In 1863, William Baning’s weight loss was the talk of London. His pamphlet, Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public, in which he described how he had lost over three stone, was devoured by readers.
So what was his secret? What crazy, olde-worlde methods were used to shed pounds in 1863?
Well, Banting told his readers to avoid bread, potatoes, butter, sugar and beer, and to fill up on lean protein, fruit and vegetables.
In other words, his suggestions bore a marked resemblance to what you would expect to hear today from a newly-svelte celebrity doing the publicity rounds looking to shill a diet book or exercise DVD. Banting even gave an account of how miserable he had been before he lost the weight, and how much better he felt in his new, slender body.
The Victorians must have loved a good before-and-after weight loss story almost as much as we do today, because the pamphlet was a bestseller. But despite its popularity, the advice was hardly revolutionary even in 1863.
Banting based his diet on Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s 1825 book The Physiology of Taste, which itself was but a new treatment of an old, old subject. In the 10th century, the Islamic physician Ibn Sina was prescribing ‘hard exercise’ and ‘lean food’ as the solution to excessive fatness, and earlier again, such experts as Galen and Hippocrates had weighed in on the issue, offering their own dietary advice.
The fact is there has never been much mystery about how to lose weight. The real mystery is how to keep it off.
Over the centuries, what counts as excess fat has changed, but there has been a constant stream of diets, exercise regimes and lifestyle cures, not to mention medicines and surgical interventions, each promising to end once and for all the battle with excess fat.
But fat continues to fight back, some would say with a vengeance. In the last few decades, we have seen a significant increase in the rate of overweight and obesity in many populations, even as we try harder than ever to get thin. Why is this the case? Why is it so hard to maintain weight loss?
It is no wonder more and more people are starting to ask why we are so obsessed with losing weight in the first place. How did thinness come to be the most important goal in so many people’s lives?
On the face of it, being thin is an important goal simply because being overweight or obese makes you unhealthy. You could call this the Operation Transformation worldview, and it centres on the belief that if your body has the right measurements — waist circumference, BMI, blood pressure etc — you are healthy, and, conversely, you cannot be healthy unless those numbers are right. But this worldview is not just about health, it is also about morality.
Being fat is not only seen as unhealthy and unsightly, it is taken as proof of moral failure, greed, weakness or selfishness. Model citizens work hard, discipline their desires and control their bodies so that they are net contributors to the common pot. This virtuous self-discipline is manifested in a low BMI and a lean, slender body.
The belief that fatness is a sign of moral inferiority runs deep in our culture. Studies have shown that many people, including small children and even doctors working in the field of obesity, are biased against fat people, assuming them to be meaner, greedier, lazier and less intelligent than thin people.
As far back as Plato’s Republic, we see Socrates warning that giving in too readily to our appetite for food will lead us into ill health, strife and conflict.
Socrates doesn’t conflate excessive appetite with obesity, but the Operation Transformation worldview predominating today certainly does. If you are fat, you must have given into your appetite more than thin people. If you are thin, you must be in control. On this worldview, thin people truly are morally superior to fat people. Most of us don’t say or even think this explicitly, but, given the things we say, do and think, many of us probably do believe it at some level.
That said, it may be that as a society we are becoming more critical of how we think of and treat fat people.
Recently, the owners of the website Reddit chose to shut down sections (‘subreddits’) of the site that they deemed were being used to harass people. Most of these subreddits had fewer than five thousand users. The one exception was the Fat People Hate subreddit, which had tens of thousands of users, most there for the express purpose of mocking and shaming fat people. Many of the participants justified this behaviour on the grounds that being fat is a selfish, unhealthy choice that harms others. However, the owners of Reddit decided that they did not want their site to be used in this way.
Of course, there is still a huge amount of fat hate on the internet. But there is also a growing community of commentators and activists who argue that fat people ought to accept themselves, and that we are all deserving of respect, dignity and kindness regardless of our body size.
The shutdown of Fat People Hate, together with the rise of Fat Acceptance blogs, the increasing popularity of ‘body positive’ social media accounts, and widespread criticism of ‘fat-shaming’ online all suggest a shift in attitudes to fatness.
Fat acceptance is hardly a majority view, however, and you don’t have to be a fat-hating internet troll to object to it. Even well-meaning people worry that accepting and loving our bodies regardless of their size means giving up on personal growth and change.
But accepting your body does not mean giving up on it, and loving your body does not mean refusing to change it. Most parents love and accept their children unconditionally, but it doesn’t mean they don’t help their children to learn, change and grow — in fact, the opposite is the case. In a sense, the relationship between the healthy mind and the healthy body is comparable to that healthy parent-child relationship.
The more you love your body and accept it just as it is, with all its flaws and weaknesses, the more you take responsibility for it, mind it and to strive to make it as strong and efficient as possible, without hating it or punishing it for its weaknesses.
However, there is at least one huge difference. No matter how close parents and children are, they are separate people, but we are our bodies and they are us. Body acceptance is self-acceptance, and self-acceptance, contrary to some people’s fears, can be a huge motivator for change.
The Operation Transformation view of health is all about getting the numbers right. The message is, ‘Get your weight down and then you will be lovable and acceptable.’
But why would you take care of something you dislike or find unacceptable? Why not eat well, train hard, sleep enough, drink water, meditate, and so on, not because you should be better, but because you are good enough just the way you are, and you deserve to be happy and well? Isn’t this the whole point of being healthy in the first place?
What good is it to have the perfect clinical measurements if you’re not using all that potential to live a life that is meaningful and interesting to you?
In his pamphlet, Banting mentioned that he enjoyed vigorous pursuits like rowing, but he had given up this kind of exercise because it just caused him to get hungrier and thus stopped him from losing weight.
But is it worth giving up a wholesome activity that enriches your life and your health, just to change the number on the scale?
Maybe, at least for some of us, it’s time to get off the scale and get on with life. Perhaps, after all, it really is true that it’s not size that matters, but what you do with it.
Margaret Steele’s course, Fat, Food and Feminism, is part of UCC Adult Continuing Education’s Short Courses series for Autumn 2015. For details of this and the other courses in the series, visit http://www.ucc.ie/en/ace/courses/short/sc2015/. The closing date for applications is Friday, September 18.