There was an article about fat activism in the Observer yesterday, and since this is something I’ve been meaning to post about for ages, I thought I’d just do it. I’ve been reluctant to do so until now because I’m actually not sure where I stand on the whole thing and therefore probably don’t I have anything very new to add. Also because so many times when people talk about fat activism it just ends up in this huge argument between fat people and skinny people, which is just so depressing and unhelpful. I think the point of all this arguing should be to change things, and make the world better for everyone. We might disagree about what the change should be, but that’s what we should be arguing about, not just insulting each other.
I personally am obviously not fat just now, but I have been both overweight and anorexic in my teenage years, and while I am pretty healthy now, I’m sure I did some long term damage to my bones by subsisting solely on apples and low fat yoghurt for a year, and that worries me way more than my chubby periods. For me, there was no trigger to my eating disorder other than that I felt fat and social pressure was for me to be a skinny teenager like everyone else. Also, a lot of my family are overweight, so it’s important to me personally that being big doesn’t become an acceptable cause for discrimination, which it does feel like we’re on the way towards. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Generally, I have a lot of time for what fat activists say:
Health, not weight is what matters.
There are so many conflicting studies on the relationship between weight and health, and noone except the specialists has read the actual journal articles, so it’s difficult to say for sure, but to me, the studies that are most convincing are those that conclude that there is a correlation between being overweight/obese, but that that relationship disappears once you control for lifestyle, i.e. exercise and diet. Being fat in an of itself is not bad for your health, at least up to a certain point.
Obviously for the majority of people, exercising and eating a healthy diet will lead to weight loss/control, so it’s not completely unreasonable to use weight as a proxy for health, but neither is it completely reasonable, because a substantial minority of people eat sensibly and exercise regularly and are still overweight (particularly if you include the ‘a little bit chubby’ category). Conversely, being ‘normal weight’ is by no means a guarantee of being active and healthy.
But what baffles me the most that using weight as a proxy for health is so completely unnecessary. Any large scale population health survey includes measures of exercise and diet, and many will include medical variables such as blood pressure, cholesterol and lung capacity. So why are focusing purely on weight?
I absolutely think that we need to do a lot more to make sure children are brought up actively, and everyone, or all sizes, has access to affordable, fresh unprocessed food, the skills to cook it and a chance to move about in their daily life, whether through actual exercise or just walking. And I think steps are being taken in that direction, but still fat people are mainly told, by doctors, the media and their friends, to just go on a diet. Which brings me to my next point:
Diets don’t work.
Of course they don’t. You lose weight for a bit, your body goes into starvation mode, then you go back to eating normally and you put it all back on, and probably more too. That’s why the diet industry can even exist, because we have to keep coming back for more. Plus, some diets are so unhealthy, it’s ridiculous. If you restrict yourself to a tiny number of foods, you won’t get the nutrients you need. Everyone knows that the only way to get healthy in the long term is to eat a balance, fresh diet, so why are still calorie restrictive diet programmes pushed so much?
There are emotional/ mental health issues here, and telling people to go on diets just makes those worse.
I think one of the worst thing about the ‘you’re fat, why don’t you just eat less?’ attitude is that it turns being fat into a moral failure. You’re fat therefore you’re lazy and you deserve to be treated badly. Focussing on weight loss, which is a negative thing, you make fat people feel bad, and for a lot of people, feeling bad results in overeating. I know this because I’m one of those stress-induced overeaters myself. You can’t bully people into being thin, but you can make fat people feel shit about themselves. Is that really what we want?
If we focused instead on something positive, health, we could move forward. I really liked the study cited in the Observer where they took two groups of overweight people, and put one on a calorie controlled diet, and one on a programme focused on health and body acceptance. After the end of the programmes, they followed both groups up for six month. At the end, neither group had lost weight, but while the first group was back to exactly the same as before the second group was healthier AND happier. So even if a focus on health doesn’t lead to weight loss, it still has a positive result!
For me personally, my weight stabilised once I let go of trying to lose any, probably at a slightly higher weight than I would have ideally wanted, but one that I am obviously naturally supposed to be. A few wobbles aside, I hardly ever think about my weight now.
So as you can see, I am generally in agreement with the points fat activists make. But there seems to be this image of fat activists saying that being fat is a positive choice and that some people want to be fat. And I just don’t get it, I really don’t. I absolutely think everyone should be happy in their own skin whatever their size, and society should stop discriminating, but surely there is a point towards the obese end of the weight spectrum where your life is impeded so much by not being able to move quickly, not fitting onto seats etc, that I simply cannot believe, that this is anyone’s actual choice. There may be many many different reasons why big people stay big, but is a desire to be fat really one of them?
Maybe this is just a caricature, as I am yet to meet or read anyone actually explicitly saying this, and have only ever read about it in posts of people arguing against fat acceptance. Even the lady in the Observer article isn’t saying that, all she is saying that you wouldn’t ask that question of a thin person, and therefore it shouldn’t be asked of her, why should she have to justify herself. Which is fair enough, but not at all the same as saying that she actively wants to be fat.
I am not at all having a go at anyone and am genuinely trying to understand this, so if anyone can point me to further information, I’d be much obliged.
But anyway, what do you think about all of this?
Apologies for the length by the way!