Monday, September 5, 2011

A Friendly Debate on Fat People

I started a bit of a friendly debate on Facebook by posting this link:

That a respectful back-and-forth on the subject of food, exercise and weight could be held - on Facebook, no less - says a lot about the people involved, as this is a subject often fraught with imperatives, judgement, and shame.  As it turns out, they were debating on the finer points of a larger subject that they both generally agreed on, namely that most people would benefit from good food and moderate exercise.

One of the participants in the FB point-counter point (whom I'll call Person A) quotes,
"those who tend to be fat will have to constantly battle their genetic inheritance if they want to reach and maintain a significantly lower weight." 

which he followed up with, 

" I may have to work harder than others, but I can increase muscle mass and decrease body fat - and maintain it, just like anyone else" 
 "If we focused on becoming stronger, and eating a diverse variety of foods which were devoid of bad shit, we'd all be healthier. Weight loss would be an inevitable side effect for the majority of people.... but I'd agree that weighing a certain amount is not a goal unto itself. Being strong, being able to run a few miles without falling over, those are goals everyone should share."

These remarks are some of the least inflammatory I've seen on health and weight in a public forum, and on the surface seem quite reasonable.  I mean, eating well and being able to run a few miles without keeling over are admirable goals, right?

Please re-read those well-thought out words again, and see if you can spot what I spotted. Even Person A admitted that this is a standard he cannot reach. 

The person on counterpoint (whom I'll call Person B) included these equally thoughtful words, 

"When we concentrate on the visual change it COULD cause, it discourages people from continuing that positive behavior if they don't see a change. Whether it does for some people or not, the reason for it should be to feel good, physically and emotionally... hinging it all on some number takes away from the joy of it and keeps people from continuing."  

And my favorite:

"I'd like to see people who are confident and happy with themselves. Who can use their body as they would like to without being told that they don't or can't do something."

Do you see the difference now? 

I posted the link because I believe, as the author does, that the intense focus on weight loss has been both a massive failure and actively destructive to fat people especially (though not exclusively).  Additionally, and most personal to me, when both experts and the general public speak histrionically or piously or authoritatively of health, they conveniently forget mental health and the complicated relationship that the current atmosphere creates around fatness and food and movement and sense of self.  People forget about the concept of agency, and instead mistakenly believe that over-simplification and shame will somehow magically change the corpulence of our nation.

In short, Person B and I have an issue with the Should.

Those of you familiar with my drunken slam poetry might recall that my threshold for Shoulds is quite low. I feel my fight response rise up when I hear people opine that fat people Should be making every effort to make themselves thinner. To be clear, Person A was in completely different league of discussion, but I'm going to disagree with his assertion that "weight loss would be an inevitable side effect" of a healthier lifestyle, mainly because what constitutes a healthier lifestyle begins well short of being able to swim or run several miles a day.

While I genuinely believe that healthier habits encourage stronger, more mentally stable and more metabolically sound bodies, I just don't agree that it makes for thinner bodies.  The USDA study on HAES also disagrees, and demonstrates that the focus on health instead of weight, while useful in improving metabolic markers, created almost no change in weight.  Additionally, health and circumstance are so individual that the ability to run a 5k and eating only food "completely devoid of bad shit" could be a fairly meaningless set of comparatives.  More importantly, I really don't think that any of it is a requirement for walking through the world unmolested by the Shouldy Police.

And this is where Brian is asking for better, and where Person B is going with her argument.  The message we receive in a constant stream from media, loved ones and enemies is that fat people Should (ah, there's that word again) make the pursuit of health via weight loss-inducing activities our most important goal.  I wonder sometimes if they just don't understand the magnitude of maintaining the body in a state that goes against its genetic and environmental indicators.  I wonder if they don't get that maintaining is a full-time job.  And I wonder why they can't grok that this kind of constant struggle simply doesn't work for me.

Over the last decade I've been carefully incorporating more healthy habits into my life. I love caring for myself, and I love my life, and I want to be active and happy as many of the days of my life that are possible, and I believe that these healthy habits are in alignment with those goals.  While doing this, I have to take into account my mental health and my personal history with weight loss dieting and my step-dad's creepy weight-based emotional abuse, and I have to navigate the difficult association that these healthy habits have with activities of a weight-loss bent.

And that's the nut of it, isn't it?  The expectation that healthy habits will cure obesity create an atmosphere fraught with triggers and dangers for those of us who've suffered for our weight.  We can't simply take on healthy habits to care for ourselves, we have to carry the weight of expectation, we are forced, by every commercial and weight loss book and Jamie Oliver special, to focus on a desired end point, rather than the journey.

We live in an atmosphere that gives no quarter for our own sense of what's best for ourselves, because there is a veritable army of people willing to tell us what to do.  If we should disagree, or simply decide not to, we are accused of needing to get real, to stop deluding ourselves.  And this, in my mind, is the worst of it - that the thing we are told on a daily basis is that we cannot trust our own experience. I can't think of anything more insidious than to make someone doubt their own reality.

So this is more complicated than can be fully described by the written word, but I felt it so necessary to try.  Brian's post demonstrated his passion for acceptance and anger at those that would work against such concepts for the purpose of making money, and when he demands better, he says a truth that I feel down to my toes.


  1. The "should" really does bother me, and in part, because it discounts the notion that I AM already doing something.