For some reason, our language associates heaviness with seriousness and importance. The very word “gravity” can convey both of those feelings. On the other hand, things that are relatively trivial are considered “light,” in the sense of having less weight. To make these matters even more convoluted, we now have the designation “lite,” – no doubt originally the brainchild of some advertising genius – usually connoting fewer calories.
And indeed, it’s in connection with personal avoirdupois that weightiness has, in our culture, come to have over-riding significance. Never mind atomic weights or outer-space weightlessness – the chief concern of many people is, how much do I weigh, compared with some ideal figure for those of my height, age, and lifestyle – (and any other factor you want to throw into the mix)?
And, speaking of figures, how much does my bodily shape reveal about my general health and fitness – to say nothing of my attractiveness?
How did this obsession with weight-watching come about? Heaven knows, until quite recently in human history, the prevailing preoccupation was with getting enough to eat – just staving off the ravages of hunger – the same condition in which we still see most of our “wild” fellow creatures engulfed – from the birds to the ants, spending most of their time seeking the morsels on which their bodies (and their families) depend.
But, almost within living memory, the idea of being “overweight” has acquired almost sinful associations. (No doubt you’ve heard the quote, attributed to Alexander Wolcott, that “All the things I really like to do are either illegal, immoral, or fattening.”)And I am not speaking here as a dispassionate observer of my fellow mortals and their follies. For much of my own life I have been inordinately conscious of my poundage. I grew up in a Jewish household, in which, if there were any sin, it was in not eating enough. (And there was the added guilt, in the era of World War II, of knowing that others were indeed starving). It wasn’t until after I had left home and was in my early 20s, that a college doctor, to whom I had gone for (I thought) some totally unrelated concern, told me that I needed to lose some weight, and gave me a sheet containing what turned out to be only the first of many “diets” to which I was subjected over the following decades.
And, for the first time, I had to face the fact that many of my favorite foods now had to be avoided, or at least drastically curtailed. In terms of proper eating, my eyes were being opened and my stomach closed. It had been standard practice in my family to have “sweets,” i.e. candy, at least twice a day after meals. The “supplementary” lunches my mother prepared for me to take to school (since the regular school meals weren’t considered sufficient) always contained half a bar of chocolate. (Need I say how much this contributed to my dental health – about which there were no lessons in those days?)
So, I had to become what was later a trademarked term: a weight-watcher. For years, I always carried with me a little “calorie counter,” and making those daily calculations was the nearest I ever came to being religiously observant. I had a target weight, which I think was 150 pounds, and, after achieving it, my obligation was not significantly to vary from it. Nobody supervised me. It was an internal compulsion.
Being fanatical about all this, I naturally had to have a really accurate scale, so I bought one of the upright kind, which you most commonly see in doctor’s offices. (I don’t know if there’s any significance in the fact that getting up on one vaguely resembles ascending a Cross.)
My saddest sacrifice was giving up sugar. Various artificial sweeteners came on the market. But saccharin, which had been around for years, didn’t taste like sugar – and cyclamates, which for a time were quite popular, were linked with cancer, and eventually banned.
And it wasn’t only sugars, but also fats to which the weight-watching craze gave a bad name – despite a more positive tradition going back to the Old Testament promise that “Ye shall eat the fat of the land.”
Ironically, in my later years, there’s sometimes been a problem with losing too much weight – but, with a little change in diet, I have found it much easier to put weight back on than it had ever been to take it off.