So suppose you do lose that weight …

I mentioned recently that I had been given a prescription for medicine that has for many a welcome side-effect: weight loss. One of the interesting things about experiencing the loss is that you can be left with your obviously untenable old beliefs, along with some scary beliefs in something like magic that become more visible. I think that if I mentioned them all, I might sketch a picture of myself that I’d soon regret putting on the web. So I’ll mention a few, and invite others to join in with their own examples, if they want.

One I knew about, but I saw again how clearly false it is. This is the belief that if I just lost five pounds, I’d be happy. According to quite a few women at the central APA, this is a very common belief, and all of us with it know it is false. There I was, two weeks and five pounds after I started, not feeling any happier at all.

I have wondered if we do really believe that. Perhaps we believe instead that our body shape is really bad, and any loss would be good. But I don’t really think so. I think we tend to believe the false version. That seems to leave us in the paradoxical position of admitting a belief of the form “I believe that P though it is not true.” In fact, the belief may not be as paradoxical as it seems. It may be that we have mistakenly thought of our minds on the model of the revisable essay, with assertions that are eventually integrated into a consistent whole. But in fact, our minds might be more like an old sewing basket, with bits of fabric saved though they are probably useless. (What do you think?)

Then there are the magical beliefs, as I think of them. At least there are out of touch with the way the world actually works. One might be, “after a weekend in New Orleans, I will have gained the whole 15 pounds back.” Or even, it could happen that the weight comes back some night when I’m asleep.

The thing that is remarkable about these magical beliefs it that they probably don’t exist inert in some hidden recess of the mind. They are probably tied in with some behavior and some other beliefs. But it is hard to see how believing that one’s body is so vulnerable to mysterious workings of a magical world would be a very good thing. They may in fact mount up to a not very rational tendency to blame oneself. Clearly, if these changes can happen just out of the blue, one should try to figure out how to avoid them, perhaps by being especially good and forgoing desert. Or whatever.

Another big category of magical beliefs for me concerns clothes. But I’m going to stop now and see if anyone else wants to add some examples.

17 thoughts on “So suppose you do lose that weight …

  1. I recommend reading Samantha Brennan’s and Tracie Isaac’s blog: fit, feminist, and fifty. I also throw content that way from time to time. They address this sort of stuff.

  2. Shaywelch, I was just yesterday going over the blog, which I really like a great deal.

    I think that, oddly enough, in this post I’m really more interested in beliefs than in weight, though the title hardly indicates that. I’ve maintained for some time that Hume’s first book of the Treatise is inconsistent, and so the loops commentators go through to make him consistent supposes a model of the mind that he would reject. This is not popular work, to say the least. But inconsistency seems really important.

  3. I’ll tell ya something: I lost weight. I got thyroid pills because, as it turned out, I had a medical problem. And since I lost weight–starting in spring 2010, and having kept it off–I have been happy as a clam. For the first time in my life–with the exception of a few months as an undergraduate when I starved myself–I am not fat. To me this is amazing.

    I don’t think these beliefs about what would improve one’s life are in the least bit magical. The crass goods that everyone wants are what makes for the Good Life: not being fat, having money, having social status, having a nice house and material goods. That’s it.

    The Romantic view is that you get all these goodies and they turn to ashes in your mouth. Bullshit. I got them and like them. I can’t imagine not likeing them or wanting anything else. What’s the problem? And I repeat, after a life of fat, being non-fat is just plain fantastic!

  4. Harriet, is it ok that I have a total internet crush on you? Thank you for existing.

    Every once in a while you overstate, even by my standards. (You can’t imagine wanting ANYTHING else? Really?) but you say important things that I am sick of hearing everyone evade and fetishize and romantize away.

  5. Harriet, I didn’t really label the 5 lb belief as magical; it seems to me just wrong. 30 or 40 lbs might be another matter.

    To be frank, right now there are so many problems in my life and those of a dear family member, I find it hard to imagine being happy as a clam. Which is not at all to say that I am miserable.

  6. A year or so ago I was prescribed a medication for depression that had the side-effect of weight-loss. I lost a stone in a month, becoming ‘the correct weight for my size’. A couple of people commented on how I had lost weight, how I looked ‘better’, etc.

    I felt no different, I looked no different to myself: I saw the same person in the mirror and picked out the same faults with her.

    For me, there is no fat / non-fat dichotomy; the body shape that I have been made to feel ashamed of from a very youg age (large breasts and wide hips, with or without a lean, flat stomach) is natural, healthy, and attractive to other people. I’m now working towards accepting this – having learned that losing a stone isn’t any kind of answer to anything.

    I think you’re right that there is a nonsensical ‘just five pounds more’ belief that persists despite its obvious falseness. It’s something that, as feminists, we need to point out and work beyond in order to help each other to be happy.

  7. Rebecca Kukla:

    I’ve suggested previously compiling a Harriet Baber Reader, an anthology of her online wit and wisdom.

    That a philosopher of your prestige seconds my amateurish appreciation of Dr. Baber’s talents confirms the need to add that proposed volume to the treasures of world literature.

  8. Hi Anne, I had a housemate who once, while hanging out the washing, remarked “there is something wrong with our washing machine, it seems to have shrunk all my clothes again”. I pointed out (in the nicest possible way of course), that the four other people living in the house had not experienced any clothes shrinking but she was having none of it – that pesky washing machine had it in for her and her clothes! Does that count as a magical belief about clothes?

  9. Faulty reasoning: a great story and a good example of what I had in mind.

  10. swallerstein: Maybe we should co-edit it! The world needs more access to Harriet.

  11. Rebecca:

    It would be an honor to work with you.

    I suspect that Harriet already knows that she has writing talent and that she has a special voice that cuts through received wisdom and what most take for granted or pretend that they take for granted.

    I also suspect that Harriet has decided exactly how much energy she wants to dedicate to letting the world hear her voice.

    However, perhaps if enough of us let her know how much we appreciate and enjoy her writing, Harriet might go a step or two (not a marathon) towards letting us have more access to her thoughts, maybe through blogging for example or short articles or a few aphorisms.

    I don’t want to pressure her and so it’s probably best to let it all brew for a while and come back to it in a while.

  12. You seem to predicate the curiosity of your feelings (i.e. of anxiety vis-a-vis weight and food) on the fact they don’t conform with your so-called conscious reason. To try and explain this mental disjuncture (between what you reason and what you are thinking/feeling) you attempt to tie this to the the reason of your prior self; that your previous reason has some form of ‘sticking-power’ and thusly distorts your present reason.

    If it’s not apparent already, this account holds an untenable notion of ‘reason’ and the ‘self’. Persons are not disembodied thinkers who impartially subject all thought and action to Kant’s so-called ‘tribubal of reason’ and act and think in direct respect to the outcome of that process. We are complex and in part manifestly unreasoned beings who must struggle through the constraints that naturalised assumptions, prevailing language, and other socialised attributes place upon us; nevermind the inherently internal complexity of the self (for example, in the case we are concerned with here, biological/natural factors which are patently unreasoned but nevertheless directive of action are very relevant).

    It seems obvious to me your anxiety surrounding weight and food stems from – in large part – societies bearing upon you and its corollary distortion of your expectations and thought-patterns; not from ‘reason’.

  13. Kronstad, interesting remarks! But I don’t see any anxiety in my comments. I do firmly believe that we are not detached, rational beings. A bit of this shows in my comments on Hume.

  14. Thanks for your reply anne :)

    (1) Sorry, I used anxiety as a general descriptor of your stated unreasoned feelings; this is perhaps presumptive of how you experienced them.

    Basically, by ‘anxiety’ I meant patently unreasoned feelings which you self-acknowledged as unreasoned (in the case of food and weight this often manifests in what is, clinically speaking, anxiety).

    If we consider your comment:

    “At least there are out of touch with the way the world actually works. One might be, “after a weekend in New Orleans, I will have gained the whole 15 pounds back.” Or even, it could happen that the weight comes back some night when I’m asleep.”

    Against the first definition of anxiety listed on google:

    1. A feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.
    2. Desire to do something, typically accompanied by unease.

    There is probable applicability here. Though for your other examples it doesn’t fit, you’re right.

    (2) Interesting, if you deny transcendental reason (or our epistemological capacity to access that reason) I find it peculiar that your consideration of the self considers reason exclusively!

  15. Kronstadt, I think our ways of looking at this are incompatible. I certainly didn’t want to say that self is constituted by transcendental reasoning alone, if at all. I also think that, as a matter of empirical psychology, one can entertain irrational thoughts without believing them, so I’m not clear about attaching anxiety to them.

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