The Hungry Years jacket design

I recently began reading William Leith’s The Hungry Years, a book I picked up on sale a couple of month’s ago.  Leith is a journalist in the UK and, in setting out in 2003 to interview Robert Atkins — yes, the very same Atkins of the Atkins Diet — found in himself a story of food, hunger and addiction.

The book is funny and poignant; moving me to tears of mirth and compassion, sometimes at one and the same time.  It is partly a memoir, and it is a confessional, perhaps in the sense meant by Michel Foucault and the kind which exists in weight loss groups, on bulletin boards in fitness facilities, and across the professional and nonprofessional blogosphere.  We need to offer up our sins and gluttonies and seek forgiveness and affirmation, in a public forum, from others who are offering up their sins and gluttonies.

Normally I wait until I finish a book and then review it.  Here, I am only about a third of the way into the book and repeatedly I am rocked by Leith’s personal and social observations, by his astute observations of himself and others, by his brilliant conveyance of personal and social fatness, by his wry cutting humour, self deprecation, and wise humility.

I will, eventually, review the book.  For now I want to just share some of his words.

I like the idea of the Atkins diet because I think it might be a quick fix.  When I see something that looks like a quick fix, I am capable of trusting it with a faith bordering on the religious.

This notion of  the ‘quick fix’ abounds in our culture.  I have an as-yet-unposted blog entry on ‘quick fixes’ which I started about six weeks ago.  I revisit it regularly, rework it, reconsider it.  One of these days, it will make it to publish-button status.

Reflected in the glass…my face looks puffy, ill-defined.  Should I buy a stomach magazine? [sadly, don’t we all know precisely what Leith means by this phrase?]  Are stomach magazines the solution?  Or are they part of the problem?  In her book The Male Body, weight guru Susan Bordo hints that pictures of muscled, bulky men are history; a new, more feminine aesthetic is beginning to rule.  In the old style, the engorged muscleman — the surrogate penis, according to gay theorist Ron Long — stares straight ahead, blank-eyed, ready to fight, unwilling to show weakness.  Bordo calls this image ‘the rock’.  She calls the new, Calvin Klein-inspired male pin-up ‘the leaner’ — ‘because these bodies are almost always reclining, leaning against, or propped up against something in the fashion of women’s bodies.’

Leaners are also like female fashion models in another way — they are leaner.  Like women, they are depicted as objects rather than subjects.  They challenge the advertising credo, defined by art historian John Berger in the 1970s, that ‘men act and women appear’.

These days, men appear.

Another thing John Berger wrote was, ‘Men look at women.  Women watch themselves being looked at.  This determines not only the relations of men to women, but the relation of women to themselves.’

We all know what happens when women are encouraged to be self-consious about their bodies.  According to the feminist Susie Orbach, author of Fat Is A Feminist Issue, they start to hate the way they look, and then they diet, which leads to a disordered relationship with food.  According to the feminist Kim Chernin, author of The Obsession, they start to hate the way they look, and then they diet, which leads to a disordered relationship with food.  According to the feminist Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth, they start to hate the way they look, and then they diet, which leads to a disordered relationship with food.  According to the feminist Caroline Knapp, author of Appetites, they start to hate the way they look, and then they diet, which leads to a disordered relationship with food.

So I’m inclined to think that stomach magazines are not the solution.  I think they are part of the problem.

They are part of the problem! Look at those magazines!  Look at the models posed and promises made on the covers!  You can’t miss the ads.  Is any of this about health, fitness, wellbeing?  Really?  Do we gaze fondly upon these magazines?   Do we purchase them and justify our purchase by the great workout we found inside or that fabulous smoothy recipe?  What are we really purchasing, when we quietly and quickly slide the newest edition into our green-and-socially-responsible marketing bag?

In a time of material abundance and consumer choice, the successful manufacturer must create more than just a product — he must also create a need.  Successful products are the ones that make you hungry.  In other words, the products that do well are the ones that do not satisfy…the ideal product is addictive.

The ideal product is the one that does not work.  Like, say, pornography.  Pornography doesn’t really do the trick.  Pornography is an advertisement for itself.  The more pornography people have, the more they want.

Carbohydrate snacks make you hungry.  They are culinary pornography, they are like Penthouse magazine.  Looking at pictures of naked girls in Penthouse is not exactly having a meaningful relationship with women.  Eating carbohydrate snacks is not exactly having a relationship with food.  Fill yourself with snacks, and you’ll feel empty a couple of hours later.

Here Leith is referring to the crappy (a professional term whispered in registered dietician circles) carbohydrate snacks and processed foods lining our supermarket shelves and filling the vending machines of our hallways — chips, pastries, crackers, breakfast ‘cereals’,  including full-fat, reduced-fat or low-fat options.

Until recently, expanding waistbands have been associated mainly with children’s clothes (because children grow), sporting clothes (they need to be flexible), bedwear (must be comfortable) and underwear (too flimsy to rely on fasteners, must not fall off).  But now, expanding waistbands are entering the mainstream.  Like children, adults are expected to grow.

And expanding waistbands are a dangerous thing.  As Greg Critser points out, research conducted by John Garrow, a British scientist, suggests that tight waistbands inhibit overeating.  Garrow investigated a group of formerly obese patients who had lost weight on a calorie-controlled diet.  This was a radical calorie-controlled diet:  the patients had had their jaws wired.  When the wires were removed, Garrow fitted half the patients with cords around their waists.  The cords were tight enough to make a white line in the flesh when the patient was seated.  The difference in weight gain between the waistband group and the non-waistband group, Garrow found, was ‘striking.’  Those without cords gained weight at a much faster rate.  And this leads Critser to an interesting point.  Elasticated waistbands are the thin end of the wedge.  What about the larger-sized chairs being fitted into many restaurant chains?

Will we grow into them?

my largest jeans recylced

This book is a great read and I’ll post more of it later.  In the meantime:

  • Put on those pants which are a bit too tight — no, not the stretchy ones, they’re for the recycle. They’d make a great market bag.
  • Haul out that small pile of fitness/health magazines.  You know, the ones accumulating on the floor beside your bed and on the back of your toilet tank.  There are better uses for them.  You could make a funky and fetching end table or, if that is a bit beyond your sensibilities, you might find a better use for them here.