Dying to Be Thin

The merits of dieting are, we are coming to understand, significantly overrated. Studies indicate that caloric controls are unlikely to result in permanent weight loss, that the body has a set point which it will cling to unless you are willing to go to substantial lengths to force it. Those lengths may include permanent calorie restriction as well as exercise, things that can be hard to commit to in the short term, let alone the long term. Women in particular are told they must be thin to be attractive, which requires permanent and sometimes dangerous changes in their lives.

Dieting, being on a diet, diet culture, are things that fascinate me as an outside observer even as they fill me with sadness. Women tend to become serial dieters as they try one method, find that it doesn’t work or lose focus and start gaining weight again, and decide to try another one. They hopscotch between a variety of fad diets, adding exercise to the regimen sometimes, and may end up with no net change. The years of losing and gaining, however, take their toll on the body; women who dieted because they were told they needed to ‘for health’ may end up with a new set of health problems caused by yo-yo dieting.

And many of the diets promoted are dangerous. Especially in ‘women’s media,’ which one would think would have an interest in keeping readers alive so they could keep buying it. Yet, I constantly see dubious fad diets touted on the pages of magazines at the supermarket checkout stands. Heavy caloric restriction, lack of nutritional balance, and general misery seem to be the hallmarks of such diets. Readers are assured it will be difficult, but the pounds will melt away, so they’ll be happy they did it.

Smiling celebrities show off their weight loss and they don’t reveal the truth about it. The truth includes not just the hazardous fad diet but exercise with a personal trainer in harsh, demanding sessions to get their bodies ‘camera ready.’ Celebrity women go on crash diets regularly to force their bodies beyond their limits, because they’re required to in order to have the kinds of bodies that get roles and public attention. This, too, is very hard on the body; increasing physical activity while cutting calories radically, for example, is not a terribly good idea, but it’s promoted as one.

The promotion of dangerous diets is part of a larger ‘health culture’ where people say, do, and recommend extremely reckless things in the name of providing health advice, and there’s very little accountability. While people obviously have the right to free expression, and I don’t think doctors are the only ones who are knowledgeable about bodies and how they work and what benefits them, there is something deeply troubling about the fact that reckless advice of an effectively medical nature is widely circulated in publications read by people who take that advice at face value.

Not just because they trust it, given the source. They think a magazine must be edited, vetted, and carefully evaluated before press to make sure the information will be accurate. They want to believe a magazine would take the obligation to provide accurate and useful information seriously, and that it wouldn’t print uninformed or dubious information. There is something about the printed word on a glossy page that can be extremely seductive when it comes to believing that something must be accurate. How could it not be, since it’s in a magazine?

It’s also because they desperately want this information to be true. In a world where thinness reigns supreme but is actually extremely hard to accomplish, many people want the shortcut, the magic trick, the thing that will actually work. The last diet they will ever need, because it’s the one that will bring them back to size and give them back their 16 year old bodies, even though those bodies are long gone. Even though bodies change over time and the distribution of fat and muscle has changed, would have changed no matter what, cannot be forced back into a prior configuration.

So they take the advice, and sometimes it does end up being the last diet someone ever needs, because sometimes, it’s fatal. People die from severe caloric restriction and crash dieting. They die from overexercise. They die from nutritional deficiencies. Or they get very sick, and end up with chronic health problems. People who survive anorexia, for example, can continue to have heart arrhythmias and nutrient absorption problems for the rest of their lives. Because they pushed their bodies to the breaking point and their bodies, unsurprisingly, broke when they couldn’t take it anymore.

Meanwhile, publications blithely suggest that readers try this new fad diet or this new crash diet to lose ten pounds before some major life event. They promote this information as though it is medically safe, and often don’t include a recommendation to check with a doctor first, to meet with a nutritionists, to ask yourself if you really need to diet at all. Such recommendations would, of course, distract from the fundamental purpose of the piece, which is to promote dieting as safe and easy, not something dangerous that needs to be carefully considered before committing, not something that could kill you if it’s not undertaken carefully.

When people die in the pursuit of thinness and the perfect body, some of these same publications engage in some token handwringing over how sad it all is, but they refuse to accept accountability for their own roles in dieting culture. People think they should diet because they’re told they should diet, and they think it’s safe because a trusted source is providing the information. They couldn’t be more wrong.