• Wed, Dec 14 2011

Bullish Life: Gentlewomen Don’t Crash Diet (Take Care Of Yourself While Taking Over The World)

bullish gentlewoman bodybuildingIn New York at least, size zeros are the 1%.

I was shopping in the Diane Von Furstenberg store in the meatpacking district recently when I noticed that everything seemed to be available in my size. How rare! I have trouble shopping in the ‘burbs with my mom, where small sizes just don’t seem to exist. (In Virginia Beach, if it looks fat, you just tan it and it’s fine.)

And then I tried to go into the dressing room and the woman grabbed all the dresses out of my arm and said, “I’ll get sizes” and — being new fancy-shmancy shopping — I finally caught on that the store only displays size zero clothes and they hide all the others in the back! I felt a perverse pleasure and then felt bad about it. (I do get my payback every time I ask to see a shoe that looks adorable on the display shelf in size 6 and less adorable when it comes out in size 9.)

I pretty much only attract men who are into very thin women. Whenever a plus-size model makes a stir and blogs alight with “This is what men really want,” I think, well, we all have a reporting bias — most of our contact with what people are attracted to is related to what people who are attracted to us tend to think.

That said, I hope I’m on the record as not believing that everyone needs to be thin (see Bullish: Be Fat or Be Thin, Just Be On Your Game). I do think everyone should try to look at least 80% of her best (100% is usually a waste of time), and that the world is an unfair place where looking good is at least as important to your salary prospects as is where you went to college. I also think that some people look amazing when larger (Adele, Oprah) and some people look amazing when smaller (Natalie Portman, Gisele), and that some large people have very small, narrow heads and that those people, specifically, should probably lose some weight, just as people with bad teeth should do anything within their means to get them fixed.

I also used to be a bodybuilder. I realized later in life that the thousands of hours I spent in college lifting weights and doing cardio and researching diet and nutrition and periodization and the Karvonen method and reading Sliced and Ripped and Supervixen and years’ worth of Muscle and Fitness magazine and buying VHS tapes online of the 1999 Ms. Olympia championship and watching Pumping Iron II: The Women on repeat was not actually a normal part of growing up and that actually I might know some things that other people would enjoy knowing also.

I feel like I’m walking into a minefield talking about this topic, but I hope this will help someone and not be too fucking obnoxious.

Maintaining Your Body is Not Vain; It’s an Investment in a Good Life

When I was new to New York, making $17,000 a year, living in East Harlem, and trying to pass off clothes from Strawberry as something decent, I noted that fitness and money create a sort of appearance trade-off — being extremely physically fit can make a $20 dress look ten times better, and being physically unfit means you need to spend a lot more money to look good. (You know what very fat men look good in? Expensive double-breasted suits. You know what else? Nothing. And I mean that in the “only wear expensive double-breasted suits” way, not the “naked” way.)

Personally, when I’m thin, my posture is better. Good posture is good for your breathing and digestion. All my clothes drape the way they’re supposed to. Wrap dresses don’t actually look good on everyone (Diane Von Furstenberg lies, she lies!) — the slightest hint of a belly, and they look terrible.

Just as it’s hard to become rich if you hate all rich people (in previous columns, I’ve suggested that one find a wealthy role model — Tina Fey, John Stewart, Warren Buffet) it’s hard to get in shape if deep down you think that doing so is vain and stupid.

Maintaining your body is no more vain and stupid than making sure your resume is spelled correctly and uses a respectable font. (After all, isn’t it the content of the resume that counts?)

Look, we don’t even make anything in this country anymore. All we have is marketing. Our whole country is marketing. I don’t like it, and people smarter than I have more broad-ranging things to say about this. But from the perspective of an individual trying to build a life in this country, presentation is part of the penumbra of success in virtually everything.

(See also the recent Bullish Life: On Vanity, Plastic Surgery, and Gentlewomanly Living.)

Crash-dieting is stupid.

I mean, we all know that, right? But lots of us do it anyway.

What the hell kind of event do you need to suddenly show up way thinner for? If it’s your birthday, the friends and family throwing the party already like you! If it’s your book party, holy shit, you wrote a book! You did that with your brain, not your damn thighs. If it’s your wedding, the person you’re marrying already likes having sex with you! Or, plan your wedding further out so you can lose weight like a sensible person, by adopting a fitter lifestyle, which you will then continue indefinitely. Because I’m pretty sure your fianc√© doesn’t want to be engaged to a hungry, miserable person right up until the magic moment post-wedding that you psychically explode and gain all the weight back, and then he’s married to someone the same size as the woman he got engaged to, but way less happy about it. People are fucking crazy.

So, I — along with 100% of doctors — do not advocate crash dieting.

Bodybuilding is a Science.

If you read Real Talk: Have You Ever Lost Weight By Dieting?, I’m coming out of the closet — I wrote the bodybuilding one:

Of course I’ve lost weight by dieting. I was a bodybuilder. Bodybuilders plan what they’re going to eat every single day — every carb and fat gram. They even measure their broccoli on a food scale. And they can predict how much fat they’re going to lose and how much muscle they’re going to gain, practically down to the ounce. They have to do this, because they have deadlines, also known as bodybuilding contests. If you think diets don’t work, please go buy a copy of Oxygen magazine or any bodybuilding resource — or hire a bodybuilding coach — and do exactly what a bodybuilder does. Either it will work and you’re wrong, or else you will discover that you just don’t want to lose weight enough to actually eat like a bodybuilder. See Clarence Bass, a former lawyer who achieved the lowest percent bodyfat on record. Has has kept it off? He’s 70. He just keeps bodybuilding. So, yes.

Bodybuilding diets make it easy (okay, not “easy” but certainly “simple”) in that bodybuilders think about what they are going to eat, not what they aren’t going to eat.

Thinking about a big list of no-no’s just makes you want the forbidden, much like how abstinence rallies are an amazing way for sex-obsessed Christian teens to get together and talk about sex non-stop, especially in large arenas where the sexual energy rises off of them in waves as they quench their irrepressible thirst with Jesus-branded bottled water and the evangelical band leads the worship music and everyone feels close and spiritual and throbbing like only teenagers can and begins to sway in tandem, looking at each other with looks that say, “We love purity!” and also “This is the most aroused I have ever been.”

Bodybuilders know everything there is to know — well, certainly everything a layperson needs to know — about losing fat and gaining muscle. There are no secrets. (And please, I hope we’re all past the “Lifting weights will make me bulk up” thing. Just stop before that happens. Building muscle is very, very hard. You can’t bodybuild by accident.) Even the latest research affects only a small percentage of people (i.e., bodybuilders) who are already maxxing out everything we’ve known for years. Most people just refuse to do the things that bodybuilders do.

So, most diet books on the market have a gimmick: you can still eat [one tasty thing that's not that great for you]!

That is, virtually every diet plan is consistent with eating a lot of fish (and maybe chicken and turkey and egg whites) and salad and vegetables. And various superfoods like walnuts and blueberries. You will absolutely lose weight if you do this. Even the Perricone Prescription, which is not about losing weight but about making your skin look young, says pretty much the same thing. But it’s hard to make money off of something that’s pretty much common knowledge, so then you get the rice diet and the point system and the low-carbs-but-BACON diet and the extra-apple-before-every-meal-and-then-you-can-be-less-strict diet and the let’s-eat-tiny-desserts diet and the champagne-is-only-100-calories diet. Yep. The point here is that if you do 90% of the stuff you’re supposed to do — ANY 90% of it — that’ll still pretty much work.

The trick to doing this in a gentlewomanly way is to just eat what you’re supposed to eat (just subscribe to Oxygen and try not to feel pressured to get breast implants) and dear god, let’s all please think about something else. Start a business. Start a nonprofit. Do all of MIT’s free online courses — seriously, calculus (pardon me: “The Calculus”) is free and open to all. Unless you are beating cancer, no more than 15% of your life portfolio should be about your body.

Gentlewomen Use the 80/20 Principle

Looking 100% of your best is probably a full-time job. Did you ever take one of those days off at home to really pamper yourself, like they’re always recommending in women’s magazines? You probably spent a lot of time on your cuticles, and on exfoliating — things others really never notice.

I read Oxygen and I know that I could do those things really strictly and look more or less like the women in the magazine (frequent contributor Tosca Reno is 49 — age is not a factor here). And if I had a good business purpose in doing so, I would. If I decide to finally get my personal trainer certification (I took the classes but not the exam) or write a book, I’ll be sure to step it up.

But also in those fitness magazines, I read profiles of super-fit women whose favorite song is “anything that gets me PUMPED for a workout (mostly the Black Eyed Peas)” and whose favorite book is either the Bible or something called “U CAN LIVE UR DREAMS GIRL!” And then their major goal in life is “To be fit and help others be fit!” and I’m thinking, “I do not want to be your friend. I think I might actually prefer that you didn’t vote.” Not really, of course — and maybe some of those women have other interests but are shrewdly using their magazine exposure to pitch their personal training businesses. But an entire life dedicated to physical fitness seems … well, small. Your body looks and works great. Now what?

I spoke here about writing a vision statement for your life. I wrote a column here about extreme advance planning to have the life you want. The 80/20 Principle, of course, says that 80% of the output comes from 20% of the input. I think that’s true here.

I think a gentlewoman — whose life can be thought of as a portfolio of career, business exploits, financial management, relationships, romance, sex, health, travels, philanthropy, creativity, and the creation of meaning — cannot possibly spend the kind of time or mental energy on body maintenance that so much lady-literature advocates. You need results while keeping things in perspective.

Gentlewomanly Living for Health and Awesomeness

I do think that weight loss and fitness are much easier once you’re already on the bandwagon. Anything that gets you started, well … gets you started. Inertia works both ways. Drinking one of those hideous-looking green juices often kind of makes you want to exercise. If buying cute workout wear does the same, great. Similarly, I’ve noticed that stress, grief, bankruptcy, and crushing failure have all caused me to forget about eating long enough for my stomach to shrink a bit, so that when I get back to living like a human, I eat smaller portion sizes. That’s fine; you can use the bad stuff for good. (See Bullish: How to Motivate Yourself to Be Motivated for more on the motivational power of fear, disgust, and revenge.)

I also think that getting out of the 9-to-5 world makes healthy living a million times easier. My desk is very close to my stove and refrigerator. I own a casserole dish and know how to use it. If I want to work at my desk for four hours, work out, shower, work four more hours in my bathrobe, work out again, and call it a day, I am free to do so. Offices are bad for you.

Mainly, though, I notice that women are constantly exhorted to do all kinds of crazy shit to and for and with and about their bodies, and this is total crap. Your body is not a full-time job. Fortunately, I think you can have your cake and eat it too — it’s actually a lot easier to diet and exercise right when you think about it much, much less. (I wrote about the extreme importance of mental discipline in Bullish Life: Sometimes It‚Äôs Best Just to Not Think About It.)

Start a company, or devote yourself utterly to learning a skill outside of your current job. Cultivate an obsession. Just as you will still be able to brush your teeth and call your mother, you will also still be able to exercise and eat your egg whites. You can plan your phone calls while you exercise. You don’t have to think about exercising when you aren’t exercising or about dieting when you’re not eating; in fact, exercise time is excellent time for clearing your head and plotting world takeover. You don’t have to track all your workouts in Excel and make maximum gains every time — again, 80/20.

Gentlewomanly living means that we do important things and make meaning, and that maintaining your body, home, and friendships are the mere basics, despite what the newsstands would have us believe. Meryl Streep is a gentlewoman. Do you think she’s pinching the fat on her stomach and hating herself? Does she take diuretics and eat nothing but grapes for four days before the Oscars? I hope not. A living legend deserves some fucking salt on her food. She looks great; she hires a stylist. I’ll bet she exercises three times a week like a normal person, while reading scripts on her stationary bike.

I write all the time about how, even if we can’t do everything at once, we can stretch our capacity for doing more things, and making those things work together well. This is no exception. You can have rock-hard thighs that could crush a man to death and also still be a CEO and also have many, many kittens and all the other things that fit into a gentlewomanly life.

Share This Post:
  • Anna

    Awesome. Loved every word.

  • Sara

    Fantastic Article!! Encouraging and Inspiring.

  • James Wilson

    Something seems to have gone wrong with the é in “resumé” thanks to some kind of character encoding issue. It displays as the square root of a copyright symbol.

    By the way, it should either be “resume” (lowbrow) or “résumé” (pretentious), but never “resumé” as that would be both pretentious and wrong.

    James

  • Tara McLoud

    I don’t believe in New Year’s Resolutions but this inspired me to actually make one, right now.

  • Amelia

    Jen, I think James Wilson has a crush on you.

    • Benedict

      Jen, I think I have a crush on you.

  • Jamie Peck

    Great article, but one thing! I have a bit of a belly, and wrap dresses look nice on me. You just have to find the right ones.

  • TheNay

    Refreshing. I also once competed in the world of figure/bodybuilding and i wonder if this article only makes sense to women who know that underground world. and it is true…cheap clothes look amazing when you are in shape.

  • Lisa M

    Fantastic. I never did bodybuilding, but as a former wrestler, I also know exactly how to get my body fat down to its absolute lowest. I know that I could lose 30 pounds in 10 weeks (and get back to my competition weight) if I ever needed to. But Good Lord, now that I’m not competing, why would I ever need or want to? I do feel like losing 10 pounds would make a lot of those cheap clothes look better, and am considering it for that, but I can also get a similar “boost” to my appearance by things like paying more attention to what I wear, so it evens out.

  • Rebel Crafter

    I weight train so loved this, especially the comment about Oxygen and breast implants…priceless! :)

  • Sabrina

    I know this is an older article…but I love the concept!! I obsess about my weight all the time, and you know what it gets me? Nothing. I don’t lose really. And I feel way worse about how I look than I really should. I’ve lately decided to invest in some nicer clothes and concentrate and organizing my life and I’m much happier overall :)

    BTW…I live in Va Beach!!