Sunday, June 03, 2007

Game, Set Point and Match

I just finished reading Gina Kolata's excellent book, "Re-thinking Thin." Being a fat girl, I was, naturally, looking for answers about myself, and I came away flummoxed. I don't seem to fit with the book's conclusions in any way except for my inability to keep weight off after losing it.

Kolata presents compelling evidence that weight is genetically determined, like hair color, ability to roll one's tongue, singing ability, etc. She seems saddened by the people in an experimental diet group who have found psychological explanations for their obesity, in essence blaming themselves, their pasts, their family lives, for something that is probably as natural as their height, or their hitchhiker's thumb. She made me sad for them, and for myself. I was so enthralled by Kolata's conclusions that I hopped right on her bandwagon for the duration of the book. It was only once I set it down and started trying to think of myself as a person who was 'born to be fat' that I ran into trouble.

The set point theory - the idea that bodies tend to cling like grim death to within 10 and 30 pounds of a set point, and that no amount of dieting or overeating will sway them in any permanent way - receives a lot of space in the book. I started thinking about what that set point might be for me, and I am stumped. I want to believe it's around 190 lbs, a weight at which I liked how I looked and felt, and that seems like such a reasonable call - way more reasonable than if I looked at the insurance charts and decided that I should weigh 145, which I haven't, since junior high. But the fact of the matter is that, as an adult, I have weighed anywhere from about 180 to 311 pounds, and have spent significant amounts of time at various weights without seeming to work that hard to maintain it. At two different times in my adult life, I've lived comfortably at my preferred weight for about three years, then something happens and I start gaining again. My set point seems to migrate.

Kolata also brings out the well-documented fact that fat parents have fat children, and that people with fat biological parents tend to get fat even if they are adopted by thin parents. Here again, my family history is at best unhelpful, at worst, totally confusing. My mother did not come from a fat family. Her family was effortlessly slender. When she married my dad at 18, she was 5 foot 3 and weighed 103 pounds. Her waist was a little over 18 inches around. She gained some weight after having a few children, but stayed relatively thin/normal until her late 30s, when I was born. Then she started getting really fat - fat like I am now, and, as far as I know (I have not seen her in 10 years), continues to struggle with her weight today. My dad's family bears out the 'inherited tendency' thing, but again, none of them started putting on weight until middle age, all maintaining 'normal' weights up to that point, and their mid-life weight gains tended to be relatively modest. Five of my brothers and sisters followed that pattern, effortlessly thin until their late 30s, then having to struggle to maintain a state of modest overweight. The other brother is like me.

Although C. is about 15 years my senior, he could almost be my twin, and he is the only other family member, besides me, who started struggling with weight at a very early age. Reading Kolata's book made me start thinking more about C.'s and my similarities. I wish I knew when he started gaining weight, but it was something we did not talk about in our family.

I had always assumed that my weight gain started (at about age 9) because of the breakup of my parents' marriage, and my mom going to work the night shift at the hospital, leaving me alone in the house all night. Mom let me sleep in her bed, for comfort, and gave me a children's aspirin every night, as kind of a placebo device to help me sleep. I wore a big silver crucifix to bed because I was deathly afraid of vampires, and suffocated all night long with the covers pulled over my head on the principle that the vampires might be Muslim or Buddhist and completely unimpressed by crucifixes.

Mom left me snacks to eat when I got home from school, and she was usually sleeping. After the early stages of mom's return to work, it got hard for her to prepare a special snack for me every day, in addition to seeing to meals, the house and everything else, AND working a demanding job. I started making my own snacks, and the easiest thing to do was to butter a slice of bread. I wish I could remember what went through my mind the first time I finished my slice of bread and butter and decided to go get another one.

I remember not being an overeater before that point, and my photos show a normal little girl - not a sylph, but far from fat. I have a clear memory from when I was fairly little of eating a couple of bites of mac and cheese (my FAVORITE at the time), getting bored and going away from the table, then being surprised and delighted when I caught sight of it again a couple of hours later. I cannot, now, imagine walking away from my favorite food like that and so completely forgetting about it.

I also remember being babysat at the house of a neighbor girl a year older than me, who was a compulsive eater - she was constantly suggesting we get 'a little something to nibble on.' About half the time, I was for it, but the rest of the time I wasn't, and I remember thinking it was weird and tedious that Annie always wanted to get 'something to nibble on,' when we could be doing something more interesting.

Even at that age, though, I thought of myself as fat. The first time I clearly remember thinking I was fat was in ballet class at age 4. Except for me and Annie, the neighbor girl, all of the rest of the girls were skinny, with ribs that poked out, making their waists look incredibly tiny, and bony little hands that always seemed cold and damp. My body was a brick - solid up and down, sturdy, but not what you'd call fat - but compared to those other little girls, Annie and I looked like whales. Annie started consciously sucking in her stomach all the time, actually receiving praise for doing so from both of our mothers. I tried it, but I couldn't stand it. It was so hard to breathe. When my pre-school photos came back, my dislike for my solid little body was sealed. My arms, protruding from a mass of pink ruffles, looked like sausages. I remember actually thinking that, if not for those arms, I might actually be pretty. The thing is, I was not completely out of my mind. I was bigger than most of the other girls my age. I did not have protruding bird bones. But I didn't actually get fat for another five years, which at that age is a lifetime.

I honestly don't know how much constantly thinking I was fat had to do with my actually getting fat. The fact that so much time passed between my deciding I was fat and my actually getting fat leads me to believe it didn't have as much impact as I've always thought. What really seemed to tip the scales for me (no pun intended) was finding myself alone for vast stretches of time for the first time in my life. I think, in a way, I was looking for some advantage to being alone all the time. Naturally, every advantage in that situation has to do with not being observed. I knew my mother already thought I was fat. Maybe on some level I knew that sneaking food would be one of the most forbidden things I could do. I also found the drawer with the dirty book in it (Jean Auel's "Valley of the Horses", hawt! Sort of) and rearranged the living room furniture. The thing that's funny about a lot of these adventures in solitary confinement is that there is no way I could have concealed my activities. Food doesn't just disappear, and it's pretty obvious something has changed when you come home to find the living room furniture rearranged.

Bread and butter (actually margarine - cheap, gross margarine, like Imperial or Blue Bonnet) was my poison for quite a while. Eventually, I worked my way up to eating through a half a loaf of bread in one afternoon. I don't know how, but I did become aware that this level of consumption was too conspicuous. A half a loaf of bread gone in one day is hard to miss. I started getting stealthier - using less bread and more margarine. I started spreading margarine on both sides of the bread. Then I started sprinkling cinnamon and sugar on it. Then I ditched the bread entirely, mixing up sugar and margarine in a bowl and eating it straight until I felt mortally ill and had to lie down. Other binge foods I concocted in this 'advanced' phase were sugar drizzled with lemon juice, margarine-buttered cheese, and leftover chex cereal from the Christmas Chex Mix making (we usually had those partially-full boxes for months after the holidays) microwaved with margarine, cheese and worchestershire sauce.

The thought of eating any of this stuff now makes me queasy. I wouldn't want it, and I wouldn't be able to keep it down. Also, I am now an adult. No one is stopping me from going to the store and getting some candy or cheet-ohs - so maybe the fact that I don't want buttered cheese anymore is not significant.

I don't remember my mom ever talking with me about the binge eating. I do remember her staring me down whenever the family went out to an all-you-can-eat buffet and I took - man - incredible quantities of food. Way more than I would be able to eat now. I would go back several times, and fill my plate full each time. Afterward, I would feel horribly sick and have to lie down. The stare-down made me feel like a little pile of shit, but it didn't stop me from eating as much as I could.

Thinking about it now, I wonder if it was startling for my mother when I started binge eating. Seeing me swell from a bigger-than-average but healthy 60-pound 7-year-old to a 110-pound 9-year-old who now wore a larger jeans size as her 17-year-old sister (who, granted, was an anorexic) must have been alarming. She thought I was fat before - what did she think now? Did it occur to her that my size and habits before had actually been pretty normal, or did this just seemed like more of the same to her?

Over the next few years, I inchwormed - getting fatter, then gaining inches to compensate. Then, at about age 13, I stopped getting taller. I went in and out of what I thought of as 'pretty phases' for years after that - fluctuating between a size 11 and a size 16/18. I started gaining weight in earnest in 1994, when I remember being surprised/depressed to find that my weight had risen to 220 lbs. Between 1995 and 1996, it rose to 255. By 2000, it was 311. Then, in 2004, I lost 120 pounds. I kept it off for a year, then started to regain.

Looking at this, I see less a steady, lifelong progression of weight gain and more long periods of maintenance at one weight or another punctuated by stress-induced periods of drastic growth. I gained 50 pounds (almost doubling my body weight) when my parents divorced and my mom went back to work, leaving me home alone at nights. I gained 91 pounds after the breakup of my family in 1994, and now I've gained 70 pounds following the greatest period of stress I've experienced since then.

My mother started gaining weight in her 30s as her marriage unraveled. My oldest brother put on weight toward his death as he grew more and more depressed about what surgery for a brain tumor had done to his wonderful mind. My favorite sister, who had always been a reed-thin athlete, put on almost 80 pounds in a deep, suicidal depression after the breakup of our family. We are not, by nature or nurture, happy people in my family, and our response to life-shaking crises seems to be putting on weight. A LOT of weight.

There's an interesting discussion going on over at The F-Word about set point theory. I really welcome the way popular culture seems to be embracing this idea, in spite of the fact that it's such an oversimplification, and kind of insulting ('well, okay...I guess if you can't help it, maybe we'll have to let you be fat').

Repeatedly drawing people's attention to the fact that some gay people are born that way (e.g., 'they can't help it') increased mainstream understanding and acceptance of homosexuality. It's now much more possible than it was 20 or even 10 years ago for someone who probably 'could help it if they had to' to contemplate and pursue happiness with a member their own sex. If people begin to accept that fat people are often born, not made, maybe we'll eventually get past that humiliating prerequisite (which isn't even offered yet at this point) and it will become more permissible for all kinds of people to stop policing their bodies. I think that has to be the real goal.

I still agree with Kolata's implication that it was sad to hear fat people flogging themselves with psychology, but I have to say, I think my getting fat was 90 percent psychology/10 percent biology, and that biology mostly brain chemistry and a tendency to become depressed and then gain weight while depressed. My brother C. and I probably have a slightly greater genetic physical tendency to gain weight than the others, but the rest of them demonstrated the same pattern - they just didn't have to start paying the fiddler until they reached middle age. It's not sad to me that the 'why' for me is, in fact, psychological. It is sad though that I've always thought of it as something I should have been able to rise above. No one should have to prove the morality of their weight gain anymore than they should have to prove the morality of who they choose to love.

Anyway, Gina Kolata "Re-thinking Thin" is a kickass book, and chock full of terrific material for arguing with people who say they just want to help you. I totally recommend it.


Blogger Ann said...

I enjoyed reading this blog. An interesting and very well written book review.

But...if a person is interested in getting healthy (whether or not the person wants to lose weight) that person might read "The Okinawa Program" instead of this other book you reviewed.

That book changed my life.

Just MHO! If you read the Okinawa Program, it would be interesting to read your review of it.

9:41 AM  
Blogger Mary Garden said...

Thanks, Ann! You make me blush.

10:48 PM  
Anonymous littlem said...

"I really welcome the way popular culture seems to be embracing this idea, in spite of the fact that it's such an oversimplification, and kind of insulting ('well, okay...I guess if you can't help it, maybe we'll have to let you be fat')."

It IS an oversimplification, and as you establish in your vivid and wrenching anecdote, stress and psychology CAN change the body's predisposition into a disposition.

I can't remember where I heard it first, but what I've heard is "genetics loads the gun -- environment pulls the trigger." What continues to frustrate me about American society in general (and I, like the eternal Springsteen, was born right here) is how simplistic our analyses are of these complex phenomenae (and we're talking more than weight here, but it's pretty emblematic -- besides, one rant at a time) -- there CAN BE MORE THAN ONE CAUSE FOR THINGS!!!!

And if I had one criticism of Ms. Kolata's exceedingly well-researched tome, I think that would be it.

I just wish we could have compassion and diversity acceptance without what seems to be endless requisite brawling. But, however grateful I am to be a citizen (still), ours is an adolescent society.

(And I've been told I'm an overintellectual, bougie, elitist snot for thinking like that -- that my thinking is "so European" -- so I just smirk and let it roll off me. Maybe if I can perfect my languages, I'll make a good expat yet.)

9:19 PM  
Anonymous littlem said...

On second thought, dammit, I think I'll stay right here and rant.

At what point did everthing in this culture get boiled down to a flipping sound bite????

HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP and the freaking FOOD PYRAMID -- which is about to be COMPLETELY REVISED because teh Obesity Epidemic proves they were WRONG -- also contribute to the environmental portion of the problem. I know they altered my metabolism, and I won't bore you with the torture I've gone through to get it to work again. Although it will be a minute or several thousand before it appears, I'm dreading menopause. Even with my own free weights. DREADING it, I tell you.

I know Ms. Kolata couldn't print that, b/c her book would have been stopped at the presses, but if I ever get to meet her I'm going to ask her what she thinks about Food Politics.

9:28 PM  
Anonymous littlem said...

And can we, by any chance, stop with the damn WAR metaphors?????

WAR on Fat.

WAR on Obesity.

Yeah, right. Like the Drug Wars worked so well. Almost as well as the current war. Put down your G.I. Joes and your teeny tiny guns, boys (and patriarchal apologist girls who are clinging to the boys for what you think is going to be your share of the resources - psyche, suckaaaaa) and back awaaaaay from the console.

I have a new theory, and I'm only expounding here because I feel like it's a safe place to do so. I think that when skinny men, who are insecure about their ability to provide resources for themselves and their families (as they damn well should be in this economy that a lot of them voted for), see a woman that is larger than he is (you notice I didn't say fatter), or at least NOT SMALLER than he is, that in some deep, limbic, dinosaur part of his brain, he thinks she's going to EAT HIS FAMILY'S FOOD and TAKE HIS RESOURCES -- and THAT is one of the reasons why 1) fat hatred is so vitriolic, and 2) the prejudice threshold for fat men starts at such a higher level weight than it does for fat (or large, or muscular) women.

Why do I think this? Because I read somewhere else that in cave times, when the Neanderthal men used to bring back meat for the tribe and there wasn't enough, they would knock the Neanderthal womens' teeth out so they couldn't eat a share of what was brought back.

Make of that what you will.

I'm stopping now.

9:59 PM  
Anonymous littlem said...

Of course, another source of the "Fat Wars" I didn't remark on, b/c so many have catalogued it better than I, is whatever happens in the man's brain when the larger woman's features and/or body is perceived as distorted so that it's one more woman that he couldn't otherwise have sex with.

Yeah, right. Like the complete LACK of charm -- or personality -- doesn't TOTALLY factor into it at all. And it couldn't be that it's not that she's BIG, it's that you're -- "small". Yeah, dude. We know.

And I'm veering, bordering on careening, off topic.

OK, I'm really stopping now.

10:05 PM  

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