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Research doesn't make being fat any easier
Can we acknowledge the harms of fatphobia without "well, actually"-ing about health?
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I bookmark a lot of articles, podcast episodes, and other materials about weight and general “body stuff,” and at some point I bookmarked these (1, 2, 3, 4) and others like them. They argue an idea that’s been gaining traction recently: Maybe being fat isn’t unhealthy, after all.
Some of the conclusions people studying this have reached:
As I read those articles I started thinking about my sophomore year of college, when I was about 70 pounds heavier. I was at a new low of my binge eating disorder and had gained weight rapidly. I remember sitting at lunch with a friend and biting the inside of my cheek to distract from the pain of my jeans digging into my stomach, until I just unbuttoned them right there at the table. This was a time when frat guys would call me fat as I walked past them on the street and I was routinely fat-shamed by relatives and randos alike, when I’d gone on a hike and my knees yelped in pain from the new weight on my body, when less than two years prior my doctor told me I was pre-diabetic, pre-hypertensive, and had high cholesterol and high triglycerides — conditions I expect had gotten worse as I gained more weight, exercised less, and did things like fall asleep in the middle of eating a whole pizza in an alcoholic blackout.
If someone had approached me then with a portfolio of research about how my body fat actually offered me protective benefits, or how my health issues actually weren’t necessarily related to my weight, or how my mortality rate wasn’t actually so high, I can imagine my 20-year-old reaction: None of that really makes me feel any better, because none of that data makes being fat any easier for me.
This kind of “well, actually”-ness (see the below tweet) has started to feel icky and irritating to me. Why? For one, it’s not always “super hard to disentangle the health effects” of fatness at an individual level — many people who are/have been fat would tell you that the health effects are pretty damn evident in our lived experience. Not everything is about the necessary causal implication of population data, Michael Hobbes!
Also, it feels at odds with a widely held idea in the fat acceptance sphere that I completely agree with: No one owes you their health. In this article, “Fat Is Not the Problem — Fat Stigma Is” (more on that in a sec), the author argues:
The dignity of a group should not be contingent on whether its members are deemed healthy.
Yes, exactly! Research and studies about fatness can help us understand more about the mechanisms and functions of the human body, sure. They might reach conclusions that help us make better, evidence-based decisions and policies. That’s important. But we shouldn’t be arguing for the dignity, respect, and humane treatment of fat people because they’re maybe healthy, actually — we should be arguing for those things because fat people are human beings and being fat, and/or unhealthy, isn’t a moral failing.
As someone who was fat, whose physical health was affected in myriad ways, and who developed associated health conditions (that went away when I lost weight), this “actually, the fat isn’t the problem!” thing feels like, I don’t know … a sort of dismissal of my experience. It was a problem for me. That didn’t make me any less deserving of respect and dignity. It didn’t make me a bad person. It didn’t make me less human. It just made my life harder.
Many fat acceptance advocates argue that “it’s not ‘obesity’ that damages people. It’s fear mongering about their bodies that puts them at risk for [various adverse conditions].” It’s not the fat, it’s the fat stigma, they say. In my experience, it was both! Yes, anti-fat treatment and attitudes were damaging for my mental health and I’m sure the resultant stress response contributed in some way to my health conditions, but I also gained like 30 pounds in half a year from binge eating and my size directly impeded my ability to do something that if you’ve spent any time at all reading this newsletter you know is the cornerstone of my physical and mental heath: Exercise.
I absolutely cannot speak for anyone else, including all the fat people who exercise without issue and love it, but my weight made exercise feel more laborious and far less pleasant and diminished my motivation to do it. I don’t believe that fat people can’t be healthy, but I suspect that for many people — and can say from my experience — it’s harder to be healthy when you’re fat. This shouldn’t be an incendiary statement. It’s harder to be healthy when you’re any number of things: Poor. Living in certain areas. Stressed from circumstances you have no control over. Why are people particularly loathe to admit the fatness/worse health outcomes connection, even when there is a “very consistent correlation” between them? When I was tweeting about this, someone pointed out that the knee-jerk “fat isn’t unhealthy” reaction might come down to:
I think it’s more of if you give them an inch they’ll take a mile. If we acknowledge that being fat can negatively impact health, it’ll feel like we are giving people a license to be anti-fat.
I think that’s it. But it feels much more important to me to argue and advocate for the dignity and respect of any class of people because they’re fucking people than it does to dismiss the factors that could be contributing to their hardships.
When I think of how being fat made my life harder, especially when I was younger, I can’t help but think of parents and parenting.
As the adults who grew up mired in the millennial vernacular of fatphobia have kids of their own, those who want to avoid body and weight shaming are wondering how they can talk about these things with their kids. What a lot of parents seem to be thinking now, Virginia-Sole Smith says, is, “I want my kid to have a good relationship with food. I want them to love their body. I don’t want them to get an eating disorder. But I don’t want them to be fat.”
This is rooted, she says, in anti-fat bias. To be absolutely clear, anti-fat bias is (cobbling together various definitions):
“Prejudice and discrimination against people who are fat / Negative attitudes, beliefs about, or behavior against [fat people] / The stigmatizing belief that bodies should be thin and/or muscular to fit within commonly held standards of beauty, fitness, and health.”
Do I think there are parents out there who don’t want their kids to be fat because those parents have hateful beliefs about fat people in general, discriminate against and treat like garbage the fat people they encounter, and want not-fat kids for the exclusive purpose of having a “picture-perfect” family? For sure. But I also believe that there are a lot of parents out there who don’t want their kids to be fat primarily because they don’t want their kids’ lives to be more difficult than they have to be.
I know my mother was motivated by some degree of fatphobia when she encouraged me to go on diets with her when I was a teenager, because “every person who lives in a fat-hating culture inevitably absorbs anti-fat beliefs,” according to fat activist Marilyn Wann. I don’t think, though, that she was primarily driven by thoughts like, “Ew, fat is gross!” or, “My daughter has to be skinny because skinny people are inherently better.”
I think she knew I’d be likely to have health issues (I did), teased and insulted in school (I was), that people wouldn’t express romantic interest in me and I’d be lonely (I was), that it would be incredibly difficult for me to cultivate self-confidence (it was), and that the kinds of things young girls do, like trying on each other’s clothes and going to pool parties would be alienating for me (it was). I believe she was attempting to protect me — however inadvertently damaging those attempts might have been — from a hostile world in the limited ways she thought she could. I’m not saying this is right. I’m just saying I think I understand it more now that I’m older.
I don’t know how exactly I’m going to have conversations about bodies, weight, and health with my hypothetical children, but I do know that if my daughter is fat like I was, I’ll be pained by the idea that she could face the same difficulties I did. That doesn’t mean I’m going to put her on a crash diet or encourage her to lose weight with me or do any of the things my mom did that were well-meaning but ultimately destructive. It just means I’m going to have complicated feelings about it. I just hope I know other parents I can talk to about those feelings without condemnation.
And if my kid is fat, I hope the cultural atmosphere isn’t so focused on often-conflicting research that we’re glossing over the very real difficulties a lot of people face because of their bodies and size. Honestly, that feels like a kind of erasure, a kind of anti-fatness, in itself.
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