Does Weight Really Matter?

Why local author Kim Brittingham wants you to stop dieting and start loving yourself in a swimsuit—love handles be damned

Three Rivers Press

Any woman who’s ever wasted a moment down the Shore fretting over how she looks in a swimsuit should do herself a favor and read Philly native Kim Brittingham’s new and hilarious memoir, Read My Hips: How I Learned to Love My Body, Ditch Dieting and Live Large (Three Rivers Press, May 2011). While Brittingham strongly denounces dieting, she isn’t suggesting that you hole up with the Ho Hos, either. “The focus needs to be on healthy behaviors, and we need to forget about what that does to the scale,” says Brittingham. “Health is not about looking like an ‘after’ picture in a Xenadrine commercial.”

Agree? Disagree? Weigh in and read my full Q&A with Brittingham below.

Be Well Philly: How did dieting affect your life growing up?

Kim Brittingham: Well, I did a lot of dieting from the time I was a young teenager, and I saw my mother doing it. I think it was a very common thing for women to do. I mean, we even have a program called Weight Watchers. Watching your waist and watching your figure was just something that every woman did, just as a form of maintenance.

BWP: Why did you start dieting?

KB: I first started dieting seriously because I believed that I had a very deformed body. Most of the women in my family are pear-shaped, and so am I. But I was suffering from something called Body Dysmorphia, where you look in the mirror and see something not as it really is. I got a photograph back from the developer one day, a picture my mother took of me in front of our house. I was about 15 years old. And [in the photo] I just saw this incredibly deformed set of hips that, in my mind, ballooned out from my body in an outrageously disproportionate way. So that led me to do something because I could not bear to be seen in public. I wanted to cover these hips.

BWP: When did you realize you were looking at your body in an unhealthy way?

KB: The funny thing is, years later when I was in my 30s and making my first appearance on the Today show, they asked if I could provide photographs of myself at different times in my life. I found that picture that drove me to diet. In my mind, it was always my “fat picture,” the defining, worst picture ever taken in my entire life. As a teenager, I had even taken a black marker and sort of reshaped my hips, re-contoured them with the ink. So here I am, 30-something, and I’m finding this picture with the ink on it, and I decided to see if I could rub [the ink] off. Well, I did, and there was nothing under it.

BWP: Wow.

KB: That was when I realized just how messed up my view of my body was back then. I mean, I had an idea, but that was really shocking.

BWP: How long did it take you to accept yourself as you are and to realize that your body is beautiful?

KB: It’s hard to say how long because it was a very gradual process, but I’d say the better part of 10 years. It’s almost like I did it one body part at a time. I used to be afraid to show my calves because I have very thick, chubby legs. So, eventually, I got over that. Then, I became brave enough to bare my upper arms. There were certain items of clothes I was always afraid to wear. I thought turtlenecks brought out my double chin, and I happen to like turtlenecks because they’re cozy, so now I wear them. But for a long time I felt I had to stick with v-necks and things like that.

BWP: How has your quality of life changed since you’ve come to this acceptance?

KB: I don’t want to sound corny, but I’m so tremendously happy from day to day. Most of my life I was an angst-ridden person who hated her body and every time she stepped out of the house or in front of people, she felt like she was being judged or scrutinized. That may still be true, but it doesn’t matter what people think anymore.

BWP: What would you say to someone who was unhappy or self conscious about his or her body right now?

KB: I think they need to, first of all, step back and look at their body in a way that’s not judgmental. It’s interesting because flesh is just flesh. It only has meaning that we assign to it. And sometimes if you look at parts of your body, they look very similar to other things that we consider beautiful. So, for example, when you have mounds or swells of flesh on your body, a lot of women will say, “Oh God, I have to do something about this little mound of fat under my armpit or on the outside of my hip,” and they obsess over it and see themselves as hideous creatures, but it isn’t that dissimilar to, say, a beautiful hillside, or other things that we would just look upon with delight or think was beautiful in a different context. So I think you have to step back and say, “You know what, it is what it is. It’s not necessarily ugly; it can be beautiful.” I also think we need to shift our focus from worrying about what people outside of us think of us to how we want to experience the time we’re here on the planet.

BWP: That actually brings me to the next question I have for you. You wrote about going to the Jersey Shore in your book, and how freeing it was to finally stop caring about what other people were thinking about you in your bathing suit. Can you talk about what that was like when you finally came to that conclusion; That you could enjoy the beach without being self-conscious?

KB: It was like taking a deep breath. I never really enjoyed the beach itself when I was younger because I was so self-conscious, and when I was able to throw off those chains, I really became a huge fan of the ocean and swimming. And I am just so sad that I missed out on that for so many years. I mean now, I really relish living a block from the ocean and enjoying it in different ways throughout the year and, especially in the summertime, the sensation of the water on my skin. Especially on a really hot day. You know, that first plunge into the water and being carried away by a gentle wave. There are these pleasurable aspects about being on the beach and in the ocean and going back and forth between them, and I wasn’t even aware of those sensations because I was distracted by what I thought other people were thinking about me. I missed [out on] a whole other world.

BWP: How can women, regardless of their weight, stop being self conscious in their swim suits? I think it brings so much angst to so many women at this time of year.

KB: I would say think about the kind of feeling that you want from life. I think we all have dreams and goals, and if you sort of stop and say, “Okay, what is the end result I want from fulfilling that fantasy life for myself? How do I expect to feel?” I think you just need to decide to feel that way already; I don’t think it’s dependent on other people so much as just deciding. And I also think that focusing on doing and contributing to the world outside of you and discovering what your personal passions are. You know, you could even argue that, “Well, my personal passion is fashion, so being a fat person, how can I enjoy that?” Well, you dress the body you already have; you know what I’m saying? There are ways of making your happiness not dependent on the shape of your body fitting somebody else’s ideal.

BWP: A few years ago, you created a fake book with the title Fat is Contagious: How Sitting Next to a Fat Person Can Make You Fat and then you can carried it on New York City buses. What point were you trying to make?

KB: I think that I just wanted people on the bus to stop and think about what it’s like to be the fat person on the bus for a moment. My experience was that people would often say nasty things to me that they wouldn’t dream of saying to somebody else about some other aspect of them. People were very free about criticizing the size or shape of my body, and I guess I just wanted people to pause for a moment and say, “Hey, is what I’m thinking ridiculous?” or “Some of the meaning that I’m assigning to the fact that this person is a large person, how ridiculous might that be?” or “How ridiculous is it that I, on some level, require people to be thin or suffer my wrath?”

BWP: What kind of reactions did you get?

KB: Well, um, different reactions. The surprising thing to me was the number of people that took it seriously. And that is a huge social commentary in itself that people would see a book title that says, “Fat is Contagious,” and suggest that you can catch it by sitting next to a fat person on the bus. I think that says a lot to how gullible we are, especially around weight issues and how overly concerned we may be about it. I mean, there was a girl who saw my book cover, and she picked up her cellphone and called her friend and asked her to look it up on Amazon for her.

BWP: [Laughs] No way.

KB: As if she was taking it seriously! She didn’t realize it was a joke.

BWP: Do you feel like you were stigmatized or mistreated for your weight growing up?

KB: Oh, sure. I think every fat person is stigmatized almost every day of their life.

BWP: Do you still feel some of that today?

KB: Well, I certainly do, but I guess I’m not …I’m not looking for it the way I may have looked for it when I was younger because back then I was afraid of it. But yeah, I have people coming up to me sometimes in stores and calling me names and telling me I should be jogging around the store instead of shopping it, and…

BWP: Wow.

KB: And I’m an ordinary, well-groomed woman shopping, not bothering anybody, and I get attacked for no good reason.

BWP: How do you react to it now? Do you say anything back?

KB: Sometimes I do; it depends on my mood, but I might respond to what they’re saying. Sometimes I’ll ask them what they mean because people will sometimes spout out things that I don’t think they’re really thinking about. I think they’re repeating what other people say. A woman said to me once, “You don’t know when to stop,” as if I don’t know when to stop eating. And she doesn’t know anything about the way I eat now or in the past or anything. So I think I said something to her like, “What do you mean? I don’t know when to stop doing what?” and she wasn’t willing to continue the conversation, of course.

BWP: What do you want thin people to know about people who are overweight?

KB: Well, first of all, I think we kind of assume that every fat person is fat because they eat too much and exercise too little, and that may not be true. It certainly is true some of the time; it’s part of the reason I got fat when I was a younger woman. It’s not true anymore, but I’m still fat. You know, sometimes your body doesn’t lose weight, even if you want it to. It’s not something I’m trying to do, but when I did try, sometimes it just doesn’t work. Not only that, but we can’t know for sure how other things affect our weight. What about food additives? What about the fact that peoples’ bodies are so different? I mean some people…I have a cabinet of liquor downstairs that I can walk past every day and not even think about for months, and yet there are other people we know cannot coexist with that cabinet full of liquor. So people are different; we don’t know how, let’s say for example, how a preservative might affect one person over another. There’s research that if you combine certain amounts of sugar, fat, and salt, certain ratios, when combined, make food as addictive as cocaine to certain people. Fatness has been so oversimplified, and I think that the over-arching assumption is that fat people are gluttons. That’s not true, and even if it was, thin people are gluttons, too. I mean, I would just love for people to have to wear their debt, you know, a dollar a pound, then let’s see who’s pointing at the people taking up too much room, and ask them, “Why did you ring up all that debt? You’re trying to take more than you can afford or have more than you can afford or indulge yourself,” and that’s kind of what people are projecting onto fat people. But we see it all the time in other forms.

BWP: You’ve said before that our cultural obsession with weight loss creates eating disorders. How so?

KB: I think trying to lose weight triggers a lot of psychological stuff. It can trigger feelings of deprivation, it can make us obsess over food in general or specific foods, and I think it can just really mess you up and mess up your relationship with food—make it more important than it needs to be.
I think that once you start feeling deprived, you may end up eating more than you need, eating more of certain foods than you might normally not even want if you weren’t dieting.

BWP: You wrote that “we live in a culture in which the phrase ‘lose weight’ causes a Pavlovian response in almost anyone born with a vagina.” Do you want to talk a little bit more about that, elaborate there?

KB: I think women have been taught for at least a couple of generations now that weight loss and maintaining their weight should be their first concern, and I think we see the evidence of that in the fact that there’s a multi-billion dollar weight-loss industry out there that continues to thrive, despite the fact that they’ve proven that diets have a 98-percent failure rate. We’re seeing a little bit more now with weight loss programs geared towards men, and there’s these terms like “manorexia” starting to emerge, when men are starting to show eating disorders that used to be primarily among women. But, I think historically, weight loss has been something that’s been encouraged in women, and I think to some extent it’s to keep us busy so we don’t interfere in things that are thought to be in the “men’s realm” like politics or career…

BWP: What diets have you tried over the years?

KB: Oh, God. I did Weight Watchers several times. I did Nutrisystem at least twice. I did Richard Simmons’ Deal-A-Meal, lots of self-invented diets … I did a diet for awhile where I just ate pasta with fat-free Italian salad dressing and pretzels dipped in mustard—I invented that one.

BWP: What was the longest you’ve ever stayed on a diet?

KB: I’m guessing, but I think maybe a month.

BWP: Good job, if that was the pretzel diet! Not sure how you could stand that one. So, what is your average daily diet like right now?

KB: Well, I definitely eat better foods. There was a time where I did eat a lot of junk food; that has definitely changed, and it’s mainly because now, as an adult, I’m better educated about food, and I know what goes into it, and I know what good foods can do for your body and for your energy level, so just knowing that I try to put better things in. And I also try to avoid [fast food]… it’s been engineered and it’s got all kinds of gross stuff in it and does gross things to your body. I’m sickened by that now, and there was a time when I would jump for joy to go to McDonald’s. But it grosses me out now, so you will see me eating lots of fruit and nuts; not because I’m trying to be a health food nut, but because that’s what makes me feel good.

BWP: So your message is that women shouldn’t diet, but they should still think about fueling their bodies in a healthy way?

KB: Yeah, I think that the focus needs to be on healthy behaviors, and forget what that does to the scale. It doesn’t matter. I think if everybody relaxes and just focuses on behavior and not results and pounds, we’d all be a lot better off. Especially since a lot of women, when they’re trying to lose weight, they do wacky things with the way they eat; sometimes they narrow, like I did, narrow what they eat to a couple of foods, and then they’re technically malnourished. Sometimes when you’re trying to cut calories, you wind up eating these terrible foods that are chemically engineered. They might not have many calories, but they’re loaded with chemicals, they’re loaded with sugar to compensate for the fact that they have very little fat. And that’s crap you’re putting in your body; that’s not healthy either. Sometimes women end up over-exercising, or they go gung-ho to the gym, and they exhaust themselves, so they end up not going back for another year.

BWP: So, now that you bring it up: What’s your take on exercise?

KB: Well, I do exercise regularly and I love it. I think it’s incredibly important for everybody. I do have issues with a lot of trainers out there that kind of have this elitist attitude that if you can’t do a certain minimum, you’re not worth helping. I remember I got an e-mail once from a woman who was a fitness blogger and, I think, a marathoner, responding to a video blog I posted about starting slow with exercise if that’s what you need to do to get started. And her criticism was that she thought I was being “irresponsible” by encouraging people to start with whatever small amount they could handle as opposed to three days a week a minimum of 30 minutes, or whatever her recommendation was, but there was a minimum. And she said that you will get no physical benefit unless you do this minimum, so it’s irresponsible for me to recommend less.

My take is, maybe you’re not capable of doing 30 minutes of something three times a week. Start where you are; if all you can do is five minutes, that’s five minutes more than you did yesterday, and maybe two months from now, you’ll be able to do it three days a week for 30 minutes. What that women was essentially saying is if you can’t do that minimum right out the door, then you’re not worth helping. It’s like they’re promoting some super-fit master race and everybody else can just die off.

BWP: Everybody has to start somewhere. However, I’m sure you know it’s a little controversial to say, “Don’t look at the scale” because we have so many people in the country that are going to become diabetics and there’s all these health issues that are tied up with being overweight. Do you feel that it is dangerous or unhealthy to encourage women to eat as much as they want or to not care about keeping their weight in a healthy range?

KB: I think it’s dangerous to keep people focused on the scale because we know that diets have a 98 percent failure rate, and what usually happens is after the diet fails people gain back extra weight, so they wind up heavier than they were to begin with. So the longer you keep encouraging people to do that, the more likely it is they’re going to end up fatter down the line. I think people are so afraid to let go of the diet and to throw out the scale. They feel like it’s the only thing keeping them from ballooning to 800 pounds overnight; they’re so afraid to let it go, but I think that we have a much better chance at health by focusing on behavior and not on pounds.

BWP: Agreed.

KB: People do not get that. And meanwhile, the statistics of people getting fatter just keep going up. When are people gonna get this?

BWP: You also write about how we’re built to say, “yes” to food, which is so true; I really believe that. But how do you say “no” in a healthy way? At some point you have to say “no.” You can’t eat every food you come across and feel healthy and live a good life.

KB: Right. Well, I think that if you’re in the habit of listening to your body and not thinking of any food as “off limits,” I think eventually you’re able, you will say, “no” to things like chocolate cake more often than you think you will. Because you’re not conditioned to think that chocolate cake is this fabulous yet terrible thing, this “off limits” thing. I can pass on chocolate cake because maybe I’m not interested in that right now. I actually get cravings for salads. I’ll get cravings for things like granola and yogurt. I really do. And at the same time, I know that chocolate eclairs are also okay. I think I had one chocolate eclair this year instead of feeling like “Oh my God, that’s off limits,” and then I’m buying one a week or something.

BWP: What was it like growing up in Philadelphia?

KB: You know, in some ways I felt kind of isolated because when I lived in Philly. I didn’t have a car, I mean I did for a very shot time, but for the most part I was on SEPTA all the time, and it kind of limited how much of the city I saw so, to me, Philadelphia is my immediate neighborhoods around the houses and apartments where I lived. It’s Bridge and Pratt, it’s parts of Center City where I worked. It was rare for me to sort of venture outside of those areas just because of transportation. So I guess my view of Philly is a little bit limited, and also the fact that we moved around a lot when I was a kid, so Philadelphia to me was also visits to Grandmom’s at Christmas or on Mother’s Day.

BWP: Did you write the book in Philly?

KB: No. I was working in New York for a patent and trademark law firm, and I basically wrote it at lunchtime.

BWP: How often do you visit Philly? Any fun things you like to do when you’re here? Favorite restaurant?

KB: I would say maybe once every six weeks or so for something. You know what’s funny is that when we go there, we go to diners and stuff like that. I really miss Millie’s Luv Inn Diner. That used to be a regular stop, but that closed a few years ago. I miss Millie’s.

BWP: Well, to wrap up, what do you want women to learn from your book?

KB: I’d like them to learn that life is more than your thighs or your stomach. That health is not about looking like an “after” picture in a Xenadrine commercial. There is a lot of self oppression going on in this culture with women and girls, and I would just like women to own their lives a little bit more and give themselves permission to be happy right now. What are you waiting for?