Have your cake and eat it, too: Heavyweights join anti-diet backlash, fight for acceptance

April 26, 1993|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,Orange County RegisterStaff Writer

OK, America. Some of you have said, "Enough is enough." You've had it. After years of self-denial and inner turmoil, you've decided -- no more diets.

Yes, it's true. An anti-diet movement has men and women loosening their belts and accepting themselves the way they are.

"Dieting does not work," says Ohio psychotherapist Martha Zinger, whose practice includes weight-control counseling.

Studies have consistently shown that roughly 90 percent of the people who diet end up gaining back the weight they lost -- plus some. Mrs. Zinger advises her clients to just say no to dieting.

Dr. David Schlundt, a clinical psychologist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville who has studied weight loss for more than a decade, agrees.

"Dieting is doomed to fail the moment it begins," he says. People should eat well-balanced, low-fat meals and do something active almost every day, he says, but "people should stop dieting."

Yo-yo dieters, whose weight bounces up and down, know exactly what he's talking about.

Cherlynn Williams, a customer service representative who lives in Randallstown, swore off diets after years of trying different ones.

"Right now, I have every diet at my house that there is," she says. "If I lost the weight, it just came back. Why diet? No more." Ms. Williams recently joined 20 women at a modeling session to prepare for the ninth annual Ms. Big and Beautiful pageant -- a local event for large women to be held June 27 at the Inner Harbor's Hyatt Regency.

Many of the session's other participants also have said goodbye to diets.

"I found that it could be a lot more depressing losing weight," says 41-year-old Barbara Johnson, a special education teacher from Baltimore. "People always say how good you look when you are losing weight. When you start gaining weight, they don't say anything, and you feel terrible."

Maintaining self-esteem when you are considered a large person "is a constant struggle," says Erdine Wright, a Glen Burnie woman who attended the session.

Ms. Wright, a 38-year-old correctional officer, says she only began feeling good about herself this year.

Accepting yourself can take time, says Laura Eljaiek, program director for the California-based National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance.

"Once I stopped dieting, I leveled off at my current weight," says Ms. Eljaiek, who says she now weighs about 300 pounds. "Then I had to work on my self-esteem," she says. "[NAAFA advocates] 'Accept yourself,' and be as healthy as you can be at your size."

But counteracting the anti-diet movement is the billion-dollar weight-loss industry, and some physicians who don't think overweight people should accept the status quo.

Weight Watchers, one of the largest and oldest weight-control programs in the country, partly agrees with the anti-diet movement.

"We are aligned in some ways with the anti-diet movement," says Linda Webb, a spokeswoman for the organization. "We have never called this the Weight Watchers diet. That's because diets don't work. We have always called it the Weight Watchers program."

But people should not accept themselves as overweight, Ms. Webb stresses.

"There is an obesity problem in this country, and people should at least attempt the process of modifying what they eat. Obesity is a public health problem. People should not say, 'Oh, I'm not concerned. I'm not going to worry about my weight,' " she says.

The medical profession defines obesity as weighing more than 30 percent of one's "ideal" weight as determined by height and body frame. It is estimated that more than 20 million Americans are obese.

Dr. James Wirth, director of the Eating and Weight Disorders program at Johns Hopkins Hospital, also believes that accepting yourself as overweight may cause problems.

"The goal should be to have a normal weight," he says. "Not to be overweight or underweight. The goal should be not to be constantly preoccupied with food. People with eating disorders are constantly preoccupied with eating food to the point of not being able to do anything else."

Being overweight "can be a social or a health problem for some people," he says. "And if that is the case, then it is trading off one problem for another. If it's not a social or a health problem for them, then it could be OK."

Fat, as an undesirable social condition, is a subject that touches a raw nerve with the NAAFA activists and others who are lobbying to change discrimination laws across the country.

"I'm working with the Maryland Human Relations Commission on that," says Russell F. Williams, an NAAFA board member from Hagerstown.

The commission investigates allegations of discrimination.

"People are being discriminated against because of their weight," says Mr. Williams, who says he weighs 300 pounds. "And the way it stands now, if someone says, 'I think you are fat and your fat is a medical handicap,' then that person can go the commission for help."

But if fat people are fired or not hired because they are perceived to be unsightly, there is no legal recourse.

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