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Fat chances in an anorexic culture: indulgence, gratification, guilt and punishment--does weight control indicate a greater control over life and happiness? Does fat mean failure? (Features).

Society condemns what it most encourages. In a culture which lives by the provocation of appetite for pleasurable substances, heroin is illegal. Conversely, a full-on attempt to attack appetite at the root and eat the minimum provokes horror, is pathologised as anorexia nervosa, and is often punished by hospitalisation. In an inversion of the old religious discipline, no one must fast, unless in fasting one is consuming a weight loss program. Supermarkets display notices of warning to shoplifters, but place no barriers between their merchandise and people. These are very mixed messages. The trouble is that our moral guardians are providers of consumer goods. (This includes parents.) Marketing's aim is to turn rational choice into compulsion. Which is then penalised.

Millions of women's magazines are bought for answers to questions about the relationship between body and mind, bad and good. Like the religious authorities of old, magazines judge, but at the same time they indulge: If your inadequacies are not helped by this week's issue, they must be particularly grave, and you will have to buy many more issues to find solutions; but in the meantime there is plenty there to divert, so you may forget what you first came for. The celebrities in the magazines celebrate consumption, whether of food, sex, goods or just an expensive good time. It is impossible to think of Diana, Princess of Wales, without thinking of appetite and its withdrawal, media praise and media blame. Diana poised herself on the razor edge between bad behaviour and sainthood. The anorexia and bulimia, the infatuations, the grievances, the ritzy holidays, were as encouraged (by the common people) as they were conflicting (by the Palace.) This sort of thing has been going on, of course, since Helen of Troy; but the huge public grief at her death was a salute to the nonconcealment of the great and conflictual appetites she shared with all of us. But with her death, the absence of her desire, and its glorification by the media, meant that it was not long before she wore out her welcome at the memory shrine.

Another projection of society's ambivalences was the investigation of President Bill Clinton's perjury about his sexual behaviour with a young woman in the Oval Office. Bill Clinton is, in the words of one commentator, a man of colossal appetites for food, drink and women. The move to impeach was not passed by the Senate and the President's popularity grew as the investigation proceeded. The oxymoron that is the life of Americans--of USERS, as one wag put it--requires that appetite be gratified and punished. The irony is not just that Clinton's denial of his games with Monica Lewinski were much more trouble than they were worth, or that the Special Prosecutor ended up more punished than the accused. It is simply that some people are blamed for doing what everyone else does, which is usually what society tells them to do.

President Clinton's diet and exercise had to be managed punitively by his minders--and successfully, since what we saw on television was a slimmish man. This was lucky, since fat is anathema to the post-modern religion of the body as a light, mobile and changeable thing, eternally youthful and capable of as many representations as it will have sexual partners. Supermodels are the apotheosis of this. Richard Klein in Eat Fat suggests that `the Romantic movement reinvented a Gothic ideal of thin, ethereal beauty removed from the inertia and impenetrability of this too solid flesh.' It is the desired lightness (of being?) which makes us loathe fat, as much as our concern about heart problems, bowel and breast cancers and diabetes. The President's minders may indeed have been no more than lucky in keeping him slim. For people who are fat fall into two types: those who over-consume and those who do not. From what we hear from the media, health professionals, trainers and the weight-loss industry, it is all the former. Bronwyn Murdoch in the Age prevaricates: `Accept your body shape, learn to love it, it is who you are. But body shape is one thing and fat is another. Women aren't meant to be fat. Fat accumulates when you overeat and/or don't exercise. Frankly, it doesn't look good.' Shape is predetermined and OK, fat is not. This is crypto-behaviourist, implying that we can regulate the human (fat) condition by learning to change. By this measure the fat person is a failure on all fronts. She could have changed. `Get rid of that six-pack, now', says the trainer at the gym, with a slap at her client's belly. Smiles will show the client that her assertion of exemplary diet and exercise is taken for denial. The complacent smile begs the question that consumption or laziness are always the cause. It is not necessarily so. Everyone knows cases that defy the conventional wisdom on E/E (the eating/exercise equation) like top-ranking dance students whose fatness, unbudgeable by diet and exertion, deprives them of a career. In a controlled experiment by the US Food and Drug Administration, management of diet and exercise had only half the effect for weight loss as a metabolic drug (Age, 28.4.99). Positive reinforcement works both ways. `You can never be too rich or too thin', said the Duchess of Windsor, attesting to the power of the slim as a natural aristocracy. (Diana, eat your heart out; for this Edward VII gave up a kingdom.) The desire for slimness as absolute good--for the best marriage partner, health, convenience and above all autonomy--is as great or greater than the desire to consume. So why isn't everyone slim? If positive reinforcement worked as a universal law (eat your heart out too, Immanuel Kant) to make changed behaviour into changed appearance, the lure of no supermarket could prevail against it.

President Clinton is an example of those who in controlling their E/E control weight. The assumption is `scientific'; you burn up those joules at the gym, what goes in goes out, zero-sum, QED. Philosopher Leslie Cannold says about Dawn French eating a chocolate bar in The Vicar Of Dibley: `I'm not squeamish about fat people eating--I know they had to get fat somehow.' Assumptions replace serious enquiry into the behaviourist equation. At times the non-fat are accusing the fat of lying. Having suffered failure in the health, aesthetic and success stakes, the fat person has now `failed' truth itself. A society which censures its most cherished prescriptions denies that the real `badness' is not the fat of some, but the over-consumption of the affluent West in the face of the deprivation of the world's poor. We find shame in those who cannot hide their bulk. The anxious person scapegoats his fellows. Sometimes the bad faith of the accuser is stark. He makes the accusation of someone else's over-consumption while eating fish and chips and drinking beer. His conscience is clear; he `burns it off' by some means or another. Again, his knowledge of another's life is based largely on assumption. The thinnest person I ever knew lived on milk shakes and Twisties, the fattest on salads. And to those who smile and say, `Ah yes, but what does he/she pig out on in private?' my answer is: `Examine your own private practices--the dessert, the Coco Pops, the muffin you feel entitled to because you must be managing your metabolism excellently because you are slim.' The accuser's presumed virtue allows him many lapses. All we know, as Klein says:

All the diet books, all the diagnoses and prescriptions ultimately spring from a single idea, the same principle, endlessly repeated like a mantra: Calories in, Calories expended. They all conclude with the same advice: eat less, move more. And so people take control; they start to diet and they take up physical exercise, and within three or four years 95 per cent are even fatter.

At the close of the behaviourist century, some collective lunacies based on the positive reinforcement principle alone are losing sway. Like the language acquisition question, Chomsky and others have successfully argued that fundamental language structures are `hardwired' in brain formation, and are not just behavioural responses to examples supplied by adults. We have all observed our young slim friends age into the older heavy shape of their parents for no apparent reason. Until the mid-century one heard the older generation say of a fat child in a slim family, `It's his glands'. Perhaps it is. There are theories of brown and white adipose tissue. There is the hormone replacement theory. There is the leptin theory leading to fat absorption blockers. There is galanin, a factor in the release of human growth hormone which tails off in the middle years, causing energy to be laid down as fat rather than muscle. Its reintroduction slims people down to something like their weight when young, whatever they eat. Abdominal obesity in relation to elevated levels of cortisol, studied by Bruce McEwen at the Rockefeller Institute in New York, can be due to `allostatic load', or stresses which are not being `turned off' by normal means. These excesses of cortisol can damage the hippocampus and increase deposits of fat. Hypothyroidism--currently very fashionable--can increase body weight. And many medications have weight gain as a side-effect--in which case the nexus between energy and expenditure is forever broken, and the situation of the fat person is demonstrably a complex one. Gradually, moreover, the strong part played by genetic factors will have to be recognised in that most brutal quarter, the media, as a result of human genome mapping.

But the present, practical reality for most people, especially women, is that the television channel which would force down their throats ice-cream, Coke and pizza is at the same time forcing down their throats gyms, weight loss clinics and women's magazine diets. The benefit usually sought from gyms is not so much weight loss--since increased muscle will cancel out weight loss--but reduction in centimetres. But in a middle-aged woman the 5 per cent fall annually in basal metabolic rate may not be outpaced by a year at the gym, whatever the other health benefits. At least, however, gym costs are based on investment in equipment and staff, and exercise is good with or without weight or size reduction. But weight loss companies are simply marketing the same recipes and food advice over and over again, in the same gloriously simple formula that made Transcendental Meditation rich: bits of paper with a few syllables called a mantra. Richard Klein estimates that $US30 billion is spent annually in the USA on weight reduction programs. The customer responding to two advertisements, for food or drink, and for body discipline, pays twice: first to ingest the Coke or pizza or ice-cream, and then--should she be so lucky--to expel them.

We are not helped, furthermore, by obesity studies which seem to show ever-greater consumption in the public generally. There may be greater obesity, but there are also studies saying that consumption is generally less now than in the 1950s--not surprising considering the frequent baking then of scones, biscuits and cakes, the afternoon teas and suppers, and the huge role of dairy products and fats. The diet of the affluent and middle classes is leaner now. The 1995 Australian National Nutritional Survey of 14,000 subjects found Australian consumption of fats, oils and alcohol satisfactory, though intake of fruit, vegetables and fish was low.

Condemnation of food and drink consumption is gaining over encouragement. But the dynamic for many overweight people is that the underlying weight trend is the significant factor, with only a few kilos affected by what we could call discretionary eating. We are talking about homeostasis. Which brings us to acquired tolerances.

Our bodies function in tune with realities that go back a long way. They may do well on what they're used to, and work to restore a pre-existing order when change is introduced. If, for example, you cut your food intake, the body may simply compensate by changing what it does to what you do eat. The body tolerates food deprivation well by these means, until intake returns to normal, whereupon the compensatory mechanism may not shut off. The process rather than the content, masterminded by brain function--for example the pituitary--may determine both body size and shape, pace Bronwyn Murdoch and Leslie Cannold. The process may be adaptations not only to our own earlier circumstances, but those of forebears. The Inuit may tolerate higher fat consumption, the Australian indigenous people lower. Native peoples are thought to have a lower tolerance of both sugar and alcohol which are potentiated in the metabolic system more than in white Westerners. When white grazier employers provided only rations of sugar, tea and white flour, they were laying down not only the basis for obesity and other conditions in Aborigines but also the foundations for major blame. Acquired tolerances may turn new habits, such as alcohol, into addictions--which are fun to the affluent who can conceal them but are condemned when they cannot be concealed by the poor. We assume that obesity in Aborigines means excesses of junk food and alcohol but their consumption may be no greater than in whites who are not obese. Once tolerance as part of the metabolic process is conceded, the nexus between in and out, E/E, appearance and reality, cannot be sustained. For tolerance applies to the expenditure end of the equation as well: any gym instructor will tell you that the body quickly habituates to exercise, so that you have to keep changing what you do, and above all do more.

And were fat a wholly discretionary matter we would not have seen Phytafarm, a small Canadian drug company, signing a multi-million dollar deal with Pfizer, the marketer of Viagra, to develop a drug to treat obesity. `Treat'--the word implies anomaly if not pathology, imbalance at least. Yet the smug contempt for the fat persists in the attitude of Andrew Prentice of the Dunn Clinical Nutrition Centre in Cambridge. `Overweight persons have a very high calorie consumption [and] go to enormous lengths to conceal their consumption, in the grip of a terrible guilt of being overweight.' The guilt comes, in so many cases, from being the butt of attitudes like his rather than from consumption. The professor of Preventive Medicine at the Laval Clinic in Quebec, much less narrow and judgemental, accepts that a `certain gene profile' may exist in women who have more trouble losing weight than men.

An understanding of how acquired tolerances operate, were we to embrace one, would free Western society from the hysterical, indeed infantile pattern of indulging ourselves and judging others. The self-hatred of girls who ingest the same amount of Coke and popcorn and chocolate as their friends but put on weight while their friends do not is an original sin expiated only by those secular saints the anorexic, who cannot understand why they are taken to doctors when they were only aiming for the highest social virtue. In this logic the drug addict is at the centre of the vortex, he whose response to the paradoxical ethic of consuming without being fat is the most profound. He has obeyed the social pressure to go after the biggest and riskiest kick and to buck the threat of social exclusion. The drug addict sees himself as the last hero of capitalism, and the fat person as the last victim. `Coke' with a capital C is seen as the creator of fat: `coke' is the creator of lean. `Coke' is women lazing out in front of the TV at home: `coke' is the company of high-flying men, fast cars, money. One is persecution, the other is liberation. Only an ethic that abhors the fat would enslave (`liberate') addicts in the extremity of lean.

Richard Klein quotes Hillel Schwartz: `A fat society would be less harshly competitive, less devouring.' He means one that accepted fat. One thinks of Julius Caesar: `Let me have men around me that are fat / Sleek-headed men, and such as sleep o'nights / Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look / He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.' But Caesar too is wrong. We should not stereotype body size. The conspiracy against the fat that sees them as both stupid and duplicitous is as cruel a denial of their reality as Susie Orbach's feminist consciousness-raising, which in many ways endorsed, it seems to me, the blame imposed on fat women by men. Shame might be a better word than guilt for what the fat feel, since in many (perhaps most) cases they eat no more than what a random sample of their peers would eat, whatever their body size. Yet shame is not a good word either, considering that Raimond Gaita defines it as what you feel when something you have concealed comes out; and again I say that `concealment,' if it cannot be proved, may be no more than a slander. Let us just say that the suffering inflicted on them by this culture that loves to loathe them--even the word `fat' is more brutal than the earlier `stout'--is a condition that could be a factor in smoking, illness, drug addiction and suicide.

There is no deeper morality than the morality of what we put into our mouths (`First feed the face', said Brecht, `and then tell right from wrong') unless the morality of what comes out of them in words. The two, the ingesting and the egesting, deny each other and are intimately connected. Every time we let pass a snide judgment--`You're tippling during the day, aren't you?' or `If she stopped eating the weight'd drop off her'--we are projecting our own guilt in the face of what we know about the outer world and refuse to face about the inner. We are projecting it every time we sit in front of the evening news with our fat dinners on our laps, looking at images of the starving millions. The Western conspiracy of the slim greedily displaces that guilt onto the fat as the despised representation of its own consumption.

Dr Eden Liddelow is a Melbourne essayist, novelist, poet and translator. Her new book `After Electra: Rage, Grief and Hope in Twentieth-Century Fiction' will be published in July by Australian Scholarly Publishing.
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Author:Liddelow, Eden
Publication:Arena Magazine
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Jun 1, 2002
Words:3053
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