interesting times

Nature, Nurture, and Weight Loss

Photo: Mike Marsland/WireImage

It’s always a little awkward when you see someone after a long time and it’s instantly apparent that they have gained or lost a lot of weight. My rule of thumb is never to say anything at all. You never know the full context. There could be an illness or a medication behind a sudden weight change; a psychologically crippling event; a new, successful diet; a job loss; a sudden grief; anorexia; depression; addiction; divorce; early pregnancy; or just the gentle, humanizing curves of age. It may not be something he or she wants to talk about. Open your mouth, and your foot will always hover, quivering in front of your face. So, after a handful of social catastrophes in my younger days, I keep my trap shut.

But you still think something, don’t you? There’s always that initial, involuntary assessment of another body. You can’t help it. Your instant response can be shaped by envy, or smugness, curiosity or admiration, attraction or even disgust. With the sex you’re attracted to, there’s often the hot-or-not question. And then there’s a kind of surprise factor. A transformation is a transformation. Even if you keep it zipped, your surprised face can give you away. And that can sometimes be another burden for the newly fatter or slimmer person to grapple with. It’s a very human mess of emotion. Which is why, I suppose, the pop star Adele’s Instagram account suddenly became the hot topic this week — and no one knew quite what to say.

It’s a simple, cheesy photo: A petite young woman in a little black dress doing jazz hands inside what appears to be a giant white wreath or something. The message had nothing to do with Adele’s new, svelte size; it was a thank-you to COVID-19 health workers on the occasion of her 32nd birthday. But it got over 7 million likes in less than a day, and not just in solidarity with health workers.

My first thought was: Wow, she doesn’t look like herself at all. My second was: Good for her. My third was: I actually thought she was cuter carrying more weight. My fourth was: Well, whatever makes her happy. All of that happened in a few seconds in my lizard brain, corrected by whatever moral restraints I had previously attempted to insert there.

These were mixed feelings. I bet you have some too when seeing Adele’s picture. We want to do two things at once seeing someone lose weight: compliment them on looking fabulous, and at the same time say it doesn’t matter what size they are or were because they’re beautiful at any size. This sensible judgment is as humane as it is hopelessly incoherent. We can’t praise weight loss without in some fashion stigmatizing weight. And attempts to get rid of this inconsistency become either cruel or absurd.

Take “fat studies” — yet another variety of critical theory — which sees the very concept of fatness as solely a form of structural oppression. In his brilliant encyclopedia of “critical studies,” James Lindsay explains the core argument: “Like disability studies, fat studies draws on the work of Michel Foucault and queer theory to argue that negative attitudes to obesity are socially constructed and the result of systemic power that marginalizes and oppresses fat people (and fat perspectives) and of unjust medicalized narratives in order to justify prejudice against obese people.” As with all critical theories, this brooks no modification. Fatness — like race or gender — is not grounded in physical or biological reality. It is a function of systemic power. The task of fat studies is to “interrogate” this oppressive power and then dismantle it.

Now take the polar opposite position: Fatness is an unhealthy lifestyle that can be stopped by people just eating less and better. We haven’t always been this fat, and we should take responsibility for it, and the physical and psychological damage it brings. Some level of stigma is thereby inevitable, and arguably useful. Humans are not healthy when they are badly overweight; and the explosion in obesity in America has become a serious public-health issue. It is, for example, the single biggest comorbidity for non-elderly patients with COVID-19. “When did it become taboo in this country to talk about getting healthy?” my friend Bill Maher asked in a recent monologue. “Fat shaming doesn’t need to end; it needs to make a comeback. Some amount of shame is good. We shamed people out of smoking and into wearing seat belts. We shamed them out of littering and most of them out of racism.”

Polarized to absurdity, reductionist in their analysis, the arguments for both “fat studies” and “fat shaming” are almost designed for Twitter, and catnip for the hot-take culture war. On one side are helpless victims, who react to any debate with cries of oppression, and take no responsibility for their own physical destiny; on the other are brutal realists, with a callous touch, often refusing to see the genetic, social, and psychological complexity of fatness, or that serious health issues are not universal among heavier types. And the two stances reflect our two ideological poles — not so much left and right anymore as nurture and nature. One pole argues nature doesn’t independently exist and everything is social; and one blithely asserts that nature determines everything. Both are ruinous attempts to bludgeon uncomfortable reality into satisfying ideology.

Our main task right now with fatness, it seems to me, as with race or gender or sexual orientation or gender identity, is to grapple with complexity in a way that can be rigorously empirical and yet also humane.

This shouldn’t be that hard, and most people in real life manage it. There is a huge amount of subjectivity on the question of beauty, and this helps. But this is also probably why Adele touched such a nerve. She really helped pioneer a greater appreciation of the beauty of plumpness. She didn’t just look good as a plus-size woman; she looked fantastic. She seemed to expand the window of unconventional beauty for a while, and now she seems to have retreated into a more familiar style. It seems perfectly natural to regret some of this dynamic, and the way in which it can torment women and girls.

But there is a limit. Beauty and health are also correlated. Obesity can be dangerous — and physically and emotionally draining for those who live with it. (The best treatment of these delicate issues that I have read is Marc Ambinder’s epic essay on his own struggles.) Certain forms of attractiveness do have evolutionary roots, and are transcultural. Men, in general, are drawn to youth, curvy hips, and big boobs — as they’re all pretty good proxies for fecundity, and play some part in our evolutionary strategy. Women, in general, are subtler in their instant tastes, judging character and stability, but also by no means immune to the brawny and muscular — proxies for being a physical protector and good father. Age, after a certain point, can lead to a kind of sexual invisibility, even for men. We can push against these stereotypes, we can lament them, but we can’t abolish them.

You’d think for example that queer people would be in the vanguard of pioneering new forms of sexual attractiveness, and dismantling systems of oppression. And this is true to some extent. Gay men have managed to find any number of body forms attractive: the big furry bears; the skinny twinks; the newly popular daddies. But there’s still a brutal, underlying hierarchy: muscles still count, hard-wired models of masculinity usually win in sexual competition, youth trumps age, and the A-list of gay Instagram is a flurry of endless, interchangeable abdominals. A huge reason for gays’ passion for the gym is not just health; it’s social status.

I’ve learned to live with this. We’re all messes. I’ve spent more hours in gyms than I care to count, constructing a bodybuilder physique because it works in the crudest way in capturing the attention of men. We are all driven by instinctive attraction, but men are particularly subject to fixed and crude notions of hotness. Beauty will thereby always be the source of extraordinary and extraordinarily unfair advantage, even if it captures only a tiny slice of what being human is about. Is there any privilege anywhere that rivals that of the good-looking?

This is our reality. We are neither angels nor beasts, but we partake of both. We can rarely make the ugly beautiful, and if we do, it’s a moral achievement. However much we try, we will never correct the core natural inequalities and differences of our mammalian existence. But we can hazard a moral middle, seeing beauty in many ways, acknowledging the humanity of all shapes and sizes, while managing our health and weight in ways that are not totally subject to the gaze of others.

And we can greet the newly thin or newly fat in ways that do not fit any ideological rubric. To paraphrase Philip Larkin, we can try in these matters to be both true and kind. Or at least not untrue, and not unkind.

The Shape of the Plague to Come

None of us has any solid notion yet of quite how transformative our current plague will be. I look at the staggering unemployment numbers this morning and don’t know what to make of the surrealism of it all. Are we really suddenly in another Great Depression, twice as bad as the 2008 crash? Can an economy at full employment only a couple of months ago be completely ruined this quickly? I’m not an economist, but what’s the difference between a cyclical recession and one caused by a public-health crisis? Well, I guess we’re about to find out.

But one thing really does seem clear. All the trends in the culture that have led us to withdraw physically from one another, to live in an online space, to replace real life with virtual existence: These shifts have all been artificially accelerated. The essential socializing mechanisms of school and college, from kindergarten onward, have evaporated overnight. Religious practice, for so long a communal and physical thing, is suspended in midair, the sacraments withheld, the rituals that bind us together as Christians or Jews or Muslims and connect us to the past abandoned.

Workplaces, our other major forum for socialization, have disappeared into thin air, as Zoom meetings proliferate and we live in a Brady Bunch square set onscreen. Public transport that forced us to interact with one another daily continues for essential workers — but in a far more attenuated way for most white-collar and affluent Americans, further dividing classes. Doctors diagnose through screens; therapists are on speaker phones; friends are on FaceTime and nowhere else. Evolving media technologies that were slowly gaining speed have been suddenly sucked from the future into the present:

“As COVID-19 impacts every aspect of work and life, Microsoft has seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in just two months of its third quarter (January-March period), said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella during an earnings call on Wednesday. The company on Wednesday beat Wall Street sales and profit expectations, powered by sharp demand for its Teams chat and online meeting app and Xbox gaming services as the world shifted to working and playing from home … Microsoft saw all-time record gaming engagement in its third quarter, with nearly 19 million active users of Xbox Live, led by the strength on and off-console.”

The struggle of small, local retail stores, already pummeled by Amazon, gets more intense and doomed each day. And they are not just economic units: They’re social ones. They’re where we see neighbors and strangers and friends. The collective human experience of a football or basketball game cannot be replicated in an empty stadium; the comedian cannot bring people together around a joke that ends in silence; the dates we once had — for a play or a movie or a concert — have had to end. In a crisis of loneliness, we have somehow managed to make life lonelier still.

The restaurants that have helped regenerate neighborhoods and sustain new communities are being culled at a terrifying rate. The bars where we flirted; the coffee shops where we worked and chatted; the gyms where we recognized familiar faces: These are all in suspension, underlining modernity’s already dehumanizing solitude. Even family life, which is an essential base for so much of our social activity, can’t play the role it should. Packing everyone into the same space all day and night, with no outlet for others, is a recipe for marital failure, and family suffocation. The abuse of spouses and children this crisis has enabled will echo into the future.

Extramarital sex has gone completely virtual — an ephemeral series of online flirtations and porn fantasies. We barely even acknowledge one another in supermarkets, our faces masked, our hands in gloves, our distance nervously kept. Social media — the addictive, distractive habit we were trying to get some handle on — is now the only real-time socialization we have. After some success at weaning myself off my phone, I’ve never spent so much time on it.

This is not so far, it seems to me, a revolutionary moment for change away from our recent past. At least not yet. It’s more like a fast-forward of existing trends, a speeding up of social atomization, even as the cultural wreckage remains.

Perhaps this will in turn prompt a reaction, and help us restore the human to our world. But humans adjust, and this time we have had to adjust very quickly. The tools we have used to keep going in this era will surely remain in our hands — we will get used to them, and, in turn, we will get attached to them. Insofar as they have made businesses more efficient, or our own lives simpler, they’ll stick. The quiet out there that seemed so shocking only a month ago now seems much more familiar. What we needed, in some ways, for our collective mental health, was a catalyst for greater physical socialization, more human contact, and more meaningful community. What we’re getting, I fear, is the opposite.

It’s Not Just the Comfort Food That’s Comforting

I’m not sure why, but cooking has always bored me. Maybe I picked that up from my mother, who actively despised it. Or maybe, as I tell myself, it’s just a rational lifestyle decision. I figure I could never make something as good as a basic restaurant — my tastes are not exactly refined — and it would take me at least twice as much time. So why not just cut to the chase? You just have to budget differently to afford it. As anyone who knows me has probably noticed, I save on clothes.

But it also had to do with diners. In America, I fell in love with them. The first one I went to was in Los Angeles, taken by my uncle who was living and working there for a short period of time. This was 1983 and I was still a teenager, encountering this continent anew, and falling unexpectedly in love with it. The first time I’d ever been to a restaurant was when I went to college (my family regarded eating out as a crazy luxury), and I had always associated going out to dinner with poshness. They were extravagantly expensive places where I often felt completely out of place.

But this diner in West L.A.? With its AC humming, and its coffee pots simmering, and its washcloth-bearing waitresses zipping through the booths, it instantly made me feel at home. So comfortingly middle class. Nothing incomprehensible on the menu, oodles of comfort food, milkshakes, malts, burgers, fries, muffins, and a constant stream of fresh coffee. Chicken pot pie. Meatloaf. Rice pudding. The waitress didn’t look down on you. And you could stay a while.

And they were not that expensive either. If you have a local diner — and I’ve adopted one wherever I’ve landed — you also have a menu of reliable food and a stream of familiar faces. In Cambridge back in the day, I used to hang out at the old Mug’n Muffin; in my brief stint in New York City, the Dish staff would get together weekly in a diner on Eighth Avenue; and in D.C., over 20 years ago, a friend of mine asked me to be an investor in a new diner in Adams Morgan, and it became, over the years, my home away from home.

The Duplex Diner, as it is somewhat unimaginatively called, became a local institution on 18th Street. I took writers and friends there all the time; I had a weekly date with my bestie there; after a long day of writing or reading, I’d often hop on my bike, grab a seat at the bar, and unwind. I had a drink that would usually be poured as I walked in the door: a Jagermeister shot and a Diet Coke. Why on earth would I slave away alone over a stove or microwave to sit by myself and watch the telly, when I could drop by, see friends, get some gossip, and eat?

It’s been shut now, like so many others, for weeks. The lights are out; the buzz is gone; the regulars dispersed. No one knows when it will be open again, or even if it will. I’ve tried to cook at home, and it’s a little pathetic. I can just about pull off breakfast and some basics. I was very proud of myself for making a grilled chicken salad the other day. I read about and see all these other quarantined Whole Foods Instagrammers baking bread, chopping fennel, finessing recipes, and I don’t even feel envy. All I want is that sense of company, a place at the bar, a simple meal, and a drink that’s waiting for me again. And I have no idea if I’m ever getting it back.

See you next Friday.

Andrew Sullivan: Nature, Nurture, and Weight Loss