I should say that I haven’t always failed. About six years ago I started weighing in each week with female friends at the gym. They were doing Weight Watchers but I never went to any meetings or paid any fees, though I followed the plan by counting all my food points, more or less. Fear of weekly humiliation motivated me to lose about 30 pounds and I have never regained it. The lesson I learned was not about how to eat right, it was about how to eat less. I had been consuming huge portions of healthy food, but have since stopped devouring entire pineapples and bags of oatmeal. Now I eat measured amounts of wheat bran and protein powder and egg whites and cottage cheese (and yesterday there was that pan of coffee-chocolate brownies). Unearned cheat. Oh well.
I became an official member of Weight Watchers last year after gaining about 5 pounds. I needed the discipline of an official weekly weigh-in, though I never expected to attend the meetings. Yet I had moved to a new city and found that I enjoyed the female sociability of the meetings. Sometimes one or two men would be there and I sort of liked them too. It was intriguing to hear different people speak at the meetings, and sometimes even motivating, though I cannot support the ‘self-help’ aspect of this organization. It is informed by Foucauldian governmentality and modes of normalization and all that shit. Still, getting the crustless pumpkin pie recipe was pretty good. So I started counting again and ended up losing about 10 pounds and becoming a lifetime member.
That is when I started to fail and pay the weekly fine for weighing in more than 2 pounds over my goal weight of 125. For I had by then discovered bodybuilding. How I love lifting weights. More about that later. In direct conflict with Weight Watchers principles, my goal was and remains to get bigger, not smaller. Weight Watchers is fundamentally numerical and it is about shrinking in order to become more comfortable in various social situations and to ‘feel better about yourself.’ It is not about having a ripped back or lean abs. By losing fat and gaining muscle I was thwarting the Weight Watchers system and I was punished for it. How ironic!
I therefore decided to add this intriguing experience to my book project. I am currently comparing the ways in which bodybuilding, Weight Watchers, and yoga represent and enforce particular body types and embodied experiences. I have been undertaking this comparison since February and include here some remarks from my Feminist Figure Girl Journal of 14 March 2010:
‘Bodybuilders approach the body as a set of individual parts that should be worked in isolation and made visible as individualities. I train each major muscle group separately, and then focus on muscles within that group. So on leg day I will do sissy squats for quads, and hack squats for hams and so on; I will do sets focusing on abductors and aductors in my thighs. In yoga today the instructor asked us what part of the body we wished to work on, and I thought ‘my traps.’ Then she said to put our hands on that part, and went through asking us to bring our breath to certain parts, moving from feet to shins to thighs to front of pelvis, glutes, lower back, middle back and upper back and so on. She included the face and described each eye separately, the nose, the upper lip and lower lip. It occurred to me that the body is understood to be a unity of muscle groups and parts in Hatha yoga, and that the hands, feet and face are really of little interest to bodybuilders. Actually the feet and hands can be problem areas that thwart muscle growth so you need to wrap ankles and wrists, or wear hooks to do dead lifts (which is exactly what I do). In contrast to both of these systems, Weight Watchers measures the body; its program does not include posing unclothed or examining particular muscle groups or considering flexibility. Numbers, including the size of clothing and report made by the scale, are essential. Weight Watchers is also socially oriented: what will I look like and wear, and what will I eat during certain social occasions? Bodybuilding is also about display, but mainly in particular settings, like the gym or on stage during competitions. In contrast, yoga is about the whole person; it is focused on the ‘self’ and its relationship with the world. Based on my experiences, and before reading any of the copious secondary material published on yoga and bodybuilding, I would characterize yoga as spiritual and for the ‘self,’ Weight Watchers as practical and for a peer group, and bodybuilding as mechanical and for a subcultural group, in that case a group that deliberately defies the norm. In short, actualization versus conformity versus distinction. Right now, I am definitely pursuing distinction.
I recently went to France for a few months and have begun training even harder since my return. I have gained about 5 pounds–hopefully most of it is muscle but I am not too worried for my current goals are to train hard, take the right supplements, and eat clean, without too many cheats. I must nevertheless continue to weigh in at Weight Watchers to retain my lifetime membership. I am starting to embrace failure. I even weighed in while I was in Paris and I paste a narrative of that event below, which I previously posted on facebook:
So I Went to the French Weight Watchers’ Meeting…
21 juin 2010,12h30-13h30, au Hôtel Alexandre, rue d’Austerlitz, Paris
As a life time member of Weight Watchers who has reached her “goal weight”—here I will pause to let subside your overwhelming feeling of admiration for me—I am obliged to weigh in at an official meeting at least once a month. Otherwise I will lose my golden membership card, and perhaps even my golden lock and silver star key chains. And there is no fucking way I’m going to let that happen. So I found a meeting in Paris held on a Monday when the Bibliothèque nationale is closed. Just to state the obvious: Monday mornings are reserved for grocery shopping and going to the post office and yes this is an officially mandated droit des hommes. Arriving at the Hôtel Alexandre with few minutes to spare, I entered the crowded room adjacent to the lobby. It held three rows of plush chairs, aligned without spaces between them, and a small desk at the back where two gray-haired women greeted me, took my 12 Euro fee, weighed me, puzzled over the kilogram to pound conversion, and then said “con-grat-u-la-tions” very slowly in English. I was down 3 pounds. Must be all those healthy French eggs.
I was immediately struck by how different this event was from my regular meeting in my Canadian city, conveniently located in a building near a diner so that I can have a pig-out with my partner afterwards. The Parisian rendez-vous was held in the hastily converted breakfast room of the hotel. We discussed our food temptations while surrounded by juice machines and frosted flakes in those cereal dispensers that deposit a measured amount into your bowl when you twist a handle. I love those. There was only one scale and it was out in the open, not in a separate area designed to make your weight a dirty secret revealed only to the meeting leader. And the women behind the desk repeatedly told me to hurry up because the meeting was about to start. Hello, am I not a paying customer who will do as she pleases? I defiantly slowed my pace.
Once the meeting began, it did not take the form of an Aristotelian-style dialogue engineered by the Weight Watchers leader. In fact, everyone talked at once. You’ve seen French talk shows on television right? So you know what I mean. I nevertheless found what these effusive dieters had to say quite fascinating. Unlike in my town where the mostly plumpish middle-aged women take turns sharing tips about such things as crustless pumpkin pie and splenda-filled muffins or recounting all-you-can-eat buffet horror stories, these plumpish middle-aged women—actually there were two men, one clutched his wife’s hand as if he was participating in a grief support group—addressed three main topics: how much chocolate should one consume? How much cheese with butter? And when should bread be eaten, in the morning, at night, or with all three meals? I was trying to figure out how to yell “how about never!” in French, when the leader firmly noted that it would be both impossible and foolish to avoid these foods; the point was not to have 150 grams of them all at once. This discussion endured for about 40 minutes. I obviously had no contribution to make. When the conversation finally turned to life time membership I piped in, noting that weight lifting was extremely helpful for maintenance. No response. I then stooped to flattery, continuing that I was finding it difficult not to overeat in France because the food here was so good. The leader brightened and asked me what tempted me most. “Tarte au citron!” I shouted. Everyone chuckled and we ended the meeting on a high note, agreeing that I should have a single lemon tart to celebrate my last day in Paris. Oh yeah, baby, that is exactly what I am going to do.