Should a 5'9", 160 lb woman want to lose 35 pounds?

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):

Relative Risk At Different Levels Of BMI For Men And Women And By Race

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.

  1. Adams, K., et al., “Overweight, Obesity, and Mortality in a Large Prospective Cohort of Persons 50 to 71 Years Old.” New England Journal of Medicine, 2006. 355(8): p. 763-8.; I blogged about this study, and criticized it, here. []
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80 Responses to Should a 5'9", 160 lb woman want to lose 35 pounds?

  1. 1
    DaisyDeadhead says:

    The excerpted comic strip begs the question: What happens when she gets older and no longer receives compliments? At some point, you know, this WILL happen. Is she then going to write a similar comic about botox and facelifts and how important they are?

    If so, sounds the comic book version of COSMO.

  2. 2
    Susan says:

    I’m 5’8″, formerly 5’9″ (people shrink as they age), and 125 pounds is almost certainly too thin unless this woman is 19 years old or something and hasn’t gotten her growth yet.

    Now we could say, and I’m about to say, that it’s her body and she can do whatever she wants with it. However, that comes with a caveat when we’re talking about publishing books on this, and I’ll tell you why.

    First Amendment and all that granted. No one is going to prohibit this by law. But there is a morals question here too. Does the publication of something like this in a country where anorexia is claiming the lives of young women (and some men) make anyone pause? How much is this like a book which enthusiastically promotes cigarette smoking?

    This whole thing gives me more than a few qualms.

    (Daisy, I’m 63, and I’m still receiving complements on my appearance, and still having men (my age) hit on me, for that matter, and I’m no raving beauty. So far as I can tell, men do not cease this behavior until we are all 6 feet under.)

    (Amp, you say, “It’s not Lay’s fault that she thinks this way.” Why not? Is she not responsible to examine what she’s been told in the light of common sense? She’s not a robot I assume.)

  3. 3
    PG says:

    I agree with the overall sentiments here, but the title of the post seems a bit judgmental: the answer obviously is No, She Shouldn’t Want That And Wanting It Indicates An Internalized Societal Mental Illness.

    If Lay isn’t hurting herself physically, mentally or emotionally by wanting to weigh less, or by achieving that, I don’t feel comfortable judging Lay’s preference for her own body. (I’d rather stick to judging her for implying that everyone else ought to have the same preference and they too can do it in just five easy steps!)

  4. 4
    Sailorman says:

    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.

    You mean, evidence OTHER than the fact that she didn’t apparently feel healthy then and “feels the best ever” now? Or that many people who lose weight feel healthier when they’re thin?

    They’re not insane, those people. You keep using “predicted longevity” as a proxy for “health” and it doesn’t work.

  5. 5
    Lilian Nattel says:

    I have 2 schoolage girls and this sort of thing totally enrages me. My girls are fairly sheltered because they don’t watch commercial tv and we live in a progressive diverse neighbourhood. But they still absorb something about “fat” and “thin” from their friends, from the air, I swear. My children swim and skate and play lots of imaginative games and have a happy sense of their bodies. I want them to keep having it. Why should anyone have to restrict what they eat when they’re already healthy? To look “better”? Who defines what that is. Grrrrrr.

  6. 6
    little light says:

    Sailorman, I’m 5’8″. I haven’t weighed 125 pounds since I was maybe twelve. When I was 18, running six miles a day, working out on weights twice a week and had a metabolism through the ceiling, I weighed a whopping 150 pounds. If I tried to get down to that weight today–just 150!–it would be extremely unhealthy for me and would require doing nothing but exercising and calorie-counting all the time. It would mean having no effective muscle *along* with no fat.
    But I bet people would be plenty keen on trying to get me to feel “the best ever” about how I looked.
    I’m a bit overweight for my frame right now. Were I to adopt healthier habits more consistently right now, I would probably lose some weight. In fact, it’s weight I’d love to lose, for bullshit culturally-inculcated reasons along with the health reasons. It wouldn’t be the weight loss that made me healthier, though, and I would never dream of trying to push past the 170 or so that my particular body seems to work best at.
    The point is, it’s about looking for healthy habits and life choices, not about sizes and numbers and compliments.
    I’m never going to be a small woman, and I have hips and breasts and all made of fat, and that’s what they’re *supposed* to be made of, and I plan on keeping them. Unless you have a tiny javelin bone structure, that’s how it’s gonna be at five foot eight. And unless the cartoonist has such a bone structure, I’m shocked that 125 pounds even accounts for her major organs.

  7. 7
    Alison Hymes says:

    If she were to not stay well and get cancer or kidney failure, being that thin would make her less likely to survive treatment for either one. I have a problem with anyone publishing a book that says it is healthy to be underweight because of the anorexia epidemic and because of the real consequences for folks who are unlucky enough to get some serious illnesses. I agree that it is similar to pub lishing a book promoting smoking–both smoking and losing too much weight are personal choices and legal but neither is going to lead to better health.

  8. 8
    Ampersand says:

    You mean, evidence OTHER than the fact that she didn’t apparently feel healthy then and “feels the best ever” now? Or that many people who lose weight feel healthier when they’re thin?

    Your cited evidence is entirely anecdotal. Where’s a legitimate, peer-reviewed study showing that it’s healthier to have a BMI of 18.5 rather than 24?

    But regarding your anecdotal evidence, SM: How did you determine that feeling better comes from weight loss, as opposed to factors like increased social approval, change of diet, or being on a regular exercise program?

    You keep using “predicted longevity” as a proxy for “health” and it doesn’t work.

    SM, do you have ANY evidence at all, other than anecdote, to show that an 18.5 BMI is healthier than a 24 BMI? Because that’s what the book I’m discussing advocates.

    I don’t think risk ratios are the be-all and end-all of health, but neither are they irrelevant to health. And I find it very telling that no one on the “fat is eeevvvilllll!” side of the debate saw anything wrong with using mortality as a proxy for health back when they thought that fat people died younger than “normal” weight people; it only became an inadequate proxy for health once it turned out that fat people live longer.

  9. 9
    Mandolin says:

    “I’m 5′8″, formerly 5′9″ (people shrink as they age), and 125 pounds is almost certainly too thin unless this woman is 19 years old or something and hasn’t gotten her growth yet.”

    Eh. My best friend is 5’9″. She was 111 in high school, and she’s about 120 now (at 27). She was briefly about 130. As far as I know, she’s never been on a diet. (Her exercise routines do change occasionally, based on rigors of her schooling, and the demands of her medical profile – she has a bad back.)

    I really dislike the idea of “too thin.” I understand where it comes from and all, but just blah.

  10. 10
    Susan says:

    All that granted, Mandolin, but your friend did not start out at 160 and then lose 25 pounds, which is the topic under discussion. This history strongly implies that the author is not one of these naturally very skinny people. In fact apparently the whole book is about the triumph of the will to get someone who was a more or less normal weight down to an abnormally low weight. Abnormal for her, from the story.

    As I say, it’s her body, and if that’s what she wants, more power to her, but as a mom and a grandmother I do worry about the message this might send to our young women. Because it is legal for someone like Carol Lay to, say, smoke three packs of cigarettes a day, does not mean that I want my daughters, or anyone else’s daughters, to be influenced by that behavior.

  11. 11
    NancyP says:

    Article address (it’s free, at least through the Pubmed portal

    The data for women (table 3, fig. 2) seem to indicate that if you are a current or former smoker, “underweight” BMI has more effect than for never-smokers, and that the opposite is true for “overweight” BMI, which has more effect for never-smokers than for current/former smokers. The splines are adjusted for a lot of variables but not for presence or absence of pre-existing chronic disease.

    My comments based on clinical epidemiologic and mechanistic knowledge:

    To me this suggests that smoking is a stronger risk factor than obesity (not a new observation). Non-cardiac smoking-related disease in advanced stages tends to reduce appetite/intake or cause physiologic cachexia (for example, emphysema and other COPD, oral cavity and esophageal cancers, lung cancer of course). The effect of obesity is likely to be quite indirect, and related to development of metabolic syndrome/adult-onset (type II) non-insulin-dependent diabetes complex. Type II DM (NIDDM) is associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, and has a genetic, a weight, and an exercise component. The multivariate model used in Fig 2D “never-smoker cohort, reported BMI at age 50″ controlled for exercise level, alcohol use, education level, ethnicity. This suggests to me that when a number of other mortality-related factors are either removed by definition or by statistical methods (multivariate analyses), remaining mortality causes are associated to some weakish degree with obesity, through the increased rate of development of type II DM (NIDDM), which increases the rate of development of atherosclerosis, itself the major mechanism of mortality by cardiac disease, stroke, peripheral vascular disease (infection risk), renal failure (infection risk, dialysis risk) .

    All this seems to indicate is that if one excludes smoking and alcohol-related diseases and inactivity from the causes of mortality, what is left is diabetes-associated atherosclerosis-caused mortality.

    Translation – if you don’t die of one cause, you will die of some other cause…

    The American population tends to have a high risk of developing NIDDM *and* also a more difficult time achieving adequate blood glucose control with BMIs of 30 to 35 and above. NIDDM is essentially a disease of insulin resistance – pancreas releases usual amount of insulin, body needs larger amount of insulin than usual in order to achieve the desired result. You can adjust minor degrees of mismatch with oral drugs that can make (only) small adjustments to metabolism. Major degrees of mismatch can’t be corrected by oral drugs, and require direct administration of supranormal amounts of insulin well beyond the pancreas’ (normal) synthetic capacity. The degree of pancreas insulin capacity – body insulin requirement mismatch is directly correlated with BMI. NIDDM of a given patient may require only oral drugs at BMI of 30 but may require small doses of insulin at BMI 35 and larger insulin doses at BMI of 40. If that patient returns to BMI of 30, oral drugs will again be adequate for control. Well-controlled NIDDM has much slower rate of atherosclerosis development than does poorly-controlled NIDDM. Good blood glucose control is usual with oral drugs. Blood glucose control with insulin tends to be average or poor and gets progressively more difficult with increasing dose requirements.

  12. 12
    chingona says:

    I understand the discomfort with judging her body as “too thin,” but the book would be somewhat less problematic if it didn’t hold out such unrealistic goals. And it’s hard to declare the ideal she creates unrealistic without implying she is “too thin.”

    I say somewhat less, because any kind of “do what I did and life will be great” book is problematic. But if it was about eating well and exercising and taking care of yourself and letting the numbers on the scale fall where they may, it would be a lot less problematic. That doesn’t seem to be what the book is about. If the panels excepted above are indicative (Amazon was taking too long to load, so I didn’t read the whole excerpt), there’s a serious self-denial aspect to this project, at the very least.

  13. 13
    Mandolin says:

    “All that granted, Mandolin, but your friend did not start out at 160 and then lose 25 pounds, which is the topic under discussion. This history strongly implies that the author is not one of these naturally very skinny people. In fact apparently the whole book is about the triumph of the will to get someone who was a more or less normal weight down to an abnormally low weight. Abnormal for her, from the story.”

    Sure. I just objected to the one sentence that you wrote, indicating that she should not be X weight because she is Y height. I think we can draw conclusions about the problems of dieting from ehr history, but not a simple number graph.

    I’m sure we’re basically in agreement.

  14. 14
    Dianne says:

    Re weight and health: Note that with a few exceptions at the extreme weights, all the relative risk levels are less than 2. Some clinicians consider a relative risk of less than 2, even if it is statistically significant, to be noise or an effect not really worth worrying about. I’m not convinced that that is totally true, but at any rate, the relative risk of being over (or under) weight seems to be fairly minor compared with (say) the risk of smoking or being unvaccinated.

  15. 15
    Schala says:

    What’s missing in the culture is a how-to for gaining weight, for people who are naturally very skinny and can’t seem to gain weight (and want to).

    I did something to my hormonal intake, and I managed to gain about 10 lbs in about 2 months. I went from about 100 lbs to 111 lbs, by eating normally. While previously, this would have had no effect on my weight.

    My goal is to reach the 115-120 lbs range, which, for my height, is the low-end of ‘healthy’ BMI. Note that even at my previous weight, I didn’t look ‘dangerously underweight’, but having a near-zero fat ratio has inconvenients (I’m no athlete).

  16. 16
    Schala says:

    Note that with a few exceptions at the extreme weights, all the relative risk levels are less than 2. Some clinicians consider a relative risk of less than 2, even if it is statistically significant, to be noise or an effect not really worth worrying about. I’m not convinced that that is totally true, but at any rate, the relative risk of being over (or under) weight seems to be fairly minor compared with (say) the risk of smoking or being unvaccinated.

    I just noticed that women under 18.5 are considered to be above a factor of 2. I was never warned about risks or anything and its not like I went up and down the underweight limit either. I guess doctors are also affected by society’s trends.

    Docs seem to only worry in cases of anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa (whom they might force to stay at an hospital), but not ‘just underweight’ people where even simple advice is never mentioned.

    Would it be plausible to assume doctors don’t consider someone to be underweight unless they have anorexia nervosa? As in, otherwise the docs think your weight is healthy?

  17. 17
    Ali says:

    This is the main issue I still have when it comes to body acceptance: when someone is taller than me but weighs the same (or less) and complains of being fat/overweight/what have you.
    I’m 5’5″ and about 165 and I’m NOT overweight, thank you very much. Yeah yeah, according to BMI I am, but this is my body’s set point and I’m healthy at this weight (not at a “normal” BMI, I know from personal experience) and I think I look damn good. If I start working out again like I used to I can drop a few clothing sizes but I will not lose any weight. So to hear someone like Lay describe her weight like she does, well it just destroys my sanity a little bit.

    Also, paraphrased from the sample chapter: “It says it’s 20 calories but it tastes like 40″

  18. 18
    Schala says:

    Calories have taste now?

    I figured Diet Coke tasted differently than Coke because it lacked sugar, not just because it had 160 calories less per 355 ml can.

  19. 19
    Dianne says:

    I just noticed that women under 18.5 are considered to be above a factor of 2. I was never warned about risks or anything and its not like I went up and down the underweight limit either. I guess doctors are also affected by society’s trends.

    Doctors are affected by society’s trends and beliefs. Unquestionably. I don’t mean to make you feel distrustful of your doctors, but remembering that they don’t work in a vacuum and are vulnerable to the same pressures as any other person may be useful when you get some apparently illogical advice from one.

    If this isn’t too invasive a question, has anyone screened you for diseases associated with thinness? For example, hyperthyroidism or osteoporosis? Or suggested that you might want to exercise to decrease your risk of the latter (even if it doesn’t change your weight per se)? And you shouldn’t be ignoring diseases normally associated with being overweight either: a BMI of 18 doesn’t protect you from high cholesterol, hypertension, or diabetes though the average risk is a bit decreased. Other than that, I’m not sure what can be done. But then again, I’d probably give almost exactly the same advice to someone who was concerned about their health if they were overweight so I’m not sure I’m being really very useful.

  20. 20
    PG says:

    “If I start working out again like I used to I can drop a few clothing sizes but I will not lose any weight.”

    I think I’ve finally convinced my mom to stop weighing herself and instead focus on how her clothes fit. She kept stressing because she was working out and being careful of her diet, but not losing weight. There should be a “MUSCLE WEIGHS MORE THAN FAT” sticker mandatory on every scale sold in America.

  21. 21
    chingona says:

    I think I’ve finally convinced my mom to stop weighing herself and instead focus on how her clothes fit. She kept stressing because she was working out and being careful of her diet, but not losing weight. There should be a “MUSCLE WEIGHS MORE THAN FAT” sticker mandatory on every scale sold in America.

    The best shape I’ve been in my entire life also was the most I’ve ever weighed.

  22. 22
    Rosa says:

    Doctors definitely notice underweight in a little kid. I don’t know about adults (and I wonder if there’s a gender difference, too).

    But our kid is very underweight (he just recently, at age 3, actually got *onto* the height-weight chart for his age and when he got from the 10th percentile to the 15th, his doctor jumped up and down and clapped). We went through the ringer for tests – cystic fibrosis, digestion, different CF tests, tests for food intolerances, all sorts of obnoxious and time consuming stuff.

    I was pretty sure it was just his growth pattern – both me (a fat adult) and his father (an average-sized adult) were very small right up til we hit puberty, and my son’s weight-at-age tracked pretty close to his paternal uncle’s. But a combination of general health anxiety and the specific worry that if we did *not* do everything the docs suggested we’d be accused of neglect, kept us doing the tests.

    One of the tests required making him fast for several hours, giving him a special (disgusting) drink, trussing him like a turkey on a spit and putting him through a scanner to check his stomach & esophagus – all before he could really talk. That’s a pretty tough afternoon to inflict on a little guy just for not fitting on your chart.

  23. 23
    Serendipity says:

    I remember being in highschool and being called in to see the head of 6th form because I always skived gym class. She expressed concern and then said “and I don’t understand why, you seem so healthy”. Apparently “healthy” is freely interchangeable with “skinny”.

    I weighed 46kg and was 5’5. I didn’t *quite* have an eating disorder, since my ‘natural’ weight is 50-52kg, but I was definitely funny about food. I was also very unfit.

    The conflation of “fitting into current aesthetic values” and “health” has got to stop. It’s giving a veneer of medically founded respectability to what is merely a demand for people* to be attractive.

    *Unsurprisingly, the demand is made more vigorously of women, although I hear that male anorexia is also on the rise. Clearly exactly the kind of equality everyone was looking for…

  24. 24
    PG says:


    My understanding is that doctors freak out about babies and toddlers being underweight because of the fear it will affect their brain development. At least, concern about sufficient brain development was why I was told always to give very young children whole milk (no skim or 2%) — they apparently need more fat in their diets because the brain is still growing.

  25. 25
    Kaija says:

    I think what many people are reacting to here is the accepted and constant premise that all women naturally want to lose weight and be thinner…not always true. Yes, body type, natural metabolism, body composition, and such are all factors that figure into the incredible amount of variability in any biological characteristic. Figuring out a healthy weight, a workable nutrition profile, and a healthful activity level is a very individual process…not everyone wants to or needs to strive for the lower bounds of a “normal weight.”

    That being said, I am a 5’10” woman who wears a size 7/8 dress and size 8 jeans and weighs 160 lbs. I am an athlete and thus more muscular than the average female, but during a very unhappy period in my life I weighed 140 lbs, mostly b/c I was very stressed, deeply unhappy, and was having trouble eating and sleeping as my body tried to tell me what my mind didn’t want to deal with. During this time, I got LOADS of compliments and requests for “my secret” because, hey, I was thin so I must be thrilled with my life! Not so. It was not a healthy weight for me (and I thought I looked awful) and once I made some big changes, my weight and my happiness went back up. I am medium-to-small framed, but I would be very sickly at 125 lbs!

    People are always amazed when I tell them I weigh 160 lbs…because they have no realistic concept or calibration for what REAL people weigh. They are so used to models and actresses and celebrities and other women lying about their weight that they think 160 is gross and fat! Hey, I have abs…I’m not fat, I’m just real.

  26. 26
    james says:

    I’m glad she’s happy. What pisses me off is that Lay claims this all has something to do with health… 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.

    (1) Yes it is. Her weight loss was caused – in part – by regular exercise. Are saying regular exercise doesn’t make people healthier?

    (2) I don’t like your use of the term diet. I don’t think this is a diet, in the sense of a food regimen designed to promote weight loss. Lifestyle changes involving food and exercise regimes can allow your to maintain a given weight in the long term. It’s misleading to group these in with short term weight loss programs based on calorie restriction.

    (3) I also don’t like the way BMI is being used – it groups weight and height. When you say changing BMI, in terms of the study this means changing either weight or height (or both). But this is impossible for real people, since our height is pretty much fixed and we can only change the ratio by altering our weight.

  27. 27
    Julie says:

    I love the panel on page 5 where she says exercise “takes [her] mind off food” – which would indicate that she’s thinking about food an awful lot. Which would indicate that she’s not getting enough of it. How can we live in the wealthiest country on earth, be surrounded by food at all times, and still think it’s normal to feel hungry every moment of every day?

    Also, why the hell does she “indulge” in an apple? APPLES ARE GOOD FOR YOU.

    Honestly, the “advice” she’s giving makes me just livid. A lot of the foods she’s choosing – fake butter, instant soup, non-dairy frozen dessert – are actually worse for your health than the traditional foods she’s avoiding. (See Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food for a more thorough explanation.) Foods are more than their caloric content. I can’t believe we still can’t get that through our heads.

  28. 28
    Ali says:


    (1) Exercise doesn’t cause everyone to lose weight, and too much regular exercise (admittedly this is very subjective) can cause some people to get sick.

    (2)She’s counting calories! How is that not a diet in any sense of the word?

    (3)I don’t understand this point, how do you think BMI should be used?

  29. 29
    Schala says:

    If this isn’t too invasive a question, has anyone screened you for diseases associated with thinness? For example, hyperthyroidism or osteoporosis? Or suggested that you might want to exercise to decrease your risk of the latter (even if it doesn’t change your weight per se)? And you shouldn’t be ignoring diseases normally associated with being overweight either: a BMI of 18 doesn’t protect you from high cholesterol, hypertension, or diabetes though the average risk is a bit decreased.

    No one has screened for thinness-related diseases. Per my blood work I’ve been checked for cholesterol, its low. Blood pressure is also low. I don’t have diabetes either.

    My weight has been below 5th percentile since I was around 10 years old.
    Before that I was below 25th percentile. And my height was similarly low for my age (above weight still). No one thought of checking for anything, and I didn’t see any doctor between 9 and 22 because I was thought of as healthy by my parents.

  30. 30
    lonespark says:

    Wait, what? I’d be thrilled to weigh 120 again like I did in college…but I’m 4’11”.

  31. 31
    Cecily says:

    I couldn’t finish reading the sample pages. I got past the blithe assumptions that my weight is disgusting (hint: I’m shorter than her. I think I’m what shapelings call a ‘tweener’.) but I couldn’t handle the ‘day in the diet.’

    I have never been on a classic restricted-menu ‘diet’, but I have been on Weight Watchers, and that ‘day’ was exactly why I quit. It’s like another job. Look how much time she spends thinking about this crap. Sure, there are fitness goals you can set for yourself that don’t involve self-hatred. But I want to live my life, which means not spending hours every day obsessing over food. Hell, she even made this book, which meant allowing her food-obsession to consume her work.

    Hell, no. If fitness is to be any part of wellness, it can’t be a destructive, self-loathing obsession. If wellness is the goal, how the hell can grinding yourself down be the way to get there?

  32. 32
    chingona says:

    Hell, she even made this book, which meant allowing her food-obsession to consume her work.

    I have to wonder about the origin of this as an idea for a book. Did she pitch it or did someone pitch it to her? Has she pitched other book ideas without finding much interest? I suspect publishers’ perception about what’s marketable have at least as much to do with this as Lay’s on level of interest in it. I don’t say that to let Lay off the hook, but I do wonder.

  33. 33
    PG says:


    Good point. I’m sure there’s a publisher out there who noted, “Hey, these graphic novels and comics are getting so popular. We should publish one in a genre that always sells well but that isn’t already full of comics and graphic novels. Hmm, no sci-fi, no children’s… oh, I know, a diet comic!”

  34. 34
    Ampersand says:

    I read an interview somewhere which left me with the impression that Lay thought of the idea for this book and then shopped it around. (But it says a lot about the market that this was a salable idea, is with a major publisher, and seems to be getting much more “push” than her earlier books did.)

  35. 35
    Dianne says:

    Are saying regular exercise doesn’t make people healthier?

    Ok, my data here is VERY shaky so take everything with as much salt as is consistent with your blood pressure staying stable, but…

    A colleague of mine during residency was once asked by a patient who was an ex-professional baseball player if his (the patient’s) history as a professional athelete probably increased or decreased his life expectancy.

    The colleague did some research and found that the answer to the original question was that it was probably neutral overall, neither increasing nor decreasing his life expectancy. He then got curious about exercise in general and to what extent it improves health. By his calculation, moderate exercise does increase life expectancy. However, it increases life expectancy by about the same amount of time that the person spends exercising. So the extra time you gain is essentially all spent in the process of gaining it.

    As I said, there are obvious caveats: This is based on a random person’s calculation–a person with no formal training in statistics. I don’t know how he did the original calculation and therefore can’t verify or debunk it. And there are other measures of health besides life expectancy (energy level, frequency of acute or chronic illnesses, etc).

    However, caveats aside, my basic conclusion is that one should find an enjoyable exercise to engage in and that if it isn’t fun it probably isn’t worth the bother.

  36. 36
    Carol says:

    Its also interesting to NOT see actually photographs, but illustrations which portray a skewed self image.

    I’m one of those women that have dieted (lost 30 lbs and have permanently kept it off, even through a pregnancy) and even at my lowest adult weight, have never been “normal” bmi, even though I’ve had doctors tell me that all my vitals are so good, losing weight isn’t necessarily recommended. (I’m 6 ft tall and of good peasant stock. Get a load of the normal BMI weights for that height.)

  37. 37
    RonF says:

    See, I saw a news flash about Jessica Simpson picking up a few pounds with the “after” picture and said to myself “She looks just fine to me!”. More attractive, in fact. De gustibus non est disputandem, of course. It’s also important to know that the “before” picture may well have been photoshopped/edited before it was published.

    OTOH, while it’s quite unreasonable to expect the average person to work out 2 hours a day and adopt a highly limited diet, it’s not unreasonable for expect an actor or actress to do so in order to present a specific image – an illusion, if you will – as part of their job. It’s just unrealistic to expect an actor or actress to be realistic and to model oneself after them. Of course it’s just as unrealistic to model one’s political or social viewpoints after theirs as well.

  38. 38
    Plaid says:

    I just have to point this out:

    Lay: “I like the compliments I get”

    I also like compliments. I like when people say they like my hair, or my clothes, or the article I just wrote. I find compliments great, at least, until they hit the white American female body image. (Said because most strangers mentioned below were white.)

    I received lots and lots of compliments from female strangers when I was so anorexic (medical reasons) that I was unhealthily underweight and was unable to go two minutes on a rowing machine without fainting. All these women wanted to know what _exercise_ I was doing, what _incredibly healthy diet plan_ I had, etc. They thought my shape was healthy. I’m not joking. Fainting is so hot.

    My response, “a friend of mine keeps trying to commit suicide, I’m under a lot of stress, and I’m allergic to most foods. Eating is more painful than not eating” threw them back a bit.

    Plenty of people never directly asked me what was up, but assumed. I used to go to a gym to try to get my appetite up and I would attend group classes. After some time, the staff mentioned to me that the specific classes I attended had huge attendance boosts. And yes, some people did come to me and ask me exactly what classes I attended at the gym.

    I don’t like how compliments I get from strangers correlates with how crappy my life and physical health is functioning. Seriously, there is some unhealthy shit going on here. Not specifically in Lay’s work, but in general. You can talk all you want about the compliments on your weight boosting you, Lay, but I know I have never received a compliment from female strangers unless I was eating fewer than 500 calories a day for months. And I am damn hot when I’m not anorexic, mind you. ;)


  39. 39
    chingona says:

    I read an interview somewhere which left me with the impression that Lay thought of the idea for this book and then shopped it around.

    I shouldn’t have put that idea out there in a way that took away her agency. And I’m sure she is genuinely proud of herself and her discipline. But she also must be aware of the market forces at play. If there wasn’t such a market, if she didn’t think she might get a bigger publisher/better marketing with an idea like this, would she have come up with the idea of doing this in book form?

    At the end of the day, she’s still responsible for how she chooses to use her skills and the messages she promotes, but it bothers me just as much – if not more – that there is such a market for this.

  40. 40
    RonF says:

    Hm. My BMI is 35.3. I’d like to drop 20 pounds because I find that I feel healthier and am more able to sustain what I find a desirable level of activity at that weight. That would put me at 32.7. To get to what they call “normal” weight I’d have to drop 80 pounds, which I don’t think I could do without surgery. Which I can’t justify.

    I like to go on canoe trips in Canada. This involves canoeing across lakes, sometimes quite windy and in 1 ft. waves, in a 75 pound canoe that is loaded with, say, 350 pounds of people and 125 pounds of gear or supplies. After a few Km or miles we might land, get out, and pick up the canoe or the gear, carry it for a 1/4 or 1/2 mile over rocks, mud, tree roots, etc., usually up and down (not level) and then get back in and start canoeing again. I can (at 20 pounds lighter) keep this up for 6 or 7 hours. I’ve seen plenty of people with what must be lower BMIs than mine who can’t do this. So what I’d like to know is, how do they define “normal” or “healthy”?

  41. 41
    PG says:


    I don’t think it’s all about life expectancy. I haven’t exercised much in the last six months (since I started working full time), and when I was picking up my boss’s little girl last week so she could put the picture she’d made for me up above my desk, I nearly dropped her because I have so little muscle in my arms. Exercise is a matter of quality of life as well as quantity. Not being able to carry or keep up with kids, when you’re not medically disabled in any way, is nature’s sign (albeit a little attenuated in these days of reliable contraception) to start working out.

  42. 42
    Schala says:

    See, I saw a news flash about Jessica Simpson picking up a few pounds with the “after” picture and said to myself “She looks just fine to me!”. More attractive, in fact. De gustibus non est disputandem, of course. It’s also important to know that the “before” picture may well have been photoshopped/edited before it was published.

    I think I read somewhere that men’s opinions about women’s attractiveness was actually of higher weight than women’s own perceived ideal image.

    So in reality this would translate to something (hypothetical) like the average man finding a woman attractive at 21-22 BMI, and the woman finding herself attractive at 19-20 BMI.

    Though men often reinforce the notion too, I don’t doubt. One told me “You’re so tiny!” and he meant it positively. I lack much social exposure though, to know more than what studies say with with my own real life experience. I’d be curious as to other people’s thought on this?

  43. 43
    Susanne says:

    Amp – I think when you think about health, you keep bringing it back to life expectancy as the measure of health. But there are a lot of other factors.
    As a woman of 5’4″ I have gone between 130 and 160 and there is no question that when I am closer to the 130 end of the scale, I am healthier insofar as:
    – I don’t experience stress incontinence that I do at the heavier end
    – I don’t experience heartburn / acid indigestion that I do at the heavier end
    (which ironically causes me to eat more to soothe my stomach acid versus just responding to eating out of hunger and / or enjoyment of the food)
    – I sleep better and more soundly
    – I am far less likely to snore
    – I have more energy

    Note how I’m not talking about looks or how others perceive me. I’m pretty hot at any weight :-). But not leaking urine? Not having a painful feeling below my breastbone that mimics hunger? Yes, those are health issues to me and yes, they are noticeably impacted by a swing of say 20 pounds.

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  45. 44
    chingona says:

    I don’t think that he’s saying some people aren’t going to be healthier at a lower weight. I think he’s saying that being underweight isn’t healthier than being overweight and being underweight can have a bigger effect on your life expectancy than being overweight. Not that BMI is the be all, end all of what’s healthy, but 5’4″ and 130 (my size, as well) is 22.3, which is square in the middle of normal BMI. Lay is 5’9″. She gets the same BMI at 150. Obviously that doesn’t account for differences in body type. My mom is my same height and very healthy and weighs 10 pounds less than I do (20.6, still well within the normal range) because she just has a really different build than I do. But I think it’s reasonable to question what’s Lay’s doing with this book both because the weight she has achieved would be unattainable for many women her height and because she’s claiming “health” as both the reason and the result when in fact losing that much weight could have a net negative effect for many people.

  46. 45
    Kristen McHenry says:

    Oh, God. I probably shouldn’t have read this. I am exactly 5’9″, and I was 125 pounds for years….when I was anorexic and ate between 500-800 calories a day. I’m at around 155-165 now, and I’m constantly freaked out by it, even though I’m ten times healthier mentally, emotionally, and physically than I was then. Every few months or so I flip out and decide that I am going to try to get back down 125. I’m almost 40 years old, and I’m beginning to realize that short of just not eating, and spending up to 3 hours a day in the gym, my body is simply not going to do that, ever again. I constantly feel fat and heavy, because I remember what it was like to be so thin for so long. But at my current weight, I can actually go to the gym and work out without getting dizzy, and I can even lift weights. My body now looks like what most of the women in my family look like: curvy and full. I’m also a lot stronger. I was probably never meant to be stick-thin, although I was lanky until I got into my mid-thirties and started putting fat on my hips and thighs. And eating normal meals.

    If this Carol Lay wants to live the way she does to maintain her weight, that’s her business, I guess. But it seems sketchy and even a little irresponsible to claim that severe calorie restriction and constant exercise are the right thing for everyone. When I read this, I just felt awful all over again. I hate to think of what it’s going to do to even more impressionable young women.

  47. 46
    Ampersand says:

    There’s some discussion of Lay’s book and this post over on Metafilter.

  48. 47
    Myca says:

    Dude. You got MeFi’d. That’s pretty awesome.


  49. 48
    Elkins says:

    Kristen, I completely understand. While my personal experience is in no way equivalent to yours, I also found that sample chapter on the linked website rather triggering. I would definitely advise people with a history of eating disorders or strong emotional triggers regarding dieting to give it a miss.

  50. 49
    Ruth Hoffmann says:


    If it’s not too triggering, Theripmorph has a powerful post on being anorexic here:

    One of the things she discusses is the compliments, and the way that, as she said, “The more I am dying, the more you celebrate me. You are my enemy.”

    There is also a really compelling bit that gets to more of the health question, which I will quote at length:

    “I thought about the fact that people become hysterical about the ‘public health crisis’ of over-eating or ‘the obesity epidemic’ when in fact, it’s the anorexics and bulimics who are a complete and immediate hazard to others: people with no blood sugar, impaired memory and concentration, psychotic mood swings and a strong likelihood of passing out if they try to move at all driving cars at high speeds on crowded roads, talking to fellow human beings, being responsible for anything or anyone at all? We are a whole lot more dangerous to others than a person gaining weight. We don’t panic about that, as a culture, though. Hell, no. We don’t even have the conversation. A bunch of pornified sexbots causing car accidents, accidentally burning down their houses, performing badly at work, neglecting their children or animals, destroying themselves and their relationships? No problem (‘Dude, she may have just fainted and plowed her SUV into a playground, but she’s hot’). A fat woman? Call the public health police: the world is coming to an end and it is her fault.

    “I thought about the many men I know who deny the patriarchal system’s dynamics of sexual competition between women even as they are benefiting directly from them and making damn sure they happen.

    “I thought about the many women I know who deny their behavior is affected by these dynamics, even as they are busily performing them.

    “I thought about the women and men I know who make long, impassioned arguments about desire, about how it is prudish or hairy-legged or something (I’m never quite sure what) to challenge the sacrosanct leanings of lust, to question the internalized socialization of beauty standards and their consequences to real people, to require justice even as we allow for individual quirks of connection, to presume that our quirks are, in fact, neither sacrosanct or nor happening in a vacuum.

    “I thought about scraping it all out, scraping it clean. Disappearing it all in the white heat of burning shrinkage, a star imploding, because it works, to a degree, to numb the whole mess.”

  51. 50
    Elkins says:

    Wow. That was an unbelievably powerful piece of writing. Thanks for linking to it, Ruth.

  52. 51
    j says:

    Kaija mentioned way upthread (#25) that people are surprised to hear that she weighs 160 lbs, even though she is 5’10”. I’ve noticed the same thing — that many people seem to assume that for a woman to be attractive, she must weigh 125 (or sometimes 120), regardless of height or body type.

    Something I noticed about the graphic novel is that Lay’s drawing style is decidedly “idealized” in the thin direction when she is satisfied with her body. For contrast, see e.g. Alison Bechdel, whose characters’ bodies look biomechanically plausible pretty much all the time. I didn’t measure with a ruler, but by eye, the ratio of Lay’s ankle, waist, and even shoulders to her height looks too small even for a thin woman. (see especially the cover page and the one excerpted in Amp’s post). When she is too heavy for her own satisfaction, however, she looks relatively realistic.

    Regarding character development: Does Lay have anything in her life aside from her weight loss concerns? A boyfriend, ex-husband, and cartoonist job drop in for about one panel each. Her life seems totally controlled by her efforts at weight-loss: hypnotist, trainer, shopping for the right foods, eating the right foods, refusing the wrong foods. I mention this because on p. 16 of the pdf excerpt, she says, “After even a day of this [calorie restriction] I feel a great sense of empowerment because I know I’ll see and feel results within a week.” Isn’t dieting in order to maintain a sense of control over your life usually called anorexia? She associates her dieting habits with “maturity”, “diligence”, and “honesty”, suggesting that being fat or spending one’s brainpower on something other than calorie counting makes one childish, lazy, and a liar. I’m, uh, not sure I’m totally on board with that. On top of all this, she openly suggests that the reader should try her plan. The only modification she can think of is that *maybe* the reader might prefer her 1350 calories in the form of 3 meals rather than a parade of small snacks.

    Lay’s sudden shifts in drawing style and the apparent disconnect between her character’s protestations of happiness and anxieties over food make me wonder (perhaps overoptimistically) whether Lay is setting her character up as an unreliable narrator, and later in the book she will reconcile with herself and realize that the 1350 calorie thing isn’t really making her happy. Or we’ll get *some* hint that Lay isn’t totally in the tank for her character-self. That would make the difference between a case study in delusion and a halfway interesting narrative.

  53. 52
    cmh says:

    Muscle doesn’t weigh more than fat. I have to say it just for the record. Not only is it a huge pet peeve and it is wrong. Muscle is more dense so takes up less space than fat but 5 lbs of fat and 5 lbs of muscle are still 5 lbs. Also BMI is ridiculous.. only bf percentage has any meaning and even that has a relative +/- margin of error depending on the method.

  54. 53
    Ampersand says:

    CMH, by your logic, bowling balls don’t weigh more than feathers, since 100 pounds of bowling balls is equal in weight to 100 pounds of feathers.

    In English, when people say “muscle weighs more than fat,” they mean if volume is held equal. “Muscle weighs more than fat” is another way fo saying “muscle is denser than fat.”

  55. 54
    Reinder Dijkhuis says:

    I’ve just dug up Lay’s old book “Joy Ride” which has a long story in it about an obese girl in the future, and the ex-pop star who “rides” her body to provide it with the will power to lose weight. It’s… interesting in the light of this new book to see that the theme of fat has been cropping up in this way for some time, and that then, as now, Lay tended to psychoanalyse fat (the girl is fat because she wants to be unattractive to her uncle, who abused her, see?). But then, at least, Lay showed an awareness of the social pressures that made people want to be thin – the background of the story involves a Health Police that enforces a ban on obesity and smoking, apart from certain enclaves that are outside its reach.

    Anyone who’s read the book, does Lay psychoanalyze her present thin state like she does with her youthful fat state in the beginning of the sample chapter?

  56. 55
    Susan says:

    In some sense this whole thing is kind of trivial. Ms. Lay, for reasons of her own, decided to re-shape her body in ways which may not have been in the interest of her long-term good health, but she’s hardly the first person to do that. (Extreme body-builders come to mind here, along with athletes who take steroids, and any number of other people.)

    Then she decided, for whatever reason, to write a book about it. Again, no big news.

    But all this is one more brick in a not-very-healthy wall, especially considering the way she has drawn herself in her new skinny incarnation. The picture Amp has given us has her drawn with an ankle thinner than the bone itself must be, for example. (If her leg really looked like this she would be unable to stand up, let alone walk.) And so forth. And all this is set forth as an ideal to strive for.

    No one knows what “causes” anorexia, but most people think that visual examples like these are at least part of the influence that pushes young women (it’s almost always women) towards this kind of unhealthy behavior.

    Did Joe Camel persuade some teenagers to light up that first cigarette? No one can possibly know the answer to that question. And I think of course that with some (very minimal) restrictions Ms. Lay has a right to publish any book at all which says anything at all and is illustrated as she chooses. But I cannot think this particular book a good thing.

  57. 56
    Schala says:

    Yeah I watched the pdf and her proportions make no sense *even* if she had been using tight-lacing corsetry. Her waist seems to be basically half the size of her hips, but her bust is noticeably smaller (along with shoulders).

    You can reduce your waist by doing what she did, but she outright reduced her bone build image-wise. I don’t think we have this kind of technology available.

  58. 57
    Ampersand says:

    Her style is cartoony, not realistic, so I think it’s mistaken to critique the proportions she draws in. She’s drawing a cartoony caricature of “extremely thin and attractive woman,” not a anatomically realistic diagram. The cartoon communicates what it was meant to communicate, so I think it works as a cartoon.

    Which isn’t to deny that the graphic novel isn’t very problematic in other ways, discussed above. But that the proportions aren’t realistic isn’t a fair criticism, in my opinion.

  59. 58
    Schala says:

    Well, I’ve seen different drawing style. A particular shojo drawing style, like the author of Alichino, has men and women seemingly looking the same, save for breasts and clothes. Their face, their skin texture, everything else looks the same.

    Then I watch a shonen anime (Kiddy Grade) and all non-cast men (at best support characters) are drawn with more realistic (non-round anime-cute eyes), but with a body twice the width of the female protagonist, giving them measurements that would probably reach the 100 inches at least bust and hips, and they’re not fat either, or of colossal height.

    But both of those are fiction and don’t even pretend to represent reality, while this cartoonist does in a way. She says it represents her weight loss in the real world. I think it matters a bit more especially when intending to market a book about weight loss.

    Having a Barbiesque WHR (about 0.5) isn’t realist, and selling that image to the public, even with the caveat that drawings are not meant to be realist, is bound to have the effect of people imagining her to be THAT thin, and a successful calorie-counting thingy that she does to result in a body THAT small. Since that person exists in the real world, not only some fictional universe.

    Most people don’t pay attention to the small print.

  60. 59
    Original Lee says:

    I’m 5’10”, and the last time I weighed 125 lbs. was in graduate school, after having had salmonella. I weighed 120 in high school, but I was extremely active and didn’t eat much (mostly because I was too busy to stop and have a proper meal). I feel best when my weight is around 150 lbs., but that’s just me. I think Lay may have issues with getting older, not just with obesity, because in our culture we tend to associate skinny with young.

    BTW, Schala, if you are bothered by how hard it is to gain weight, it is possible that your body is not producing digestive/metabolic enzymes in the correct proportions. My cousin had an incredibly hard time gaining weight, and it turned out that her body has underproducing one of the enzymes that helps digest either fat or protein (I’m not remembering exactly what it was), and she now takes a pill before every meal that helps her with this. She has gained 15 lbs. in the 3 years since she started taking these pills and looks and feels much better, and she’s not getting sick as often.

  61. 60
    Schala says:

    Well my size has not caused me to get sick more often. I’m actually quite resilient. We’re almost done with winter and I haven’t caught a cold, and that’s normal for me. I have some 200 coworkers I share space with, so its not like I don’t get near enough people to catch it either.

    It may be a metabolic issue, but none of my doctors pointed to any issue there. Maybe they simply haven’t looked? If anything, taking my hormones sublingally 3 weeks out of 4 has made me gain weight. So I’m grateful if I can reach a decent (as in, within the healthy range) BMI through this. I doubt I’d get much higher than 18.5~19.5 though, considering my build is very small (bones and muscles).

  62. 61
    Kate L. says:

    I’m currently in the throws of the weight loss game and I am bothered by how much of my mental energy it takes. It is appropriate for me to try to lose some weight. I’m 5’6″ and weigh 225 lbs. This is too much for me. I feel better at anywhere from 150-170lbs. I’m doing all the right things – getting into healthy routines with regard to working out, trying to eat foods that are better for me and keep an eye on my overall calorie intake, etc. My goals are reasonable – I”m hoping for 5 lbs per month over the course of the year which will total 60 lbs and then re-evaluate. I’m doing it for myself, not anyone else, I’m trying to get into better habits regarding fruits and veggies and whole grains and get into an exercise habit. All of which are things that will likely have a positive impact on my overall health and how I feel.

    But it is mentally and emotionally taxing. I hate the fact that I think about food so frequently – that I’m constantly thinking about what I should and shouldn’t eat and that most of my positive and negative reactions stem from whether or not I was “good” today or “bad”. I guess my point is that even when trying to lose weight *is* likely to be good for your health, and even when you go about it with reasonable expectations and creating habits that are overall good for you, it’s still a fucked up experience largely because I’ve internalized society’s fucked up beliefs about health and thinness.

    I honestly feel like I’m borderline obsessive about it (in the sense of how much I think about the impact that everything I do – from how much water I drink to how much sleep I get) and THAT doesn’t feel good, but I also know it’s necessary to actually lose the weight.

    Craziness all around.

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  64. 62
    acm says:

    wow, I’m like 5’2” and weigh 165 pounds and I consider myself pretty normal (certainly capable of getting compliments!). but I remember when I was discussing some short-term medicine with my doctor and she said there were two approaches, depending on whether you were overweight or normal, and from my weight she presumed I’d need the first approach, but the specialist took one look at me and scoffed at that notion. somehow my doctor couldn’t see past the numbers to the fact that she was looking at a fit and healthy person.

    sure, in highschool I weighed 115 or something, but I’m 30 years older, get *much* more exercise (including a typical urban lifestyle of walking and stairs), and am just built totally differently. worrying about numbers at all just makes people nuts… [if I weighed 115 now, I’d look like a concentration camp victim! bone mass, people! muscle!]

  65. 63
    wriggles says:

    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.

    You can either change your body, or change your thinking.

    The stories and information in these pages may help you to find the courage to lose old habits and make new, healthy ones.

    The above is not a directive, I feel I’ve done this by rejecting the ‘insane aesthetic’.

    She ‘should’ make whatever choice she wants and yes, it is her fault, she’s a grown woman, she’s made her bed, she can lie in it, I don’t think there’s any need to patronize her.

  66. 64
    RFS says:

    I was about to comment, on this thread, that I believe the table presented on the original post to be quite tendentious. I had no proof in this respect — but the information that a BMI of 39 kg/m² (borderline severely obese) confers fewer health risks than a BMI only slightly below the “normal range” quite, um… It just didn’t sound right. From memory I could aduce excerpts of articles I read a while ago with many diverse research teams expressing views that were sometimes antithetical on which BMIs, all other things equal, best represent the healthiest range. The data on this matter, I believe, vary as much as there are articles and different teams involved in that research.

    I looked in Google for the terms BMI mortality, and the first results page presents this study:

    This large study found optimum body mass indexes to be between 23.5 and 24.9 for men and 22.0 and 23.4 for women. As body mass index increased, risk of death increased. Men and women, with body mass indexes of 40.0 or higher, increased the risk of death by 250% and 200% respectively. In contrast, underweight men and women, with body mass indexes of 18.5 or lower, increased the risk by 26% and 36% respectively.

  67. 65
    Susanne says:

    But AGAIN, there is more to health than simply life expectancy.

  68. 66
    Ampersand says:

    RFS, that study isn’t the best one; for one thing, it didn’t weigh participants. Instead, it asked them to self-report their weight, and what their weight a year ago was. This is a problem because “…self-reported heights and weights… can make the overweight category look riskier than it really is (because heavy people tend to lie about their weight).”

    (Quoted from an article in Scientific American, which I highly recommend reading: pdf link).

    A more recent study, published in JAMA, used a better data source — better both in how accurate its measurements were, and in how recent the data is (which is important, because mortality from conditions associated with higher weights have been plummeting). Their results were clear: “overweight” people live longer, on average, than “normal” weight people.

  69. 67
    CassandraSays says:

    Agreed on all counts. Dammit she used to be so smart and funny, it’s sad to see her fall into this mental trap.

    Also Daisy is right – the pats on the back one gets for being conventionally attractive will eventually stop due to ageing anyway. No one is “hot” forever.

    The upsetting thing about this for me is that this is basically a pro-ana book, and apparently the publisher sees nothing wrong with that. I’m all for good nutrition and mindful eating and have the fridge full of organic produce to prove it, but if a person is hungry all the time then they simply are not eating enough. Not to mention that the diet she describes isn’t even nutritionally sound – sugary coffee is not a vital food group. If all your nutritional needs are already being met then fine, have the coffee if you like the way it tastes, but it’s not a viable substitute for actual food.

    Seriously, this woman counts the calories in TEA in this book. How did any publisher think that it was a good idea to print this?

  70. 68
    meerkat says:

    And here I thought that if I miraculously lost 80 pounds for a weight of 160, I would finally be acceptable! I guess not!

    Pointing out that the comic author’s starting BMI is totally awesome and healthy is leaving me with a thrown-under-the-bus feeling, because that would be my super awesome ideal target weight in a fantasy world where I devote my entire existence to dieting.

  71. 69
    piny says:

    Sorry, mk–I know I contributed to that, myself. (For what it’s worth, I’m an inch taller than Fry and (lessee) sixty-five pounds heavier, which makes me officially not thin enough.)

    It was hard when writing about this to keep the different standards straight: there’s healthy as in nothing more than active and well-nourished, healthy weight per the BMI, and healthy by Fry’s own standards, which don’t seem to quite track the BMI. Sensible and natural yet alien to us all, “conservative” to put it mildly, and “off-kilter” to put it politely.

    When I still had the body of a teenage boy, at least twenty pounds lighter and far more densely packed, I confessed to a friend that I was starting to feel fat. He responded with, “Not fat! YOU ARE NOT FAT! Not by any stretch of the imagination! Not fat! God.” And then he ordered me another orange ricky, and now I pull out that memory whenever I start feeling a little bit off-kilter. Because I am not a teenage boy, and don’t need to look like one.

    Some of the same rhetorical strategy is at work here: this woman seems to have a dysmorphic attitude towards thinness. One way of dealing with that is to point out that she really is unusually thin, and was slender before she undertook her slimming odyssey.

    Of course, it’s hard to do that and keep underlining the corollary: it’s okay to not be thin. So I’m sorry if I came off as fatphobic. It wasn’t my intention to imply otherwise.

  72. 70
    Schala says:

    Like I said somewhere else before, when I was seen as male, I was repeatedly told to eat more, get more muscles, be less skinny etc. But once I transitioned? Few people thought there was anything wrong with my skinnyness.

    There is a discrepancy between men and women whereas the point where one is considered fat by peers. The point where men are told they are fat, it’s readily visible (beer belly etc), the point where women are told they are fat, it’s before it’s readily visible (looks healthy).

    Men are expected to be fit and expected to naturally want a BMI no lower than 21-22. Any lower and “You should eat more” messages come fast.

    Women at 18-19 BMI are barely considered too thin, or not at all. Women are expected to want a BMI no higher than 23-24, and even approaching it, will be told they are fat, should diet, etc.

    My mother attained about 125 lbs for 5’2″, which is slightly big for her frame (she’s got a small build like me), and although that puts her right in the middle of healthy weight (shy of 23 BMI), she thought she was fat.

    I think the book is simply reflecting what society already tells us. Which is usually negative. It seems society likes to hear its own echo, hence why the book was considered to be a good topic to sell for.


  74. Pingback: Sociological Images » FRAMING WEIGHT WATCHING

  75. 71
    Stef says:

    I am a size-acceptance advocate / fat activist who has always been a big fan of Carol Lay, precisely because her Story Minute cartoon series often turned traditional assumptions inside out. I feel miserable that she has now written a diet book that reinforces so many traditional assumptions about fat and thin bodies:
    –only very thin bodies can be healthy
    –only very thin bodies can be attractive
    –it’s healthy to be hypervigilant about your eating and exercise
    –if you are non-thin, you are unhealthy even if you enjoy a variety of foods, eat until you are satisfied, and enjoy moving your body in a variety of ways

    That said, I do have a bit of an issue with the word “Should” in the title of this post. I don’t think the answer to the cultural message “Women should be thin” and “Women should lose weight” is to substitute it with another “should”—”Women should not want to lose weight.” It’s especially problematic to tell women what we should want, because in my experience—both of my own wants and of observing the wants of a lot of other women struggling with size-acceptance—the wanting is the hardest thing to transform. I have chosen not to engage in deliberate weight change behavior for many years now but I still sometimes “want” to lose weight. I know to reject the notion that wanting to lose weight on some level means I’m a bad fat activist. But a lot of people don’t know that, and think that if they want to, that means they are failing at size-acceptance and the community will reject them. Sometimes that drives them right back into the arms of the weight-loss industry.

  76. 72
    Karen says:

    How a woman looks have been judged has always been at the whim of society’s changing views of what is “ideal”. Sometimes she needed to look heavier; sometimes she wanted to appear bustier. Studies of peoples all over the world have indicated that what men look for in a woman is the right WHR, not a particular weight.

    My weight was stable until around age 30. I didn’t think there was any problem with being tiny (and tiny I was, at 5’1″ and 95 pounds – and no, I didn’t have an ED; I ate anything I pleased – and I did with gusto). Sure, I had trouble staying warm, and I got dizzy every time I stood up – but those are just annoyances, not anything to be concerned about, right?

    Only after I had major surgery and started packing pounds on did I get compliments. Sure, before I gained weight some women were *envious*, but for “boy, how good you look!’ responses I needed some more meat on my bones (and color in my cheeks). One person actually had thought I was dying of cancer!

    But there are limits to what my body can comfortably handle, and it’s at a lower number than for most people. At my highest I was 163, and it was becoming a problem.

    In the past year, I have been watching what I eat and exercising more, and I’ve lost 22 pounds. My knees thank me, I snore less, and I no longer have reflux. Do I want to be 95 pounds again? Good lord, no! Even if I could get down there again (an idea that is unlikely for me at age 47) I see now that it wasn’t right for me, and it wasn’t the weight where I looked the most “smokin’ hot” (that’s the weight I’m shooting for, which is 125).

    One thing I’ve always had, though, regardless of my weight, is a good WHR (.75). So I know that, whatever size I am, I have the right curves to be considered attractive. And isn’t that what we really want – to be thought of as attractive?

  77. 73
    Kelly says:

    You know, I posted a few comments on my blog about Carol Lay’s book months ago – but I was so upset and frustrated by the utter FAIL of it, I never revisited it. So I wanted to drop in and thank you for your detailed and informed post. I read in full the pdf you linked to here and it is so much worse than I even realized.

    At the end of the day I am happy for Carol Lay if she is happy in her body, but it is incredibly disgusting and irresponsible of her to foist this crap onto other people – especially young women (and increasingly more young men) that are dealing with eating disorders. There was so much to trigger in just that pdf…ugh. I just don’t have words.

    Also, while as an artist and writer myself, I understand the “funny bit” with George Clooney and “ho ho ho! isn’t that funny!” it really articulates what a sad little life she actually has. There is something wrong with you deep inside if you would pass up a breakfast date (or nightcap) with your fantasy man, because he brought something unhealthy to eat. That right there (among many other things she illustrates) proves that she has an eating disorder and a broken relationship with food (and I speak as someone who admits to having one myself – not as someone who is judging her).

    There are so many instances of this in her book – from acknowledging that she thinks about food all day (but yay – exercise helps me think about it less!), to her best sign that she is getting too heavy is that her clothes start to pinch/rip/tear. I have news for you honey – you have to listen to YOUR BODY, not your clothes.

    The compliments thing is painful to read. In this culture pretty and thin is valued over just about everything it’s true, and it can be hurtful to exist in the world and not be those things, but at 50 years old, a funny talented woman like Lay should have learned that there are other wonderful things to be complimented about that don’t have to do with her physical looks. And as others have already mentioned – what is she going to do as she ages? When other things that she cannot control via calorie restriction start happening to her body? I can only imagine. Hopefully we don’t get a book about that.

    I certainly don’t know the specifics of Carol Lay’s life, but I have to wonder if it’s entirely a coincidence that her marriage broke up around the time that she was at her thinnest weight…a weight she hadn’t seen since high school. The kind of obsession she details in this book…I don’t know how that could NOT be damaging to a relationship. At the end of the day a person and being happy with themselves is more important than sacrificing for a relationship, but the failure to even address that those things might be related considering the timeline is a bit short sighted I think.

    Also, the fact that she draws herself as skin and bones at 117.5 pounds, and that her friend said at that weight her body was eating her own muscle, but that at 124 pounds – less than 7 pounds heavier she’s the perfect weight? I mean, talk about body dysmorphia.

    Lastly, someone said earlier in the comments that there are no photographs and that the drawings are possibly a skewed sense of image. I could not agree more. That alone, forgetting all the other crap, should prevent this from being able to be a “diet book”. Carol Lay’s mental image of herself – and the way she relays it to us visually is completely subjective to her own mind. None of this is fact…or even reality. It’s one woman’s sense of her own reality – which judging from what I read, is horribly skewed and damaged.

    I’m ashamed of Carol Lay – I really am. I hope that she gets some help (I do think she needs it), but most importantly, I hope that this book does not get into the hands of people that it will surely hurt…and that if it does, they get the help they need.

  78. 74
    Jen says:

    I just found your site by googling my weight after seeing that I am indeed in the overweight BMI category while at my OBGYN last week, and I am so so psyched that you are FEMINIST!!

    After my visit I did my usual round of “I’ve gained 20 lbs over college! I’m worthless! I hate my life! No one will ever love me because I’m faaaat.” And then predictably on to “You’re the worst feminist ever! How can you preach to your friends about freeing their minds from the social matrix when you’re living it!! (Fatass.) Shut up! You’ll never be published, you’re just another dumb liberal with white guilt and a chip on her shoulder in the shape of a vagina, you suuuuuuuuck.”

    And then finally, like a drunk with a bad hangover, I finally do the only thing that will actually work to fix it (last.) Drink more liquor. Or in this case, look at pictures of beautiful women my size (5’6 170 lbs now) and read blogs like yours, for people with common sense. Thank you for medicating my colonization, even for a few minutes.

  79. 75
    Sarah says:

    I’m a 22 year old girl, 5’9″, 125 lb. I don’t have the healthiest diet and admittedly, my lifestyle is pretty sedentary, though I’ve been trying to change that lately. This is just a natural weight for me and somehow I don’t look extremely thin.

    Everyone is built differently. Though you’d expect me to be a stick at this weight and height, I’m not because I’m short waisted and carry all my weight around my midsection—which is unhealthy. So I almost have to be underweight to avoid the health risks associated with a larger midsection. At 125, I still have no waist and look very bloated because there is no space for a slender waist when my hip bone and my rib cage are so close together. Imagine my frustration.

    So while it sounds like maybe Carol Lay has unreasonable standards of beauty, there’s still a chance she has an unfortunate body structure like me. Though I do understand your concern because 125 at 5’9″ sounds almost like one of those alarmingly skinny runway models. It makes no sense when I look at a girl much shorter than me who weighs the same as me and she looks SO much skinner. But it’s all about how/where you carry the weight.

  80. 76
    jac says:

    Logically the answer is no.

    However I too am 5’9 I weighed 170 and I’m now down to 160 I still want to lose 30 pounds (though I’d probably be happy with another 10 to get to my pre-college weight) now I don’t understand why she wants to be under weight. My UGW is 130 which will put me at the lower end of the healthy weight block (but still within it). I think that with the way we view women these days it’s natural to want to be skinny.

    Even though I am still healthy from a medical standpoint I feel kinda chunky.
    Since I have gone on this diet every one that I know has said “oh you look fine” but I don’t want to look fine. I want to look FABULOUS.

    Don’t you?