Recently I re-posted my blog about being comfortable in a swimsuit to Facebook in response to a day in which I had been barraged both by ads for diets that counted on my being terrified of wearing a swimsuit, and companies trying to sell me bathing suits by suggesting that I would look less like me if I wear them (though who, precisely, I would be trying to fool with a suit that makes me “look 10 pounds slimmer” is difficult to say.) It got a lot of views (hi new readers!) and many people re-posted it to Facebook (thanks y’all!) One of the common responses to the post was something like “Body acceptance is ok, but we can’t ignore the health dangers of being obeblah blah blah blah concern troll blah blah blah.”
I think this idea – that we can’t say anything in appreciation of fat bodies without someone making an unsolicited comment about our health – is deeply problematic. There’s often a predictable trifecta of concern trolling – VFHT (vague future health threats), erroneously conflating body size with health, and confusing body size with behaviors/eating disorders (ie: I would be just as upset if you were glorifying anorexia…)
Peter Muennig from Columbia University did research around weight and stigma and found that women who were “concerned about their weight” had more physical and mental illness than women who were fine with their size”, regardless of their size. He also found that the stress of the stigma that fat people face was correlated with the same diseases with which being fat is correlated.
So this hand-wringing, wailing insistence that fat people never be allowed, even for a moment – even for a single facebook post – to appreciate or be happy with our bodies without unsolicited opinions about our health may not just be incredibly irritating and indicative of a person with boundary issues, it may be actively harming us.
Studies of weight and health that take behaviors into account (Wei et. al, Matheson et. al, Cooper Institute Longitudinal studies etc) have found that habits are a far better predictor of future health than body size, and that people with similar habits had similar risk of all cause mortality and health hazard ratio regardless of their body size.
Meanwhile researchers are finally being honest about that fact that there is not a single study for which weight loss worked for more than a tiny fraction of people (which means that it doesn’t meet the requirements of evidence-based medicine) and that even among those who did lose weight there was no correlation to better health that could be credited to the weight loss independent of behavior changes (Mann and Tomiyama 2013) Sometimes when people change their behaviors, their health improves and sometimes they also lose weight. We often erroneously credit the weight loss, rather than the behavior, for the health changes but the above research shows that healthy habits, not the manipulation of body size, are what are likely to support health (though of course healthy habits are not an obligation, barometer of worthiness, or a guarantee.)
Body size is not health, it’s not behavior, and it’s not a diagnosis of any illness – physical or mental. To paraphrase Marilyn Wann the only things you can tell from someone’s body size are the size of their body, and your particular prejudices and preconceived notions about their body.
But even if all of that wasn’t true, even if the concern trolls were right about whatever they believe about our health – and setting aside the questionable idea that if they convince us to hate our bodies we’ll somehow take better care of them – we still have every right to refuse to put up with concern trolling. Because our bodies and our health are our business, and so is who gets to comment on them. Contrary to some people’s beliefs, public health should be about making information and options available to the public, not making the individual’s body the public’s business. We don’t have to allow anyone to comment on our health, not even if they are well meaning.
We each get to deal with this in any way that we want. We can let people say what they are going to say and just let it go in one ear and out the other, we can try to educate them, we can tell them to drink a big steaming mug of shut the hell up. Regardless, I think it’s important to be clear that our fat bodies are not the problem, the problem is people who insist that we shouldn’t have a moment of peace living in them.
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