Friday, January 18, 2008

Prioritizing Fat

(Note: my profile photo now shows that I've finally grown up and chopped off what I call the college ponytail.)

I'm fascinated by the ideas in a book called The Fattening of America, which includes the theory that many people are overweight because that's what serves them (the Newsweek review I'm responding to is here).  This book says some of the things we already know:  American culture encourages overeating with an abundance of easy, cheap, high-calorie foods and a lifestyle that requires very little physical exertion of any kind.  In order for people to lose weight, they have to put considerable effort into resisting the dominant behaviors. Even actions as simple as taking the stairs are just not supported by the mainstream (I'd have to interrupt the conversation I was having with someone who's taking the elevator, or persuade her to climb seven flights of stairs with me).

But what's interesting to me is that the individual still makes a choice about what kind of lifestyle she's going to follow, that choice reflects her priorities, and her priority is often something else other than being thin.  Co-author Eric Finkelstein says "...the costs of being thin, in terms of what they would have to forgo, have just gotten so high that people are saying 'I'd rather be fat' than make the increasingly difficult sacrifices necessary to be thin."

This is fascinating to me because I never consider people saying "I'd rather be fat," even though lots of people must think this on some level.   Finkelstein gives the example of his Uncle Al, a wealthy successful lawyer, who wouldn't be as successful if he spent less time at work and more time exercising.  He also wouldn't be as successful if he didn't attend high-calorie client dinners a few times a week.  Because career accomplishment is more important to this person than being thin, he's fat.

I have witnessed so many women, including me, caught in the terrible self-flagellating twist of "How come no matter how hard I try, I just can't lose an ounce?  Why?"  We pass up the donut cart and walk away from the candy dish over and over again, living in a constant state of self-deprivation, not realizing that while we're taking care of our families, we're undoing all that self-deprivation with high-calorie quick meals or late night snacking.  We hate ourselves for being fat and don't realize we might congratulate ourselves for putting others above ourselves or putting our career aspirations above a fitness calorie-burn.

After reading this book review, I considered how I don't like working more than 40 hours a week and won't even take a job that would interfere with my workout schedule. I'm at the gym almost every single day and I watch what I eat and whenever I put on an extra five pounds (like during the holidays) I make damn sure I lose it again. I would count as a thin person.

But I've never earned very much money, don't have much in the way of material wealth and have no career accomplishments to point to. I used to think my lack of career aspirations was because I was a shiftless flake. Now I can see that at least part of it could be that my clear priority is health and fitness. Likewise, my life partner way outearns me, is very ambitious and can definitely point to career accomplishments. He works even when he's not working. And his level of fitness reflects his disinterest in going to the gym or eating salad.

I'm sure there's a way to be slim and fit AND have a satisfying career. I just haven't yet put the time and effort into figuring it out.

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