So, for large swaths of us in the Western hemisphere, the holidays are approaching. Which means my favourite thing in the entire world is happening (it’s true!!!) —
Magazines are giving out advice on HOW NOT TO BE A TOTAL DISGUSTING PIG, YOU FUCKING SLOB.
Seriously, I wait for this all year. Like Christmas morning.
First up, from my lovely reader Maggie (thank you, Maggie, and wake up, please, I think Rod Stewart’s got something to say to you, and if you think that’s bad, try living with “Michelle, mah belle” for 30 years), comes Cosmo’s “How to Pig Out on Thanksgiving (But Without the Guilt.)”
And they pretty much give you a basic, average, low-fat kinda smallish meal on which you can totally PIG OUT, girlfriend!
Nary a mention of pie, mashed potatoes, gravy, or anything else that makes life worth living when you’re across the table from that beloved relative with the unfortunate spitting habit.
Because you should totally, totally feel guilty about food. Especially tasty food, and most especially on holidays where you’re supposed to be thanking your lucky fucking stars for even HAVING food in the first place.
Next up, we’ve got CBC’s “Go Healthy, Not Hungry for Holiday Eating.”
Which, you know, sounds like it’s going to be about moderation, and eating tasty-but-good-for-you food, and not trying to diet your way through two months’ worth of homemade cookies and seven-course meals…
…except it’s pretty much just a list of ways to avoid eating anything remotely holidayish. Plus some musty old behaviourist weight loss tricks.
Cause God forbid you should break out the real cream once a year! Or eat a meal that’s in any way different from your normal, weeknight meals during the motherfucking holidays.
And Holiday Eating Without the Guilt – or the Pounds brings the whole guilt aspect back into play. Because, really, what’s a holiday without the festive sprinkling of demoralizing shame?
The American Dietetic Association gets in on the act, too, with last year’s Health Tips for Holiday Eating, which is a litany of ways to avoid eating tasty food (including VERY SPECIFIC INSTRUCTIONS on how to dip your crudités in sauce), capped off with this inadvertent punchline: “Be realistic. Don’t try to lose weight during the holidays.”
All these various pieces of seasonal advice — and pretty much all nutrition advice, in general — seems to come down to one thing.
Do I have a problem with that? Yes.
The problem I have with it is this little thing I’ve kinda-sorta hinted at in the past: intrinsic motivation.
Okay, story time.
A number of years ago, when I was a young housewife trying to figure out 1) how to lose weight, and 2) what the “right” way to eat was, I went to the library book sale and bought a well-used textbook on behaviour modification.
I read that thing cover to cover. Twice.
It was a revelation. It was the fulfillment of a long hoped-for dream, my original reason for taking psychology in 7th grade — to learn how to manipulate and control people.
(Yes, I was kind of a weird 12-year old. Shut up.)
And, in the same way Darwin believed that watching his baby son grow up was like watching a time-lapsed version of human evolution, I believe my experience there reflects something of the history of psychology. Because when psychology shifted from the primarily Freudian, psychodynamic approach into behaviourism — something with objectively observable phenomena, and ways to measurably change behaviour — I’m sure many a psychologist jumped in the air and clicked his heels at the prospect of actually being able to predictably influence another person’s actions. Of actually being able to, in effect, manipulate and control people.
So that’s what I set out to do, with my fat body.
Likewise, that’s what psychologists, nutritionists and doctors set out to do with their fat patients.
The only problem? By the late 1970s, even premier obesity researcher Albert Stunkard had to admit that it kind of wasn’t really working. I mean, the techniques all worked to some extent — everyone say this with me in unison — they all worked in the short-term.
But as we now know, over the long-term, homeostatic mechanisms, like weight, are pretty damn good at regulating themselves.
So good, in fact, that if you take the long view of things, measely attempts to control a homeostatic mechanism through behaviour modification seem…kind of ridiculous.
It’s like trying to keep a balloon submerged in a swimming pool — it’ll stay under for a little while, giving you the illusion of control. But if you lose focus for even a moment, or tire of the game even a little, that damn thing bobs right back up to where it started. Human efforts can’t override natural laws, not for long.
And the cost of eternal vigilance is, well, never again having a very good time at the pool.
But the seduction of control, no matter how short-lived, proved too much, and behaviour modification techniques didn’t stay limited to a few clinical applications. They sifted through the culture, into primary-school education, into smoking cessation programs, into diet tips and parenting advice and self-help books of every stripe…and, as you can easily see above, into diet tips.
Diet tips like “EAT FROM A SMALLER PLATE!!!” and “PUT YOUR FORK DOWN BETWEEN BITES!!!” and “REWARD YOURSELF FOR NOT EATING WITH A NICE HOT BATH!!!”
And, granted, some of these strategies might actually be useful for other applications (like, say, teaching someone to eat mindfully, or even dealing with binge eating), or else they can be used, as Ellyn Satter uses them, subversively as a way to teach people how to organize their eating.
But as a means to control people? To get us to eat less forever, ergo, to lose weight in the long term?
Nope. Doesn’t work.
If it did, none of us would be fat today. “Obesity” probably would have been “cured” by New Year’s Eve, 1969, and we’d all be living in some sort of fabulous, utopian, skinny future with perfect lives reflecting our perfect figures, and having no other problems whatsoever.
So, to get back to what I was saying about intrinsic motivation — why don’t attempts at behaviour modification work to get people to permanently lose weight?
Well, not only because it’s like trying to hold a balloon underwater for the rest of your life, but also because people are pretty fucking smart. We know when we’re being manipulated by external pressures. And when our behaviours are not rewarding in and of themselves, life kind of sucks.
And that’s not something anyone, short of a masochist, can sustain for very long.
It’s my belief that personal autonomy, agency, freedom, liberty, sovereignty — whatever you like to call it — is one of the strongest, most fundamental desires that drive us as human beings. Because, from a purely animal standpoint, not being in control of your own decisions and choices is potentially dangerous, even fatal. And it robs life of meaning — what’s the point of having your own life if someone, or something, else is calling the shots?
Alfie Kohn, whom I adore, has written a lot of books criticizing the educational system that relies on grades as a dual system of reward and punishment for students, presumably in the service of getting them to learn. He elucidates research which has shown that students’ learning actually suffers in the presence of external rewards and punishments, and that the quality of learning improves when those sticks and carrots are removed, and replaced instead with the students’ own genuine curiosity and desire to learn about the subject.
(Now, replace “Alfie Kohn” with “Linda Bacon” in the preceding paragraph, replace “educational system” with “weight loss industry”, “grades” with “weight”, and “learning” with “health”, and you’ll begin to see what I’m driving at.)
And, to plunge even deeper for a moment, what that comes down to is a basic philosophical choice about human nature: do you trust people to do the best we can for ourselves in our current circumstances, or do you not? Do you have a pessimistic or optimistic assumption about human nature?
This may sound awfully Anne Frankish of me. So be it — the world would be a better place if more of us were like her. And as such, I firmly believe in, and make the daily effort to reinforce to myself, an optimistic assumption about human nature.
I trust that we inherently want to learn, want to improve, want to be better, want to be kind and do good in the world, and want to take care of ourselves. When we fail, because we all do at some point, I believe it’s not due to some character flaw or moral shortcoming, but because there are barriers. Sometimes those barriers are insurmountable and we are never able to get over them, to realize our potential, which can be tragic. But what it’s not is proof that we are bad or inferior.
How does this relate to nutrition, and holiday dieting tips, and eating? Well, I believe that all of us genuinely want to eat well. We want to do good things for our health. We want to take care of our bodies, and, a lot of the time, we even know instinctively how to do these things. But there are a lot of pressures and barriers in this world that get in our way, that confuse us, that distract us and attempt to control us in counterproductive ways.
When it comes to coercion and intrinsic motivation, even the most dedicated person can be swayed from their objective by someone coming along and bombastically demanding that they do the very thing they were about to do anyway.
When I was a little kid, I remember when I’d be psyching myself up to clean my room — and, at that very instant, my mom (hi Mom!) would invariably come along and say, in a very mom-ish tone, “Clean that room!” Thus utterly killing any natural desire I had to clean that room.
I’m sure this experience is damn near universal.
Our need to preserve some scrap of autonomy, even in the form of counterproductive, cutting-off-one’s-nose-to-spite-one’s-face rebellion, is far stronger than the initial impulse to clean our rooms.
So, naturally, after my mom told me to, I didn’t. Not without a lot of whining and struggle, anyway.
When it comes to grades, or eating, or whatever, the bottom line is that telling us what to do doesn’t work — even if we wanted to do it anyway (and most of us do, if you take an optimistic view of human nature.) Telling people what to do doesn’t work because it robs us of our dearest possession — the freedom to make our own choices, and even our own mistakes.
That’s why, when it comes to eating, I’m a bit more like:
And that’s because I believe: