My problem with the discourse around "obesity"
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I’ve long been mildly obsessed with health and wellness. Opposition to unhelpful stigma and moralizing is a consistent theme that runs through my activism. And there’s a ton of anti-scientific moralizing around health and wellness, especially around fatness.
My friend Rachel recently wrote about fatness and longevity in the nuanced and compassionate way I’m sad to say almost has to come from someone who’s struggled with their weight. Simultaneously, I’m listening to the most recent episode of the Maintenance Phase podcast about how most people with eating disorders are actually overweight.
Fatness and sex actually have a lot in common. The problem with fatness is very similar to the problem with sex. American society doesn’t know enough about these topics because they’re horrifically understudied. And they’re horrifically understudied in large part because they’re so stigmatized. They’re also very gendered. The way people socialized as men experience sex and fatness are quite different from the way people socialized as women experience them.
And what researchers do know about fatness and sex tends to not percolate into the public’s awareness, again because they’re so stigmatized.
Instead, the public believes a lot of things about fatness and sex that are actually either unsubstantiated or plain wrong. Not only are they wrong, but many of our misconceptions about sex and fatness are demonstrably pernicious.
Here’s one example. There are movements to normalize and de-stigmatize sex (sex-positive feminism) and fatness (body positivity, fat acceptance). So many people believe something along the lines of “Society is encouraging people to be fat.” Heh. No.
In reality, American culture still very heavily stigmatizes being fat and highly rewards being thin. At least doubly so for women.
As I’ve pointed out previously:
Fat women earn $9,000 less per year than similarly qualified average-weight women. Obese women earn $19,000 less. The average very thin woman earns $22,000 more than average-weight women. Fat women have to endure a litany of abuse merely for existing, including people yelling insults at them from car windows; “cringe” videos of people making fun of them for dancing, swimming, and otherwise existing on YouTube; harassment on dating platforms; and endless other examples of cruelty. Studies show people assume fat people are more lazy, less intelligent, and more greedy than thin people based on their body size alone.
I believe people tend to be overestimate the impacts of movements like sex-positive feminism and body positivity because humans tend to be very attuned to novelty while failing to notice defaults. So if you ask someone, especially a thin person or someone in a monogamous, heterosexual relationship whether it’s easy or hard to be fat or queer they’re not going to necessarily know about or notice all the ways society makes it hard to be fat or sexually outside the norm. But they’re going to be able to point to WAP or Lil Naz X giving Satan a lap dance or Lizzo just being fat and unashamed about it because these things aren’t default. They’re noticeable.
I mean this is the central insight of the “privilege” discourse. This is why some fat activists call it “thin privilege.” Not having any reason to experience or know anything about fatphobia is itself a tremendous blessing that the person experiencing it definitionally doesn’t see until it’s pointed out to them. I remember stumbling on a Tumblr called “this is thin privilege” back in the day. And despite having a mother who talked constantly about being belittled, underestimated, and ignored because of her weight I still found the blog extremely enlightening.
Another common misconception about sex and fatness is that people can effectively shame other people into having less sex or different kinds of sex or losing weight. In reality, fat-shaming is actually demonstrably counter-productive. People who experience more fat-shaming actually gain more weight than people who experience less. Studies around sexual stigma show similar results. Despite the common misconception that sexually permissive policies and cultural messages drive promiscuity and sexual abuse the reality is that cultures that are more sexually repressive experience more STIs and instances of sexual abuse.
One of the most common misconceptions about fatness is that fatness is a simple matter of willpower. But this ignores that the entire world, including animals, is getting fatter. Are we supposed to believe that animals are losing their willpower en masse? Or that they’ve been watching too much Lizzo?
There is gobs and gobs of research showing fatness is not a simple matter of willpower or calories-in, calories-out.
“While things like diet, a sedentary lifestyle, eating frequency, access to healthcare, genetic conditions, medication, socioeconomic standing, childhood trauma, disease, and psychological factors might all contribute to weight gain, no weight regulation model perfectly explains why some people are fat and others aren’t—why most people can’t keep weight off after a period of dieting and yet some can,” Rachel writes.
One of the main problems with stigma is that it’s a self-reinforcing problem. A topic remains understudied because it’s stigmatized. But because it’s an issue people have strong feelings about, people write and talk about it constantly. But because it’s understudied, they believe things about it that aren’t only untrue, but actively harmful. These false beliefs further entrench the stigma. Then when the truth comes out about these things people have a hard time updating their priors because not wanting to admit you were wrong is a big part of being human.
Listen, if shaming people for being fat and slutty and queer worked to make them thin and straight and prudish then under some kind of fucked up moral system maybe you could make a case for doing it. But it doesn’t even work! It actually works exactly opposite to everything you say you want to do! People just get fatter. And they end up raping each other more and giving each other more STIs.
Like what if we just… stopped.