News Flash: People Who Aren’t Thin Don’t Need You To Deliver The News!

December 7, 2009

I don’t watch Oprah. It’s not that I think I’m too good to watch her show, I just have other guilty pleasures like The Real Housewives of Orange County and Project Runway and Top Chef. There‘s only so much time I can waste, and I usually do it late at night. And yes, I know that dedicated viewers use various kinds of recording devices to insure that they get to watch what they want to when they want to, but I’m a serendipitous viewer. Even when I do pretend to watch television, I’m usually doing something else too, and I like the randomness of unplanned viewing since it allows me to imagine that I’m keeping up a bit with the tube’s cultural influence. I never know what I’ll see or hear.

Regardless of whether you watch her afternoon talk show, it’s difficult to avoid following Oprah‘s weight loss/gain challenges. Anyone who stands in a grocery store checkout line has read about them for years. I see the overwhelming power of cultural expectations about body image in her public struggles. She has been called the world’s most powerful woman and she is not happy with her body. This disappointment reveals itself in strange ways. In the November 23, 2009, issue of Newsweek the “Indignity Index: An Unscientific Appraisal of Dubious Public Behavior“ reports this about Oprah: “The plus side of getting mauled by a chimp: Oprah tells maiming victim that eating through a straw will help her keep her weight down“ (p. 8). As an unthin person myself, I am saddened by this.

When I was in school, we learned about body types: ectomorphs (thin folks), mesomorphs (athletic types), and endomorphs (rounder ones). Many people are a combination of types. We can gain and lose weight and shape our bodies with exercise and weight lifting and plastic surgery, but a half hour spent observing people’s bodies at the mall will remind anyone that we cannot all look alike no matter how much we might want to. The reality of body variance seems lost in a culture that reveres thinness and sometimes equates it with moral superiority. This is not new, but we are certainly less isolated in our ability to obsess—and pontificate—about our bodies and those of others.

For anyone who believes that s/he is free of prejudice about weight, here’s a challenge I offer my students: What you are thinking when you stand in the grocery store checkout line behind someone you perceive as overweight who is buying ice cream or pie or cake or donuts or chips and dip or non-diet soft drinks or cookies or other weight-inducing foods? Do you think that perhaps the person is having a party or that s/he deserves a treat or do you really not notice at all since it’s none of your business what the person in line ahead of you is purchasing? Or are your thoughts less sympathetic like the person behind me in line who inspired this challenge by commenting that the person ahead of me should be getting celery and carrots, saying this loudly enough that I could hear, and so could the man paying for his cake and ice cream in front of me. Before I could decide what to do, he said, “Birthday party“ to no one in particular. His celebratory joy was likely diminished by the words that will play and replay in his memory.

There are several reasons weight-related issues have been on my mind. First, I read today that Lincoln University in Oxford, Pennsylvania, has dropped its requirement that students with a high BMI (Body Mass Index) take a fitness class before they can graduate, a graduation requirement that disturbed me for multiple reasons. If you want to read more about this controversy you can Google® it. I’d been following the Lincoln University story because of the second reason weight is on my mind: one of my ongoing Collectorys—research collections of quotations, images, books, articles and other materials—is called “Life: Live It or Diet,“ and focuses on diet, body image, and other weight-related issues that affect adolescent development. I’ve been going over these materials in preparation for a winter quarter class in human development that I teach. I’m going to ask my students what they think about schools weighing in on students‘ weight since this has also become an issue in K-12 schools.

Finally, one of the thrift store books I brought back from my recent trip is Joan Jacobs Brumberg’s (1988, 1989) Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa. While a book like Brumberg’s won’t offer me the latest information about this issue, which also includes young men’s similar struggles—or manorexia—as one of my students discovered last year, it does provide fascinating insights into the historical context of this issue. For example, Brumberg details on pages 241-242 America’s first best-selling weight control book, 1918’s Diet and Health with a Key to the Calories, by Lulu Hunt Peters, a Los Angeles physician and former chair of the Public Health Committee of the California Federation of Women’s Clubs, who wrote, “How anyone can want to be anything but thin is beyond my intelligence.“

But here’s something interesting. Peters, who struggled with her own weight, wrote that her “idea of heaven is a place with me and mine on a cloud of whipped cream.“ She’ll have company there since Oprah has often been quoted as saying that her idea of heaven is a great big baked potato and someone to share it with. The struggle with weight is a very public one. Trust me, no one who needs or wants to lose weight—or gain it—is unaware of their personal reality. Weight loss and gain are occasioned by many things, including those over which a person has little or no control. Callous, cruel, or unthinking remarks are not helpful, even when they’re delivered in jest.

Weight? Your thoughts?

When we lose twenty pounds. . .we may be losing the twenty best pounds we have! We may be losing the pounds that contain our genius, our humanity, our love and honesty.
• Woody Allen



  1. […] Original post by zinnfull […]

  2. I was a binge eater when I was a teenager. When I started having my children I found I (and they) had many food allergies. (A few of mine are wheat, corn, dairy, blueberries, bananas, soy–I could go on) I have been obsessive about my weight for most of my life because of these issues. I felt OK about that fo a long time because I was keeping my weight down and exercising regularly. What I didn’t realize was that I was pushing my “food baggage” onto my three daughters. I felt like I was teaching them the right way to eat and live and to a certain extent I was. I find today, my daughters (ages, 23, 20 and 17) go through painful guilt when gaining a few pounds that they can’t let go of. The good news is we all know about it and talk about it. It’s something that can be healed but I wonder how I could have prevented it? The perfect body image of America is hardly attainable. Besides, as an artist I love all the body shapes.

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