I’m a longtime fan of Carol Lay’s cartoons, so when I saw a big new graphic novel by her at Powell’s, I was thrilled. I picked up Lay’s book and read a caption — “the ultimate anti-diet book” — and thought “yay!”
Imagine my disappointment to discover that the ultimate anti-diet book is just another goddamn exploitative diet book.
After reading the sample chapter on Amazon (pdf link), I slipped from being unhappy to being horrified. Carol Lay is 5 feet nine inches, and she says her weight stabilized around 160 pounds. By combining regular exercise with a very strict calorie-counting program, she’s been able to maintain her goal weight of 125 pounds for the last six or seven years.
I’m glad she’s happy. What pisses me off is that Lay claims this all has something to do with health. Maybe it does for her — every body is different — but there’s absolutely no evidence that a BMI of 24 (which is where Lay was at before she began dieting) is unhealthy. Even the official standards (which I consider to be nonsensical) consider a 24 BMI to be the upper limit of the “normal” or “healthy” weight category
18.5, Lay’s new BMI, is the lower limit of the “normal” or “healthy” weight category. But if you pay attention to mortality charts, it’s actually a less healthy BMI than 24 — and in fact, less healthy than all “overweight” BMIs and most “obese” BMIs. You have to have a BMI of 40 or above — in Lay’s case, that means she’d have to weigh 270 pounds — to have a relative risk of death higher than that of a person with an 18.5 BMI.
Here’s a table of some of the relative risks reported (it comes from a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine;1 if you have trouble reading it, click on the image for a larger version):
The yellow column indicates the relative risk of death for “normal weight” people (the heaviest set of “normal” weight people are used as the baseline; all other risk ratios on this table are in comparison to those folks). The red outlines indicate the areas where the relative risk of death is as low or lower for “overweight” people as it is for “normal weight” people.
My point isn’t to say that Carol Lay is going to die younger because she lost 35 pounds; there’s far more to health than BMI, and you can’t predict what’ll happen to a single individual based on an average for large groups. I certainly don’t want naturally thin people to freak out — if you’re meant to be thin, then it’s not unhealthy. My point is just that there is no reason at all to think that Lay is now healthier because she moved from borderline “overweight” to borderline “underweight.”
Yet Lay refers to “health” to justify her weight loss.
It’s not about health. It’s about pushing bodies to fit into an insane aesthetic that says that to be fleshy is to be bad.
What makes it worse is that Lay lays (sorry) out a course of action for her readers to follow:
The stories and information in these pages may help you to find the courage to lose old habits and make new, healthy ones. Then maybe you, too [can lose weight].
But Lay has no idea if her diet plan will work for folks in general; study after study has shown that most people aren’t able to lose large amounts of weight over the long term. And the consequences of failing to keep off weight can be dire, both mentally and physically. Just because Carol’s diet plan worked for Carol Lay doesn’t mean that it won’t fail the vast majority of people, like all diet plans do.
The real problem here isn’t that Lay weighed a shocking 160 pounds. It’s that she’s been taught to hate herself at 160 pounds, and to describe herself as “zaftig” at 140 (a BMI of 21). It’s that a major book publisher thinks that a memoir which endorses self-hatred at 160 pounds, and starving down to the very borderline of underweight, is worth publishing not as a cautionary tale, but as a self-help manual. It’s that our society has colonized our minds. It’s the same insanity that has the press criticizing Jessica Simpson for gaining eight pounds.
It’s not Lay’s fault that she thinks this way; she’s perpetuating the bullshit, but she perpetuates because of what’s been perpetuated upon her. But still… dammit. I really liked her cartoons.