Move over freshman fifteen: make (lots of) room for the sabbatical ten.


A Narcisco Rodriguez dress that looks surprisingly comfortable.

I’ve been talking with a number of the other long-term fellows about the amazing fact that many of us have managed to gain weight while on sabbatical. Here we are, in Southern California, with its lovely weather and year-round fresh produce at local farmer’s markets several times each week, and we’re getting fatter! We’re getting fatter as we walk and bike to the library, and as we do yoga in the Chinese garden twice a week together (with classes taught by me and another fellow), and we’re all of us–or most of us, anyway–getting heavier!

Most of us live in places with winter cold and summer humidity in our real lives, and most of us drive a lot longer and further on a daily basis in our work commutes. Then there’s all of that day job tedium of teaching, meeting with students, and committee work that gets in the way of our running, walking, hiking, biking, and yoga, or what have you.  Women and men alike have remarked on this unhappy side-effect of our residency here.

What is up with this? 

I haven’t gained more than a few pounds, but I was kind of hoping to drop the five (OK, eight or ten) that I had picked up over the past few years, what with all of the biking, hiking, walking, running, and yoga in my life in L.A..  (My yoga teacher assures me that “it’s all muscle!” but I’m skeptical.)  I’m never on my dead butt in my car in L.A., whereas that’s about 3-5 hours of my life each week in Colorado!  I used to be a pretty reliable “S” or size 6 across the board, but sometimes now I find that “M” and size 8 fits a little better.  And not just at Barney’s when I’m trying to squeeze into a Narciso Rodriguez dress.  (Barney’s always manages to make me feel fat and poor.  I think it’s really about Barney’s and not about me, though.)

To a large extent, I feel like it’s un-feminist to complain about gaining weight.  Why shouldn’t I take up some space in the world?  I’m in my mid-40s and have done some things.  Haven’t I earned it, or must I always apologize for the space I occupy?  Men are allowed to let it all hang out, especially past a certain point in life.  Why aren’t we women more comfortable with ourselves–and other women–claiming the same space?  Why do we insist on trying to make ourselves smaller, literally to diminish ourselves?

So what gives?  If it’s happening to a lot of us, then perhaps it’s not a collective failure of the will but might have something to do with our food ecology.

The Research Director of the Huntington Library has joked with us about the “Huntington 15” that he has put on since taking the job three years ago, but then, part of his job is to take visiting scholars and the fellows out to various lunches in restaurants and catered dinners.  While the long-term fellows are invited to some of these events, they only happen for us about once or twice a month.

Is it that we’re just too friendly and are socializing in bars and restaurants too often?  Could be.  Are we availing ourselves of Trader Joe’s frozen dinners instead of cooking whole foods from scratch.  Guilty, as charged!  Are we gladly downing a third glass of wine or a cocktail most evenings, because we don’t have to mark papers or stay awake to finish our reading or lecture notes for tomorrow.  Nolo contendere!  Is there something about the psychology of sabbatical that makes us feel like we’re entitled to “treat” ourselves more often?  I’m entering an Alford plea.

Or are we just a bunch of lucky bastards mostly in our 40s and 50s who’d be packing it on anyway at this stage in life?  Almost surely!  At least while we’re on sabbatical as Huntington long-term fellows, we’re in excellent company and  are enjoying ourselves, instead of blaming ourselves, Christmas, the weather, the crummy winter, etc. for our weight gain.

On the other hand:  we hear that dieting doesn’t work, and that what little scientific evidence we have about weight and survival suggests that it’s better to carry a few extra pounds than to be thin.  So I say let’s live it up while we can.  Austerity awaits us as we watch the clock on our fellowships wind down.

20 thoughts on “Move over freshman fifteen: make (lots of) room for the sabbatical ten.

  1. Speaking of which, we should totally go to Phillipe again when I’m back in town and eat French dip sangwiches, pickled eggs, and pound beers all afternoon!


  2. I’m usually a bit heavier and bigger when I exercise regularly than when I don’t, notably my thighs can be quite a bit bigger (and even at my skinniest I’m a fair bit larger than a US 6). So, there might be something in the muscle thing, or it could be you eat more (and allow yourself to) when you exercise more. I also have (an entirely unscientific) theory that it could just be about how your body shape changes with exercise, so that your clothes hang differently, which can make some thing seem tighter or less flattering that perhaps they did.


  3. It might also be that, without a constant round of teaching and meetings and commuting to distract you, and with strong incentives to embrace your intellectual work (and a decent amount of healthy exercise), you’re moving closer to what Health at Every Size advocates call “intuitive eating,” and that that results in a slightly higher (though still, yes, most likely perfectly healthy, if not quite so socially desirable) weight.

    One of the reasons I don’t diet (though I am certainly well over what is typically considered a “healthy” weight for someone my height) is that I find it incredibly distracting. I don’t know whether I’m typical, or am seeing the effects of a genetic makeup that helped an ancestor or two live through a famine, but if I don’t eat enough to maintain my weight, I find myself thinking about food a great deal (and able to concentrate on other things proportionately less). On the other hand, if I follow my hunger signals, I don’t tend to think about food except when I actually need to eat to keep brain and body fueled (and the intrusion of thoughts of food is a pretty good signal, often slightly preceding more obvious ones such as stomach-rumbling or more noticeably diminished concentration, that it’s time to find some food). Sometimes I make healthier food choices than others (mostly depending on the amount of time I have available to devote to planning/shopping for/cooking or assembling meals), and sometimes I do eat as a response to stress, but for the most part I’m pretty good at maintaining equilibrium (though with a definite gradual upward trend over the years, which may, as you point out, be normal; I come from a family of people who tend toward the quite-skinny or the quite-fat, with most members of both groups gaining a bit through their seventies, losing a bit after that, and living into their 90s, so I’m skeptical of claims that being fat is likely to kill me prematurely). I know different people react to food in different ways, so I’m reluctant to interpret others’ experiences, but I can’t help noticing that I experience the intrusive food-related thoughts to which many lifelong dieters attribute their difficulty in maintaining the lower weight they’d prefer *only* when I’m dieting. As with many things weight-related, it appears to be more difficult than one would expect to separate cause and effect.

    So my hypothesis, based on the evidence you’ve related, is that and your fellow-fellows are doing a good job of supporting your brains through both exercise and eating, and any minor weight gain (very minor, from the perspective of someone much heavier, but these things are relative, and how a particular person feels at a certain weight matters) is merely a side effect (and yes, quite possibly partly muscle, which is a good thing to increase, or at least maintain, in our forties and beyond).


  4. I’ve never been able to figure out why fairly often an inadvertent or circumstantial interruption of gym attendance for several days will result in a several pounds *loss* of weight, whereas working away conscientiously and regularly is sometimes rewarded with a little upward bracket creep at the scale. This is not, however, a secular trend issue. I can’t remember how I fared during fellowships, while at the Huntington or elsewhere–except to say that I walked to and from the place, and exercised pretty regularly.


  5. YEP!

    I started my sabbatical year maybe five pounds heavier than I’d’ve ideally liked, but I wasn’t much bothered by it; I ended it pretty much unable to wear most of my skirts and dress pants comfortably.

    Like you, I was willing to just accept this as maybe my new, middle-aged body–one that didn’t keep weight off as easily as it used to–but since that would’ve involved replacing a lot of my wardrobe, including things I’m pretty attached to, I decided first to see what a little more exercise would do (I was walking a ton on my sabbatical, but didn’t have a gym).

    Surprisingly, it worked, but it was a nice test of what I am & am not willing to do to “keep” my figure: exercise a bit more, yes. But dieting or eliminating foods/drinks I love? HELL NO. I believe in treats.


  6. Flavia, that’s what the consensus was on a walk I took recently with some of the distinguished fellows, two senior women: we’re not giving up the potato chips and wine completely. YES to treats; yes to activity. And this year, it’s la dolce vita for us. There’s always next year, when we’re back in the cold all winter long, to self-correct.

    I like what CC says about not-dieting as a mindful exercise in not becoming obsessed with food and weight. That’s the way to go, I think.

    I don’t ordinarily write about such personal or self-indulgent issues on this blog, so thank you for indulging me. For those uninterested in this post, I will get back to writing about professional issues, history, and feminism–soon! I promise.


  7. Another mystery: I do all of my errands on foot! I never start the car to buy toilet paper or something for dinner or whatever like I do at home–it’s all available here within a half-mile radius or so . I’m always walking, everywhere!

    What gives???


  8. I think too, that when you’re teaching you’re very physically active — I’m always walking from one building to another, or down a long hall, and when I’m actually in the classroom, I’m always in motion. Teaching is not a sedentary lifestyle!


  9. I looooove the Huntington and would gladly put on a few pounds if I could spend a full stint in residence. Sadly, the longest I’ve stayed was a month. But with or without a sabbatical away, I find that my personal maintenance needs a reset every five to seven years. I get into routines that aren’t always the best and some of them become problematic. But I don’t see that until I sit back and take a good long look at how we’re living our lives. In other words? Sabbaticals for everyone, even if they’re only virtual. They can really help to put matters into perspective. Now, about that wine. . . .


  10. I’d say lack of stress.

    Anxiety, especially continuing low-level anxiety, changes your metabolism.

    And since I’ve only seen you face to face at the Huntington, let me add that you must be quite skinny in Colorado.


  11. The exercise you get that goes by that name is really only a tiny fraction of the calories you burn doing all the typical activities in a day. Sitting and reading and writing burns a lot fewer calories than teaching, I would imagine.


  12. Omg, that slate article is such a load of bull.

    Here’s an alternative hypothesis: you’re used to burning tons of calories keeping your body warm. You don’t have that in So. Cal.

    Here’s another: you’re a year closer to menopause.

    I did my sabbatical in a much colder climate and dropped a ton of weight, which came back with a vengeance after moving back south. But then, I was also a year closer to menopause. And also pretty depressed that my awesome sabbatical was over….


  13. Here’s another: you’re a year closer to menopause.

    Thanks, Mary Sunshine!!!

    The menopause hypothesis doesn’t work, because post-menopausal women and non-menopausal men in my class of fellows have also remarked on their sabbatical weight gain.

    The warmer climate thingy idea is interesting; I’ve noticed that I tend to be a pound or two heavier in summer than in winter. Why is that? Is it really just the calorie-burning feature of winter living? Is it the yummy deliciousness of farmer’s market foods and vacations in summer? IDK.


  14. I’ve had exactly the same problem during my sabbatical at home – also exercising a lot, but also gaining weight. I think it’s because I’m just in my house so much more, making good food from scratch. Not junk food, or even desserts, but lots of good bread, soups, etc. If I’m in the house and there is good food in the house, I’ll just eat it.

    It’s also true that dieting requires energy, and the energy I have is almost entirely dedicated to getting the book written. So while I’d like to have come out of sabbatical ten or twenty pounds lighter than when I started, better to come out with a book.


  15. “So while I’d like to have come out of sabbatical ten or twenty pounds lighter than when I started, better to come out with a book.”

    You make a great point, af: you need to feed the mind & body that writes the book. If you’re plenty active, an extra 10 pounds will likely not doom you.

    This is why I was reluctant to write about (my own as well as others’) body issues on this blog. This blog is really about our professional lives and intellectual & labor concerns as scholars, not about our bodies. I once made a joke to one of my running buddies about how I probably won’t be featured in the pages of my Title Nine catalogues, and he was all like, “why would you even think that’s something to aspire to? Being a catalog model is not your job!”

    And he was right! Our bodies are not integral to our professional lives. A blog devoted to the concerns of models and actors would likely be a lot about their bodies and their looks, which are of professional concern (esp. for the women among them.)


  16. As a late-30s male, I had exactly the opposite experience: while I was away on sabbatical, I lost almost 20 pounds. I had time to get enough exercise, and I spent several months in a country that doesn’t have easy access to junk food. Then when I got back to the overwhelming routine at home last fall, I gained it back, and twice as fast as I had lost it.

    (This term, I lost some of it again, primarily by eliminating the word “breakfast” from my vocabulary — probably not what a medical professional would recommend, but it seems to be working for me at the moment.)


  17. Just read this, with great interest. I’ll offer a dissenting voice: as a late 30s male, I managed to lose about ten pounds during my year in Paradise, aka the Huntington. I attribute this success to several factors:

    1. The Cal Tech gym
    2. A good number of walks/bike rides around Pasadena (including a bike commute to the library)
    3. Midday walks around the gardens
    4. Lots of weekends hiking in the San Gabriels, which I love immensely and miss terribly
    5. Yummy salads to eat
    6. Perhaps most importantly, my otherwise superb apartment had a tiny fridge that lacked an effective freezer. In consequence, I went more or less cold turkey on ice cream (except for occasional forays to Carmela’s and Bulgarini Gelato) and didn’t get hooked on frozen TJs meals.
    7. Oddly, I did far less yoga in CA than I do in WI, mostly because I was doing so many other things. In the long run missing yoga was a problem in various ways – I’d have been healthier and happier if we’d done your Chinese Garden sessions – but for weight loss specifically the other stuff I was doing may have burned more calories. Which, if you think about it, is a good reason for NOT making weight loss a central goal.

    That may or may not be helpful: n=1 and all that. In any case, enjoy the rest of your time at the Huntington, and please give my regards to Steve and the gang.



Let me have it!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.