Open Letter to Oprah

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results – attr. Albert Einstein

Oprah honey,

Oy, here we go again. Come January, you’ll be springing out of the gate with another Boot Camp-type regime, full of self-righteousness and zeal. If past behavior is a predictor of future behavior, you’ll tell us that we all can do this, that food is a drug, that we need to make fitting in 8 hours a week at the gym a priority, or whatever your new “program” involves.

I know it’s a bit audacious for me, a little blogging nobody who’s no Skinny Minnie herself to presume to address you on this topic, but you’ve driven me to it. You may not like what I’m about to say, but you’re always willing to be brutally honest (especially to some of your guests) so here goes. I know how you feel; I’ve been there. Many, many times, which is the crux of the matter.

First, you didn’t “let this happen again.” A lot of us have asked, if Oprah, with all of her money and chefs and trainers and support can’t keep the weight off, why should we think that we can? And the answer is that it’s not about willpower or weakness; we’re fighting some serious physiological forces here.

Your body is reacting to years of yo-yo dieting and is trying to ward off the next famine. After your most recent weight loss I heard you describe how you ate, and honey, that’s famine. If your biggest meal of the day is the egg whites, bowl of oatmeal and fruit you eat at breakfast, I’d wager that your body thought it was starving. And if you have to restrict food that much and exercise several hours a day to maintain a certain weight, that is not your natural weight.

Which brings me to the next point. You talk about how you eat emotionally and that food is your “drug.” As someone who has recovered from an eating disorder and used to believe that about myself, I’m skeptical. Your body may be driving you to eat more than you think is appropriate which is triggering those guilt and self-loathing feelings, and the cause and effect get all mixed up. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t eat emotionally at times, fat or thin. I’m going to go out on a limb again and suggest that while you think you’re addicted to food, what you’re really addicted to is weight obession and the attendant drama.

It makes me sad to hear the self-blame and self-flagellation when you say you “have to figure out how to hold in your stomach all night and walk backward out of the room so no one sees that your butt keeps moving even when you stop.” You’ve made your body the enemy, along with food and fat, which is probably the single most counter-productive attitude you could possibly embrace. Not only does it make you mistrust your body’s signals, including hunger and satiety, but it adds to what is probably an already high level of stress in your life, which also creates homones that make you more likely to gain weight.

I know, I know, you’re going to tell me this is about your health. Well, did you know that studies have shown that it’s healthier to maintain a stable, higher weight than it is to keep losing and re-gaining? That moderate exercise and maintaining a good level of fitness is more important to health than being thin? And going back to stress, many believe that too much of the wrong kind of stress is probably has of the most detrimental effects on health, more so than just being fat. (Did you know that fat people in cultures where they are not stigmatized suffer few of the health effects we commonly associate with overweight?) You want to promote health? Eat lots of fresh fruit and veggies, everything else in moderation. Get 30-45 minutes of exercise five times a week, and 8 hours of sleep each night. Rediscover the joy in moving your body, focusing on the process rather than the result.

You’re quite the reader (and I applaud your efforts to get us all reading again), so I’m going to recommend some books. First, Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes. This book really lays out the science of why diets and other weight loss programs almost always fail, and what has been known for decades (and centuries!) about how the body responds to attempts to modify weight. I’m also going to suggest Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. It was by using their “be your own food anthropologist” concept that I was able to figure out what foods work best for my body, and in what amounts. Your body will tell you what it needs if you listen and get out of the way, and accept that the weight your body wants to maintain may not match the number you had in mind.

I don’t underestime the degree to which this whole concept would probably be a seismic shift for you, and might piss off some of your advertisers. But think about the good you could do by helping people to get off the diet see-saw, reduce a major cause of self-induced stress, and embrace real health and well being.

Une femme

Also: Kate Harding has written a letter of her own, read it here.

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  1. Fabulous post, and I agree. Intuitively I know that “diets” never work. I am not sure what the answer is. I wish I was not 40 pounds heavier than my younger years, but I am not going to deprive myself endlessly. I enjoy cooking and good food. In Oprah’s defense, she is in the “entertainment business” I think their standards are different. Great thought provoking writing!

  2. Standing ovation, Pseu!

    Found myself seeing OW after many months and thinking, “Hmmm, Oprah is bigger,and wow, she looks good.” Actually thought she was OK with it, and leading a paradigm shift to size diversity,BUT then she came out with the message of shame and self-loathing.Disappointed.

    My personal rx:
    – eat real food, not processed
    – follow the the food/portion pyramid as general guideline
    – enjoy a weekly cheat day but don’t cheat on the number of cheat days
    – move it any way you can for at least 45 minutes per day
    – bark at retailers and designers who don’t offer clothes with real world size or cut

  3. Brilliant, Pseu.

    I’m linking and cross posting everywhere!

    Wait I don’t have a blog.

    Anyway. Happy Hanukkah! and Merry Christmas! and Bonne Solstice! and Happy New Year!

  4. I will check out those 2 books. But, I’m not sure Oprah can just accept here higher weight, I think it’s possible that she may just keep on gaining. It seems that extra weight often leads to more weight, until you can get back to some equilibrium. I saw another take on this on the blog of Michael Eades, M.D. (author of “Protein Power”, I would be interested to hear opinions on that –

  5. Excellent post!

    I’ve never been all that “skinny” – I’m truly big-boned and lift weights, so I’m muscular, and when I once starved myself I could only get down to 128 lbs (at which point I was skin and bones above the waist but still a size 10 bottom). But the biggest, hugest weight loss aid I’ve ever found? SLEEP and meditation. Now that I’m not chronically sleep deprived and in some portion of an anxiety attack sine wave every day of my life I don’t want to eat much – enough to keep me going, but not large portions and later handfulls of chips or extra cake or whatever. Just the healthy stuff, and just enough of it. I’d heard that sleep was important before – never belived how much until I started getting enough.

  6. well, deja pseu, you know where *i* stand on all this dieting stuff… actually, i’ll be sitting on my living room sofa, sipping egg nog and eating socher caca (sugar cake) with ligonberries and whipped cream for the holidays.

    although seriously, i do ascribe to the all things in moderation philosophy — it’s just that sometimes that has to include moderation.

  7. I’m impressed about the coicidence… I’ve just opened a blog here at blogspot myself some moments ago, writing about something that pretty much relates to your letter here (which I agree with fully btw.)

    I’d love to have you on my reading list, so if you find some time, just come along!

  8. Amen, sister. Another recommend is “The Four Day Win” by Martha Beck. I really related to the inner Wild Child she writes about. If Oprah accepted herself the way she is, she’d be a much better role model.

  9. Part of what turned my off Oprah was her self-righteousness when she got skinny. One day the show would be about extreme dieting and exercising and the next day it would be about why do young girls have eating disorders and the bad messages their mommies gave them about their bodies. I could not stand it any longer and quit watching.

    I love Taubes’ book. I am not familiar with the other book you mentioned. But, I will check it out. Deja, I love this post and I hope that Oprah reads it.

  10. I have often asked, “At what age will we not think about how we LOOK but rather what we can DO with our amazing body?”

  11. belle-carys – looks like your blog is off to a good start!

    Julianne – true she’s in the entertainment business, but she’s been able to write her own rules in so many areas, I wonder why she’s not able to look beyond the dominant paradigm on this one.

    Duchesse – your rX sounds healthy, maintainable and SANE.

  12. Couture Allure – thanks! And another book to add to my New Years Reading List – yay!

    dana – thanks and hope your holidays are merry too!

    LBR – YESSS!! It’s that whole ambivalent cultural attitude personified! Being thin is the most important thing UNLESS you’re an eating disordered teenager UNLESS you’re a fat eating disordered teenager in which case being thin is the most important thing…

    This is probably another post, but yes, it’s the self-righetousness that bugs me most of all.

  13. Rita – I think Dr. Eades has some valid points (insulin resistance and that low-fat, low-calorie diets just perpetuate the problem) but he has his own dog in the fight (makes his living promoting weight loss) so I take some of what he says with a grain of salt…

  14. benson – exactly!!! Our bodies are the vehicles in which we move through our lives, shouldn’t how we live our lives ultimately be more important than the paint job on the vehicle? I like your blog, BTW! Thanks for stopping by and for your comment.

    anon – so true, I’m predicting that sleep is going to become the next health frontier. We all lead such busy, overscheduled lives. We value *doing* so much that we don’t take the time our bodies need to rest and recharge.

  15. Bonnie-ann – I’m coming over to your house! BTW, I never lived until I had homemade eggnog (the full-test version with plenty of rum, bourbon and brandy!).

    Sal – MWAAA! (blows a kiss back atcha)

  16. Rhiannon – thank you!

    Cybill – Why does she let being thin be the barometer of success for her when she has achieved so many other things. Yes, exactly, why? I’m glad I had an eating disorder in a way. It was a conduit to connecting with feminism and examining my culture and being more conscious about all of my choices.

  17. For all her smarts I wonder how self-aware Oprah really is about herself. Why does she let being thin be the barometer of success for her when she has achieved so many other things. I think we should all try and forward this open letter to her! Anyway, Deja this is a great post for all of us. I’m sorry you had to suffer through an eating disorder but what you learnt from it, WOW and thanks for sharing that wisdom.

  18. Dejapseu:

    Fascinating! This story has been in UK broadsheet papers too which is unusual. We reserve all this stuff for the red tops.

    I read recently that Oprah said: “I did not just fall off the wagon; I let the wagon fall on me.” I do think as honesty goes, the statement deserves an award!

    The key thing, especially as people age, is to remember that there is a constant struggle between the paradox of a slowing metabolism and increased spending power which often means richer foods at their disposal.

    There is also the unrealism of what we need and what we can afford/ want to eat. Oprah with her 5’6″ height and now 200 lb body weight needs about 1500 calories (up from 1400 cal per day when she was 160 lb). However all diet books are based on a 2000 cal population average. For someone petite, like me, keeping to the BMR is a struggle. I need 1100 calories at my height, weight and age. That is a seriously small caloric intake and I can be done in a bowl of muesli, 2 bananas and a small chicken breast! Oh and this will reduce when I head to the big 4-O and beyond. I am reminded of Marjorie of Fat Fighters in Little Britain. May be I should eat dust :-/

    And since you mention ‘health’, there is also the ethnicity issue – and I think it is significant but rarely discussed. Even doctors sometimes do not know how to tell non-white patients that they need to lose weight. Asians and Blacks need to keep their weights in check because unlike Caucasians, co-morbidities set in at much lower BMIs. It is ironic that the Asian and Black cultures celebrate curvaceous, bigger bodies while in truth, it is white women who can ‘afford’ that extra inch around their hips more than we non-white women can! 🙂

    Oprah is struggling against her ethnic heritage, her age, her cultural context, her wealth, her preferences, her profession’s requirements as well as all this public scrutiny of her weight. Most of us can do this yo-yo business in private; people like her can’t.

  19. You nailed, it, baby, and in such a diplomatic, respectful, but direct way. Oprah has pissed me off for years, the weight issue being at the core of my dislike for her. It is so frustrating and, frankly, enraging, that (arguably) the most successful woman in the world is still “worried” about her weight! For the love of god, enjoy your life!

  20. Pseu, great post. I think you’ve got something there when you talk about the need for attention. What will happen now, is that Oprah will begin anew, for the hundredth time, on a “final” quest for her ideal body. As she loses weight, her public will all clap for her, they will cry with her, they will laud her “success” with every new dress size she goes down. She will feel successful, loved, fulfilled, beautiful. Think of the praise we’ve all embraced when we’ve lost five pounds, gotten a hair cut, bought a new lipstick. The approval can cause endorphins to stir us into feeling, happy, proud, in love even!

    You’ve given yo-yo- dieters something more than just “food for thought” here, Pseu.

  21. Denise – exactly! Look at all she’s accomplished! And *this* is the thing the she’s focused on year in and year out.

    Karen – yes, we get so much praise for losing weight, that’s a tough thing to give up.

  22. Shefaly – 1100 calories? But that’s exactly my point…that’s considered “starvation” by the WHO (and our bodies) and no one can maintain that level unless they dabble in anorexia. And the whole thing about yo-yo dieting: as someone on the other end of thirty years of it, it’s been my experience (and the experience of just about everyone else I know) that our bodies tend to settle at a higher weight with each diet rebound. My point is that she’d be better off focusing on finding what foods make her body feel best, getting moderate exercise and accept the fact that a) she’s probably genetically programmed to be larger and b) that all the dieting has probably caused her body to want to defend a higher weight than it would have otherwise and give up on weighing a certain amount. She needs to get off the low-fat bandwagon too, IMO.

    Why can’t we afford an “extra inch around the hips”? Are you speaking from an aesthetic standpoint or from a health standpoint? Either way, I disagree with that premise.

  23. Been there too many times to count… Miss J actually believes that many yoyo dieters ARE addicted to food and are compulsive over-eaters- far, far beyond just “emotional” eating. Food is used to stuff down feelings- the same way people use alcohol. Even someone who has acheived as much in their life as Miss Oprah has, can still feel empty inside and experience self-loathing which is projected onto one’s appearance.
    Miss J sometimes wonders if working the 12 Steps woudldn’t be a good way for Miss Oprah to go. Granted, the anonymity aspect would be difficult for her to achieve but OA is the ONLY place Miss J has found any kind real recovery from her disordered eating.

  24. Shefaly wrote:

    For someone petite, like me, keeping to the BMR is a struggle. I need 1100 calories at my height, weight and age.

    I’m in the same boat, except older (51). I probably do eat a bit more than that because I try to get some exercise, but the fact of the matter is that if I want to maintain a normal weight, I have to be rigorously honest about the amount of calories I can consume.

    Otherwise, the weight creeps up on you. Everyone else in my family is overweight and it has serious health consequences.

    The only consistent takeaway I get from posts like this (which I read everywhere) is the importance of keeping my weight in check. No, I won’t weigh what I did in college, when I could eat whatever I wanted, but I will be well within the normal range.

    Disturbingly, a lot of people seem to no longer understand what is normal. They think thin people are anorexic.

    During my most recent visit to the gyn I asked what I should do to maintain my health.

    She said: “You’re battling aging now. Keep your weight down and exercise, which you are doing.”

    As for Oprah’s failure to be indifferent to the criticisms of others in societies that are notoriously cruel to women, especially, older, unattractive women, that’s much easier said than done.

    I think she should try to lose weight again, but should realize that she has to change her habits for the rest of her life.

    Je vous souhaite à toutes une bonne nouvelle année.

  25. Should have made that:

    especially, older women perceived to be unattractive….

    I don’t think Oprah is unattractive, even at 200 pounds. But if I set the beauty standards, we’d be living in a whole different world.

    Still, for the sake of her health, she should try to lose the pounds.

    I will look at the book on anthropological eating. Thanks.