whose fault is it?
July 26, 2004 04:38 PM

Over at Volokh Conspiracy, a guest blogger is bringing up all the same well-intentioned ideas about the Crisis of Fat (Egads!) that everyone trots out. [link via Crooked Timber and BFB]

Now, it turns out that:

Feminists and liberals have transformed a legitimate medical issue of the poor into identity politics for the affluent,” [author and friend Greg Christer] told me, “which I find the worst kind of narcissistic behavior.

Greg Crister, by the way, wrote a pretty good book (Fatland) that is in part an indictment of food industry and diet culture and economics, but instead chooses to focus on the lack of "personal responsibility" that fat symbolizes and the pathologization of fat as the disease (not the symptom). I think he ought to consider using some of that money from his book to travel from place to place re-educating the people who made fun of him (Jay and Silent Bob style); it might make him feel better.

But then, I think the binge and purge ethic that dominates our culture, part of the generally pornographic sale of the body, is in fact the worst kind of narcissm.

On to the problems implicit in the posts and associated comments, all of which were at least politely worded, if offbase (a vast improvement over, say, MetaFilter).

Well intentioned but misguided idea number one: fat is a disease. Fat in and of itself is not a medical issue for most people (even for some who think their fatness causes their other health problems, the causes are more complex than that). It isn't an accurate predictor of any individual's health. Are there unhealthy fat people? Sure. Are there healthy ones, too? You bet.

Treating fat itself as a disease misses the essential physical activity and nutritional issues that lead to ill health in both fat and thin folk (and sure, there's correlation between those issues and becoming fat). As Eileen touched on earlier in the comment thread, we're basically thinking of a symptom as the disease itself. That's a fundamentally flawed approach. It leads us to prescribe weightloss dieting (which for many people is a sure way to gain weight) and treat gastric bypass as a medical necessity - because we think FATNESS, not the host of things that might have led to it, is the cause of unhealth. Treating the root symptoms is something Medicare/Medicaid could and should cover (if you believe there should be government subsidies for medical care at all, as any contracted illness or injury could be considered a "lifestyle choice"). Weight loss surgery? I have a problem with that - not because of my latent libertarianism, but because it seems like stupid medicine.

Well intentioned but misguided idea number two: fat means we're a wildly out of control culture where people - particularly the middle class - won't take personal responsibility for anything. This just doesn't fit with the number of people on diets, the number of people selling diets, the number of people with gym memberships, etc. - the shear volume of things we buy to make us less fat seems to say that at least we'll take responsibility for becoming unfat (no matter the cost, and in the easiest, fastest way possible, please).

But this one is also true, just not in the way it sometimes gets interpreted. As Crister's book points out, we are pretty wild with the consumption. Ironically, though, we're wild in part for things that alleviate our embarassment about our symbolic overconsumption, those Last Ten Pounds.

Well intentioned but misguided idea number three: fat will melt away if you become physically active and eat less/better. For some people, it will. For some, it won't. For most of us, better health will result no matter what. The body is not a simple calorie machine, so healthier habits don't necessarily have any impact on weight whatsoever.

The thing is, fat hate is so engrained for many of us that we want to see body size as somehow moral, or at least indicative of health. If you're going to spend so much time and energy on what you eat, how you move, what you wear, it ought to have some greater value, right?

Fat activists and feminists who engage in discussion of body politics aren't doing so to distract from the very real problems of inactivity and bad food consumption or from the drastic socioeconomic inequality that attends those problems; what we're trying to do is dispel the notion that a judgement of someone's personal worth (including health) can be easily made based on appearance.

If a social program is to solve the Crisis of Fat (Egads!), it can't just be a promise to surgically defattify individuals - it needs to address the problems - from low wages to long work weeks to poor education to lack of parks and sidewalks and low-cost fitness facilities and a general failure to take time to play and enjoy life (including our food) - that are the joint causes of ill health (the real problem) and the phantom fat crisis.

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your wicked thoughts

extremely well written and right on!

these are the thoughts of zalary on July 27, 2004 12:02 PM

This is only obliquely related... I was talking with a friend of mine about weight issues, and mentioned that I knew someone who was a fat activist, i.e. you. He wanted to know what he should read to become better informed about your side of the argument, since he feels inclined to believe the anti-fat side, but is a reasonable person and likes to know both sides of arguments. Do you have any suggestions?

these are the thoughts of house9 on July 28, 2004 02:56 PM

What is the "anti-fat side" in his mind, I wonder?

Assuming he's thinking of it in terms of "fat=unhealthy=public health crisis", I'd recommend Paul Campos' book "Obesity Myth" and his Rocky Mountain News columns for a review of some of the research. Or Glen Gaesser's "Big Fat Lies" book; I don't 100% agree with Glen, but he also highlights some research problems and does a good job of accepting that we have a problem with healthy habits while distancing that from fat.

There's also a good article series at Tech Central that debunks a lot of the common knowledge about the "deadliness" of being fat. Some of the info was later repeated in Paul's book, as well.

these are the thoughts of april on July 28, 2004 03:57 PM

Yes, I believe that's it, buying the idea that fat=unhealthy=public health risk; wasn't sure how to put it exactly. Thanks for the recommendation.

these are the thoughts of house9 on July 28, 2004 04:47 PM

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