Harriet Brown joined us to discuss her book, Body of Truth: How Science, History, and Culture Drive Our Obsession with Weight – and What We Can Do About It. What follows are our questions in italics, and Harriet’s thoughtful answers.
In your introduction to Body of Truth: How Science, History, and Culture Drive Our Obsession with Weight – and What We Can Do About It, you comment that “Obsessing about weight …” has “become social currency not just for women but for teens and even children.” We’d like to hear more from you on this.
What I mean by that is that it’s become de rigueur for nearly everyone to be self-deprecating about their weight, to bemoan how “fat” they are, and to publicly aspire to a different, thinner body. If you don’t participate in this ritual of self-flagellation you are automatically outside the social circle (or most of them); you can be thought stuck-up, conceited, arrogant if you don’t hate on your body.
Can you please discuss some of the ways professionals use fear to motivate adults and children to lose weight?
They do it through health scare-mongering: “You’ll die early if you don’t lose weight!” or “You’ll develop diabetes if you don’t lose weight!” Fill in the blank for pretty much any illness you can imagine.
What would you like people to know about “the 5 per centers”?
They’re a group that prioritizes weight loss above just about everything else in their lives. Almost without exception they say they maintain their weight loss by devoting a LOT of time and energy to it. They also tend to devote a certain amount of mental real estate to counting calories and tracking calories burned, and keeping up a certain level of hyperawareness about food and eating. They tend to weigh and measure their food. They also tend to eat relatively few calories, which makes sense because every major weight loss resets the metabolism so it requires fewer calories.
In your opinion, what are some of the problems that can develop from a “good food/bad food” belief system?
Demonizing certain foods makes them more attractive in a sense. Highlighting “good” foods also sends a message that these are unattractive but necessary. Setting up this kind of dichotomy tends to send people boomeranging from restricting to disinhibited eating, neither of which is useful for supporting good health (mental or physical).
Medical professionals seem to span a range of beliefs on weight, weight gain, weight loss, and BMI. What questions would you suggest a potential patient ask when looking for a health care provider who is without weight bias?
For starters there’s a website where someone has compiled a list of “fat-friendly” doctors, and it’s at http://fatfriendlydocs.com/. Beyond that I think it’s more than fair to set up a time to talk to a doctor about her/his philosophy on any number of things, including weight and health. One good question if you’re talking to a doctor about a specific health issue is, “How would you treat someone who was thin and presented with this same problem?”
What were some of the critical pieces that came together for you to appreciate your self and move on from years of body loathing?
I think I’d reached a real low point in my relationship with my own body, and a sense that I just couldn’t keep doing what I’d been doing, i.e., hating my body and myself. I felt I was setting a terrible example for my daughters. So I think I was ready. And then I was lucky enough to have a therapist who really knew her stuff on this issue—Ellyn Satter, who I consulted by happy coincidence.
About the author:
Harriet Brown is the author of Body of Truth: How Science, History, and Culture Drive Our Obsession with Weight—and What We Can Do About It (Da Capo, 2015); Brave Girl Eating: A Family’s Struggle with Anorexia (Morrow, 2010); and many other books. She teaches magazine journalism at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.