More Healthist Doublespeak

The language of Healthism is so intertwined with notions of moral value that we tend to take its dicta as fact. This can lead to unfortunate reporting of scientific results, both by researchers in ‘conclusion’ sections, and by health reporters.

The most recent example of this is a study (h/t Regan at Dances with Fat) that shows people eat more calories after looking at pictures of larger people than say, a picture of a lamp or a person of ‘normal’ weight. This was translated by the study researchers and health reporters to suggest that people exhibit ‘unhealthy’ behaviors after exposure to fat images, with a not-too-subtle additional suggestion that fat images are harmful and fat is contagious through the power of bad example. Typical paranoid fodder for the moral panic.

Let’s just assume that the conclusions were sound, that people indeed do, in a vacuum, eat more calories after viewing pictures of larger people than they do after viewing pictures of ‘normal’ sized people or lamps. How can we deconstruct what’s going on? And how might we suggest that this kind of behavior isn’t, shockingly, necessarily a bad thing?

Let’s try a thought experiment. Let’s suppose we take a group of chronic dieters who self-report to hate their bodies and fear fatness.* Subject them to a slideshow of people who are even thinner, and who aren’t shown eating. As a bonus, the imagery is presented in a way as to suggest that thinness is what makes these models attractive and worthy of love and the good things in life. Directly afterwards, ask the study participants about their feelings towards their own bodies, and see how many candies they take from a bowl.

My guess, based on the literature of similar studies and good old-fashioned logic? They’ll feel even worse about their bodies, and will tend to restrict their eating more than usual.

Then, show the same group of people a slideshow of images from, say, Adipositivity and some fatshion blogs. Show them fat people in attractive poses and lighting, in pictures meant to suggest that they are attractive, and worthy of the good things in life. Would it be any surprise if the study participants, post-slideshow, felt better about their bodies, and tended to relax their chronic restriction a tad?

What I want to know: why is the second scenario supposed to be the ‘unhealthy’ one?

The power of Healthist language and concepts is much more pervasive than we think. Its stranglehold on common sense and higher reason — its doublespeak — ties even those who make a living researching these things into knots of contradiction.

*I chose this group to make the comparison clearer. It applies to a more general group of participants since the majority of women in Western culture have dieted, and are inundated with messages about how thinness is the same as healthiness, godliness, and worth. Men are increasingly being marketed to in a similar way, and more men diet now than ever before.

7 comments on “More Healthist Doublespeak

  1. abilocity says:

    Brilliant deconstruction!

  2. writemeat says:

    Why is it unhealthy?

    Because putting an unhealthy lifestyle in a positive light encourages people to allow themselves to believe that that lifestyle is okay for them to lead and okay for their families to lead. By no means am I saying that being fat is wrong or that you should be punished or looked down on. But is being overweight unhealthy? By it’s very definition yes. Over weight essentially means you weigh more then the weight that your body is designed to be for optimal health. So encouraging people to be this weight by portraying it in a positive light is similar to how cigarettes where portrayed in a positive light once upon a time.


    • bigliberty says:

      “Overweight” is determined by the BMI, a tool developed for insurance companies that is loosely tied with mortality data (and badly so, as recent studies have suggested mortality and body weight follow a J-curve with the minimum – longest life – in the ‘overweight’ category).

      So no, there are no cut-and-clear definitions, here. And each body is different; we are programmed to be different weights, as we are programmed to be different heights. So body sizes tend to be strongly genetic. In other words, we aren’t all ‘normal’ -weight people who show our health status through our lack or wealth of fat.

      Which also means that you can’t tell how someone lives by looking at them. For reals.

      If you are interested in the actual science of size, I suggest taking a gander at some of my links in the “Truth Behind Fat” page (located at the top).

  3. Spot on!

    Besides, even if someone is being unhealthy, that is nobody else’s business but their own! How many times do we have to say that health is not a moral obligation?

  4. writemeat says:

    The body mass index (BMI), or Quetelet index, is a heuristic proxy for human body fat based on an individual’s weight and height. BMI does not actually measure the percentage of body fat. It was invented between 1830 and 1850 by the Belgian polymath Adolphe Quetelet during the course of developing “social physics”. Body mass index is defined as the individual’s body weight divided by the square of his or her height. The formulae universally used in medicine produce a unit of measure of kg/m2. BMI can also be determined using a BMI chart, which displays BMI as a function of weight (horizontal axis) and height (vertical axis) using contour lines for different values of BMI or colors for different BMI categories.


    I’d love to see your sources for BMI.

    So going with BMI as a legitimate tool for indicating someone as overweight underweight or at correct weight for the height and size based on nothing but imperical data there are clear cut definitions that we can go by. I agree that each body is different but no one can escape the fact that if you are consuming less or the same amount of calories then you are exerting you will remain the same weight or lose weight depending on which one you do. Eating more calories then you are exerting will result in gaining weight because those excess calories will be saved as fat.

    Nothing wrong with having excess fat. I myself am 387 lbs as of this morning. I love myself. Accept myself for who I am. And know that it is my choices and no one elses who have made me who I am. And no one has a right to tell me to change. I am changing however, for me. I’m losing weight, down 9 lbs and and working hard to achieve the body I want to live in. Again not for anyone but myself.

    We are all not normal as there is only one of us in the world. There is only one joseph so whatever joseph (me) chooses to be, that is normal for him. But to say that joseph is not overweight, is lying to him. He is overweight and again and again overweight has been proven to be detremental to health.

    You can’t tell anyone how to live their life no should you. Everyone chooses who they are and what their body types are. I agree that some people have a genetic disposition to be a certain but way but humanity through struggle and spirit chooses what we are, not accept our destiny lying down.

    I am interested in the actual science of size so I will look at your links. I hope they are based on fact no on emotion.

    I look forward to continuing to read your blog. Also, I read that your a sci fi writer. I’d love to read some of that too. Huge fan of sci fi.


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