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What Americans Don't Understand about Weight Loss

Once, after one of these trips, I said to my dad on the phone, "You know that feeling when you are full, but not stuffed? It actually feels good."

Photo Credit: Goldswain


This piece originally appeared on, and is reprinted here with their permission.

I decided I had to lose weight on a research trip to Japan for National Geographic. After posing for a picture with a post-tsunami cleanup crew in northeastern Japan, I was immediately given a print of the picture as a keepsake. There I was, smiling broadly, and looking enthusiastic. I was also, to my eyes, enormous.

No one in Japan ever told me I was fat. Instead, relatives — my mother is Japanese — would say things to me like, “Wow. You are starting to look like your father, aren’t you!” Obesity, just so you know, is one of the major factors that contributed to my American father’s death.

My Japanese cousin asked me, “Are you considered large in America?”

“Small to medium,” I said.

“Oh. So I would be minuscule over there.”

“Yes. Very, very small.”

“It’s best to stay in one’s own country, isn’t it?”

My cousin’s comment initially struck me as the kind of naive thing a homebody might say to an inveterate international traveler. But now I take her words at face value. She meant that she ought to stay home to avoid what had happened to me.

The U.S., in case you haven’t heard, is the world’s most obese country, followed by Mexico and the U.K. Japan is last on the list. I worry that we often have a deer in the headlights response to this news. In a recent New York Times piece, Health editor Tara Parker-Pope investigated how our biology can work against us in our battle of the bulge. “Once we become fat,” Parker-Pope writes, “most of us, despite our best efforts, will probably stay fat.” In a later interview, she concedes: “Hope springs eternal, and I really do believe that I will one day be able to lose the weight and keep it off.” She then states that she will try again to exercise more and track her food. This to and fro struck me as an example of how we distract ourselves from salient issues surrounding diet, weight loss and culture. Biology may well be part of the problem for some, but why have we become fatter than we were 30 years ago? Why are the Japanese staying so slim? Do they have a secret we in America have forgotten, or maybe never knew?

Over the years, while visiting Japan, I had started to move around my second homeland with a feeling of acute apology. I was sorry to have mistreated my Japanese genes. When I went to public baths, I’d suck in my stomach and look around to find women whose bodies matched mine. There were older women whose stomachs puffed out. Young mothers — and by last year I, too, was a mother — neither puffed out, nor sucked in. I couldn’t help thinking of the words of Dr. Sears, of the Attachment Baby Parenting book series: “Your body will never be the same again.” He, obviously, has never been in the female section of a public Japanese bath.

Many times over the years I have Googled “How much should I weigh?” and been given a range based on my BMI. I have always been within that range. I even asked my doctor in New York if I needed to lose weight, and he rolled his eyes. In New York City women either weigh less than they ought to, or far, far more than they should. I wasn’t a problem.

I occasionally mentioned my concerns to girlfriends, who commented on my need to accept myself. Too much of our culture, they insisted, placed a woman’s value on her appearance. I was too smart to worry about my looks. Friends would tell me about their anorexic years, and how they had since learned to love themselves as they were. Worrying too much about weight signaled a fixation on control — or an obsession with image and the media. Was I reading too many gossip magazines? I was too old to develop an eating disorder; this is the bailiwick of the young.