Monday, 26 January 2009

Thin End of the Wedge

I should warn you now, this post will have nothing to do with knitting. Instead, I have been moved to vent on a subject that tends to get me a little riled, thanks to a BBC documentary that aired tonight.

The doc in question was the rather literally titled 'Why Are Thin People Not Fat?' The basic premise was to take a dozen young slender people, who are naturally at the low end of the weight scale, and get them to double their calorie intake for one month to see if it would explain why some people are unaffected by the so-called obesity epidemic.

To explain my fascination with this subject, I am thin. I have always been thin. I am also fairly tall and I have very long arms and legs which make me appear even more gangly. I'd like to quickly reassure you at this point that I'm happy with the way I look; I have made peace with my simian-like reach and my chicken-like legs.

Unfortunately it seems to bother other people sometimes. There were the nicknames at school - beanpole, stick insect and so on; the school nurse who took me aside to ask if I was doing anything silly - despite having weighed me every term for 7 years she suddenly decided I'd been taking laxatives to lose weight; the boyfriend who was convinced I was bulimic and when I denied it, claimed I was in denial about my condition (you really can't win an argument with an idiot); the other mothers who, when I worked as an au pair, would ask my employer about her 'anorexic' nanny; the complete stranger who took my arm in a bar, loudly exclaiming to all his friends that he could easily wrap his fingers around my wrist; the kindly friend who asked me only two days ago, her voice full of concern, if I was on a diet as she thought I had lost weight. I could go on, but you get the idea.

So I was intrigued to see what happened when this group doubled their intake. I've tried incresing the amount of food I eat. The fact is donuts, burgers, fried chicken, chocolate, coke, beer, and candy floss have had absolutely no effect. I managed to gain a few pounds by eating extra protein and carbohydrates but god, the effort, it was so boring! But doubling your calories?! The only way these guys could manage to hit their daily target was to consume a family-sized pizza, with an entire tub of ice cream, or a litre of coke, pork pies, and a whole chocolate cake in one meal. One guy was reduced to eating a carton of clotted cream as a bedtime snack. Another was delighted to find a cake that contained well over 1000 calories. Needless to say these people felt wretched. Several threw up at some point. Two of them never actually managed it - their bodies increased the amount of the hormone that makes you feel full which rendered them incapable of eating it all without vomiting. So to all those people who keep telling me to just eat more burgers and donuts - it's not that simple. And of course, once the experiment ended, every single one went back to their original weight, leading the doctors to conclude that our bodies set themselves at a certain weight - fat, thin or somewhere in the middle - and simply try to maintain that weight over the course of adult life.

I was a fussy eater as a baby. I've never had a big appetite. I eat when I'm hungry and lose all interest in food when I'm full (something I have in common with all the people in the BBC's study). I come from a family of other long'n'lean types. I have never ever had an eating disorder. I have never ever been on a diet. I have never weighed more than I do right now and I've been pretty much the same weight for at least ten years.

If you follow one of those medical diagrams that charts height vs weight, I am underweight. My BMI is also in the underweight category. But these are both measurements that are based on the average range for people of my height - meaning that there will always be people who fall outside the average at either end without it being the result of under or over-eating, and without it being a medical problem. I'm perfectly healthy. (I was thrilled a few years ago when I went to see a consultant professor about a persistant back ache. In the end he concluded it was simply because I am tall and thin - I have less fat and muscle to support my spine so it takes more stress, thinness ain't all it's cracked up to be - and he asked me if I'd ever had an eating disorder. When I said no, he replied 'No, you don't seem the type'. Vindication!).

All the people in the study did put on weight, but some less than others. Of those, their bodies either increased their metabolic rate, converting the calories into muscle rather than fat (even without exercise), or increased the amount they fidgeted, gestured and so on in order to burn off the extra calories.

I've always maintained that I'm this weight because that's just how I am. I don't eat a huge amount, but it seems to be enough to keep me going and this study seems to confirm that basic idea. And those of you who know me will be able to confirm that I talk at a mile a minute, gesticulate wildly and walk as if the hounds of hell were after me. Fat or thin, our bodies deal with excess calories in different ways, but it seems that your own biology is the main factor in determining this.

People often tell me I'm lucky, simply because I happen conform to a current, arbitrary stereotype . But the truth is, whatever our weight, we all have our own insecurities about our appearance. I have days where I long to look like Kate Winslet or Scarlet Johansson ('real' women, as they're so often called). Whereas some people worry that an outfit may make them look fat, I worry it will make me look anorexic. So, in this image obssessed society we're clearly all as mad as each other. What bothers me is the assumption some people make that I'm either unwell with a serious medical condition, or that I'm somehow artificial, starving myself to try and look more like Posh Spice and rejecting my natural state.

But there's some consolation in knowing that I'm not alone. Along with the people in the programme, there are any number of my lovely friends and family who don't diet and who are slender. And the issues of obesity and health need to be addressed and investigated. But for all those lifetsyle shows and fashion magazines telling women to embrace their natural size and then clammering over photos of some 'anorexic' celebrity, it's worth remembering it goes both ways. We come in all shapes and sizes. Naturally.


Woolly Stuff said...

On a slight tangent, did you know that a great number of human ideals of female beauty involve the woman being ill or stop her from moving normally in some way?

Our own western obsession with thinness (anorexia is only a disease in the west - other people don't get it); chinese foot binding (though they don't do this anymore), burmese women and their neck rings, some african women who are overfed to the point where they're so big they actually can't walk; even Japanese kimonos were originally made to constrict a woman's movement; she had to learn to walk with tiny tiny steps.

Luckily, there are other cultures that aren't so bad, where women have more equality / power. The Kuna of panama expect women to cut their hair short and wear beautiful handmade blouses.

Anonymous said...

What an excellent comment from the anthropologist above me!

I'm in the interesting position of being able to relate to both experiences of over- and under-weight. For most of my life I was about your size, and got all of the accompanying comments that you still get. Then bam, I hit my late 20s, moved to grey London, and got the dreaded 'Heathrow Injection'. Oh the joy!

Hoxton said...

Ah, woolly stuff, knew you'd have some fascinating anthropological insight!
And travel Knitter - Heathrow Injection? Haven't heard of this, though not surprised if Heathrow has an adverse effect on people!

Anonymous said...

This was a really good read, especially as I didn't see the programme. My body is happy at a size 14 - I have a kind of Lily Allen-ish chunky figure, and I gain weight much more easily than I lose it. I had a moment a few years ago at a family party when I suddenly realised that all the women in my family have the same figure as me. Sounds daft I know, but until then I had alway beaten myself up for not being taller/skinnier/less curvy. It's interesting hearing your experiences from the other side of the BMI scale!