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Some thoughts on weight, fat activism and health

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!

picture by fattycrafter.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Sara Lynn 19 April 2010, 3:59 pm

    I love that you posted this, I am going to have to check out the link later this week or over the weekend (finals week) but this is constantly brought up amoung my friends. I really wish people took better care of their bodies, I worked at McD's for 5 years and watch people order extra-large meals with a diet coke, and also 4 girls share a medium fry. it really is sad that people are so stuck on body image and not their health.

  • Deconstruction 19 April 2010, 5:04 pm

    Excellent and thought-provoking post. I am naturally thin and do not diet, never count calories, and eat probably way too much dessert-type food. Everyone always wants to know my "secret" — I don't eat fast food grossness and I have been active my entire life! I care more about feeling strong and healthy than a number on the scale.

    You should also check out a blog called Life: Forward. She is one of my readers and I also follow her and it sounds like you have many similar thoughts on these topics. Come to my link love section on my blog to get her blog link.


  • Ashe Mischief 19 April 2010, 5:13 pm

    This is fabulous and thoughtful post. As someone who has struggled with my weight my entire life, and having never really been "thin" (about a 12/14, 32" waist at my smallest), I've found that any efforts to be "thin" in my life will really be moot. I come from an obese and just LARGE family (tall, broad shoulders, burly, curvy, etc), and to a certain extent, don't think that being extremely thin would ever be healthy on me.

    So my goals now are related to health, how I feel, and not the number on my jeans or on the scale. It's about keeping my cholestorol down, my heart rate in a happy place, feeling fit and able to dance for hours on end, and making sure more whole, natural, good foods are going in to my body and fewer processed ones are.

    The whole fat activism/fat hatred seems like a witch hunt starting to happen. It really baffles me to see the cruel comments online and to imagine the ignorance and hatred in the person that wrote them.

  • Maven 19 April 2010, 5:24 pm

    I've been following the fat acceptance/health at every size (HAES) stuff for the past year or two and I am totally on board. (I loooove The Fat Nutritionist, for example.) What's harder to change than my opinions? My own conditioning about my appearance. I weigh a good 15 pounds more than I did 6 years ago, which on my frame is about 3 dress sizes. I like the way I look, but it's much harder to find clothes that fit properly (and I have the privilege of fitting into mainstream sizes, so I am loath to complain). Most of the time I'm able to roll my eyes in the fitting room and say "who the hell are these trousers supposed to fit anyway?" but sometimes I can't help wishing I were built differently so that I could fit into the trousers.

    Fat acceptance is important because the moral outrage around obesity is not about health–it's about discrimination based on people's appearance. Still, I think HAES is the more important movement. HAES is not saying "hey, every obese person is healthy!"–it's saying that you can find optimum health at your body's own personal setpoint and that weight loss in and of itself is not a gateway to health. I think if that was the mainstream understanding of health, we might see more evidence of healthy body diversity in magazines, in the media, and among people in general–and then our fitting room experiences would probably be more positive.

  • La Historiadora de Moda 19 April 2010, 7:15 pm

    It really makes me sad when I see so many people so obsessed with their weight and their BMIs. I completely applaud efforts to be healthy (getting exercise, eating fruits and vegetables, avoiding processed foods), but I don't think it's significantly more healthy to be so compulsive about dieting and trying to fit into skinny pants or trying to work out twice in one day in order to burn extra calories.

    I don't think most people who are overweight/obese particularly choose it. Many of them (my mother included) have spent much of their life trying to lose weight. As food and exercise become so closely correlated to shame and success, it creates a vicious cycle.

    I think if we stopped to consider that the evidence is inconclusive in correlating weight and BMI with health and put the emphasis on making healthy choices for a lifetime many of these issues would cease to be so problematic and so harmful to so many.

  • Michelle 19 April 2010, 11:54 pm

    This is a GREAT post. I just finished reading Hungry (by Crystal Renn), you might look into it – it mentions health at every size several times and gives some interesting statistics. People just kill me when this debate comes up, because so much of the time, it's all "Oh well the SCIENCE SAYS…" and it's like, mofo, the science says other things too! It all depends on how the study was conducted and who did it and why and so many factors.

    I agree that if people focused on health instead of thinness, we'd be better off as a nation. Skinny does not equal healthy. I exercise (do yoga, crunches, and sit ups) every morning and eat a fairly balanced, healthy vegetarian diet (I don't deny myself treats when I want them, but I don't eat a lot of crap because hello, that makes ME feel like crap!), and I'm borderline obese, according to BMI. Which makes peoples' mouth drop open since I certainly do not look like what many consider obese!

  • The Pale and Pallor Princess 20 April 2010, 2:26 am

    I really appreciate you opening dialogue on this. I like that you play devils advocate and look at both side. I mostly agree with you. Since I was about 12 I've been overweight, I'm about a size 18, so my BMI definitely has a little frowny face next to it. Truthfully, if I could wake up one day and be a size 8 would I? Hells yeah, but that's probably not going to happen. I've watched my mom yo-yo up and down between a size 2 and a size 18 every couple years, I've decided I'm not going to put myself through that. I've decided to be happy with who I am (at least most of the time) and probably have a better self image then a lot of girls smaller then me. I'm happy as is and wish society could join in. My waistline is not their concern. I think fat acceptance isn't so much "I'm awesome because I'm fat" but more "I'm awesome. I'm also fat".


  • Retro Chick 20 April 2010, 11:48 am

    This is interesting. I think like most commenters I've been big, and I've been small.

    It's a difficult issue because I think the reason the focus is on size, as opposed to cholesterol measurements etc, is that it's something people can easily judge for themselves.

    I don't have any statistics. But my feeling is that probably the majority of people in the obese BMI range AREN'T out jogging every weekend and eating plates of fresh vegetables. People can't measure their cholesterol at home to see if they're healthy, but they CAN measure their waist.

    If we lived in a world where it was easy to eat fresh, healthy food all the time and portion sizes weren't insane in restaurants then it would be nice to think that the majority of people were healthy and we could all be happy in our own skin, whatever size we turned out to be. Unfortunately I don't think that's the case.

    I think women are terribly judgmental about other womens size though, and that's wrong. I don't really understand why it's become an excuse for discrimination, especially in a world where obesity is on the rise. Maybe it's because so many people who aren't overweight have battled with those issues? It's like ex smokers being the biggest anti smoking evangelists?

    Anyway. Enough rambling, I hope some of that made sense!

  • Franca 20 April 2010, 4:38 pm

    Hmmmm. I wasn't in any way suggesting that all (or even the majority) fat people are healthy, just that it is possible to be fat and healthy. Like I said, its not completely unfounded to assume that weight is an indicator of health. But it just seems uneccessary when we have all this really complex data that we're ignoring in favour of what is basically a flawed proxy.

    I guess, for me the problem with focusing on weight isn't about people judging themselves, it's about people judging others. I think most people do know how healthy they are, or would if they thought about it. While I may not know my cholesterol levels, I do know if I get out of breath when running for the bus, how tired I get when I go for a cycle ride, whether I am able to lift up heavy things. I know if I smoke, I know if I'm eating lots of processed food.

    I think part of the explanation for the discrimination of fat people is to do with class. It is mainly people in deprived areas that are obsese, whereas rich people are more likely to be thin. So looking down on fat people is a way of looking down on poor people.

    Also, i think it's really interesting how when thinking about weight and obesity, I thought almost exclusively about women. Whereas men get fat with impunity and noone even notices. Our Scottish First Minister has become absolutely massive since taking power, I would be surprised if he wasn't in the obese category, and noone is questioning his ability to make decisions because of it.

  • Jessica 20 April 2010, 9:49 pm

    I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on this topic. I've been reading your blog for a month or two, but I don't know if I've ever commented before. I'm fat, and I identify with the fat acceptance movement. Some great resources you might look for: "Rethinking Thin" by Gina Kolata, a science writer for the New York Times; "The Obesity Myth" by Paul Campos; fatshionista.com; shapelyprose.com; and formspring.me/fatshionista.

  • en 20 April 2010, 10:21 pm

    I've been chubby and self-hating, I've been bulimic and unhealthy, and now I've settled out fairly thin, but I totally identify with fat acceptance.

    Maybe I don't follow it closely enough, but I've never read anything indicating that morbid obesity is a positive choice; rather that it's a reality that is not incompatible with a healthy, happy life.

    It seems very strange to me that *anyone* is focusing on women's weight per se, when (as you say) better measures of health are readily available. You want a moral issue? The health and safety of our food supply – that's a moral issue. The size of my ass? Not so much.

    I don't know what's behind the moralistic, finger-wagging, judgy nastiness towards fat people, but there's something pathological about it.

    And here I sit with the latest Atlantic – cover story FAT NATION – IT'S WORSE THAN YOU THINK. HOW TO BEAT OBESITY. How to beat obesity better involve political action to change food regs or they'll get a nasty-gram from me.

  • Eyeliah 21 April 2010, 12:40 am

    I definitely have strong opinions about ‘weight issues’ I have struggled and been 25 pounds heavier twice in the last decade. The first time I lost weight was with one of those controlled calorie programs and it taught me a lot, in fact I ended up working for them for a few years. Currently I have been maintaining almost 3 years now and I eat whatever I want, because what I want to eat is mostly very healthy. It is hard work but it is definitely worth it. I think it’s all about the why. Why do you want to lose weight? The motivation has to be there to make a lifestyle change for the rest of your life. Anyone looking for a quick fix or to starve themselves is not going to get to or stay at a healthy weight. I completely agree with your eating healthy goals, an additional 500 calories of chocolate a day compared to 500 calories of fruit and vegetables is going to have very different affects on the body. The chocolate can adversely affect weight, energy levels, mood, body fat percentage and appetite.

  • Helen 23 April 2010, 5:45 pm

    This is such an interesting topic, I wish I'd read the article!
    I think you're right, some people are naturally a 14, others are meant to be a 6 and there's no point pushing yourself to be one or the other.
    The whole BMI scale is complete rubbish in my opinion. According to it, and believe me I get this pointed out every time I visit a GP, I'm nearly a stone underweight, which technically means I'm anorexic. Fact is, I've been the same weight for years and *touch wood* I don't have any health issues, so I don't get why it's a problem.
    Often you can tell when people aren't the right weight too, especially in their face. You can look gaunt at a size 12 if it's not right for you.

  • Laura Connell 27 April 2010, 5:41 pm

    The most important thing you said is that your weight stabilized once you STOPPED WORRYING ABOUT WHAT YOU WERE EATING. The key really is to eat what you like from a healthy emotional place. Read Crystal Renn's book; it's great.