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Weight, Sex and Marriage--the Delicate Balance : Survey Finds Reducing Food Intake May Hide Reasons That Cause Overeating

August 23, 1987|DAVID STREITFELD | The Washington Post

If you were going to design the most fattening job possible, say Richard Stuart and Barbara Jacobson, it would include these elements: a good deal of cooking, long hours, minimal contact with adults, loneliness and the necessity of performing tasks so mundane that munching would be fascinating by comparison. In addition, this job would be both a low-status and volunteer position, making the employee financially and emotionally dependent on someone else.

Sound familiar? It's the life of a full-time homemaker. No wonder that, in Stuart and Jacobson's survey of nearly 25,000 weight-conscious women (41.7% of whom were employed nine hours a week or less), 90% failed to achieve their diet goals.

Apparently, both the working and home-bound dieters were doing the wrong thing. Concentrating on reducing food intake, Stuart and Jacobson say, only obscured the conditions that caused both overeating and being overweight in the first place.

"We've found there are a great many women who say they want to be thin but really do need to be fat. Probably 75% of the women in America who believe they have weight problems have mislabeled their situation," says Stuart, 53. A former psychological director of Weight Watchers International, he'll start next month as a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Washington.

Says Jacobson: "It's a weight problem, but not a food problem." A former student of Stuart's and now his wife, she is currently finishing her doctorate in counseling psychology at the University of Utah. Together, they've written "Weight, Sex and Marriage: A Delicate Balance" (Norton), which analyzes the survey results.

Jacobson, 35, also has some personal experience with the subject.

'I Have No Control'

"This is what I wish someone had told me when I had a weight problem: 'In your life, overeating makes sense,' " she says. "What so many women feel is, 'I have no control. I know I should be losing weight, but the brownies cry out at me.' It's as if there is a mysterious power that drives us to overeat. The problem is, as long as it's not understandable, it's not changeable."

The key to understanding women's weight loss, according to Stuart and Jacobson, is realizing that overeating has a purpose. Diets often don't work because they take the backward approach: Eat less and your problems will disappear. Instead, they argue, you should find out the gap--loneliness, boredom, anger at your husband--that food is emotionally designed to fill, and discover a way other than stuffing yourself to get those emotions assuaged. Slimness will then come on its own.

To be sure, just plain dieting seems easier. "It's more socially acceptable to be working on your weight than talking about marital or self-esteem problems," Jacobson says. "No woman is embarrassed with a diet, whereas she's probably not going to say to her best friend, 'My husband's not affectionate enough.' "

For some women, they theorize, getting married is like receiving your college diploma: You've passed all the tests and taken the prize, so why bother to keep up your studies?

"Before I got married, crash diets were as much a part of my life as work and sleep," a woman wrote on her questionnaire. ". . . Looking my best was my top priority, and I didn't mind doing what it took to look good in tight jeans or a slinky evening dress.

"But once I settled into married life, I lost all my willpower. I think it was because I knew my husband loved me and would stay with me no matter how I looked. . . . But since I've decided to let myself go, I've gone up three dress sizes."

Complex Reasons

With other spouses, the reasons for weight gain are more complex. "You talk to a couple, he'll say, 'First she got fat, then our sex life disappeared,' " Stuart says. "The wife is more likely to say, 'He stopped paying attention shortly after we got married. It's not like when we were courting. So out of my loneliness and frustration, I turned to food.' "

In any case, they say, it's important to separate reasons for overeating from reasons for being overweight. The act of eating, and overeating, tends to provide emotional or sensual rewards. It cures boredom, loneliness, anxiety or stress. In more ways than one, it will fill a void.

Yet while all overweight women mismanage their food intake, some--Stuart estimates 40%--also benefit from the result, from being fat. Reasons for this, the researchers say, include protection from the following:

--The threat of extramarital sex. "I know it sounds dumb, but I think one of the reasons I overeat is to be sure I'm not attractive to other men," wrote one woman in the survey. "When I am near my low weight, I get a lot of male attention, and I love it. . . . Then I feel guilty about my flirtations, and I start eating again."

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