June 1, 2008

Health & Beauty

The Flat Tummy Gospel, Part 2

by Kristina Marie Darling


As a self-conscious thirteen year old, dieting remained relatively new to me, because from approximately age five, I’d staunchly resisted suggestions from friends and relatives that I lose weight. At first, my parents didn’t care so much about my extra pounds, but merely tried to limit my intake of hot chocolate, jelly beans and ice cream. This set-up changed entirely when my parents joined a new social circle around the time I was ten. As a kid, I lived in the suburb of Ballwin, MO, and before my family moved in, the picturesque little neighborhood had apparently filled up with soccer moms in Versace track suits, middle-aged women fresh out of the Betty Ford Clinic, and men in Porsche convertibles facing midlife crises, all of whom viewed child rearing as a competitive sport.

My dad couldn’t have cared less what ten year old kids were doing on a Saturday night, but this competition really bothered my mom. My classmates’ mothers would talk about their ten year old daughters’ boyfriends, dates, and cute little social lives, but my mom really had nothing to say about me. I preferred sitting in my room with a box of Russell Stover chocolates and a good book. My mom slowly grew determined to mold me into the captain of the cheerleading squad, mostly so that she would have something to talk about with the other parents. My younger brother, Tim, who liked to hide in his small haven of violent video games and caramel, experienced torments of a different kind: little league baseball. I thanked my lucky stars that I had merely been sentenced to being, as my mom put it, “more social.”

One bright, particularly humid Saturday, my mom and I went on one of our weekly shopping trips, which I loved as much as the chocolate truffles at the Godiva store with white frosting on top. When we walked into a kid’s clothing store, my mom pointed to a pair of shorts with daisy flowers on the butt and a matching tank top. She smiled at me and said, “You should wear stuff like this. Things with a little more style, like your friend Cat.” I looked down at my oversized Cardinals jersey and baggy pants, knowing I looked more like a hip-hop star than the preteen model that my mother wanted me to be. “Uh… Okay,” I answered, picking an extra large off the rack. My mom immediately put it back and said, “When you can fit into a smaller size, I’ll buy it for you.” She continued to grin, forcing herself to look happy and cheerful. I thought for a second and said, “Nah, I don’t want it that bad.” Even though I could tell that I’d disappointed her, I knew, even at ten years old, that I had to stand my ground.

My mom also used to invent bribes – a walkman, a music CD containing foul language, or a short skirt that I didn’t really want in the first place – in exchange for a promise to lose twenty-five or thirty pounds. Knowing that it wasn’t my responsibility to be anything other than myself, I refused each and every expensive item. From the start, I couldn’t help but think that when she envisioned raising a daughter, she anticipated something entirely different from me, with my frizzy hair, thunder thighs, and ratty sneakers.

At thirteen, though, things were different. I got picked on a lot more. There was a disproportionate number of skinny blondes at my school, twiggy girls in hip-huggers who teased me daily and called me everything from “lesbo” to “that girl who got hit upside the head with an ugly stick.” My first attempt to lose weight followed, involving measuring cups, Lays Baked Potato Chips and the Spice Girls. One day at the dinner table, I announced, “I’m on a diet,” but I never really asked anyone for advice, mostly because I was embarrassed at being fat. Yet advice came, regardless, from my overly eager mother who told me: “I’ll get you a membership at my gym.” That very day I received a little West County Health and Fitness keychain with my own gym I.D. Since I always feel self-conscious surrounded by body builders and volleyball team captains, I stashed it in my sock drawer and figured I’d say it was lost.

My first day on the diet proved to be the most unbearable, perhaps because I was accustomed to chocolate, Pop Tarts and the occasional slice of leftover birthday cake. I went without breakfast or lunch, had the low fat potato chips when I came home from school, and braved the treadmill, running on the lowest setting for an overwhelming twenty-five minutes. I let my radio play on, Posh Spice wailing from the speakers. I didn’t know how I’d make it through even a month of diet cola and exercise. To comfort myself, I decided it was snack time. I knew that if I had a box of Cheerios in front of me, I’d eat the entire thing, so I carefully measured out a single serving of one and one fourth cups and put the box away. When I asked my brother Tim how to stifle the growling noises that came from my stomach, he told me where he’d hidden candy bars around the house.

I stuck to it, though, and later thanked myself for it. This diet proved fairly successful, and after a couple of months I was down to a size ten. The real weight loss came when I started watching re-runs of “Ally McBeal” to motivate myself, Callista Flockhart’s flat tummy and miniskirt-filled wardrobe being my future payoff. After a few months of the Ally McBeal diet, I fit into a size six, and treated myself to a chocolate chip, fudge coated granola bar. As I chewed, a little voice seemed to tell me: By eating junk food you are warned, and in eating little of it know there is great reward…

*

It wasn’t until I reached age fifteen that I started to realize just how many other people were on diets, even in my own family. For a while my brother was a poor dieting role model. He would solemnly vow to lose weight, run every day, and swim laps in the tiny pool in our backyard, but after jogging one block he’d come home gasping, “Water! Chocolate!” Yet after watching my mom and dad count calories, wincing as they chewed metabolism-boosting bars with imitation chocolate coating, dieting began to seem like a pretty normal thing to do, even for skinny, healthy people. My mom, who wears a size six and exercises daily, once told me, “Not being able to fit into my clothes and having to get the next size up makes me want to diet.” At the time, this statement surprised me, mostly because I’ve never thought my mom needed to be on a diet. I mean, she’s always been fairly thin and I’ve often wondered if she was born without a junk food gene. Seeing her constantly question her appearance, go hungry, and strive to be just one size smaller sometimes made me wonder if a never-ending diet and a lack of self esteem were simply my fate as a female.

While I’m aware that not all dieters are like my mom and some try to lose weight for health reasons, people like that usually still feel good when they can buy a smaller pair of pants. My dad is a good example of this. He’s an Atkins man and for years he relentlessly stuck to his chosen meal plan, eating mostly hamburger patties and cheese cubes. Like my mom, he never seemed to slip. Not once had I caught him in the kitchen in the middle of the night eating potato chips. When I asked him about it, he said, “I diet primarily to keep my blood sugar low because I’m a diabetic.” I’d always admired my dad for sticking to a diet that involved no carbohydrates whatsoever, but didn’t believe he went through all of that trouble strictly for health reasons. When I really interrogated him, he admitted, “It was nice to see the results. I don’t like the process, but the results are great.” I could relate. The one bright Friday afternoon that I got to wear a miniskirt and tank top (and look good doing it) was probably the greatest day of my high school career. Results definitely remain the most bearable part of dieting, but tend to be enjoyed only in retrospect by a lot of dieters. Although I would love to miraculously return to my high school weight, at the time I would have wanted to lose five more pounds, because only then would my tummy finally be flat.

*

But the majority of us are flab, and unto flab we shall return. Most dieters, however triumphant and swimsuit worthy, usually gain it all back. According to the National Center for Health Statistics web site, the majority of Americans, although constantly dieting, are overweight or obese. A whopping sixty six percent of Americans weigh too much by healthcare standards. For me, this slow return to the world of cheese garlic bread, hamburgers, and peanut butter came when I applied to colleges and sat, twirling my hair between my fingers, waiting to hear back. Out of sheer nervousness about what the people at Smith College, Washington University, and the University of Chicago were writing in my admissions file, I checked the mail compulsively, hoping for a decision. I should have known that bringing a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup as I walked to the mailbox each day was a bad idea, and by the time college rolled around, I was a size eighteen. I returned to ice cream sundaes, and the weight returneth unto me.

The reason why I gained it all back? Hunger and stress together became unbearable. Not being able to so much as look at a cheesecake (the death of every diet I’ve ever been on) grew depressing after awhile. If I had to rate my quality of life on a scale of one to ten, without junk food it would have been in the negative numbers. When a person doesn’t eat, it’s also difficult to interact with people. They always ask you why you’re not hungry. With Nutrageous bars (which are basically chocolate covered peanut butter and caramel), a little bit of a social life, and cookie dough ice cream, however, my quality of life rating soared to approximately four.

I was surprised to find that the same thing happened to my dad. He told me, “It’s successful in helping you lose weight, but you get tired of the same food all the time.” My mom also fell from her wheat bread throne after years of dieting. When I asked her about it, she said, “Like they say, you have to change your lifestyle, and I just haven’t been able to give up that snacking part of my diet.” Considering the fact that my mom is a size six, I still didn’t understand what was so bad about her eating habits, so I asked her what her downfall was. “Crunchy, carbohydrate foods seem to satisfy my hunger better than hamburger patties and salads, especially late at night,” she said. I think that’s probably true for most people. My cousin told me about the Hollywood Twenty Four Hour Miracle Diet, which helps dieters lose up to five pounds in twenty four hours by drinking only juice. Last time I checked, the juice was on clearance at GMC, the health food store by my house. There’s nothing like a thin crust pizza, and the dieting industry just hasn’t realized that yet.

My younger brother is the only person in my family who didn’t return to his old weight after preaching the glory of the granola bar. He went on a diet and joined a gym a couple of years ago and all of a sudden he was buff. Out of nowhere, strange women began calling my parents’ house. He had watched “Supersize Me” five times straight and still reminds everyone what’s actually in junk food, and apparently, for him, this was a successful way to lose weight. It’s not for everyone, though, and if you ask me, this return unto flab that the rest of my family experienced isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Although there are people in daisy dukes and exercise bras who like to preach their Flat Tummy Gospel, scientists have begun to find that risks of being merely overweight and not obese are growing less clear-cut and threatening. While the dangers of obesity are widely accepted in the medical community, the risks of weighing a little more than one’s ideal weight are widely debated. Some scientists even argue that there are health benefits that come with a spare tire. In fact, the findings of a controversial study conducted by Katherine Flegal of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggested that mortality rates are lower for overweight individuals than those who maintain an ideal BMI (Body Mass Index).

And it’s possible to look good without being skinny, too. Within the last few years, several celebrities have spoken out about their body image, telling America that they don’t have to be bone thin to look or feel beautiful. My old favorite, People Magazine, ran a cover story in which a 161 pound Tyra Banks said about her recent weight gain, “I still feel hot, but every day is different. It’s when I put on the jeans that used to fit a year ago and don’t fit now and give me the muffin top, that’s when I say, ‘Damn!’” Acknowledging her own struggles with body image and her responsibilities as a role model for young girls, Banks discourages tabloids that call celebrities “fat,” asking, “So when they say that my body is ugly and disgusting, what does it make those girls feel like?”

Tyra Banks is just one of many women representing diverse weights and body types within the entertainment industry, and it’s clear that cultural expectations regarding weight are changing. People Magazine once reported that Beyonce Knowles, known for her curvaceous figure, lost a substantial amount of weight for a movie role by drinking only a maple syrup concoction. They wrote, “Beyonce Knowles has warned women not to follow her maple syrup diet, insisting, ‘I’m very happy with my curves. As soon as [shooting for "Dream Girls"] was over, I gained the weight back. I would never recommend it to anyone unless you are doing a movie and it’s necessary and you have the proper help.'” This interview, a big change from when Callista Flockhart’s skeletal figure was considered the ideal, shows more appreciation of women with diverse figures than only five or six years ago. More importantly, woman of all weights appear in the media and are comfortable with their own appearances, encouraging others, including the young girls who look up to them, to share their open-minded attitude.

Cautions against dieting run rampant in today’s fashion magazines. In September 2006, People Magazine published an article entitled “Extreme Measures,” calling the thinness standards that I bought into a few years ago “troubling.” The piece addresses both the issue of eating disorders in the entertainment industry and the pressure that employers place on actresses and models to be thin. Quoting eating disorder specialist Dr. Ira Sacker, the article treats this thinness standard as a problem, not a fact of life: “I have a lot of A-list celebrities as clients, both actresses and models, and what they are telling me is that the pressure to be thin has never been greater. Why? Because whoever is thinner gets the job, and the competition is enormous.” Calling these thin actresses “miniscule” and “frail-looking,” the article makes it clear that being thin isn’t as glamorous as it used to be.

The medical community has also begun questioning this glorification of thinness and meal replacement bars. The Washington Post published an article in June 2005 about a study of 2,957 twins in Finland which found that people who are overweight and purposely try to lose weight have experienced serious health problems. Exhibiting higher mortality rates than those whose weights remained stable, the participants in this study did themselves more harm than good by shedding the pounds. Other studies have found that healthy people attempting to reduce their weight often lose muscle and harm their vital organs. Although the benefits of weight loss have been popularized by both the media and the medical community, cultural tolerance for diverse weights and body types is on the rise.

In my experience with being both overweight and thin, I’ve found I just plain felt better at a higher weight. I didn’t have the nagging hunger in the bottom of my belly, the cravings for carbohydrates, or the general feeling of being chocolate deprived that plagued me on every diet I’ve attempted. And I’ve never experienced any of the health risks that I hear so much about. My blood pressure and cholesterol are normal, and although diabetes runs in my family, I haven’t been diagnosed. I’d have to argue that I’ve experienced more health problems on diets than with junk food, and the dangers of weight loss seldom appeared in magazines when I first started watching what I ate. I’ve taken diets too far before and experienced some pretty scary symptoms, including hair loss, chills, insomnia, and severe migraines. These ailments, caused by malnutrition, can be pretty frightening to an adolescent who thinks of not eating as “healthy” and isn’t prepared for something to go wrong on a crash diet.

I always wondered why, if it’s possible to look and feel great without dieting, has weight loss has been encouraged so much in our culture? My take on this popularization of thinness is that it’s a business. I was shocked to find out that Americans spend thirty billion dollars on weight loss products each year, and many of these expensive products have been proven to have few results. I can’t tell you how many times I passed by little canisters of diet pills with bikini clad women on the bottle and was tempted to try them out. In January 2007, MSNBC reported that the Federal Trade Commission investigated some of these products and found that placebos actually helped the dieters lose more weight. The weight loss tycoons couldn’t weasel their way out of this one - they’ve been fined and will pay between eight and twelve million dollars. When I saw the news article, it shone from my computer screen, and a voice seemed to whisper as I munched on some cheese popcorn: And the overweight shall not be judged, for who would judge between the starved and the dieters?




Kristina Marie Darling is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. She is the author of four chapbooks, which include Fevers and Clocks (March Street Press, 2006) and The Traffic in Women (Dancing Girl Press, 2006). A Pushcart Prize nominee in 2006, her poems, reviews, and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in many journals, which include Janus Head, Rattle, The Mid-America Poetry Review, Rain Taxi, The Adirondack Review, CutBank, The Mid-American Review, Jacket, Redactions: Poetry and Poetics, and others. Recent awards include residencies from the Centrum Foundation and the Mary Anderson Center for the Arts.

*Editor's Note: Don't forget to check back next month for the final part of Kristina's series. If you have trouble remembering, join our Della Donna Yahoo! group for email updates!