Making Weight
by Hillel Schwartz

That's what jockeys, wrestlers, and boxers call it: "making weight." The term refers, of course, to meeting a certain official weight limit, minimum or maximum. It is a neutral term, for making weight may mean struggling to rise to a minimum weight by resting and feeding up, or struggling to descend to a maximum weight by any and all means of reducing. It is a curiously neutral term, for in our heavily weight-conscious society, making weight imparts no special virtue to achieving a lower weight, no special vice to achieving a higher weight. It is a particularly curious neutral term, for malting weight does not instantly confuse fat with pounds; indeed, making weight in either direction, down or up, tends more often to imply a process involving muscle rather than fat.

In other worlds, if less formally, "making weight" may also be neutral, or it may verge on the negative. Butchers and bakers may make up a roast or a loaf to a certain official weight by cutting to include more fat than meat or adding chalk or chaff to the flour. The pressures of making weight, however intense and real in the sports of horse racing, wrestling, and boxing, are essentially personal; in baking or cutting meat, or filling milk cartons or cereal boxes, the declaration of weight is rather social and public.

Somewhere between sport and commerce lies the skill or trial of "making weight" with regard to luggage. As the airlines tighten their rules for carry-on luggage and restrict the number and dimensions of bags in toto, most travelers must engage, willy-nilly, in the task of making weight. For the vast majority, this means reducing, that is, packing toward a lowered and lighter maximum. But I can discern at least five kinds of travelers, five kinds of packers, and five approaches to making weight.

1. The manic-depressive traveler packs frantically as if the weight of the world hangs on her shoulders, or from the straps of her shoulder bag, or on the wheels of her suitcase. Every possible accident must be anticipated with another salve or bandage, every eventuality with another shoe or skirt or dress, every oddity of weather with another layer of defense. Making weight is an excruciating torment, for every pound shed makes her fear that she will be all the more vulnerable and unprepared, all the more likely to be out of place or out of kleenex.

2. Dissociative travelers pack as if all weight is shed upon leaving the familiar for the unfamiliar. Elsewhere, they are freed of the burden of being themselves and may become anyone else, so they pack for fantasies of their own imagining, anticipating the unanticipated with a gleeful abandon, or they pack for a joyful dissolution into the far-away, ready as chameleons to assume the footwear, fashions, and formalities of another culture. Such travelers travel light, willing to spend in future to acquire what they have voluntarily, happily, left behind in the here-and-now. Making weight is a delightful challenge to see if they can fly off with a single carry-on that slides easily under the seat in front of them.

3. The obsessive-compulsive traveler plans his travel life in accordance with the exact maximums of height, weight, breadth, and depth. He will pack with space-saving gizmos, four-in-one gadgets,jockey shorts inside socks inside shoes inside shoe bags inside towels. Luggage becomes a treasure chest he will unpack in utterly self-congratulatory amazement when arrived at last at his destination: density as destiny. For him, making weight is what he would do even were the airlines to drop all limitations. He would still fill every nook of his suitcase, every cranny of his multi-paneled backpack, and he would still feel with grand satisfaction the solidity and silence of his every bag.

4. Borderline personalities pack and travel uncertainly. Travel is worrisome because other places are precarious, other time zones taxing, other languages loopy or treacherous or perplexing. What should one take? What might be mistaken by Customs officials and get one in hot water? Will laundry powder be mistaken for cocaine, granules of Vitamin C for heroin, green tea for marijuana, a round travel alarm clock for a grenade, gum adhesive for plastique explosive? So the borderline personality hesitates before each item, and packs loosely just in case snugness itself is suspect. Making weight is a problem precisely because borderline personalities knows that one should travel with something (since traveling across borders with nothing would be highly suspicious) but cannot decide how to decide what something that must be, so opt often and in complete exhaustion for taking a random assortment of everything—unmatched socks, a box of half-opened raisins, a single golf shoe, sunglasses with one lens slipping out, the plastic parts of a portapotty—all of which would be extremely mystifying if not also suspicious were the suitcase ever opened, as well it will be, since it is packed higgledy-piggledy and threatens to burst open at the slightest provocation, not from weight or bulk but from sheer and tortured indiscriminateness.

5. A neurotic traveler packs prophetically, with regard for the return trip and mementos of travel, research notes, rolls of film, last-minute gifts, duty-free liquor or electronic doodads. This means that you must leave space and weight for an eventual, and irrepressible, repletion. ("Always leave the table a little hungry," your Scandinavian aunt told you time and again. You always understood this to be advice that you should hold out for a bedtime snack.) So you pack with expandable bags and with expendable items that can be left behind as sacrifices to the excitements of this or that foreign find. You return with more, and less, than you left with—somewhat loose and light on the way out, somewhat uncomfortably snug on the way back.

Now I would warrant that we can locate parallels between each of the modes of packing and one or another of the modes of dieting. After all, both the traveler and the dieter must be concerned with "making weight."

1. The manic-depressive dieter, she goes on crash diets, very low calorie, nonsolid diets, followed by rising crescendos of weight and anxiety. For her, making weight is a perpetual drama and soap opera.

2. Dissociative dieters go on fasts expressive of a continuous denial of embodiment and the embrace of the ideal of bodilessness, or at least of taking on others' bodies. For them, making weight is a perpetual quest for weightlessness.

3. The obsessive-compulsive dieter, he counts calories, makes schedules, attempts to perfect eating routines, calculates the proportion of saturated, mono unsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats, computes vitamins and minerals, and tracks the route of bioflavinoids and free radicals. For him, making weight is a commanding metaphor for all other aspects of life: it is a deadline in every sense of the word.

4. Borderline personalities go on several different and often contrary diets at once, pursued with exquisite haphazard or merged into a personalized potpourri on the basis of variously scientific, sociological, and economic rationales. For one who is a borderline personality, making weight is the perpetual threat or challenge of coming to a conclusion, finding oneself.

5. The neurotic dieter, you rely upon a celebrity endorsement and national campaigns underwritten with assurances of a successful outcome by the equivalent of Good Housekeeping physicians, who also guarantee that the diet regime will be physically safe and safely conventional, moderate and moderated, and never in violation of ceremonial, sexual, or social obligations. For you, making weight is what everyone has to do, it's part of being a good American, of fitting in. We might well extend this set of parallels a third step, from travelers "making weight" with their luggage, to dieters "making weight" with their own bodies, to the shapers of public opinion who make "weight" into one or another grotesque image.

1. The manic depressive speaks with forked tongue, deploring the electronic media grid that disregards the individual and imposes a height-weight ratio that fundamentally ignores ethnicity, geography, economy, and class, yet she assails fatness as a sign of our culture's moral and political laxity.

2. Dissociatives think entirely in terms of energy and deplore fat people as no-getters (the opposite of go-getters).

3. The obsessive-compulsive comes forward every week with new statistics purporting to show increasing numbers or percentages of obese people and the increasing danger of obesity to personal health and the national well-being.

4. Borderline personalities see fat exclusively in terms of image—ugliness, sloppiness, awkwardness—but are completely changeable in their opinions about whether we should admire large or small breasts, curved or flat hips, long or strong necks, juvenile or mature bodies; fat is alternately slippery or gluey, an enemy or an emollient, and borderline personalities easily wax hysterical along with fashion.

5. Finally, a neurotic makes every effort to appear to present a balanced perspective, but in the long run you are always worried about excess, which in the long run is what fat always turns out to be.

Am I implying not only that all dieting and all critiques of fatness reflect various psychological deficits or disorders, but also that there is no workable strategy for packing a suitcase?

Uh oh. ß

HILLEL SCHWARTZ received his Ph.D. in history from Yale University. He has taught history, religious studies, and dance improvisation at several universities, including the University of California at San Diego. He currently lives and writes in Encinitas, California. His book "Never Satisfied-A Cultural History of Diets, Fantasies and Fat" is regarded as a milestone in the size acceptance movement. Dr. Schwartz' deeply philosophical perusings of size issues are a treat to those who appreciate true brilliance.