"Has it ever struck you that there's a thin man inside every fat man, just as they say there's a statue inside every block of stone?"
As the national obesity rate continues to creep higher, Cheryl Fuller at Jung at Heart speculates about the deeper meanings, if any, of obesity. As she notes, there is a natural human craving for a smoking gun, a prime mover: a gene, an archetypal childhood experience, a cultural imprint, anything. It is a craving not to be satisfied, as it increasingly appears that weight is a complex result of human identity, no easier isolated and explained than, say, intelligence. It is the outcome of natural (and individually variable) gratification, energy expenditure and environmentally available calories.
Fuller notes that the inferred role of volition is central to obesity, and this combined with its unavoidably public aspect, makes it a virtually unique target of social judgment in our society. Most other objects of discrimination are either agreed to be unchosen (race, gender) or can be more or less concealed (sexual orientation, substance abuse). As a slender person who was fat through adolescence, I have always felt like a bit of an oddity in the great obesity debate. So I thought I would share how my attitudes toward food and lifestyle have developed over time. Crucially, I claim no personal merit or superiority for the experience--it could as easily be said that the weight was lost for me (by developmental genetic change, etc.) as that I lost it and kept it off. And indeed, as I think back on it now, I think that it was not so much an exertion of willpower as it was taking steps to minimize the need for willpower. Or I may have just "grown out of it." But aspects of the process suggest to me what might have to happen for a person to beat obesity.
My family history for obesity is I suppose moderate; some have had it (not morbidly), some haven't. I was basically born fat and remained that way to varying degrees until around age 17. I was not morbidly obese--certainly there were bigger kids--but it was significant enough to affect juvenile social relations, self-esteem, athletics, etc. Especially in my early teen years I went through many diets that were miserable and only transiently if at all successful. But I loved food dearly, a wide variety of foods, and it was painful to deprive myself of things I loved. I heartily disliked exercise, not least because I was out of shape.
When the change came, it came in stages and not as the result of some conscious plan. The first step was my first job at age 15, a newspaper route that, due to the inconvenience of stopping the car every 50 feet, I did on foot and, increasingly, at a run. Suddenly I had daily exercise that I did not have to force myself to do; willpower was removed from the picture. For while I loved food, I also loved having spending money, so I effectively had no choice but to exercise.
I had the paper route for only a couple of years, but I tried to adopt attitudes toward physical activity that would seem automatic, not requiring constant deliberation (the dreaded willpower). I take elevators only to ascend or descend five floors or more. Unless frankly fatigued, I try not to sit when I can stand, and not to be still when I can pace and fidget. I have never much cared for running, swimming, or biking, but found in walking a daily activity that suited my meditative disposition and that eventually came to seem indispensable. I am restless and uncomfortable when unable to take at least a short walk in a day.
But in terms of my psychological stance toward food, I think the more far-reaching change was that, somehow, food ceased to be for me the source of gratification that it once was. This is captured by the cliche "Eat to live, don't live to eat." In a process that seemed to be unconscious at the time, I "decided" that food would no longer be a major source of pleasure to me. I decided that certain foods (pancakes, doughnuts, elaborate desserts) would be largely off-limits to me--they became gratuitous, no longer worth the risk. It helped when, a few years later, I became vegetarian for ethical reasons, a change that in itself dropped the last ten to twenty pounds that I needed.
This has not been culinary asceticism per se. I still love chocolate, ice cream on a summer day, fresh bread, etc. But I no longer relish these things in the sense of arranging my life around them, that is, they are incidental. I will pick them up when convenient, but I don't go out of my way for them and do not relish them in the way that I might relish a piece of music or a book. Food beyond that needed for sustenance is just not a significant part of my life.
As I said, I do not claim any particular merit for this or any implications for any other persons; I merely describe how it seems with me. It is not something that I take smug pleasure in. The point is that it does not require prodigious or prideful effort; it flows naturally. It is well known that genes are not once and for all, that is, they wax and wane throughout the life cycle unpredictably. Perhaps as an adult I merely enjoy some genetic dispassion for high-calorie foods, whereas as a child I suffered the opposite. Certainly I have other vices--on any given day it would be easier for me to forgo food as opposed to caffeine or Internet access.
Alternatively, as Cheryl Fuller might speculate based on her blog post, perhaps it became psychologically intolerable for me to remain fat, such that the joy of eating, long gone from my life, was not too high a price to pay. I think that many people, and certainly not only the obese, delight in food as one of the basic pleasures of animal life and are not willing to give that up. So when a person desires thinness but does not achieve it, it reflects not weakness, but an unwillingness to pay the often steep price demanded. There is a major trade-off involved. And people should not be blamed for their choices (unless they expect others to pay the costs of those choices). The complication is that what appears as a choice may not always be so (does a nicotine addict "choose" to keep smoking? yes...and no). The unsuccessful dieter thinks that he can deprive and exert himself for a few months before reverting to the status quo, when the reality is that he must alter his basic worldview: he must fall out of love with food.
It is often pointed out that eating cannot be considered a true addiction because it is not possible to abstain from eating. That is true, but it is possible to abstain from a certain degree of gratification in eating. To my mind, this is the kind of lifestyle overhaul required to beat obesity, analogous to the alcoholic avoiding bars or hard-drinking friends. While this is a matter of choice, it is not a simplistic matter of weakness vs. strength or willpower. Willpower is the alcoholic sitting in a bar all evening long and not taking a sip--no one expects that to work. One cannot avoid food, but one can avoid food as pleasure. Just as an alcoholic must look at a bottle and see poison, someone wishing to lose weight must look at food and see not a sumptuous feast, but rather a necessary evil. And obviously it is crucial to construct compensatory gratifications, whether sensuous or intellectual.