Every time someone dares to suggest that society should stop trying to shame fat people “for our own good” in the hopes they we will all hate ourselves healthy, someone has to wring their hands and say “we don’t want to be irresponsible and say that obesity isn’t a problem”. The truth is that it is absolutely irresponsible to say that obesity is a problem.
When people talk about the Obesity Epidemic or the Obesity Problem, what they are trying to do is make body size a proxy for health, and then make health a societal obligation and barometer for measuring worth and that’s wrong on both counts. Body sizes aren’t really a problem. A label of obesity is the end result of a BMI calculation and it’s ridiculous to suggest that my weight in pounds times 703 divided by my height in inches squared constitutes any kind of health diagnosis, or that my health is anyone else’s business. We’re also taller than we’ve ever been but nobody wants to scream about the Tallness Epidemic or how they have the hot new thing to make everyone shorter. (And isn’t it interesting that we’re okay with bodies coming in different heights, but not in different widths?)
Body size is not a diagnosis and we need to stop acting as if we can look and someone and tell what they eat, what activity they do and how healthy they are, or that how healthy they are is anyone’s business. It also does a disservice to those who are interested in health – it tells fat people that healthy habits don’t matter unless those habits make us thin, and it tells thin people that they are healthy just because of their size. Both of those statements are dead wrong. This hits home even more when we realize how much this issue has been exaggerated – for example the CDC originally told the media that 400,000 deaths a year were caused by obesity – when they were pressed they admitted that the number was actually less than 30,000 deaths but they purposefully chose not to disclose their error or the correct number to the media or change their approach of trying to convince people to get thin as a way to prevent 370,000 deaths a year that they know are non-existent.
It surprises a lot of people to find out that the diseases that are very often linked to fatness have never ever been shown to be caused by fatness – only correlated. And those diseases are also correlated with being under long-term stress. It makes sense if you think about it – if obesity was really the cause of medical problems then we would expect that most obese people would have those medical problems and very few thin people would. But that’s not the way it works. There are healthy fat people and unhealthy thin people. There are people of every size with the medical conditions that get erroneously blamed on body size. If thin people get a disease then it stands to reason that being thin is neither a sure preventative nor a sure cure. If thin people who have these diseases are given treatments that do not include weight loss, why are those interventions not given to fat people?
There is definitely a problem (several actually), but it’s not obesity.
Stigma is a problem.
According to research from Dr. Peter Muennig, a health professor from Columbia:
“Women who say they feel they are too heavy suffer more mental and physical illness than women who say they feel fine about their size — no matter what they weigh.”
When you say that body size is the problem then you are telling people to have a problem with their bodies – betting that they will somehow hate themselves healthy. Knowing what Dr. Muennig’s research found, and knowing that we live in a world where people spend their time making sure that we get a ceaseless stream of body hatred, it would make more sense if people of size did suffer more mental and physical illness. But if that’s the case then the issue is not obesity, it’s social stigma, and weight loss is not the cure for social stigma. Ending social stigma is the cure for social stigma.
Speaking of stigma, Dr. Muennig also tells us:
“Stigma and prejudice are intensely stressful. Over time, such chronic stress can lead to high blood pressure and diabetes.”
Like the stress of being constantly stigmatized by everyone from jerks on the internet to doctors perhaps? How about we give ending social stigma around body size a try? Couldn’t hurt, would probably help.
Making individual health the public’s business is a problem
Someone’s health, their prioritization of their health, and the path they choose to reach any health goals that they may choose are intensely personal and not a matter for public consumption. Health is not entirely within our control. Health is not a barometer for worthiness, it is not a societal obligation, it is not anybody’s business. Public health should be about providing health options to the public, not about making the individual’s health the public’s business.
Access is a problem
We’re spending so much time buying and selling thin, that we’ve forgotten about actual health. Sixty billion dollars went to the diet industry last year. How many local, sustainable farms could we have supported? How many community health centers could we have built. How many food deserts could we have eliminated? Instead we gave sixty billion dollars to an industry with a less than 5% success rate that has been sued repeatedly by the US Trade Commission for deceptive trade practices and LOST EVERY TIME. We thought that was the best use of our sixty billion dollars to improve our health? Seriously?
Studies show us over and over that healthy habits, not weight, are the best predictor of future health. Health is multi-dimensional and not entirely within our control – it includes genetics, access, stress, past behaviors and current behaviors, and health is never guaranteed. Everybody is going to die and if you don’t get hit by a bus it’s pretty likely that things will go wrong with your body, and there is no magical weight that will stop that from happening.
Focusing on body size misleads people about health habits. It also gets in the way of the proper treatment of actual health issues in people of all sizes. Doctors neglect to do basic diagnostic tests on thin people because they assume that they are healthy, and people of size aren’t properly diagnosed because doctors are too busy giving a diagnosis of fat and a treatment protocol of weight loss. We can do better than this. There is nothing to be achieved by a war on obese people that couldn’t be achieved by an initiative for providing access to healthy foods, enjoyable movement options and affordable evidence-based healthcare to those who want them.
Calling obesity the problem is the problem.
I’m Putting on a Happy HAES Holidays Workshop – Registration is Name Your Own Price
Normally I get between 100 and 200 e-mails a day. During the holiday season that climbs to 200-300 from people asking about everything from how to set resolutions that aren’t about weight loss to how to deal with the family food police. I’ve put together a group of speakers to give you information to support you through the holiday season. Details are here, registration is name your own price.
Like the blog? Check this stuff out (and you can help support my work which I would really appreciate):
Check Out my Book: Fat: The Owner’s Manual. The E-Book is Name Your Own Price! Click here to order
Buy the Dance Class DVDs (hint: Free shipping was supposed to end on Monday but I haven’t had a chance to make the changes to the pricing so there’s still free shipping until I get it done)! Click here for the details
Become a Member and Get Special Deals from Size Positive Businesses
I do size acceptance activism full time. A lot what I do, like answering over 4,000 e-mails from readers each month, giving talks to groups who can’t afford to pay, and running projects like the Georgia Billboard Campaign etc. is unpaid, so I created a membership program so that people who read the blog and feel they get value out of it and want to support the work I do can become members for ten bucks a month To make that even cooler, I’ve now added a component called “DancesWithFat Deals” which are special deals to my members from size positive merchants. Once you are a member I send out an e-mail once a month with the various deals and how to redeem them – your contact info always stays completely private.