Photo by jc.westbrook/Flickr CC
A few days ago, I got caught.
The scene was a McDonald's restaurant on M Street in Washington, D.C, in the middle of a sweltering afternoon. I had an appointment nearby, and I was thirsty. An acquaintance of mine, someone who knew I'd had gastric bypass surgery, stopped me while I waited in line to buy a Diet Coke. "Hey, what are you doing in a McDonald's?" he asked, emphasizing the you and the Mickey-D's. I don't think he bought my explanation, even though I left the joint with a zero-calorie diet drink. He assumed, perhaps, that I had been shamed into changing what I was going to eat in front of him.
The relationship between weight stigma and shame is not terribly well understood, in all probability because it is so layered and recondite. An intense feeling of shame, or self-consciousness, can curtail binge eating. It can also cause it. Shame directly creates stress, which directly hurts your body. When a skinny person like Vogue's Anna Wintour publicly endorses the shaming of fat people, she is essentially suggesting that they inject poison into millions of cells in their bodies. That's what stress hormones do.
I'm angry--embarrassed, shamed, even--by how easily I can kill the junk-food impulse and how helpless almost everyone else seems to be.
Here is one way my relationship with food has changed. Since I'm not capable of overeating (yet--my pouch will grow), I rarely feel shame when I feel a desire for certain foods. My brain and body are thankful for the respite from the shame cycle. In its place I've developed, quite accidentally, what I might call a mindfulness cycle instead. When I go into a McDonald's, even for a soda, the whrrrrrr that characterizes the interactions between my head and my stomach slows down. I notice that I attend very carefully to the surroundings; the mouthwatering scent of greasy French fries, the sizzle of hamburgers. I recognize the scent as a scent and the sound as a sound.
And then, strangely, the desire seems to abate. I am sure that my rewired physiology is implicated somehow; at the moment when I am bombarded with stimuli urging me to EAT, EAT, EAT, my brain is able to compensate quickly with a counter-message: SLOW DOWN, SLOW DOWN, SLOW DOWN. You're not hungry.
This is amazing to me. It tells me something profound about the relationship between food and impulse control. And then it gets me angry. I'm not angry at McDonald's, or at the food-processing industry, or at the food stylists, or even at the marketers per se, although they shouldn't absolve themselves of responsibility. I'm angry--embarrassed, shamed, even--by how easily I can kill the junk-food impulse and how helpless almost everyone else seems to be.
When I was fat, I experienced this mindful consciousness a few times, usually after talk therapy, meditation, hypnosis. I attended to the stimuli, which reduced their effect on me, and was able to resist the temptation. But you can't meditate for hours a day, and the brain quickly reverts to form.
I was skeptical when the nurses at my bariatric surgery center predicted that I would crave healthier foods after the surgery. My skepticism was half warranted. I don't crave healthier foods. When I do crave a particular food item, the craving goes away almost instantly. My body does not inform my executive conscious agent that I will enjoy a thick patty of beef more than a salad. As a result, I can choose a salad; I can choose the burger, too. Normally, the desire to be healthy is overwhelmed by the hard-wired impulse to consume fats, salts, and sugar. When that impulse is gone and the only impulse that remains is salutary, well, you're going to eat healthier, whether you want to or not.
As I've said before, bariatric surgery is not the solution to obesity. But as the only medical and lifestyle intervention that seems to permanently prevent the accumulation of adipose tissue for many people, it tells us something about the nature of the beast. And it provides a path, I think, to a better understanding of the intricate web of connections between our mind and our body.