Mad Men on Weight Issues: Nothing’s Changed

Actress January Jones’ pregnancy has introduced an interesting story element to the fifth season of Mad Men: Betty Francis has put on weight since we last saw her departing from the old Draper residence in Season Four.

This does not sit well with Betty, who we see in the episode faking an illness to get out of attending a social function when she can’t zip up her dress, and later making her husband turn around so he doesn’t see her get out of the bathtub undressed. In other moments, Betty sits listlessly on her couch, in a voluminous new pink housecoat, eating from a bag of Bugles, and at the very end of the episode, without blinking, she proceeds to finish her daughter Sally’s abandoned ice cream sundae after having just finished her own.

As someone who has struggled with my weight, I found this storyline in the episode interesting. I don’t have the kindred experience of starting out at a healthy weight and watching the scale go up, but I can relate to the feelings of shame and frustration, and of just being stuck.

In Betty’s day, women had to deal with attitudes that make women of my generation (X) and younger roll their eyes and grumble in disgust (like the not-so-gentle prodding from Betty’s mother-in-law to lose weight because Betty “still has to worry about pleasing men”), but really, not much has changed. With Photoshopped celebrity images and celebrities snapping back to pre-baby weight almost overnight (Beyonce is the latest example), we do still have external pressure thrown at us, if we choose to let it affect us.

Betty’s trip to the doctor for help with “reducing,” as the old terminology went, also spoke to weight loss concerns that transcend time. The visit was at her mother-in-law’s suggestion, to inquire about diet pills as an option to jump-start her weight loss. The doctor had the good sense to proceed with a full examination and hint at emotional origins, however, adding that:

“When a housewife has a rapid weight gain, the cause is usually psychological–unhappiness, anxiety, boredom, things that cause us to lose our self-control.”

This, barring a medical issue, is definitely something that holds true today–whether you’re a career woman or a stay-at-home mom, and I think it’s true for men just as much as it is for women. I can say for myself, coming out of college and going into the working world, I had a damaging cocktail of unhappiness, anxiety and boredom that fueled my relationship with food as my comforter, and a self-imposed lack of a support system to lean on as an alternative. When you’re dealing with feelings about things you perceive as being beyond your control, it’s so easy, and so soothing, to tamp down those whispers (or screams) of discontent by zoning out on the couch with a bag of Bugles (or a styrofoam container of buffalo wings and fries these days), or digging into a toasty, warm sack of fast food during the ride home from work. The methods for avoiding uncomfortable feelings, like eating, are far more seductive than the possibility for contentment that comes with putting awareness to the feelings, with the intent to resolve them. And that’s just as true in 2012 as it was in 1966, or any time before, or into the future.

Without giving away the main thrust of the episode, I’ll say that Betty gets confirmation that she alone is to blame for her weight gain, and that she’s not happy with herself about that. It’s hard to know what has upset Betty–buyer’s remorse on her relationship with Henry Francis, the stress of an overbearing mother-in-law, or a heightened feeling of the general ennui she has experienced throughout the course of the show–but it’s clear that she can’t or won’t address it. But I think her mother-in-law’s words about weight gain ring true:

You get comfortable, and you give up a little bit, and then it just gets out of control.

That’s yet another perspective from the show that’s still true today. Successfully losing weight involves moving out of our comfort zone (for eating habits and handling our emotions), sticking to our plan, and operating as though we have total control over our eating (which is 100 true).

Time will tell whether Betty will make headway with weight loss or not, but fictitous characters and bygone eras aside, I have gained a new perspective on the universal truths of weight gain and weight loss.

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One thought on “Mad Men on Weight Issues: Nothing’s Changed

  1. I think that there’s a shift in perception about weight, it is now ok for men and women to carry a healthy weight as people realise that what is shown in magazines is not feasible. Being overweight is unhealthy but it is unhealthy to be too skinny…

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