Screw inner beauty

Broadsheet contributor Kate Harding talks about her new book, why diets don't work and learning to love yourself at any size.

Published May 6, 2009 10:46PM (EDT)

If Kate Harding didn't write for Broadsheet, then we'd be writing about Kate Harding. As one of the leading voices of the fat acceptance movement, Harding writes about body issues (among other places, on her blog Shapely Prose) with a trademark intelligence and wit. In short, she's a firecracker. It's one of the reasons why we asked her to join us here in the first place.

Her new book, "Lessons From the Fat-O-Sphere: Quit Dieting and Declare a Truce With Your Body," has just hit shelves, and today is the ideal day to tell you about it: It's International No Diet Day. (We should also mention that the book hit No. 1 on the Powell's bestseller list today. Take that, Aravind Adiga!) Co-written with blogger Marianne Kirby, "Lessons" (original title: "Screw Inner Beauty") answers an all-too-familiar question: So you're supposed to love your body at any weight -- but how?

The thing is, learning to love your body is a long, slow process -- and we mean a long, slow process. You can't just call a truce with your body out of nowhere; you need to engage in some hardcore peace talks first. …

So, to be brutally honest, we're not even going to try to tell you how to love your body. For now, we're only going to tell you how to achieve detente with your body. We're going to get you as far as a ceasefire. The good news is, in this culture, that's actually pretty freakin' far.

Kate and I spoke briefly over e-mail about her history with weight loss, why she doesn't believe in diets and how she came to believe in health at any size.

How many diets do you think you've gone on in your lifetime and what was the craziest one?

Really only two and a half major ones, and no crazy ones (sorry to disappoint). I did Jenny Craig when I was 22 and lost 65 lbs. over the course of eight or nine months, got down to a size 4. By the time I was 27, it was all back -- along with five or 10 extra pounds -- so I went on Jenny Craig again, because, hey, it "worked" the last time. (More on that definition of "work" in a minute.) After I lost, I don't know, 20 or 30 lbs., I switched to Weight Watchers online, because I was sick of Jenny Craig food and hauling my ass into the office every week. I eventually ended up about 45 lbs. lighter than when I started, at which point I plateaued at around a size 8/10 -- that hadn't happened the first time, and I was pissed that I couldn't hit my goal weight, even though I was eating fewer calories than the program allowed me. But once again, I held steady at the new weight for about two years, and then it just started coming back.

In 2004, when I was about a year out from that second weight loss, I read Paul Campos' "The Obesity Myth" (after I read Rebecca Traister's interview with him on Salon!), and it completely changed my mind-set. Not all at once -- it took a few years before I could really, honestly say I never wanted to diet again -- but that was absolutely the book that made it "click" for me.

First of all, I had never heard anyone say it was possible to be simultaneously fat and healthy before -- Campos introduced me to the concept of Health at Every Size, for which I will be forever grateful. And second, he really, really hammers home the point that diets don't work in the long run -- that virtually everyone who loses a substantial amount of weight regains it within five years. At the time, I didn't want to believe that, because I wasn't regaining yet. But I knew it had happened to me once already, and I couldn't argue with all the statistical evidence suggesting my chances of keeping the weight off were barely better than my chances of winning the lottery. Campos says over and over, "We do not know how to make fat people permanently thin," and man, that stuck with me. I still wanted and hoped to be among the tiny percentage of people who keep it off forever, but I had to admit it didn't seem terribly likely.

Anyway. That was a long and boring answer -- talking about dieting is always boring, which is among the many reasons why I was insufferable while I was doing it. Sorry I don't have any cabbage soup or Kimkins or Hydroxycut madness stories to share. Not even Atkins. But really, that's part of what's so insidious about commercial weight loss programs and everything else that's presented as a "lifestyle change" instead of a diet -- compared to the really crazy shit, they sound sane, reasonable, healthy. I totally believed that because I was properly committed to my Permanent Lifestyle Changes and Healthy Weight Loss, I wasn't a sucker like the people eating nothing but grapefruit or taking dangerous supplements. And I mean, I'm alive today with a functioning liver, so that's a huge bonus -- but it doesn't mean I wasn't a sucker.

One of the controversial tenets of the book is that diets don't work. What do you mean by that, and how do you respond to people who say that diets worked for them? (Since, I'm sure, plenty of people have told you this, and plenty of people are ready to tell you this in the comments right now.)

OK, first, what I mean by that is, diets do not lead to permanent weight loss for the vast majority of people. In the short term, they often do work -- they did for me, they do for lots of people. But eventually, almost everyone gains it back. I already linked to an overview of the 2007 study led by Traci Mann at UCLA, but here's a PDF of the real deal. That was a meta-analysis of umpteen previous studies, and this is the money quote: "In sum, the potential benefits of dieting on long-term weight outcomes are minimal, the potential benefits of dieting on long-term health outcomes are not clearly or consistently demonstrated, and the potential harms of weight cycling, although not definitively demonstrated, are a clear source of concern. The benefits of dieting are simply too small and the potential harms of dieting are too large for it to be recommended as a safe and effective treatment for obesity."

Yes, some people lose weight and keep it off permanently -- no one's ever said dieting has a 100 percent failure rate. But Mann, et al., say "the vast majority," and Paul Ernsberger at Case Western says "95% or more" gain all the weight back. I'm no mathematician, but I'm pretty sure that's awfully close to 100 percent. So the people who have done it are statistical outliers, period. And you can't base public health recommendations on the experiences of statistical outliers -- especially when what you're recommending might very well have its own ill effects.

So the reality is, "Diets don't work" is not actually a controversial statement, even among obesity researchers. The problem is, there simply is no long-term cure for obesity -- even weight loss surgery isn't a permanent fix for everyone (not to mention it can have hideous side effects), and I suspect that as we see more long-term studies, we'll learn that the regain rate is higher than anyone expected. So as long as obesity remains, in the public imagination, a dragon that must be slayed, all they can do is keep telling people to eat less and exercise more -- because that produces short-term results that look good enough in short-term studies.

What do you wish fat people understood about themselves?

That you are not actually required to hate yourself. A lot of people -- and I mean a lot of people-- will strongly encourage it, and that sucks. But no one actually requires it of you. You don't have to play along. You can, in the words of Margaret Cho, just take yourself out of the game.



By Sarah Hepola

Sarah Hepola is the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir, "Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget."

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