Fat People: You Don’t Have To Justify Your Existence

Dear fat people,

You don’t have to justify your existence to anyone. Not TV doctors. Not lapsed surgeons. Not authors of diet books. Not researchers running an ‘obesity’ center. Not your own doctor. Not your parents. Not your spouse.

When they ask, “Well, don’t you think being fat is unhealthy?” You don’t have to educate them. It’s not your job to give them reasons why you have accepted your body.

When they say, “You must justify your fatness. I’m paying for you!”, tell them they don’t have a problem with you, they’ve got a problem with the system and how it apportions dollars and care. If they’re so concerned about being able to control who and what they ‘pay for’ then they need to take it up with their elected representative or an actual economist, not you.

You don’t have to tell the fatphobes why they’re wrong. Why they’re creating a fictional narrative about your life that isn’t your life. Why threatening you with future health ills is absurd and childish. Why they don’t understand the economics of insurance markets. They probably won’t listen anyway. They’re not looking for reasons to be okay with you. They’re looking for reasons to feel better than you. To blame you for their slimmer pocketbook, or global warming, or world hunger. To absolve themselves from responsibility for those things. To justify their own disconnectedness and indolence. To soothe the guilt of their own consumerism.

Dear fat people: all fat people, of all colors and backgrounds, of all those varying ways to be fat and visibly so, even if you’re just fat in your own family circle or if you’ve been used as a headless fatty folk devil in a news article: you don’t have to justify your existence.

You don’t have to justify your existence by performing health. Or by subscribing to HAES. Or by having a list of studies on-hand whenever some ubiquitous fatphobe challenges your experience and threatens you with the deterioration of your health and even early death if you don’t agree with them.

Fat discrimination is wrong. Don’t listen when they say you’re “lazy, unfit, immoral, liars, burdens.” Sadly, you aren’t the first group of people to be labeled as the biggest sinners, the biggest losers, the folk devils that must be fought and vanquished at all costs, the root of all evil. It’s a formula, an effective one that most people don’t even realize they’re playing into.

There’s no conspiracy. The fat public health panic, known colloquially as the ‘obesity epidemic’ even though obesity is neither a disease nor an epidemic, emerged as a response to a complex panel of variables. No one person sat down one day and said, “You know what we should do? Pathologize fatness, stigmatize fat people, make a bunch of money off it, then sell fat stigmatization to governments and world health organizations so we can codify dieting in their health regulations.”

Timing is everything: an aging population means that diseases highly correlated with aging like cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and strokes are going up, up, up. People are smoking less, getting taller and healthier, and also dieting much more regularly: all states of being that, in addition to aging, result in increased average weight. Fudge with an old statistical tool for insurance tables called the BMI and suddenly you’ve got a health panic on your hands.

Healthism emerged, partially as a response to an aging population afraid of death and convinced that if they ate the right things and did the right amount of exercise they could extend their lifespans to Auroran lengths (see: Asimov), partially as an outgrowth of modern Puritanism, partially because of the fat health panic outlined above, partially as a vehicle of elitism and classism and ableism, and for many other reasons not useful to go into here.

Dear fat people: you don’t deserve to be discriminated against. You were in the wrong place at the wrong time. You don’t have to justify your existence. You don’t have to buy into the myth of health, an arbitrary measure whose definition has not only changed throughout history but means different things to different individuals, to different practitioners of health, even.

You don’t have to justify your existence. If you do, you lose. You lose for yourself, and you lose for the rest of us. What is fat discrimination? Believing that fat people don’t have the right to simply be. That, if they exist as fat people, they are “lazy, unfit, immoral, liars, burdens.” The answer is not to argue that you are “active, fit, moral, trustworthy, generous.”

What right does anyone have to require that in order to live unabused they must live up to a standard the abusers don’t expect of themselves? It’s a lose-lose situation. Ceding to fatphobes the right to question your existence also cedes to them that if you as a fat person didn’t perform exercise, or didn’t count calories, or weren’t ‘healthy,’ or were disabled, or just didn’t adhere to the Healthistic model of virtue, that they would be justified in flailing and abusing you.

Dear fat people: you don’t have to justify your existence. You aren’t supervillains: if you don’t fit into the Healthistic box the fatphobes say you must the world won’t stop turning. Children won’t die. The landmass of your country won’t be swallowed by the oceans. You won’t suddenly get all the so-called fat diseases. You won’t bankrupt your government’s economy.

You will be one precious person saying, “No. Healthism is wrong. Health is bullshit. You’re creating a hierarchy of acceptable, codified discrimination with a bullshit arbitrary measure. And I’m not buying it.”

One precious person, going against a seemingly irresistible tide. You won’t be the villain. You’ll be the hero.

The 95% Problem

A much-touted number around the Fatosphere is 95%. 95% of diets fail to keep weight off long-term, and many diets add weight onto the baseline by the end of the diet cycle, and repeatedly as many times as a dieter cycles over his/her life.

I see this argument in comments on articles that bring out the fat-haters and concern trolls; I see this argument in blog posts; this argument has been used in fat studies and HAES literature.

What I’m going to address today is what I call the 95% problem. That is, why the 95% number fails to convince many people of the ultimate futility of dieting and the relative impossibility of making a fat person permanently thin.

The set of characters I tend to run across, enumerated below, accept and believe in the 95% number to some extent. They just don’t think that it’s a reasonable argument (or excuse, as they put it) for why the diet is failing, and not the dieter.

1. The anecdotalist. Sure, it’s hard to lose weight. But I personally (or a friend) just spent X weeks eating healthy/paleo/vegan/low-carb/low-cal/cleanse, and I’ve lost Y lbs. It was easy, and I don’t see any problem keeping it up. 

The implication being: that current dieters in the honeymoon part of their diet, or first-time dieters, or non-dieters (with the friend who lost weight) are part of the 5%. The 95% are all those inferior people who didn’t have the superior willpower/diet plan/education of the person who lost weight successfully.

2. The social engineer. Sure, it’s hard to lose weight. I’m not fat and I can afford to eat paleo/low-carb/etc, and the membership fee to a nice indoor gym. So we need to make it so everyone else can afford those things. There’s a reason most fat people are poor!

The implication being: that 95% fail their diets because they don’t have enough money to buy superior food, or that they don’t have access to superior food/exercise, and so on. The belief is that fat people can be made permanently thin if only they could eat a superior paleo/low-carb/vegan/low-cal/etc diet and exercise X min a day on socially-approved treadmills.

3. The moralist. No, it isn’t hard to lose weight. Fat people are just lazier than regular people. It isn’t surprising that 95% of them can’t manage to pry their butts from their couches, or bother to learn to cook vegetables. I mean, how hard is it to eat an apple instead of a Twinkie? Seriously. Oh, and those fatties who say they work out and eat right are obviously lying, or think that ‘eating right’ means snarfing S’mores on whole wheat graham crackers or something.

The obvious implication (the moralists don’t tend to mince their words as much as the others): that 95% diets fail because fat(ter) people are morally inferior to ‘normal’ people. It’s an argument from uninformed, bigoted logic that ignores all scientific points thrown its way. Moralists are also good at projecting their anti-scientific beliefs on others: when someone responds to their ‘lazy’ comment with a study or article disproving something they said, they claim the responder is ‘cherry-picking,’ then link to the CDC stats on obesity like this is an end-all refutation. Moralists also like to connect fatness to social ills like global warming and consumerism (if progressive), or lack of self-responsibility and bloated social entitlements (if libertarian).

4. The self-loather. Well, I’m fat (or recently gained weight) and I’m tired/lethargic/short of breath/in pain, and I know personally that I eat too much/eat emotionally/binge eat/am addicted to food/eat too much sugar/(reason du jour). Though it’s hard to make changes, I have to if I want to feel better.

The implication being: that all fat people are just like this person—they feel generally unwell, out of shape, they eat junk, and so on. The commenter is faux-sympathetic to their plight, but is certain that most fatness still comes down to bad behavior/brokenness/stupidity/ignorance, and not to any kind of biological mechanism. This person believes in the 95% number but still think they should forge ahead with their plan to ‘fix’ themselves. They believe that healthy/normal/smart/educated people are naturally thin(ner), or at least not as fat as they are/were.

5. The immortal. Well, X disease (correlated to fatness) runs in my family. So I need to diet constantly, or else there’s a good chance I’ll get fat and get X disease. Or: I have X disease correlated with fatness. I have to lose weight in order to deal with my condition/have the best chance of living normally.

The implication being: that fat causes X disease (not just correlated, and not the other way around), and that weight loss is the main treatment/preventative measure. These individuals might agree that 95% of people fail to lose weight and keep it off long term, but still maintain that they personally are required to. This attitude subtly implies that willpower and desire is the key to entering the vaunted 5%, and further, that those in the 95% must have less willpower and desire to lose weight than those who “have to.”

6. The genetic superior. Well, sure it’s hard to lose weight and I personally don’t have to worry about it, but you should still try to lose weight. Even if it takes the equivalent of a part-time job, loads of cash, and constant vigilance. Even if it makes you sad and crazy. Sorry. Them’s the breaks (dear gosh I’m so glad not to be you!). 

This one kind of explains itself. And yes, I was involved with someone once (a thin guy) who said I had to lose 50 lbs to be ‘hot enough’ for him, and when I cried, he said, “We all have our trials and tribulations.” This was also when I was near my thinnest.

What about you—what kind of arguments do you come across that try to refute the power of the 95% number? And did you have trouble accepting this number at first, or was it (like it was for me) a lightning-bolt to the brain of sudden, joyous, clarity?

“Better Human” = Not Obese!

Take a lookie at this steaming pile of Healthistic smugness:

Can Running Make Us Better Humans?

Yes, it does suggest that avid exercisers are objectively better moral humans. Yes, it does suggest that fat people, who obviously don’t run, are objectively worse moral humans.

The Tarahumara, he avers, know something that those of us living in modern western culture have forgotten: we too are Running People. It is a truth encoded in every human’s narrow pelvis, upright stance, and abundant sweat glands; in our big toes, Achilles tendon, and muscular arches; and in the joy and love we feel when running as we were born to do. Honoring this fact, McDougal contests, would move us modern folk far along the path toward healing many of our most debilitating cultural ills and obsessions, from obesity to chronic depression. Running can make us better humans. [emphasis mine]

You know what would make the author of this article an objectively better human? By not, say, putting down an entire class of people as below her based on her assumption (not even reality) that they don’t engage in an activity she holds in high esteem. There are lots of things humans have Done Throughout History that are value neutral. Just because we used to cure furs doesn’t make fur-curers better people. Just because we used to migrate on foot doesn’t make those guys that walk the Appalachian Trail better people.

Stop using fatness as a scarlet letter. For something published in a psychology magazine, I’d expect a little better (though Psychology Today publishes a lot of fat-hating articles, they have had a few pro-HAES features).

After admitting throughout the article that the author injured herself while engaging in her vaunted athletic activities, she unleashes this gem (referring to immobile, sitting, lazy Westerners who are afraid to leave their houses…sigh, I know):

Riddled with injury and illness, paralyzed by fears, and dizzy with exhaustion, our bodily selves call us to remember that where, how, and with whom we move matters.

I’ll give you two guesses as to what she means when she says “riddled with…illness” (hint: It rhymes with cat!). Also, erm, aren’t we healthier and living longer than ever before? I don’t have to worry about scurvy, scarlet fever, or dysentery (for the most part). So, whatever past the author is fetishizing, I think I’d prefer to live now, thanks though.

Otherwise, the article is just fluff –fetishization of exoticism a la Eat, Pray, Love, privilege and elitism,  rank ableism (thanks to Tehomet for pointing this out in the comments), and staggeringly broad generalizations based on zilch evidence.

Quick Hit – Does Your Body Belong to You?

An essay by A. Barton Hinkle on Reason.com

Does Your Body Belong to You?

Some nice quotes:

“Perhaps you’ve noticed the trend among certain people these days,” wrote Neil Genzlinger in The New York Times the other day, “to decide that certain other people are not living acceptable lives and must be reformed.”

Yes. There certainly is a lot of that going around.

And when you finished reading Genzlinger’s column of page A16 in last Sunday’s Times, you also could see the trend he wrote about just a few pages further in—on the front of the Times’ Sunday Review section. “What will it take,” asked the paper’s Mark Bittman, “to get Americans to change our eating habits?”

This is a subject of great concern to progressives today. Many of them are deeply distressed that—despite incessant lecturing on the subject—too many of their fellow citizens continue to eat what they like, rather than what progressives think they should eat.

….

The progressive campaign against obesity relies on the assumption that the individual no longer owns his or her body—rather, society as a whole does. This has some profound implications for, say, abortion. And Bittman’s contribution to that campaign should serve as a warning: Anyone who thinks it would be “fun” to use government power to dictate everyone else’s choices—from sex partner to dinner menu—should not be allowed anywhere near it.

Read the full article, it’s worth it. As per usual, read the comments at your own risk.

I love this comment by Dagny T.:

This fetishism over “healthy” (whatever the fuck that means to the individual doing the bleating) food has really become tiresome. Food is a necessary fuel, not a goddamn religion.

EDIT: Also, this is a good read (though not perfect): Meddling in Other People’s Diets is ‘Fun’ and ‘Inspiring’

But the weakest part of Bittman’s argument, since paying the taxes he proposes won’t be optional, is his justification for using force to change people’s diets. The government simply would be “fulfilling its role as an agent of the public good,” he says. Treating diet-related diseases costs money, he adds. “The need is indisputable,” he avers, “since heart disease, diabetes and cancer are all in large part caused by the Standard American Diet.” Furthermore, “look at the action government took in the case of tobacco.” In short, “public health is the role of the government, and our diet is right up there with any other public responsibility you can name, from water treatment to mass transit.” So many assumptions, both fiscal and moral, packed into so little space. Bittman does not pause for a moment to consider the vast expanse of human behavior that is subject to government manipulation under his theory of public health.

The Fucking Awesome Truth

Go read this fucking awesome post by Joanna at Dead of Winter:

The Truth is Radical

It will blow your fucking socks off. It’s so old-school FA, I’m all a-quiver like it’s 2007 again. Dammit, I miss Junkfood Science!

Some candy:

Instead of feeling liberated with the knowledge that I was not a failure or defective because of my weight, my health, or my lifestyle, I insisted on holding onto my prejudices, not just against others, but myself.

Why would someone do this?

The reason is two-fold: One is that we still want to hold on to “The Fantasy of Being Thin” that Kate Harding discusses. The other, more subtle, one is that we can’t bear to face it. To face it would be to realize just how thoroughly people hate us and how pervasive fat hatred is, inserting itself in every area of life, held by virtually all people in our culture, and knowing there is no escape for it.

Ding-ding-ding-ding-DING! Sometimes when I really think about how much I’m hated — how irrevocably the culture equates my value as a human/women to my weight, and how many times and in how many ways I’ve been discriminated against, seen as less valuable or even valueless because I’m fat — well, I get really fucking depressed. It’s hard to handle. Really hard.

Finally, holy awesome, Batman:

No. It is our anti-fat, healthist culture that is radical. It refuses to acknowledge any factor in health, fitness, or weight besides lifestyle. It refuses to allow people with socially stigmatized bodies and lifestyles to exist. It refuses to allow them any measure of worth, intelligence, or morality. It seeks to deny basic rights and social support.

Joanna has written the post I’ve wanted to write for at least a year. Con-fucking-gratulations, I’m so fucking glad to see something like this on the feeds, it made my fucking weekend. And I’ve been having a pretty good fucking weekend.

(EDIT: I just found out this is my 250th post on Big Liberty. Holy fucking mother of shit. W00t!)

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.

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?