It's Not Over 'Til the 40-lbs Overweight, Smart Lady Sings

11/17/2011 09:02 am ET

When was the first time you dieted?

For me, the game began early. I remember a stupid, scrawny boy who shall remain nameless (Matt) calling me a cow in the fourth grade, and soon after, trying multiple single-food diets (only lettuce! only bacon!) Those lasted about a day each. I also remember going to see the doctor in the fifth grade because I wanted to lose some weight...I was hypothyroid at the time but didn't know it...and all I secretly hoped was that the doctor would just look at me and say, "Leslie, you're beautiful and healthy and don't you even worry about losing a single ounce." Instead, he pinched the roll of baby fat around my middle and said, "Eh, you could get rid of about 10 pounds." I was shattered. Not one detail of that moment has faded from my memory -- I remember the denim, ruffled skirt-and-shirt outfit I was wearing, the cliché desert landscape painting that hung on the wall, the reflection of my stomach in his thick eyeglasses as he peered down at me.

Ultimately, I was put on thyroid medicine, which I take to this day, and wound up shooting up about a foot but staying essentially the same weight. Still, my junior high years were filled with feelings of being chubby and oversized. I was bigger than all the boys. Bigger and taller. Like a miniature Bea Arthur, I imagined. In eighth grade, I vividly remember wearing a size 13/14 dress from Casual Corners to a school dance (white, shirred, diagonal ruching, fitted, blech) and all my friends were, like, Size XXS.

How is it that at such a young age, we almost instinctively understand that it's "better" to be small/thin versus big or large? Why is it that three-year-olds are piping up about being on diets these days (I know...I spoke with them when writing Locker Room Diaries. Why do women cut off body parts and slave away on gerbil-like treadmills and make themselves throw up? So we can fit into some societal ideal. So we can feel "strong." So we can take up less space in the world.

When the Today Show approached me about appearing on a segment to debate the question, "If you had to choose, would you rather be 40 pounds overweight and smart OR skinny, but stupid?", I leapt at the chance. Not because it's necessarily an easy one to answer (though for some it certainly is), but because look at what it says about the sad state of our society -- that this even needs to be debated.

The pressure women feel to be slim is so intense that a good deal of us are saying, "Sure, I'll give up my brains for tinier hips." It's insanity. But it's merely a reflection of society. Women would rather go to the dentist than change in a communal dressing room. One study recently cited in the New York Times asked a group of previously obese people, "Would you rather be fat or blind?" A stunning 89% answered "blind." As in, can never see again. Ninety-one percent of the group chose having a leg amputated over a return to their previous overweight status. Being overweight in our society is so feared, so vilified, that people would rather lose their ability to see the scale -- and the entire world around it - than face a too-high number.

On the Today Show segment, myself and psychologist Jeff Gardere discussed the fat/smart/skinny/dumb question. I talked about the incredible stigma overweight people face in our society -- he added that the blind vs. obese results didn't exactly surprise him because for people who have been very overweight, the thought of returning to that emotional place is incredibly scary. When Hoda Kotb asked me what my takeaway was, I said I believe we all need to be just a bit more compassionate and kind to each other, regardless of size. (Though I must admit, I lovelovelove the rhetorical response posted on by tallyhoe: "Would you rather be fat and smart, skinny and stupid, or moderately intelligent but with insanely attractive labia?)