posted by meowser
Earlier this year, as soon as I heard Julia Cameron had a new book out called The Writing Diet, I knew I had to read it. Not, mind you, because I thought it would help me get thin — yeah, right — but because Julia Cameron was once a goddess to me, and the backstory (Cameron gained 40 pounds on psych meds and claims to have lost them with the help of her “write yourself right-sized” methodology) had me curious, in an I-know-it’s-illegal-to-rubberneck-but-I-just-gotta-know kind of way. She and she alone knows the secret of not gaining weight on psych meds? For reals?
As some of you know, I became Officially Fat about 12 years ago, after several years on Zoloft (which didn’t make people — or do I mean men? — fat during the 12-week clinical trials, so it must be Weight Neutral!). That plus as-yet-untreated PCOS multiplied against each other to make me gain about 40% of my body weight. And I might well have gained more had I not eventually been put on metformin. I’ve since discovered that going off antidepressants makes my weight decrease (but also makes me take up permanent residence in the bell jar), and going back on makes it go up again (and knocks the bell jar off). So yes, I’m convinced it’s the drugs — anything that bumps up serotonin bumps up my weight regardless of whether it increases my appetite or not (some drugs do, some don’t, it also varies a lot from person to person, and none of my prior drugs had that effect on me before I recently started Remeron). On the other paw, I’d have to be lacking more than a few crayons in my box not to want to permanently trade in suicidality for a big fat ass. And so on and so on and scoobydoobyblahblah.
And you know what? In the days before that, when I was merely chubby, I’d have been all over this book like, uh, Splenda on strawberries (ptoo!). Cameron’s The Artist’s Way (and later on, The Right to Write) maintained a constant presence at my bedside during those times I was breaking out of creative deep freezes, plus I actually still bought the whole “there’s a size 4 in you waiting to get out” thing. Once I gained the drug weight, of course, I had to cackle madly at the whole concept: If I really did have a size 4 waiting to get out, she had a pretty perverse way of showing it, seeing as I was getting fatter and fatter while eating less and all. But in the old days, the 12-step-fiend days, when I feverishly went to meetings for pretty much every program I “qualified” for (which was almost all of them, other than the ones for alcohol, drugs, gambling, and sex addiction)…yeah, you bet. I’d have thought Julia Cameron had the answer for me.
Now here’s where you atheists get to point and laugh at me and tell me how much smarter you are than I am, because you’d have picked up The Artist’s Way, thumbed through a few pages, muttered, “Godbothering, feh,” and put it back on the shelf. Go ahead, I deserve it. You’re way ahead of me. You would not have fantasized yourself, as I did, being the Young Writer going with Cameron for an inspirational walk in the woods followed by a cup of tea and a slice of her homemade blackberry pie (as she described having done with a Young Writer in The Right to Write), and that she’d think I was just the peachiest, and that would make me go on an unprecedented creative tear. You know better than that, of course. But maybe, maybe there’s a writer or other creative person somewhere you had a fantasy like that about? Please? (Please tell me I’m not the only total dork out there. There has to be at least ONE more.)
Anyway, the book. I certainly don’t want to buy anything with the word diet in the title (unless it’s something like The Diet Myth, AKA the paperback version of The Obesity Myth, which is a way better name for that book anyhow). I didn’t even want to check it out of the library. Best not to encourage that sort of acquisition, no? Of course, since we have Powell’s Books here (which some wags here call the “Portland Public Library Annex” thanks to the vast selection, long hours, and blase attitude towards browsing), I could have just taken the thing down to the coffeeshop, read it there, and then made it up to them by buying a book I did want. (And yes, I’ll be reviewing that one too, but for now I’ll just say — BUY EET.) But I felt weird about that — what if I spilled my chai on it? — so I waited for a library copy to free up and read it there (at the official library).
In a nutshell (an empty one, of course, so as to spare you the calories), about 80% of this book is the same kind of “sensible” dieting advice you’ve been getting since you were 8 years old (or, in my case, 11 — we started later back then). Food diaries. Twenty-minute walks. Aerobic workout routines. Smart snack substitutions like “a plum instead of Mallomars.” Diet buddies. Keeping trigger foods out of the house. Drinking enough water every day to float a dozen koi in. (Cameron happily describes one follower of her plan saying, “I picture myself washing the calories away” when she drinks water. Hmm, where have I heard that one before?) And of course, the ever popular cut-500-calories-a-day-and-lose-a-pound-a-week. (She also helpfully tells us that most women need 1900 calories a day to maintain their weight, so 1400 is a reasonable goal to shoot for. Gee, thanks.)
All of that is Dieting 101 stuff, really. I have to believe that Cameron’s ideal reader is someone who’s never (or rarely) dieted, or even seriously thought about it much. Certainly not someone who’s spent most of her life dieting up to the next weight category, a concept that seems utterly lost on Cameron. (She also doesn’t seem too familiar with the concept of plateaus, in which you have to keep cutting or wasting more calories to keep losing, or often, even having to keep cutting or wasting more of them just to maintain lost weight, which is the fate of those of us whose bodies simply don’t want to be thin.)
There are a few things Cameron does right. She doesn’t, for example, advocate shooting for model-thinness if that’s not your natural shape (she even has chapters on the folly of trying to emulate super-slim celebrities, and praises Tyra Banks for being proud of her 161-pound body). “Many of us,” she says, “found that when we thought about it, we preferred a body type that was not as skinny as the tabloid norm.” She more or less advises people to, if not throw away their scales, at least to use them as little as possible (she advocates keeping it under the bed). And at least she doesn’t pretend that her diet plan has jackall to do with “health” or that she’s trying to single-handedly “fight obesity.” I don’t think Cameron even uses the word “obesity” in this book. Her complaints to her psychiatrist about her medication-related weight gain seem entirely to do with vanity, and she as much as admits it. I admire that, in a way; I wish more diet-heads would cop to what they’re really after.
But oy, the mentality. Oy. (The first and last letters of “obesity”!) Where to start? Firstly, Cameron advises that people do what she advocated in The Artist’s Way — morning pages, meaning you get up early and write out three longhand pages of whatever’s on your mind. Supposedly this is to get out of your system all the feelings you’re allegedly eating now, because not being able to stick to a 1400-calorie diet forever = emotional eating = Bad Relationship With God. Now, I have no problem at all with people writing their feelings (or painting/singing/knitting/ drawing them, or whatever their creative “thing” is) instead of, gods help us, eating them. I think it’s a great idea. And when “doing” The Artist’s Way, it was a wonderful tool (except for the getting up early part, which assumes that you’re not already getting up at 5 to go to work). But using morning pages to distract yourself from hunger? I think maybe NO.
Yes, Julia, I said HUNGER. Physical hunger. As in “if I don’t eat something in the next 30 minutes, I’m going to get the hypoglycemic shakes.” When I first went on Remeron, like I said here, I was ready to eat the fucking furniture, plus all the writing utensils sitting on it. Sometimes I got the munchies when I wasn’t really hungry, but if I ignored those munchies, I’d just get that much hungrier (not to mention shaky and hot from the hypoglycemia — anyone think maybe ignoring hunger signals might be an Officially Rotten Idea for someone with pancreatic issues?). Eventually I went back to the doctor and said, “Doc, I’m a little weary of finding splinters and graphite in the crapper, can we do something about this?”, and we did.
But I can tell you right now that there was no way in hell I was going to be able to stick to anything like 1400 calories when I was in that state. (Cameron, being clean and sober for 30 years, also automatically assumes that the reader has no truck with alcohol.) And I don’t think I could do it now, either, even though the initial Cookie Monster Syndrome has worn off. Just for S’s and G’s, I recently kept a food diary for a couple of days, just to see what my eating patterns were, and sure enough, I was getting hunger pangs — real ones — pretty regularly, every two or two and a half hours just about, unless I had a really big meal. When you’re hungry, you’re fucking hungry. And believe me, by this time in my life, I know the difference between hungry and not, regardless of what some book or magazine article or Web site tells me I “should” be satisfied with.
Cameron, when interviewed here, said the drug she was on was Abilify. Abilify is fairly new, new enough that even the Crazy Meds site doesn’t have much on it, but in poking around various message boards, it causes appetite stimulation in some users but not others, although weight gain on the drug seems to happen irrespective of that. I’m going to assume that she was still on it while she lost her weight — if she wasn’t, it would be a short book, right? Like a page. “To get and stay thin, kick your psych meds like I did. The end.”
No, she says, her savior has actually been…Clean Eating.
Oh yeah, the Clean Eating thing, which Cameron’s nutritionist claims to have invented. This concept, in case you’ve been avoiding reading about it to conserve Sanity Points, means eating low fat AND low carb AND portion controlled AND with gobs of artificial sweetener. (Cameron’s favorite breakfast: cottage cheese and strawberries sweetened with Splenda. Splenda. She lives in New York and has money coming out of her hoohah, and she can’t find berries that taste like berries?) In order to stick to this plan, she advises the reader to avoid “the deadly whites” (sugar, flour, starch) literally like they were the very brew of Satan (“chocolate is chocolate, after all, the devil’s food, and I know better to indulge”). She boasts that she is able to do this despite living with “an expert baker” who bakes oh-so-delicious-smelling gingersnaps at home every morning (to sell, one presumes, and not specifically to taunt her).
So yeah. Refuse your own birthday cake — because, after all, one bite of a forbidden food means a binge. (Contrast that with people who turn down birthday cake because they have something like diabetes or celiac disease; unless that condition is new to them, you won’t catch them staring longingly at cake, growling at their fingers not to reach for the spatula. But then, they get to eat something else.) Don’t hang out with those “good genes” people who can eat whatever they want and stay thin, and who will ask you to do evil fattening things like go out for dim sum (what, and miss your morning bowlful of frankenglop-sweetened ladycrap?). Take yourself for a Culinary Artist Date once a week — like, check out a new-to-you ethnic cuisine, but stay away from those opiate-simulating breads and rices! Oh, and one last, crucially important thing: Don’t be Officially Fat in the first place.
Cameron lost 40 pounds, going from a size 16 (misses, I would gather, not 16W) to a size 10. (And the loss would seem to be a new one, maybe a year before the book came out, max.) Assuming she only wore a 16 in the most tightly-cut items, her starting weight is probably the lowest weight I could possibly attain doing this Clean Eating stuff even if I never cheated, as long as I remain on my meds. And I’m maybe a size 18 misses at the lowest, 22 at the highest, but that’s still fat enough to make me what she would call “grotesquely oversized.” (Yes, she uses that exact phrase.) Walk in the woods with her? She wouldn’t hire me to clean her john. (Think of the potential for fat cooties to get trapped in a tiny Manhattan bathroom!)
Similarly, all of the people she mentions in the book lose 25 pounds, 30 pounds, something like that. (No mention of whether they maintained their losses, either.) In other words, these are not really fat people, regardless of what they think of themselves; these are thin people who gradually gained weight for whatever reason until they approached average-sized, which simply, in their minds, will not do for an above average human being. People like me? Or, Bast forfend, even fatter than me? We’re hardly even worth discussing, we’ve obviously eaten all the creativity we have in us. We ate our own birthday cake. And washed it down with beer. Year after year. And maybe somewhere else during the year, even had a slice of homemade blackberry pie whipped up with love by our favorite writer. The horrors.
Speaking of mad cackling, I also love Cameron’s concept that her Writing Diet works because “calories, after all, are units of energy, and so are words.” If the number of words you crank out every week is tantamount to the number of calories you burn, I should wear a size somewhere in the negative integers. (Hi, I’m Meowser, and I’ll be your tl;dr this evening.) It can’t have anything to do with, you know, reaching the very bottom of your set point range, and maybe even dipping a little under it (probably temporarily) through extreme vigilance about what crosses your lips. It also can’t possibly have anything to do with “good genes” having as much to do with where the bottom of your set point lies as anything else does. It’s all about Good Orderly Direction. I just do not understand a worldview that says it’s okay to discriminate against and hate on people just because they don’t burn calories as fast as other people do. It just baffles me that anyone would think that way. But sadly, Julia Cameron does.
And what’s even sadder here is that there’s a hint that in an even slightly better world, she might not buy into it. In one of the most telling passages of the book, she mentions a friend of hers who has a lover named Pavlo, who encourages her friend to eat and says, “A woman is like a good steak; better if it’s not too lean.” To which Cameron responds: “Not all of us meet Pavlos. More of us dream that a Pavlo might exist.” Well, ahem. Leaving aside the skinny-baiting, which I’m not down with, the idea that “Pavlos” who appreciate fuller figures don’t exist is just…well, let’s just say that Cameron might do well to get out of Manhattan more often (and not just to go to west L.A.) if she wants a man like this in her life. Look, dude, two-thirds of the American female population is said by the epi-panickers to be “too fat.” Are you trying to tell me that two-thirds of us can’t get lovers? My labia boggles. As far as I’m concerned, a “good man” doesn’t make a woman go hungry in order to conform to his aesthetic preferences. Period. And if Cameron’s gingersnap-baking roommate is one of those guys, maybe he’d better ask himself exactly who it is he expects to consume his product. At least that’s how I’d react. But you know, I’m like…a feminist and stuff. Guess she isn’t.
I reckon it’s occurring to me now that being a people-pleasing dork and wanting to be an inventive, gutsy, cutting-edge creative person really don’t mix. Yeah, I know most guitar players, no matter how badass, would probably gibber and drool and stammer out “you’re my biggest fan” type of stuff if they were in the same room with Eric Clapton, but I doubt most of them could give a freshly lit fart if Eric Clapton approves of them as a person. That’s the thing that’s always killed whatever creative spark I had — this idea that “so and so won’t like it and they won’t like me for doing it, so I’d better not.” I am done with that. Doner than a gingersnap. The Julia Cameron of The Artist’s Way would probably applaud that newfound attitude of mine. Too bad she doesn’t exist anymore, if she ever really did outside my own head.