Things Obesity is Not

Obesity gets incorrectly compared to a bunch of things.  Let’s clear up some of this confusion.

Obesity is not heroin addiction. 

Someone found a study that shows that heroin treatment has roughly the same success  rate as dieting – about 5%.  So every day I get three or four people, who think they are geniuses, who leave comments asking if I’m going to start a heroin acceptance movement.


Here’s the deal. Heroin is an addiction.  Every single heroin addict uses heroin.  The health issues from doing heroin arise from, and/or are ancillary to, the use of heroin. While there may be residual health effects, quitting heroin is proven to remove the primary and ancillary health risks of using heroin.  A heroin addict will be healthier for every day that they do not use heroin, even if they aren’t able to permanently quit.

Obesity is simply a body size.  Obese people cannot be identified by a single or even a group of common activities.  Obesity is only correlationally linked to health issues.  There is no proof that losing weight will change someone’s health risks or outcomes. Weight loss carries with it it’s own risks both inherently and upon repetition (yo yo dieting). Dieting can leave an obese person less healthy than they would have been if they never dieted, is unlikely to lead to permanent weight loss, and even in the rare instances where dieting “succeeds” there is no guarantee that the person will be healthier.

That same argument goes for obesity and smoking with the addition that those who are near a smoker forced to smoke until they can get far enough away.  Those around an obese person are not forced to be fat.

Obesity is not an eating disorder, nor is it the opposite of anorexia. 

An eating disorder is an illness with mental and physical components, and though sometimes it can affect body size, body size is never a definitive diagnosis of an eating disorder. People with active eating disorders participate in disordered behaviors around eating.  Eating disorders are serious, dangerous, and can be fatal.  Using anorexia and obesity as opposite sides of the same coin is a completely faulty comparison.

Obesity is a body size.  The idea that someone can’t get “that fat” (for varying, subjective and typically random definitions of “that fat”) without having an eating disorder is a myth. Many obese people have very healthy relationships with food, and there are some obese people with eating disorders. It should be noted that while some obese people have overeating disorders (like Binge Eating Disorder), there are also obese people with undereating disorders and often family, friends, even doctors make the massive mistake of encouraging disordered eating behavior in a fat person that they would correctly diagnose it as dangerous in a thin person.

Obesity is not a cost that can be calculated

Obesity is a body size, there are healthy and unhealthy fat  people just like there are healthy and unhealthy thin people.  The current state of oppression, stigma and shame around obesity means that any calculation of the cost of obesity is impossible to separate from the cost of that oppression, stigma and shame.

Obesity is correlated to a number of diseases so it is considered a “risk factor” although the term is used loosely since there is no proof of causality of risk, it’s as if they found out that short people get a certain disease more often but they have no idea why so they say that shortness is a “risk factor”.  At any rate, a family history of heart disease is also considered a risk factor.  The calculations that are commonly used to show the “cost of obesity” are often based on the assumption that obese people will get every disease for which they have a risk factor, or that every disease they get is caused by their fat.  This is exactly the same as if we calculated the cost of people with a family history of heart disease based on the assumption that they are all going to get heart disease, or that any heart disease they get is caused by their family history.  It’s just poor research.

Besides which, an attempt to calculate the cost of a group of people based on how they look in order to make a decision to eradicate that population because they’ve been deemed to expensive is clearly dangerous and wrong.

Obesity is not a Metaphor

Using a fat person to represent greed, over-consumption, a negative view of capitalism etc. is stereotyping and bigotry, pure and simple.  It’s wrong on every level.  We are not yours for the metaphoring.

While we’re at it, let’s talk about Size Acceptance.

Size Acceptance is not the opposite of “Thinspiration”.

Thinspiration exists to reinforce a stereotype of beauty, and in many cases is used to reinforce disordered eating.

Size Acceptance is a civil rights concept that reminds us that everyone has the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in the body they have now, and that other people’s bodies are not our business.  It is not about telling people who size body they should have, nor is it about the mythical, ridiculous notion of “promoting obesity.”

Obesity is not your business, unless we are talking about your obesity, in which case it’s nobody else’s business unless you want to make it their business.  Other than that you have no business making comments, assumptions, metaphors, cost calculations or comparisons about someone else’s body.  If you’re looking for your beeswax, you won’t find it on someone else.

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Published in: on June 23, 2012 at 8:00 am  Comments (22)  

22 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thanks again Ragean! I’m so grateful for your blog. It helps me walk out the door EVERYDAY (even when I don’t want to) whith chin up & smile on my face. For those days where going back to bed looks better than facing our thinly brainwashed society (including my thin OBBSESSED mother who almost always has something to say), your blog helps to nudge me out the door. Your daily dose of sanity, helps mine. :) Keep up your amazing work, it gets through & has an impact!

  2. Great piece! I loved this part ‘Obesity is not your business, unless we are talking about your obesity. Other than that you have no business making comments, assumptions, metaphors, cost calculations or comparisons about someone else’s body. If you’re looking for your beeswax, you won’t find it on someone else’s body.’
    Yesterday, in a cafe with three other people, I was holding the tray whilst everyone put their food on it, because I was paying and a strange woman sidled up to me and said “Someone’s having a feast,” and laughed. I said, “It’s not all for me you know” and she laughed again and said, “I believe you” I was getting rather irritated by this time and told her to mind her own business and she looked horrified and scuttled off. At that point my temper got the better of me and I informed her in rather a loud voice, as she was leaving that of course it was completely acceptable to approach random fat strangers and comment on their food intake in a public place.
    And yes thanks, I very much enjoyed my delicious sandwich, a bag of crisps and a flapjack. :)

    • Just reading this I’m enjoying a virtual sandwich of delicious justice. Mmmm… justice.

  3. Why is it that I’m even shocked at this point that there are people who compare obesity with a drug addiction? I mean, I’ve heard it compared to having a food addiction, but heroin? *le sigh*

    Let’s just get something straight people (not you, Ragen, just the general idjits out there that make these comparisons): One does not need an illicit drug to survive. They do not need to start taking said drug in order to actually live, it’s a choice they make to make their living different than what it was before. However, if one does not take in calories in some form, they eventually will cease to thrive and survive. See how they’re not comparable? Yeah, glad I could clear that up for you.

    The Karen is grumpy with stupidity recently. I feel a bit like Hulk. >.<

  4. Excuse me if you’ve covered this idea, but I think a lot of the mistreatment of fat people can be explained by the general public believing that the fat person in front of them is less real than the hypothetical thin person the fat person would be if the fat person lost weight. (Why so many people believe this is another and harder question.)

  5. I’ve started responding to food addiction accusations by saying that I’ll get right on that just as soon as I complete my 12 step program for my oxygen addiction.

    I used to feel really guilty because I care about how good my food is and I thought that was a reflection of food addiction. But I think most people care about how good their food is, it’s only considered a problem when you’re fat.

    When I was dieting, I thought about food ALL of the time. Now that I’ve stopped dieting, I think about food when I’m planning my shopping trips and when I think about what meals I’m preparing for the day and when I might need to get started on them. I have so much more free time now.

    • It’s a small thing, but your middle paragraph fixed something in my mind that had been broken. I care about how good my food is, and have felt ashamed of that because I am so deathfat. Clearly my love of food is unseemly, or I wouldn’t be this fat, right? But that’s not true, and even if my love of food is why I’m this fat, I’m *still* allowed to care about how good my food is, AND I’m allowed to be whatever size I am!

  6. The detrimental health effects of heroin use are less causal than you think. In fact, most of the health effects can be linked to adulterants of street heroin, living conditions of addicts and malnutrition which are all products of heroin being illegal. In societies where addiction is treated like a medical condition, heroin users fare much better, some actually have jobs and when you are not faced with the daily choice of food v. heroin, (just fyi, heroin almost always wins that contest) you can stay nourished. So if you take away the heroin, but leave the squalor and malnutrition you might not see the same health gains you claim.

    Also, heroin addicts are actually opiate addicts. Most will happily substitute, Oxycontin, hydrocodone, morphine, opium, codeine, or dilaudid.

    I’m not suggesting that heroin is good for you, but that addiction is complicated and as you have so elegantly and on so many occasions pointed out, drawing casual lines is indeed very difficult.

    • Hi David,

      These are interesting points. I think we have a different definition of health effects. When I talk about things that are causally related to heroin what I’m talking about are the effects in the body that heroin directly causes – effects on the central nervous system, suppressed respiratory function (sometimes to the point of failure), tolerance leading to overdose, collapsed veins for injections users, heart failure and kidney disease for long term users. I’m not including negative consequences from those things which which heroin is cut, or from the use of dirty needles, or from the circumstances that often surround heroin use since those are solvable in other ways.

      As far as those who would be willing to substitute, they would no longer fit the definition of heroin users and so while they may have new side effects and health risks from the drugs they substitute, the effects that would have been causally related to heroin are gone.

      Hope that makes more sense.


      • Amazing that you won’t approve my comments just because they disagree with you.

        • Interesting assumption. What you would know had you asked instead of assuming, is that I haven’t approved your comments yet because since you took the time to write a really well thought out comment and though I think we don’t disagree, I do believe that you made several erroneous assumptions (as you have done here) and I wanted to take the time to write a well thought out answer to clarify and post them both together to help create a dialog between us and other commenters, and between moving, getting the book launched, taping and editing my dance classes, writing here and for NBC etc. I’m sorry to say that I haven’t yet had time. It’s a conversation I’m interested in having when I have a chance to reply, thanks in advance for your patience.


  7. I’ve always believed that every thin person is only a step away from being obese.

    Step off a curb wrong, fracturing your foot. You’d be amazed how quickly the pounds come on when you’re unable to move as much as you did before or get to the gym or whatever.

    Get a medical diagnosis and you’re suddenly on steroids or something that just packs on the pounds without your doing anything differently.

    Have a traumatic life experience.

    I’m not saying that, those of us who are obese have an excuse, I just think that a little consideration wouldn’t hurt from the “thin” who think that if we just put our mind to it, we could also be thin and happy like them.

    • I agree. I know people who have had foot injuries so where they had to stay off their feet for months, and the weight came on within a couple of weeks. They went from thin to obese in just a few months so it’s really amazing how their daily movement makes an impact.

    • I think that’s the root of so much fat hatred. People know that they’re a broken leg or a psych med prescription away from being overweight or obese themselves. But they don’t have to believe that if they keep telling themselves and everyone who will listen, “fat people are different, they don’t have discipline. I have discipline.”

      • Does this mean I can tell snippy nurses that “I don’t have a weight problem, I have a wanting to take my problem.” I say that a bit tongue in cheek but I take the meds because my dad didn’t & killed himself. Fat on a psych med is better than dead & that’s where I’d be without them.

      • I think this comment got goofed the first time. Sorry!

        Does this mean I can tell snippy nurses that “I don’t have a weight problem, I have a wanting to take my (insert psych med here) problem.” I say that a bit tongue in cheek but I take the meds because my dad didn’t & killed himself. Fat on a psych med is better than dead & that’s where I’d be without them.

  8. Ragen the timing of this post is least for me. I read a nice article in the HuffPo this morning on Body Image and then read a really annoying comment in the comment section, which I had to respond to. It is just a perfect example of the subjective mindset and superiority that people have when it comes to fat. Here is the comment she wrote and what I said. I wish I wish I wish I could just send this person your blog!
    She wrote: “I would like to add that “allowing their bodies to be the size/shape nature intended them to be” is often used by obese/overweight people as a rationalizing defense mechanism to remain obese/overweight.”
    An excerpt of my response: “Comments such as these are so judgmental and accusatory. What business is it of hers if people choose to remain obese or overweight? It is a size-ist perspective and demeans people who have made different choices than her. I hope she can take a less accusatory stance and just be happy that she has found something that works for her. There is nothing simple about the measures (willpower, discipline, priorities) she has taken to change her body, and not everyone’s body would respond to those interventions in the same way.

    Anyway, you can see how the generalizing and negative stereotyping in her comment is just so classic of what we are up against all the time. Thanks for your clarity and the sanity points you provide to your readers!
    Dr. Deah

  9. That first comparison cracked me up because I am a fat ex-herion addict. And guess what? I was fat while I was using too! I always felt like people couldn’t believe I was a herion addict because I wasn’t emaciated. But, yeah, still fat. LOL.

  10. ‘Not an eating disorder’. That so needs saying, Ragen. Spending a fair amount of time browsing the mental health sections of various local libraries (I suffer from depression and am on the lookout for any new self-help books), I’m always bugged by the way many eating disorder books lump ‘obesity’ in with anorexia, bulimia and binge eating – some authors actually use the term ‘weight disorder’, which as far as I know is not a meaningful diagnostic term, but there seems to be this urge by professionals to consider being fat as some kind of disorder, even if it (thankfully) didn’t make it into DSM-V.

  11. I don’t mind obesity as a metaphor, as long as it’s used to represent some good things, like abundance, plenty, sufficiency. Let’s not forget that the obese phenotype is also known as a thrifty phenotype, and is thrift not a good thing?
    Speaking of that stupid heroin addiction comparison, have you ever had people ask whether you believe cancer acceptance is also a good thing?
    Another thing obesity is not is “coddled”. I don’t know where the hell people get this one. I don’t know fat people who feel coddled except in extremely atypical circumstances.

  12. Does this mean I can tell snippy nurses that “I don’t have a weight problem, I have a wanting to take my (insert psych med here) problem.” I say that a bit tongue in cheek but I take the meds because my dad didn’t & killed himself. Fat on a psych med is better than dead & that’s where I’d be without them.

    I think this comment got goofed the first time. Sorry!

  13. I’m perfectly happy to have a heroin acceptance movement – in the sense of recognising that it’s NOT EASY to kick that habit and that people deserve sympathy, support, and respect for dealing with it. Not being kicked in the teeth and told that they’re failures as people because they’re not trying hard enough.

    Sure, heroin addiction is not the same thing as obesity. In almost all cases, you made a terrible decision somewhere along the way in order to end up an addict. But shaming addicts for having made a bad decision long ago helps people how? (Hint: It doesn’t.)

    As far as health outcomes go, there have been good results from the few clinics that dare to actually offer addicts small regulated doses of heroin from clean needles so that they can go on with their lives. It ain’t perfect, but it’s an improvement. Expecting addicts to kick the habit and scorning them for failing if you KNOW 95% of them will fail is not very rational, is it?

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