The Mia Freedman Debacle, or, Why Moral Panics Need Strawmen

Bri King of Fat Lot of Good, fellow Fat Acceptance blogger and general advocate, recently came under fire as she found herself daring to push back against a so-called body image activist allowing virulently anti-fat comments on a recent post about feederism.

Bri has since been asked to comment for articles in several Australian news outlets. (students of sociology, pay close attention to the language used in the titles of each of these articles—five extra brownie points for some analysis, if you wish to provide it!)

1. Herald-Sun: Body blogger Mia Freedman gets heavied

2. Today/Tonight: Heavyweight fury

3. A Current Affair: Mia’s fat fight

The article is the fairest, though uses some cheap fat-mocking ‘colorful’ descriptive language here and there. Both of the other segments I watched briefly without the sound so that I could get a sense for the kind of imagery they put forth, and it’s immediately problematic — headless and legless fatties, thinner people who get attractive straight-on headshots, and so forth. But I think others can go through the segments with a bit more of a detailed analysis, what I want to talk about is what really went down, here, and why this is an example of how the strawman effect is the most powerful foundation block of a moral panic.

For Bri’s explanation and links to Mia’s post and its comments, please see her posts here (ordered by date):

1. This Angry Fatty won’t just shut up and go away…

2. still Angry Fatty

Freedman has since come back to explain that, in fact, she wasn’t talking about fat people in general but was highlighting the feederists, which we can all agree are bad, bad, bad! And why don’t us regular fatties just shut up about it, what, do we think that kind of behavior is good or something? Of course, the arguments being made against Bri are chock full of logical fallacies (extra points for those who list which ones!). And it shows either a great deal of ignorance or intellectual dishonesty on the part of a so-called body image advocate to claim that highlighting feederism in the midst of a moral panic where fat people are the folkdevils isn’t harmful to fat people in general.

Here are a few facts to chew on, in case you’re still not convinced:

  1. Feederism wouldn’t seem as horrifying if society wasn’t already panicked and disgusted by fat people in general. The natural bigoted question being, “Can you believe there exist people who not only like being fat but want to get fatter?”
  2. Feederism wouldn’t seem as horrifying if the common wisdom wasn’t erroneously that people with few exceptions have the ability to control their body weight. The natural bigoted question being, “Can you believe these people want to be fat when they could be thin if only they got their priorities straight or were sufficiently shamed, and further, that they want to be so very fat indeed?”
  3. Feederism wouldn’t seem as horrifying if the nanny-state wasn’t continually making its version of ‘health’ a public responsibility (thus placing people’s bodies into the black box of common ownership and hence critique). The natural bigoted question being, “Can you believe these people are irresponsibly choosing fatness when it’s my wallet on the line?”

Let’s further the analysis, for those who still aren’t clear on the connection between these points — demonizing feederism in the context of a moral panic where fat people play the part of folkdevil — and why such a blog post, made by a so-called body image advocate, furthers general sizism and worsens general hate of all fat people.

Feeders/Gainers, and those who are seen as clearly choosing to get fatter, are the strawmen of the ‘obesity epidemic.’ Because one of the fundamental lines of reasoning behind the moral panic of fat is that the vast majority of fat people choose to be fat. Hence, in the common-wisdom narrative of the ‘obesity epidemic’ all fat people are, to some degree, feeders/gainers.

So demonizing feeders/gainers in the context of the ‘obesity epidemic’ moral panic is the same as demonizing the vast majority of fat people.

And the comments on Freedman’s site prove this point to be true, as do many of the comments on the Herald-Sun article linked above. Those commenters don’t care if Freedman was talking about feeders/gainers in particular — to them regular fatties aren’t really that different from feeders/gainers. So what Freedman has written has the effect of only reinforcing the bigoted notions of fat put forth by the common-wisdom narrative, reinforcing people’s disgust over fat people. What Freedman has written reinforces their horrified sensibilities concerning what and how it is proper to consume food or think about wellness and how they believe ‘proper thought’ to be inextricably tied to a particular ‘proper’ size. What Freedman has written reinforces the idea that it is okay to hate and ‘be against’ this behavior, which to them is only an extreme version of what they believe all fat people do.

Freedman, a so-called body image advocate, is doing nothing more than promoting the ‘proper’ body — one that isn’t too fat — by means of what she surely believes is well-placed concern about feederism.

Still don’t believe me? Take the tenor of the comments on any article which treats this debacle (including comments on Freedman’s blog). The high level of outrage and disgust signify rage and panic over someone daring to be an outspoken member of a deviant class. This is traditionally how moral panics police their deviant classes. If most of these commenters came in with honest curiosity or concern over health, I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt the level of emotion would be quite a bit lower.

In conclusion, I would like to reiterate a comment I made on Bri’s blog about this whole debacle, in particular the backlash against her take on the situation.

Remember, the ‘obesity epidemic’ is a moral panic, and by being an outspoken member of the deviant class you threaten the status quo and that’s obviously ruffling some feathers.

In fact, congratulations are in order: it seems you’ve advanced your particular message to the third stage of activism. For as Gandhi said, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

They’re definitely fighting you. Cheers, Bri, keep on!

EDIT (5/13/10, 11:30p EST): Please also take a look at Spilt Milk’s current Freedman post. She replies to a comment Mia Freedman made to Spilt Milk’s blog—it’s really fantastic, please read it!

NOTE: If you have come to submit the comment, “But don’t you know that feederism is bad? What, are you promoting feederism or something?” I might actually publish it, just to get laughs. But I request in any case that you re-read this post — and again, if you’re still scratching your head — and if you can’t get it after that, congratulations! You’re a bigoted pawn of the moral panic. Or should I say, I send my deepest regrets to your friends and family.

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First Lady Releases Child Obesity Recommendations

…largely blames mothers for child’s obesity.

cue shock and surprise

Link to the AP article

Some particular gems (note throughout these that the child omgbesity is referred to, without challenge, as “the problem”):

Mrs. Obama has said she wants to help solve the problem in a generation so babies born today will come of age at a healthy weight. The report says that could happen if childhood obesity rates dropped to 5 percent by 2030.

Read: Non-experts who don’t apparently know anything about statistics, genetics, and the science of size can now control billions of dollars and influence countless lives as long as they’re somehow connected to an influential politician (this is not new, of course, but it can’t be reiterated too many times in my opinion).

Or: Welcome to the moral panic. Check your deviant status—and your children—at the door.

Or: The report says that one can solve the problem in a generation if rates drop to very low in a generation—i.e., one can solve the problem if one solves the problem—i.e., the utter BS non-speak tautologies presented as some kind of ‘revelation’ in order to push an agenda fueled by bias and the politics of crisotunity rather than facts and reasonable outcomes.

The report says a woman’s weight before she becomes pregnant and her weight gain during pregnancy are two of the most important factors that determine, before a child is born, whether he or she will become obese. [bold mine]

Read: Fat women have a higher likelihood of giving birth to fat children. Before driving in the Duh! Truck, realize that they’re not implying here that fat is genetic. In fact there isn’t the single, slightest nod paid to the overwhelming (77%) role genetics plays in the determination of weight. The report is written on the assumption that weight—for a mother before pregnancy, during pregnancy, and then the weight of the child—are completely controllable. Of course, instead of just assuming fat children would become thin children with the ‘proper’ diet, it attempts to correlate some hoo-doo about the physiology of fat mothers and future fat children. If this seems convoluted to you, then you’re on the right track. Instead of talking about genetics or talking about what fuels significant weight gain in pregnancy (someone more expert correct me if I’m wrong, but I was under the impression that large pregnancy weight gains in general are most strongly correlated with a concurrent cessation of a calorie-restricted diet), they couch everything in dubious ‘risk factor’ and correlative language.

(As an aside, if anyone has a copy of this actual report, I’d like to read it. I have a feeling it’s just a data dredge survey of some kind)

Something also very interesting to note, for those who have a nose for these public policy scienterrific press releases: the selective use of numbers. Note that the statistical correlations between fat moms (before pregnancy), weight gain (during pregnancy) are just reported as existent, while the correlation between breast-fed and reduction of obesity likelihood is stated outright (apparently 22%, but remember this is an odds ratio, so what that really means is that if the average bottle-fed child has a 15% chance of becoming obese, if they are breast fed then this goes down by 22% of 15% — that is, by 3%. So if the average bottle-fed child has a 15% chance of becoming obese, the average breast-fed child apparently has a 12% chance. The numbers are a bit less scary, no? That’s why they’re reported as odds ratios instead of real probabilities — to inflate their significance).

On Obesity Increasing Health Costs

This is related to the study linked to and commented on by Bri at Fat Lot of Good:

Few things I noticed:

The percentages skew towards the obese:

Of the 11 247 participants examined in the 1999–2000 AusDiab study, data were available in the 2004–2005 follow-up survey for 6140 (54.1% female; mean age, 56.5 years). Based on BMI, 31.6% were normal weight, 41.3% were overweight and 27.0% were obese. The proportions with normal WC, abdominal overweight and abdominal obesity were 32.8%, 26.3%, and 41.0%. When combined definitions (based on BMI and/or WC) were used, 24.7% were normal, 32.4% were overweight and 42.9% were obese.

The 2007–2008 NHS reported similar BMI-based rates for adults aged ≥ 25 years: normal, 34.1%; overweight, 39.1%; and obese, 26.9%.

This seems to be because they included WC obesity, not really something I’ve seen done much so far in these epidemiological studies. It would suggest there are many more ‘obese’ people than the BMI suggests.

Note: no controls for weight-based interventions. That is, costs associated with bariatric surgery (to include these would seem like the dog biting its own tail, as it were). Also, no controls for when fatness is a symptom of a condition in an obvious way, like a side-effect of certain prescription medications or a symptom of PCOS or hypoglycemia. This studies skews fatness as ’cause’ of greater medical costs, when fatness can be a symptom of conditions which would naturally push costs up.

In that same breath, diseases with a symptom of wasting (like some cancers) should be controlled for.

The mean annual payment from government subsidies was $3600 (95% CI, $3446–$3753) per person (Box 1). Based on BMI, government subsidies per person increased from $2948 (95% CI, $2696–$3199) for people of normal weight to $3737 (95% CI, $3496–$3978) for the overweight and $4153 (95% CI, $3840–$4466) for the obese. A similar trend was observed for WC-based weight classification.

This isn’t saying anything new. We’ve known for a while (need a link here) that poorer people in our modern society tend to be fatter than richer people. Poorer people consume more government subsidies. Hence fatter people consume more government subsidies.

I think that this study could have been much more rigorous if they would have done a few things:

  1. Controlled for obesity-related interventions like bariatric surgery and weight-loss interventions
  2. Controlled for costs associated to conditions and medications that clearly have increased (or decreased) weight as a side effect, as that would skew the data
  3. Controlled for income when calculating government subsidies per person

Then again, if those things were done, then I don’t think we’d see such a neat, eye-popping linear relationship between ‘obesity’ and costs, would you?

This ‘study’ is prop for some future political theatrics, nothing more.

Eugenics Rears Its Ugly Head, Again

When you deliver your body to the State, expect the State to start:

  1. Making you do things
  2. Preventing you from doing things

In other words, if you hand your body over to someone else, that someone else will claim the right to control it.

Today I was rudely reminded that eugenics, one of the nasty platforms of famous fascist/socialist states like Nazi Germany, is alive and well (h/t Elizebeth). Eugenics posits that one can (must) improve the species by allowing some people to have children, and disallowing others. In our modern time, it has also become more selective: couples can choose to have children with certain genetic makeups and not others. All in the name of having the ‘best’ child, who will become the ‘best’ kind of citizen and human, and that these ‘best’ people are superior in general to naturally-born, unselected people.

In this current example, The European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE)), has recommended practitioners or governments which follow the Society’s recommendations, void the Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for certain classes of people, namely (bolding mine):

1) In view of the risks for the future child, fertility doctors should refuse treatment to women used to more than moderate drinking and who are not willing or able to minimize their alcohol consumption.

2) Treating women with severe or morbid obesity required special justification. The available data suggested that weight loss would incur in a positive reproductive effect, although more data was needed to establish whether assisted reproduction should be made conditional upon prior life-style changes for obese and smoking females.

3) Assisted reproduction should only be conditional upon life style changes, if there was strong evidence that without behavioural modifications there was a risk of serious harm to the child or that the treatment became disproportional in terms of cost-effectiveness or obstetric risks.

4) When making assisted reproduction conditional upon life style modifications, fertility doctors should help patients to achieve the necessary results.

5) More data on obesity, smoking and alcohol consumption as well as other life style factors were necessary to assess reproductive effects. Fertility doctors should continue research in this area.

Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (bolding mine):

Article 16
  1. Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
  2. Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
  3. The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

It is my firm belief that being fat is intertwined with racial status, since fat is preponderantly genetic. Therefore, discriminating against fat people is discriminating against them based on their racial status. Again, fat is not a behavior. Fat is not a disease. Fat is a body type, which is preponderantly genetic.

To understand how ridiculous this is, just consider this one fact: the fear of diabetes is one of the largest health ‘risks’ that anti-obesity crusaders tout when trying to get you into a panicked enough state to agree to their fascist ultimatums. And having diabetes in your immediate family is by far the largest risk factor for having diabetes yourself. Yet, women who already have diabetes — or heart disease, or a history of cancer, or any of the other major ills thrown at the doorstep of fatness — aren’t disallowed from getting reproductive help in the article being discussed here.

This isn’t about the future health of the child (a concept right out of eugenics, by the way), or whatever malarkey they’re concocting to get you to go along with their crusade. Or else women with diseases shown to be genetic wouldn’t be allowed to get reproductive help. No, this is a direct attempt to make formal the second-class status of unpopular groups of people.

As a final note, not only should it be a basic human right for a woman to reproduce if she so chooses. It should also be a basic human right to contract with another individual for services that do not violate other basic human rights. In other words, if there’s a doctor willing to contract with you for IVF services, then you have the right to proceed.

Quick Hit: The Myth of the Obesity Tsunami

A great Op-Ed is out today from Cato: The Myth of the “Obesity Tsunami”

Here are the last three paragraphs, but I encourage you to read the whole piece. No Sanity Watchers’ points required!

The findings of the English survey not only contradict the claim that we are in the midst of an obesity epidemic, but they also debunk the public health establishment’s erroneous claim that increases in children’s weight are due to junkfood advertising and too many sugary soda drinks. According to the survey, the root cause of any weight gains that one does see appear to lie in physical activity levels. For example, “21 per cent of girls aged two to 15 in the low physical-activity group were classed as obese compared with 15 per cent of the high group”.

A similar pattern was found in the 2006 survey, which found that 33 per cent of girls aged two to 15 with low levels of physical activity were either overweight or obese compared with 27 per cent of those with high levels of physical activity. As with smoking, obesity prevalence was higher in both boys and girls in the lowest income group.

Clearly, governments’ current course of draconian regulatory treatment seeks to cure an illusory disease. The nanny state’s infatuation with an obesity epidemic that does not exist is a searing indictment of this particular public health crusade.

Send Away the Fat Kids

Shudder-worthy article today: Task force: Screen kids, obesity treatment works

An influential advisory panel says school-aged youngsters and teens should be screened for obesity and sent to intensive behavior treatment if they need to lose weight — a move that could transform how doctors deal with overweight children.

Needless to say, sanity watchers points required when reading the entire article.

Ugh, this kind of thing makes me sick…such blatant ‘othering,’ such a huge expense, for: “…intensive treatment can help children lose several pounds — enough for obese kids to drop into the “overweight” category, making them less prone to diabetes and other health problems.”

Several pounds? Twice a week appointments, group ‘therapy’ meant to brainwash children that feeding themselves and/or not having a cookie-cutter body type is a sign of being broken and bad?

Ugh, ugh, ugh. What are your thoughts?

Quick Hit: Americans Are Just as Fat Now as 1999-2000

…you know, just after the BMI categories for overweight and obese were revised downwards several points, in effect making millions of Americans overweight or obese overnight.

One-Third of American Adults Are Obese, but Rate Slows

Figures from the National Center for Health Statistics showed 34% of American adults age 20 and older were obese in 2007-08 while 68% were considered overweight or obese. In children ages 2 through 19, 17% were considered obese while 32% were considered overweight. Broadly, the figures are similar to rates seen in 1999-2000.

But don’t worry, just in case you were starting to get the idea that the obesity epi-panic’s drama was largely constructed to profit a wide variety fear/hate-mongering groups and body-hate industries, the next paragraph in the piece reminds you that once again that if you’re fat, ur gonna die.

“Obesity remains high and is a significant public-health problem in the U.S.,” said Cynthia Ogden, one of the main researchers involved in tabulating the data and an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s health-statistics unit.

And then, a little later on, a funny kind of quote:

“I see this as relatively good news,” said William Dietz, the director of CDC’s division of nutrition, physical activity and obesity. “It suggests we’ve halted the progression of the epidemic.”

And how is it that you’ve “halted the progression of the epidemic”? Because I certainly don’t remember all those anti-fat vaccines being offered in schools and the workplace. And I don’t remember dieting suddenly starting to work. And WLS not only doesn’t work in the majority of cases but also makes people sicker (and hence more costly from a public policy perspective). So, right. All that — stuff — we did, that uh, didn’t have any effect, well it sure has slowed/stopped the epidemic!

How about this: There was never any obesity epidemic. But there was panic. And there is still panic. So don’t think this is going to stop us from hating you and wanting to eliminate you, fattie. Because you’re still a threat.