,” and “incompetent.”
Brown opens the book with something Lance Armstrong said to the wife of a former teammate: “I called you crazy. I called you a bitch. But I never called you fat.” How did we get to a place where the worst insult you can hurl at someone is “fat”? Brown ponders. Even more so, why is saying it okay?
And the answer is complex. Brown takes to task dieting, medical professionals, research manipulation. She questions our use of food labels. “As long as the discussion is framed as a dichotomy,” she writes, “ — food is good or bad, and we’re good or bad for eating a specific food — many of us will keep bouncing from one end of the spectrum to the other, depriving ourselves or overeating, eating ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy.’”
She also questions the strange fat-shaming that pops up in ads around the world and that feeds into a cyclical problem. For instance, did you know that public benches in Moscow display your weight when you sit on them and then proceed to offer you health tips and advertisements for a local gym? The purpose, designers say, is to raise fitness awareness. But since weight doesn’t always directly correlate with your fitness level, Brown writes, it is really just public fat-shaming.
Brown explores the topic of healthy motivating through dissatisfaction and shame with Katie Loth, a researcher involved with Project EAT. As Loth puts it, “People often feel like body dissatisfaction or been unhappy with how you look can be motivating. We found it’s not true.”
Especially, Brown writes, in the case of childhood obesity — a prominent topic that reminds everyone that weight concerns have no age limit. Brown tells the story of a mother who once brought her seven-month-old baby in to the doctor’s office because the child would moan with excitement while feeding. The mother was worried her baby would get fat.
From the principal investigator of Project EAT, Brown learns what may seem counterintuitive: “the younger kids are when they start to diet, the heavier they tend to become and the higher their chance of developing risky behaviors like purging, abusing laxatives, bingeing, and overexercising.” Kids who diet end up more overweight, not less, with more disordered eating issues, not fewer. And, Brown writes, the kicker is that “dieting kids and teens are also less likely to pursue healthy behaviors,” like regular moderate exercise.
This doesn’t surprise me at all. Even at my heaviest, when I was a teen, I loved to do active things. But because I thought it would look “unusual” for me to run through the neighborhood (Why is that heavy girl running? She’s too big to be a runner…) I would run laps in my basement instead. Not the most efficient place to pursue a healthy behavior.
As Brown shows, for those worried about childhood and adult obesity, setting up public ways to shame people into exercise isn’t a good idea.
Sociologically speaking, Brown mentions the alienation of those who are comfortable with their bodies and with whatever they dine on. Often these individuals are shamed into shaming! Ever been with a group of women complaining about the size of their thighs or how they are avoiding carbs? If you aren’t on the self-hate bandwagon then you are hated, or hated on until you join up.
As I read this book I vowed that I would no longer participate in those conversations. True to form, a friend messaged me saying how she was going through a rough time, but at least she was losing a lot of weight as a result of the stress she was under. This friend is a size zero. I mentioned Brown’s book, explaining (kindly) that I’d rather not support negative self-talk since it (on very deep levels) perpetuates body-shaming. The conversation ended there. I never heard back from her.
Social stigmas are maddening, and Brown makes a convincing case to end body-shaming. She writes, “If we’re really worried about people’s health, we wouldn’t be OK with the nasty tweets and e-mails and public comments. We wouldn’t be OK with the fat-shaming and death threats and the anonymous letters. We’d be talking about how to best support people to be as healthy as they possibly can be — and not just fat people.”
This is the biggest truth in her book: everyone needs help maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Everyone.
After all, those obsessed with clean eating can just as easily find themselves smack dab in the middle of an eating disorder. Everyone knows someone who is obsessed with a modern-day version of Slimfast or a special diet that doesn’t include sugar. This good food/bad food mentality becomes a thin line between healthy choices and orthorexia nervosa. And according to the studies in Brown’s book, even if you are fit and these amazing diets work for you, it doesn’t mean you will live any longer than those who enjoy eating a box of Oreos every week.
While I don’t ever intend to waste energy convincing those who can’t be convinced, at least Body of Truth exists as a powerful resource. The next time I hear one of my friends say, “I’m too fat,” I’m going to say, “Read Body of Truth. It might change your mind about that.”
Body of Truth: How Science, History, and Culture Drive Our Obsession with Weight — and What We Can Do about It
Da Capo Lifelong Books, March 2015
Hardcover, 304 pages