Comfort Eating and Kirstie Alley

The Divided Self

Actress Kirstie Alley is a wild woman who has freely admitted to an interviewer, “It was the greatest thing in the world getting fat.” But being fat? Not so much. Still, if there is one public figure (besides Oprah Winfrey) whose every ounce of gain and loss has been tracked, minute by minute, by millions of eyeballs, that public figure is Kirstie Alley. In fact, never before has the phrase “public figure” carried such a weighty load of double meaning.

Remember the character created by Garrett Morris for Saturday Night Live? The fictitious Chico Escuela’s catchphrase was, “Baseball been berra berra good to me.” Well, Alley could without exaggeration say, “Obesity has been very, very good to me.” It’s as if her entire career has been built around obesity. It’s as if her entire persona is a self-parody. But what sets her apart is a degree of self-awareness and candor that are seldom matched.

Aly Semigran, one of the many reporters who have covered this saga, quotes Alley as saying,

It’s insane! I’m disgusted with myself! I let myself down and, worse than that, I let other people down… When we get fat, we fool ourselves with every kind of lie imaginable.

This is excellent. Some people can’t even get as far as admitting that such a thing as denial exists. On the other hand, there is a warning here. Self-awareness is not enough, as we see from the up-and-down graph of Alley’s weight struggle. And, if a value judgment were to be made between candor and health, candor is the booby prize.

Really, which would you rather be? A smart-alecky yet perspicacious person who is dangerously obese? Or a healthy person whose good habits are so ingrained, you don’t need to obsess about weight?

Another thing the Kirstie Alley story teaches is that childhood obesity and adult obesity are different in some important ways. Babies, toddlers, and most children do not possess the self-awareness to be in denial. Denial mainly consists of rationalization, and young people in those demographics lack the mental sophistication to engage in it. So we don’t have to worry about that. Adults, on the other hand, need very much attention in this area, and still, the shedding of denial is not enough.

The wave of publicity Alley has generated last spring was of course in support of her newest project. Denise Martin reported for the Los Angeles Times,

The fluctuating weight of Kirstie Alley has kept the once-svelte ‘Cheers’ star on the cover of tabloids for years, a predicament she made fun of in fantastic, over-the-top fashion on the 2005 Showtime comedy ‘Fat Actress.’ Now those body issues have led her where so many celebrities go in the hopes of remaking themselves for the public: reality TV.

Residing on the A&E TV network, “Kirstie Alley’s Big Life” is not the show that she originally had in mind. When the executives suggested the real-life format, the actress agreed because, she told Martin, “I hate being fat.” Which is the situation that inevitably goes along with the notion that getting fat is the greatest thing in the world. When people are aware of their own duplicity and self-deception, it takes of lot of mental and emotional energy to handle such a contradiction.

To be so divided against oneself is very stressful, and that stress leads to more stress eating, and more comfort eating. Kirstie Alley has admitted to both.

Really, any so-called reason will do. An alcoholic will latch onto any excuse for a drink, whether it’s the day’s headlines or a snub from a co-worker. In the same way, a person whose problem substance is hyperpalatable food will seize upon any excuse for an edible treat.

Voila! The vicious cycle: Eat; gain weight; feel bad about how messed up you are; eat to stop feeling bad; gain more weight; and so on, ad infinitum. Chapter 13 of Overweight: What Kids Say is all about vicious cycles, and they are everywhere.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Kirstie Alley Says Getting Fat Was ‘The Greatest,’”, 04/07/10
Source: “Kirstie Alley takes her weight-loss battle to reality TV,” LA Times, 03/31/10
Image by Mark Waters, used under its Creative Commons license.

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The Book

OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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