The Fat Balancing Act

This is a post initiated by Raznay’s “Some Studies Show Fat Is Bad… Mmmkay?” on the never-ending oodles of studies trying in every which way to investigate just why “fat people are so disgusting.” It discusses the implications of the mindset which is generated by assumptions made in these studies — that is, how fat people are commanded to strike an impossible, delicate balancing act in order to be granted the respect and dignity accorded axiomatically to their non-fat peers.

Like Raznay points out, this is often to the detriment of more deserving topics, like cancer research. Then again, many obesity researchers (not all — hi, Dr. Samantha! 🙂 ) I’ve run across in real life, in comments on blogs, and on their own blogs/articles, are convinced that fat cells and hormones are absolutely causing or triggering fat-related diseases in the predisposed.

But I think two major factors are never accounted for in most of these “fat is bad go mutilate yourself/starve your body/feel like a drain on society” studies: dieting history, and current dieting status of participants.

See, lots of fat people diet. In fact, we make up the larger proportion of dieters. (My ‘normal’ -sized stepdaughter would say, “Ew, diet! Why would I ever want to go on one of those? They sound awful.” — but that’s nurture as well as nature, there.)

And those of us who’ve dieted for any length of time know:

  1. Dieting makes brain fuzzy. Huh? What about the food I can’t eat now? Oh you were actually asking a math question? Mmm, math. (Homer drool)
  2. Dieting is very stressful. So is living in a fat-hating world. Researchers are finding out more and more about the deleterious effects of stress on physical health. What they find might account for some the more specious claims correlating cognitive decline and fatness — that is, it might be about anxiety, at bottom.

There are a great many novelists, scientists, and all-around smart people who are big. Some of my most beloved writers are big people. One of my favorite politicians puts Taft to shame. They’re all extremely smart. And they’re not outliers — in fact, I’m willing to wager that intelligent, capable people, correcting for the stress and side effects of a life time of dieting and social stigma, are present in fat populations to the same degree they are present in non-fat populations. If I could commission a study, I would.

Here’s one tweet from the #thingsfatpeoplearetold hashtag which rings particularly true with my own experience of being fat and mingling with ‘intelligentisia.’ —

“Fat people are stupid. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be so fat.”

I’ve especially gotten this impression from intelligentsia who are/were themselves fat and take it upon themselves to expound on their diet/reduction techniques:

“Oh, it’s easy, I just bag up smaller portions and do all my meetings on the treadmill. I rigged a laptop stand and I can just exercise all day if I want to!”

Of course, they’re smart, but they nevertheless don’t seem to make the connection between their twig-like human garbage disposal of a colleague who hasn’t seen a treadmill in forever, and metabolism and predisposition. If all it takes is living on an exercise machine and having bags of carrots and grain around, whose kind of lifestyle are you living? Your thin colleague’s — who is “better” because he is thin — or a horse’s?

And why the hell should fat people have to live like livestock in order to get the most basic kind of respect freely granted to the naturally-thin? (no insult intended to horses or livestock, of course)

Many fat people who’ve played this game long enough know that we’re expected to conduct a very delicate balancing act every day, seven days a week, until we die. We are supposed to “have it all” — aspire to the high-powered position, parenthood, hobbies, and community involvement — while still paying 15+ hours/week of penance on a treadmill, powered by a handful of carrots, oats, and apples. And advertising, of course, since fat isn’t okay unless you’re ‘doing’ something about it. Then you’re a go-getter! But not if you stay fat for too long!

Sound familiar? It’s chasing the dollar on a string. The dollar is basic human respect and dignity; the string is a tool of oppression, that with which we’re controlled and kept in our place. The man working on his treadmill, surrounded by plastic baggies of veg — is he free? And what is he chasing after? Is it thinness, or is it basic human dignity and respect, despite the fact that he is otherwise an example of success? Perhaps he runs to deserve his success in some intangible way unavailable to a person of his size unless human sacrifice is made? And is this the Puritan work ethic rearing its ugly head yet again, or is it something else?

Being seen as a successful, respectable fat person is a delicate balance, one which I’m not sure most people can strike. But should we have to? When do we get to step off of our treadmills, abandon our baggies of ‘good’ treats, and enjoy the world? When do we get to start being more than second class citizens? Isn’t this world — love, drama, beauty, art, travel, science, family, pleasure — isn’t it our world, too?

4 comments on “The Fat Balancing Act

  1. vesta44 says:

    I don’t ask for respect and dignity anymore, I demand it. If people don’t give it to me, then they don’t get the pleasure of interacting with me, at all. I live my life fat at the world and if they don’t like it, too bad. I’m too old to care what anyone thinks anymore, and that goes for doctors as well as the general person on the street. Doctor can’t treat me with respect – you’re fired, I’ll find one that will. Retailers don’t treat me with respect – you don’t get my money, I’ll give it to retailers who do respect me.
    I’ll admit that I’ve been lucky when it came to jobs. Even as a DEATHFATZ woman, I never had trouble finding, getting, or keeping a job that I really wanted. The only time I faced discrimination because of my size, it wasn’t because of the company, it was because of one nasty supervisor who was prejudiced on a lot of levels and took it out on people besides me (and when she got me fired, I knew it was coming and had another job ready to start the next day).
    But then again, I’ve never been one to want “it all” – all I’ve ever wanted is enough money to pay the bills, put a roof over my head, groceries on the table, clothes on our backs, and gas in my car so I could work. If there was anything left over for extras, that was great, but I wasn’t looking to keep up the Jones’s lifestyle or anyone’s lifestyle, for that matter.
    It’s funny too, because all the times I ever dieted, did diet drugs, and the time I had that failed WLS, none of those were because I wanted to be thin. All of them were because doctors were pushing me to lose weight because if I didn’t, I was going to be dead in 5 years because my weight was going to cause so many health problems for me – yeah, it was those diets/drugs/WLS that caused all the problems, and how I wish I’d been smart enough to ignore the doctors the way I ignored society telling me I had to be thin. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it – and I wasn’t “broken” back then, just fat and healthy, but doctors always assumed (and you know what assumptions can do to ya) that I was unhealthy, in spite of having good numbers in all the ways that counted (other than my weight, of course). Because fat people can’t possibly be healthy, no matter what the evidence shows, and thin people are always healthy no matter what kind of lifestyle they lead (and for all those doctors that believe that, I have some ocean-front property in MN for sale).

  2. SunflowerP says:

    I’m pretty much convinced the Puritan work ethic (and a lot of other secuarlized, but still Puritan-derived, or at least ascetic-Protestantism-derived, values) play a role here. “Something else”? Sure, it’s possible; many things have multiple causes. But once one starts noticing the para-religious character of fatphobia, one can see the clues to it everywhere – it’s not just isolated bits of religion-derived morality creeping in unconnectedly; it’s an interconnected structure, a narrative of sin and virtue and salvation that really does address all aspects of, “Why are people in a swivet about this?”

    (I noticed the Moral Panic nature of it a few months before I discovered that you’d been beating that drum for about three years [more like five now, I think] largely unheard – I’m really glad it’s finally catching on in the Fatosphere. I have a post of my own stewing in my head on the subject – that’s why I’ve never commented, I hadn’t formulated much more than, “Sing it, sister!” in articulate form – but my list of reference materials, and thus the length of the hypothetical post, just keeps growing and growing.)


  3. jasnoo says:

    While I completely understand that there are struggles that overweight people often deal with purely because of weight, I have to admit that I disagree with your opinion. Before I go on, I just want to explain that I am not obese or fat, nor am I stick skinny. I am a 21 year old girl finishing up my undergrad degree in cell biology & neuroscience (with a minor in physics and political science). I don’t strive for a skinny frail body, but rather a nice muscular one. I eat healthy and I work out at the gym regularly doing heavy lifting and occasional cardio. For me it’s not about my looks, but my strength and what I can accomplish.

    Sure many fat people diet, I wouldn’t disagree with that. But you have to consider the fact that often those that are in better shape aren’t ‘dieting’ but rather they have healthier lifestyles to begin it. I used to work in a frozen yogurt shop and I would see girls be extremely happy that the froyo was fat free, so it was fine to eat. There was very little concern about how much sugar was in the yogurt and then the girls would overdose on the toppings (and oh man we had some unhealthy ones). Some of these would come out to $8-9 dollars (done by weight) and then occasionally I would hear something like ‘oh I worked out today, it’s fine!’ But then I’d see some fit looking women come in and buy a $2-3 yogurt without overdosing on chocolate toppings or syrups. I’ve come to find that long term success comes from lifestyle changes, something that doesn’t always happen with a diet.

    In regards to ‘fat people are stupid,’ I would never ever say something like that. The most I’d be willing to say is that often fat people are not educated in how to maintain a healthy body. There is no way you can use metabolic predisposition for an excuse for every fat person out there. Sure someone may never be able to be a size 0, but that doesn’t mean that eating 4000 calories a day won’t do any harm. You criticize the ‘bags of carrots and grain’ lifestyle, but there are so many out there who hate the carrots and switch them for the potato chips or twinkies. You aren’t given the respect that the naturally-thin are given because there are plenty of people who DO ‘have it all.’ There are those who work 70 hour work weeks and manage to find time to enjoy life with friends, stay fit, and just be happy. Even my mom who at the age of 48 was 5’3″ and 170lbs just realized how unhealthy she felt and through small changes in her diet (as in watching what she ate, not munching when she wasn’t hungry, avoiding too many unhealthy snacks) and some light exercise went down to 140lbs in about 2 years. She didn’t ever feel depressed about holding herself back from unhealthy choices or having to exercise because she didn’t make it her entire life. She didn’t make any extreme changes like making a treadmill desk. She works full time, is a single mom to me and my 11 year old sister (father works somewhere else), and takes care of my elderly grandmother. She told me that for the first time, she feels like she’s living her life and doing things for herself. She never said that when she wasn’t caring about her health and weight.

    It most certainly is a delicate balance, and I certainly don’t think that fat people should hide in their homes and not enjoy life. But it’s completely unreasonable to think that they won’t get the respect because they have made decisions that have affected their health and weight adversely. This often (but not always) says something about the person’s character. It might be that they don’t care about what the rest of the world things, they don’t have the willpower to change what they don’t like, or they don’t have self restraint. This may not be the case for everyone, but it’s not surprising that the generalizations are made.

    • bigliberty says:

      I’m not going to get into a deep back-and-forth here, because this has been said before and I’m not a science-of-size-101 blog. I’d refer you to JunkfoodScience and The Fat Nutritionist‘s wonderful list of “evidence” on the bottom of her right sidebar. You should be familiar with reading articles of this type if you’re in the sciences, and if not, they’re a great way to learn how.

      I appreciate your comment, especially since I think there are many intelligent reasonably-informed people out there who believe the way you do. I would challenge some of your statements as “fact,” like the healthier-lifestyle myth being applied on a spectrum of skinny-fat (with some exceptions). I think there’s not much practical difference between saying that you think fat people are just uninformed rather than stupid; both take a condescending tone and imply intervention.

      There’s lot of scientifically immature statements in your argument, especially about metabolism and genetic predisposition, so I suggest you do some deeper research on twin studies and inheritance rates of body size, specifically. In short, your statement about metabolic predisposition as an excuse for fatness is like pooh-poohing someone who claims that his tall grandpa has something to do with why he’s tall. And true, there might be another reason he’s tall — but it’s probably because of genetics, agreed? So why is it so hard to believe that body size (minus tallness) is also strongly inherited? I’m arguing from logic here, but the evidence also backs me up. Also, do some research about setpoint theory and energy homeostasis. In a nutshell, there’s a ~30 lb range within which most people can move with relative ease. Besides that I don’t really see any firm counterexamples in your anecdotal statements, so forgive me if I don’t take them as reliable data.

      Also, I’m not sure how reasonable it is to draw differences between dieting and ‘healthy lifestyles.’ ‘Healthy lifestyle’ was adopted by the diet industry in the 00’s when they realized people were getting wind of the fact that diets don’t work for the vast majority of the population in the long term. (also based on studies coming out during that time saying just that) A ‘healthy lifestyle’ would be, for most fat people, a permanent diet. For a good example of this, please read DebrasY’s blog, Debra’s Just Maintaining. This kind of thing can be hard to understand if you yourself have never dieted, and if you believe your lifestyle has everything to do with your weight and hence those who are fatter/thinner must be living differently than you. It might come as a surprise that this isn’t true at all, not even just at the margins. Check out Regan’s Dances With Fat blog to learn the perspective of a fat, fit woman. You might find out that she’s doesn’t live that much differently than the thinner, fit people you know.

      You accuse fat people of ignorance; with all due respect, I’m seeing little more than ignorance in your argument. I do appreciate that you say you do not believe fat people should be abused and shamed for their fat, but your wrong-headed beliefs and assumptions about the science of size marginalize fat people as much as if you outright told them that they don’t deserve to be treated the same as thinner people. I also am amused by the way you attempt to connect body size, character, and respectability right after you “allow” fat people to come out into public. I truly hope you endeavor to get educated on your assumptions, and to lose a bit of that ignorance, since you don’t sound unintelligent. Good luck. It’s a rocky road, and a bit terrifying to realize the propaganda about size we’re fed from nearly birth is not based on facts. But it’s freeing, too.

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