Losing weight. Just as I was thinking it might be a good idea last summer, I stumbled on a possible companion in a used book store in Central Pennsylvania: The Philosopher’s Diet: How to Lose Weight and Change the World. It was written in 1985 by Richard Watson, a Descartes scholar who taught at Washington University for many years and who also wrote books on many topics, from dieting to sex to spelunking. You might worry that a philosopher would take an excessively ponderous or analytical approach to the topic, but he keeps it very simple. First page: “Fat. I presume you want to get rid of it. Then quit eating so much.” He takes an equally direct approach to motivation: “Now some philosophy. Don’t you want to have done something difficult in your life?”
The Philosopher’s Diet may be the only diet book ever written by a philosopher. In a different key entirely, there’s the recent book Fit is a Feminist Issue, by philosophers Samantha Brennan and Tracy Isaacs, but this is more of an anti-diet book. It’s probably the right book for many — it will inspire people to work toward their fitness goals. But what about the much more common preoccupation with just losing weight?
There’s a dualistic tradition of philosophers decrying excessive attention to the body — whether we’re focused on fitness, size, or aesthetics — as if our bodies were just material goods akin to clothes, houses, and cars. But we are bound up with our bodies much more intimately than that. Like Descartes says in the Meditations, I don’t inhabit my body like a captain inhabits a ship. Not only do I feel my parts (or some of them) — which was his point — but our identities are bound up with our bodies and we present ourselves to the world through our bodies.
For reading on the body — especially body size — there’s little choice but to turn away from philosophical fare. Roxane Gay’s book Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body was the first in a series of “fat” memoirs I read after perusing The Philosophers’ Diet. Gay alternates between describing the difficulty of having a large body as inherent and as inflicted by others. It’s hard getting up a flight of stairs, hard feeling the chafing of one’s thighs. On other pages: it’s hard seeing the panic in people’s eyes when you walk down the aisle of an airplane. It’s hard being subjected to constant disapproval.
It’s to an early traumatic experience that Gay traces her transformation from thin girl to very large adult. After she was raped by a group of male friends, she ate and ate, making herself feel safe from male desire. There’s no story of shedding the pounds here, just a dark, turbulent meditation.
The topic of weight is also fraught and painful for Kiese Leamon, author of Heavy, a riveting memoir that mixes an eating narrative with an account of growing up as the son of a strict, loving, literary, demanding, and sometimes-abusive mother. Leamon zigzags between periods of compulsive eating and periods of compulsive exercise and food deprivation, making his way from being a talented black kid in Mississippi to becoming a professor of English at Vassar, and then develops other addictions.
Two other memoirs are more directly and simply about eating. In Born Round, the journalist Frank Bruni recounts living a life of incredible privilege and success, but coping with having a huge appetite for his mother’s fantastic Italian cooking. His weight concerns interfere with his pursuit of a love life — he has a taste for handsome, fit men. And then his relationship with food becomes even more problematic when he takes on the role of restaurant critic for the New York Times.
Bruni wants to be thinner and has no reservation about saying so. The same goes for the journalist Tommy Tomlinson, author of The Elephant in the Room. He eats and eats, thanks to his mother’s wonderful southern cooking, and eventually winds up a size that he profoundly dislikes. There is so much self-hatred in this memoir that one does start longing for the body-positive attitude behind a book like Fit is a Feminist Issue. Can’t we all be more accepting of whatever size body we happen to have?
A show that dares to say yes is the terrific TV series Shrill, based on Lindy West’s memoir of the same name. Never before, I trust, has a sitcom featured so many big actresses (in fantastic clothes), scenes of plus-size pool parties, and large women hopping into bed with sizzling partners. Aidy Byrant plays the part of a woman arriving at self-acceptance to perfection. What fools we all are for caring how much we weigh!
Or are we? It seems like a question that philosophers should dare to broach. Is it a value error to care a lot about one’s body size? What does it say about free will that Watson’s advice (eat less!) is so comically simplistic? Why is it such a challenging undertaking to lose some weight? A philosopher’s reflections would be most welcome, especially if someone dared to write with the candour of the literary memoirists.