What Americans Don't Understand About Weight Loss
This piece originally appeared on Salon.com, and is reprinted with 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.
I still thought I might be fat. I thought that maybe with our Western concern about “acceptance” we had overcompensated when it came to facing the truth about weight, and that I was just one of many people who really ought to lose some pounds.
A Western acquaintance who used to be a dancer and who is very thin once remarked to me, “You sure don’t have your mother’s body.” For a while, I comforted myself that this acquaintance was probably anorexic and a little bit bitchy and that being bitchy went hand in hand with not eating enough. The girls who told me there was nothing wrong with my weight were never bitchy and always ate enough. But I noticed: The bitchy girl got a lot of attention from men. I said to her, “You like the thin look, don’t you?” She admitted, “Yes. I think the Audrey Hepburn look is the most beautiful look for women.” Her husband, who liked to go out and eat a burger with me because his wife wouldn’t, wondered aloud one evening what Nicole Kidman — she of the willowy frame — could possibly have done to so upset Tom Cruise. Nicole Kidman! But she was so beautiful!
I wondered about the split in my head: the idea that fun girls are willing to eat and can comfort us with a cozy, permissive warmth and that thin girls are the paragons of a beauty that only a very few can emulate. Who really wants to be so thin if it just makes you bitchy? Or does it? What about other cultures? Are the Japanese, who are almost uniformly thin, also uniformly bitchy, and if not, then how do you account for the fact that Japan is one of the most food-obsessed places I’ve ever seen?
I decided my doctor was wrong. I decided my kind friends who worried that I might develop body dysmorphia were wrong. I decided the bitchy girl who liked thinness was also wrong. I suspected the weight charts on the Internet that told me I was doing just fine were wrong. I decided the Japanese people — my family — were probably right and that their view of a healthy weight was probably closer to the truth.
So late one night, still jet lagged from my research trip to Japan and coughing from the pneumonia I’d picked up on the plane, I surfed the Internet. I was scared. I’d had pneumonia once before and it’d nearly killed me. The doctor said I wasn’t sick enough to go to the hospital and anyway, hospitals bred even worse infections. He’d put me on Avelox, which made me vomit; now I was on two different antibiotics.
Around three a.m., I saw an ad for the Dukan diet — a French diet — which promised to tell me my “true weight.” In a haze, I filled out the information box. Finally. Someone would tell me the truth.
You probably are looking for some stats about my weight. Let me pause here and tell you that I’m 5-foot-5. When I danced regularly over a decade ago, I weighed around 123 pounds. In the photo from Japan, I weigh about 143. According to the Dukan Diet, I “should” weigh 127 pounds. I was now at 138 (remember: vomiting). The Dukan Diet promised it could help. Later, my husband would tell me how angry he was that I’d decided to try “that French diet” while I was recovering from pneumonia.
The Dukan team sent me daily emails in English that had clearly been translated from French. This was often amusing. Early on, I was advised that if I were to regain my power of “seduction,” I would need to lose weight. One email read: “Our need to feel desirable, our need for well-being, our fear of illness, our need to belong to a group, and our need to conform to prevailing style trends comes from (instinct).”
Conform? Me? How dare this French diet company accuse me of conformity! But after my ire subsided, I started to wonder if there wasn’t some wisdom here. I began to wonder if we, like Keanu Reeves, weren’t in some Matrix-like environment in which we slumber in some extra pounds and feel it’s OK because, well, everyone is doing it. Is that why my nice friends were telling me not to lose weight? Because they didn’t want me to wake up? And if so, do the Japanese suffer from a reverse pressure?
When I was younger and my mother was out of the country, my dad and I liked to go off and eat burgers together at a small hole-in-the-wall eatery near our local military base. I knew my Dad counted on me for this kind of release. I repeated this behavior with the men I dated. I was your “fun meat-eating and good listener” kind of girlfriend.
My mother is not a closet burger eater and has never been obese. Her frequent and irritating lament over the years has been that she needs to gain weight. She and her friend Hanae-san and I would go out to lunch in Japan and I’d sit there and listen to them both complain about how they couldn’t finish their meals. Once, I was sick of listening to their not-so-subtle anorexic competition and I said, “You know, you might think it’s cute to complain about how you can’t eat, but it’s actually annoying.”
There was silence. Then, Hanae-san said, “We don’t think it’s cute. It’s a problem that happens to women as we get older. We lose our appetites. I see it all the time in my friends.”
A funny thing happened to me on that trip and others that followed. I too began to feel full very quickly. I, too, craved tiny but rich meals composed of fish, vegetables and a little rice. After three weeks, my clothes hung slack.
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.”
He didn’t like that feeling at all. In public, he ate and praised my mother’s healthy meals, but then he’d go eat a second meal in private until he felt stuffed and happy. I know this because for months after his death, we found bags of cookies stashed in his office, his tool shop and car. He had always sworn that his weight gain was a mystery. I now think that behind most weight gain mysteries, there are probably very specific reasons, if we are brave enough to look.
I continued on the Dukan Diet, which stresses lean protein in its initial stages, then adds in vegetables, fruit and whole grains. It is, in other words, one of many “low carb diets.” Scouring the Internet, I started to read about not only the Dukan, but also other diets, trying to understand how and why they worked. Low-carb diets are effective, experts said, because they force us to lower our caloric intake. Though I wasn’t supposed to, I started to track calories, fascinated that simple math can actually result in weight reduction. I’ve since learned that among lifetime dieters, counting calories is seen as a “bad” thing to do: too obsessive and anal.
The reasoning goes something like this: If you feel you are denied food, you will later binge and gain back all the weight. Therefore, you do not want to feel that eating is bad. Over and over again, I would run into the following sentiment: “I don’t want to feel deprived.” Freedom from this yoke of torment can only come from a transcendence that does not involve calorie counting.
The fun girl — the one who goes out to burgers with you and lets you smoke and drink as much as you want — doesn’t care about transcendence and she certainly doesn’t care about rules. In Scotland this fall, as I pondered another piece of pie, my mother-in-law said to me in her low, throaty voice, “Go on. Be tempted.” And then it dawned on me: Are we in some perpetual Garden of Eden? Is every pie an apple? Every dieter an Eve?
Do I really feel this way? Do you feel this way? At a certain point, how can any of us miss the Judeo-Christian thinking in the way we talk about and value food. Sinful desserts. Guilt-free brownies. Binge and purge. Comfort eating. Boring steamed fish. Don’t be tempted by empty calories. Indulge in richness. Reward yourself. Cleanse for the new year. Do I hear this kind of talk in Japan? Never. Do we have a psychological hang-up that they don’t? Or is it something else?
From the minute my son was born two years ago, Japanese friends and relatives gave me advice about what he should eat. “What you feed a child until he is three will stay with him for life.” There appears to be truth to this sentiment. Scientists tell us that we develop a taste for sweet and salt very early on in life — even in infancy. Our adult cravings — and the intensity of our cravings — may be determined by what we eat in childhood.
I didn’t want my son to suffer my father’s fate, so I bought a book in Japanese on how to feed babies, and followed it religiously. I translated a spreadsheet into English, and put it into Excel so my husband could see what foods we would be introducing each month. I want to stress that many Western baby-feeding books emphasize the introduction of texture to a baby’s mouth. In Japan, it’s all about food. The emphasis is on rice, fish, vegetables and fruit, and light seasoning. Japanese relatives and friends maintained their pressure on me to stay vigilant. Once my son turned three, he would go to school and the Western world would intervene, but by then it wouldn’t matter. My son could return to the palate I’d set for him.
Case in point, they said; I had returned to mine.
When I went back to Japan this past November, I was 20 pounds lighter. For the first time in a long time, I moved through the crowded trains, and the narrow aisles of restaurants with confidence. I fit.
Then, I got annoyed. No one noticed that I had lost weight. About a week into the trip, I asked a good family friend, “Can’t you tell I’m thinner?”
“Come to think of it, last time I thought you had ballooned up a bit.”
Just like that, I felt defensive. “Last time I saw you, I had just had a baby, you know.” Your body will never be the same again.
“Oh, yes. That sometimes causes weight gain.” Sometimes?
I wouldn’t let the subject die. “What do you think when you see a fat Westerner in Japan?”
My friend thought for a few minutes. And then she said that “fat” seemed to be a normal condition for Westerners. “But our idea of fat is different from yours,” she continued. “I think you become seven times fatter than we do before it occurs to you that you are fat. Anyway, you should relax,” she said. “You already know what you need to do. You just need to remember: Eat like us.”
By the end of my trip in Japan, I was convinced I had gained back all the weight that I had lost. I hadn’t been able to track my calories and I felt nervous without my dietary tools. I got to the airport lounge and was surrounded by Western businessmen going home. They looked enormous. You become seven times fatter than we do before it occurs to you that you are fat.
And then at home, the next morning, I got on the scale.
I hadn’t gained an ounce.