Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Counting Calories in the OTHER direction

An interesting opinion piece from a mother who keeps track of her daughter's calories, but in this case, to make sure she eats enough.

The article, "Counting Calories, but Not to Shed Pounds" by Harriet Brown first appeared in the New York Times. It begins with a woman hunting through the ice cream case for the one with the highest calories. Her daughter is a recovering anorexic with a fast metabolism, as well as an athlete. Brown talks about how it's a struggle for her daughter to get enough calories in a day.

"Part of being in recovery from an eating disorder is eating well. In Kitty’s case, this means eating fruits and vegetables, chicken and fish and eggs, breads and pasta. It also means eating ice cream, potato chips, bagels, cream cheese and other calorie-dense foods that have acquired the taint of mortal sin in our fat-phobic culture."

And then, in a classic "AHA!" she points out what is so obvious to us and so alien to other members of our culture...that dieting actually does make a person gain weight:

"I grew up in a household where food was divided into two categories: good (celery, carrots, diet soda) and bad (cookies, pasta, anything with fat). No surprise, then, that most of the women in my family struggle with weight, in part because of a familial culture that promoted cycles of dieting and binging."

I was really pleasantly surprised to see such a controversial view in a major newspaper stated so casually, as if it were just something everyone knows. I wonder if this is a glimpse into what it would be like if the fat-phobia went away, and we got to reminisce about the bad-old-days when people thought dieting actually worked. I wonder if we would still have eating disorders?

"Kitty’s illness and recovery have taught me that there is no such thing as good and bad foods — that all food has its value and place in the diet, whether you’re skinny or fat, a recovering anorexic or struggling to lose weight."

YES! Well-put. But I wonder, it seems that the same sentence from a fat activist would never make it to the page. Is that me just being cynical?

When Brown finally finds an ice-cream with sufficient calories to help keep her active daughter healthy, she faces head-on the public's belief that they have the right to pass judgement on what we put in our mouths, regardless of whether it has an effect on them:

"A young mother with her baby asleep in a stroller stood behind us, tsk-tsking. A trim older woman holding a container of low-fat frozen yogurt scowled disapprovingly.

When two teenage girls, as skinny as greyhounds, whispered and pointed, my heart sank. How would Kitty take this? Would it underscore her differences and set off a wave of eating-disordered feelings? Would it upset her?"

If the whisperers and pointers knew the girl's history and the effect their judgement might have, would it make a difference? I like to think so. But I also believe that it doesn't matter, because no one should have to justify their eating habits to a stranger. Actually, no one should have to justify their eating habits to anyone! The people sitting around shocked that a mother would dare give her daughter actual ice cream should, in the words of the folks at Shapely Prose, STFU. When did our culture become so fond of judgement, or is it just the new and disimproved generation of Mrs. Grudy? Are reality shows giving us the impression that everyone's private lives are on display for their consumption?

Anyway, let me try an experiment. I'm not trying to deinigrate the struggle of those who are recovering from eating disorders, but let's take the same article and replace the characters with a woman with a fat daughter. The daughter is still a competitive cyclist, so she's very fit, but as it is for all people, you can't tell that by a person's weight or eating habits. Do you think the opinion piece would have been published without a corresponding "disclaimer" about the dangers of being overweight? Do you think the reactions of the people in the store might have been more extreme, more vocal, even physical? Do you think the reasoned, logical statements about every food having a purpose, or about how dieting pressure added to her family's weight would be as well received?

It's possible that the example above is just sour grapes. Of course it's possible. I'm not in any way criticizing the article itself, it's a good one, a positive one that shows strength in the face of public ignorance. I'm just wondering.


KateHarding said...

But I wonder, it seems that the same sentence from a fat activist would never make it to the page. Is that me just being cynical?

It might be. :) I don't know if Harriet would consider herself a fat activist, but she's a darn good fat blogger and absolutely on board with size acceptance. Her focus is, understandably, on eating disorders, but she writes a lot about the same things we at SP do.

So in that respect, it's even more subversive that she's writing in the NYT. Although I should also point out that they publish Gina Kolata all the time -- and there's an article on the fatosphere coming out in the NYT someday soon, and that author has contacted me about doing two other articles on fat acceptance/HAES-related topics. Things ARE changing, however slowly. And to their credit, as major publications go, the NYT has published a pretty stunning amount of against-the-grain articles about fat (even if they turn around and publish a BOOGA BOOGA BOOGA article the next day).

Harriet said...

Hi JoGeek,
I like your post, and think you make a good point. I do consider myself a fat activist, though my activism is confined mostly to writing. I actually pitched that piece to the NY Times on fat blogs, but wasn't allowed to write it because I write one myself. :-)

I agree that the Times has been much more progressive than most places about fat. I can't tell you how many magazines I've talked to about writing a "fat isn't necessariliy bad for you" article, and none would touch it with a 10-foot pole. So I do give the Times lots o' props for taking this on even in this tiny and restricted way.

Keep on blogging!

JoGeek said...

Kate and Harriet both: thanks for filling me in! I'm new enough to the fatosphere that I didn't recognize Harriet as a fellow fat activist. I just came across the article through a google new search. I think I would have read it differently if I HAD known, and wonder what that says about my over-eager sense of cynicism? :-)

I'm glad to hear that the NYT is at least showing some progress in accepting new ideas! It may be babysteps, but with a paper as big as the times, babysteps are more dramatic than a pole-vault by a small local paper.