Tag Archives: Size Acceptance

Everything We Know About Obesity Is Still True

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copyright (c) Laurie Toby Edison

Debbie says:

When you’ve been doing the same activist work for thirty years and more, it’s hard not to be all “Oh, well, here we are again” when someone new comes out with a hard-hitting article that says all the things you’ve been saying for years.

At the same time, each of these new articles is fresh to the writer, and fresh to many of its readers, and makes a dent in the walls around your ideas. So after one deep sigh, I really welcome Michael Hobbes’ “Everything You Know About Obesity Is Wrong,” published in the Huffington Post.

Hobbes starts with what he calls “scientific myopia,” a quick review of how hard it is to get scientists to step away from their dominant paradigm, and then goes on to make his key point: “Years from now, we will look back in horror at the counterproductive ways we addressed the obesity epidemic and the barbaric ways we treated fat people—long after we knew there was a better path.”

After that, the piece follows what fat activists will recognize as a familiar path: how much social prejudice against fat hurts people, how diets don’t work — I wish he had credited Gina Kolata’s 11-year-old landmark book, Rethinking Thin, which I reviewed as “old news” when it was published — and then gets to his first core point, which is that fat and health are not inextricably entwined. I see that every time I go to the doctor, and the medical tech is slightly surprised at my perfectly reasonable blood pressure, which goes hand in hand with my perfectly reasonable cholesterol numbers. However, Hobbes is good and clear on these points:

individuals are not averages: Studies have found that anywhere from one-third to three-quarters of people classified as obese are metabolically healthy. They show no signs of elevated blood pressure, insulin resistance or high cholesterol. Meanwhile, about a quarter of non-overweight people are what epidemiologists call “the lean unhealthy.” A 2016 study that followed participants for an average of 19 years found that unfit skinny people were twice as likely to get diabetes as fit fat people. Habits, no matter your size, are what really matter. Dozens of indicators, from vegetable consumption to regular exercise to grip strength, provide a better snapshot of someone’s health than looking at her from across a room.

He doesn’t mention the famous “nurses’ study,” which demonstrated that “moderately obese” people live longer than people whose weight is “normal” or “appropriate.”

Next on the roadmap of this kind of article is the issue of medical misuse and abuse, beginning with a profile of a fat victim. Again, Hobbes is clear-eyed and thoughtful:

Doctors have shorter appointments with fat patients and show less emotional rapport in the minutes they do have. Negative words—“noncompliant,” “overindulgent,” “weak willed”—pop up in their medical histories with higher frequency. In one study, researchers presented doctors with case histories of patients suffering from migraines. With everything else being equal, the doctors reported that the patients who were also classified as fat had a worse attitude and were less likely to follow their advice. And that’s when they see fat patients at all: In 2011, the Sun-Sentinel polled OB-GYNs in South Florida and discovered that 14 percent had barred all new patients weighing more than 200 pounds.

Hobbes gives lots of examples of how doctors misuse fat patients, and how they are taught to do so. None of it is new, but all of it is useful fuel for the fire. Then he goes on to the mental, emotional, and social toll all of this takes on fat people, again with real-life stories and useful statistics, and the obligatory quotations from therapists who work with fat patients.

The only place he goes off the rails is in his — often true — argument that

perhaps the most unique aspect of weight stigma is how it isolates its victims from one another. For most minority groups, discrimination contributes to a sense of belongingness, a community in opposition to a majority. Gay people like other gay people; Mormons root for other Mormons. Surveys of higher-weight people, however, reveal that they hold many of the same biases as the people discriminating against them. In a 2005 study, the words obese participants used to classify other obese people included gluttonous, unclean and sluggish.

Of course, this happens. But I personally know so many groups in which fat women gather to discuss our experiences, and to fight the system together, so many blogs, so many websites, so many meetups. I’m sad that Hobbes didn’t find any counterexamples to his theory, and I don’t think he looked very hard. I’d be curious about whether that 2005 study (which, by the way, looked at only 46 people!) would be different in 2018.

Then, he goes to some of the real scientific roots of both increased obesity and increased health issues which don’t relate to weight: issues of the food system. The only thing in the article which surprised me was his claim that people who eat nuts four times a week have statistically significantly lower diabetes incidence and lower mortality. More nuts for me!

And finally,

Our shitty attitudes toward fat people. According to Patrick Corrigan, the editor of the journal Stigma and Health, even the most well-intentioned efforts to reduce stigma break down in the face of reality. In one study, researchers told 10- to 12-year-olds all the genetic and medical factors that contribute to obesity. Afterward, the kids could recite back the message they received—fat kids didn’t get that way by choice—but they still had the same negative attitudes about the bigger kids sitting next to them. A similar approach with fifth- and sixth-graders actually increased their intention of bullying their fat classmates.

And here he does get to fat activism, although he still doesn’t seem to see that fat activism requires that fat activists like each other and work together. His fat activism quotations are mostly from a journal editor; I’d love to know how many fat activists he spoke to. I’m right here, and I’m hardly alone!

I salute Michael Hobbes for researching and writing this article. I hope thousands of people see it and lots of people share it and discuss it. And I long for the day when the next one of these isn’t in the pipeline somewhere, because the point has been made.

Follow me on Twitter @spicejardebbie . Thanks to @ribbonknight for tweeting this link out.

We Are Insatiable … For Our Own Stories

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Debbie says:

Your Fat Friend’s open letter to the writers of Insatiable is an especially clear-voiced clarion call for people’s right to tell our own stories. The trailer for the show is embedded below; if fat-person stereotypes and/or simplistic conceptions of attractiveness disturb you, you might not want to hit play.

For those of you who chose to skip, Patty is a miserable fat high-school girl who is mocked at school. She also eats too much, can’t really exercise, and gets no dates. Over one summer, she has her jaw  wired shut and comes back thin. Thin Patty vamps and poses like the slow-motion scenes in an erotic movie, radiating “I’m a sex object” from every pore. According to the official site linked above, she goes on to enter beauty pageants.

Unsurprisingly, the trailer has received a lot of pushback, including a petition with over 100,000 signatures, and the show may be cancelled based on the intensity of the reaction. The petition reads, in part:

“For so long, the narrative has told women and young impressionable girls that in order to be popular, have friends, to be desirable for the male gaze, and to some extent be a worthy human … that we must be thin,” the petition reads. “This series needs to be cancelled. The damage control of releasing this series will be far worse, insidious, and sinister for teenage girls, than it will be damaging for Netflix in their loss of profit.”

Your Fat Friend finds a moment to feel for the writers of the show:

I know the sting of pouring my whole self into a creative project, only to find that — too late — it has hurt someone else. I have no desire to compound that sting for you, or stand in prejudgment of your work.

This moment of what I read as absolutely authentic kindness comes after she tracks the history of the fat suit in her life:

Tyra Banks was one of many to wear a fat suit around the turn of the millennium. I was in my late teens and early twenties, struggling mightily against the body that had always been hopelessly mine, stubbornly resistant to the many changes I tried to force upon it. From The Nutty Professor to Friends, fat suits were everywhere. Often, the only fat people in movies or on TV were those caricatured by thin actors in meticulously crafted fat suits.

… Some were hopeless, pitiful befores who couldn’t get a date, couldn’t make friends, couldn’t connect to anyone. … Only becoming thin made their stories worth telling.

Others were the gluttonous punchlines of Norbit and Austin Powers, blissfully unaware of how disgusting they were in their two piece swimsuits, repulsive in their voracious appetites for food and sex. Shallow Hal, which seemed to fancy itself the most high-minded of fat suit portrayals, asserted that only a man under hypnosis could find a fat woman attractive, provided he couldn’t see her actual body. His attraction to her was played for laughs, a stick-thin woman throwing plus sized panties to an eager man in her bed to peals of audience laughter. Who could want that?

Whoever these fat suit characters were, the message to me as a young fat woman was clear. If I stayed fat, I was destined to be the butt of every joke, categorically undesirable and unlovable, a social pariah who was lucky to have any friends at all. I learned that I was repulsive, no matter how I dressed, what I accomplished, or who I was. I learned that my personhood would always be overshadowed by my body. I learned that my only redemption could come from getting thin. And no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t seem to get thin.

By the turn of the millennium, I had stopped watching anything that made fun of fat people, so none of these shows are really in my orbit (I think I saw one Austin Powers movie, and hated it). I didn’t realize the widespread use of fat suits, which I associate with the genre of stories where the “disabled” person has to be played by an able-bodied actor so she can “be redeemed” and walk (!) at the end of the story.

Where Your Fat Friend goes from personal narrative to trenchant political insight is right here:

These weren’t stories of the failures of fat people. They were stories about the supremacy of thinness.

These thin fantasies held up ghoulish faux-realities of life as a fat person, grounded in little more than their own imaginations. And there was no counterbalance, no alternative narrative, nowhere to turn from the desperation, isolation, and bleakness of fat lives as invented by thin people.

Your Fat Friend has nailed the key point, not just about thin people telling fat people’s stories, but about anyone telling another group’s stories, especially a marginalized group’s stories: unless we put an immense amount of effort and intentionality into listening, and into creating a full and rich portrayal, the stories we tell about someone else will always be our projections on what it is like to be that person, and live that life.

Even the most miserable fat person knows that being fat is not the only thing they are. Even the most self-comfortable fat person knows that being fat is one of the things they are. But the imaginary fat person in a thin writer’s head is no more and no less than a fat person. And if the writer is, as there are inescapable reasons to be, afraid of being fat, that fear will color and oversimplify the character. A writer who chooses to write outside their own experience has an enormous obligation to do it well*, to live into the reality of the people they are writing. Here’s more from Your Fat Friend’s letter:

At every turn, thin people control the stories about fatness that are told on the biggest stages, amplified with the biggest speakers, broadcast with the strongest antennae. And often, they tell the stories that make them feel best: stories that lift thinness up not as one of many natural body types, but as a badge of honor, earned only by those strong and smart enough to tame the wilds of their bodies.

I do not expect painstaking detail, documentary-style slice-of-life stories of real fat people told with clinical precision. I just long for a story — any story — other than the one narrative offered up by the limited thin imaginations of fat lives.

What seems clear from the Insatiable trailer is that the writers, whoever they are and whatever they have lived through, did not spend anything like enough time and effort to provide Your Fat Friend, and me, and the 118,000 people who have signed the petition, with a true story. They were not, in fact, insatiable when it came to learning the truth.

So I hope the show is cancelled, or at the very least taken back to the drawing board. And if I were Netflix, I would hire Your Fat Friend as one of the people to write the replacement.

* If you happen to be a writer who wants to do this work better, I recommend Writing the Other: A Practical Approach by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward. The book, and many superb workshops and other spin-offs can be found at the link.