On Fat Talking Points

Once my radio show, Friend of Marilyn™, went on air, I began doing media interviews for news outlets across New Zealand. Doing media is new for me, and I often fumble when answering questions. So I found it helpful to develop talking points: standard answers for common questions. Someone suggested that I share them on my blog, so here they are!

Q: What is the purpose of the show?

The goal of the show is to change the national conversation about fatness.

Q: Is this show glorifying obesity?

Friend of Marilyn™ is about promoting the idea that fat people deserve the same rights and dignity as non-fat people.

Q: Fat people do not have the same rights and dignity?

No, they do not. Weight and height are not protected classes in most countries, the way gender, race/ethnicity, age, are. It is legal to discriminate against an individual because they are fat. And fat people are often denied basic human dignity. Take for example, the representations of fat bodies we see every day. Most of the stories about the obesity pandemic are accompanied by a picture of what Charlotte Cooper calls a headless fatty; a fat person from the neck down, or just their fat stomach. This is an example of objectification, and that leads to fat people being seen as less than human. And if fat people are less than human, then it is okay to discriminate and oppress them.

Q: Why do we care about the size of other people’s bodies?

Because we believe we can judge personal and moral characteristics based on their bodies.  We look at a fat body and believe it displays certain characteristics: lazy, stupid, lacking willpower, asexual, etc. But as Marilyn Wann says, the only thing you can learn by looking at my fat body is your own level of fat prejudice.

Q: Do you believe fat people want to lose weight?

Yes, most probably do.

It is the sane choice when you live in a world that finds you disgusting. Being fat is considered unhealthy, lazy, undesirable, and a moral failure. If we look back at other groups who have been oppressed and discriminated against, we can find members of such groups engaging in activities to negotiate the stigma. Ethnic minorities may use creams to lighten their skin or straighten their hair. Gays and lesbians may marry and raise families in heterosexual relationships. I believe that many fat people would rather not be fat, and many try to achieve this through weight loss.

Q: Surely if people just ate less and exercised more they could stop being fat?

What research demonstrates, and has for over 50 years, is that only 5% of those who attempt to lose weight are able to maintain a significant weight loss for more than 5 years. 95% of people gain back the weight they lose, and often more, within five years. This is true for people who diet, and those who make lifestyle changes as well.

Q: Why the poor success rate for weight loss? Are people just not motivated? Lack of will power?

We honestly do not know why weight loss has such a high failure rate. I find it silly to pathologize 95% of the population, and suggest they simply lack the will power needed. The human body is a complex organism, and while we would like to believe that it is as easy as ‘calories in, calories out’, the empirical evidence shows that it is not that simple.

Q: So what do you recommend instead?

I believe that every person, regardless of their body size, deserves basic human dignity and rights. And I like the paradigm of Health at Every Size® which promotes that every body, regardless of size, can engage in healthy behaviours. I am not, however, a proponent of healthism: the idea that people have a moral obligation to be healthy. I do believe that people, especially direct care workers, should be educated on the obesity myths, as I hope this will decrease fat phobia and hatred.

Q: What are the obesity myths?

These are assumptions about the relationship between health and weight that many believe to be true. So, for example, most people believe that permanent weight loss is possible, and they wonder why fat people do not “try harder” to become non-fat. Another obesity myth is that obesity rates are increasing, when for most industrialised countries, obesity rates levelled off a decade ago. And yet another is that being fat is unhealthy.

Q: So you are arguing that being fat can be healthy?

Yes. There are fat people who are healthy, and fat people who are not healthy. Just as there are non-fat people who are healthy, and non-fat people who are not healthy. Body size is not a good proxy for health, and it is dangerous for all people, both fat and not, to believe that it is.

Q: Are you healthy?

It would depend on how you define, or determine health.

If you are defining health by medical tests and levels, then yes, I am healthy.

If you are defining health by the behaviours I engage in: I don’t smoke, don’t drink, I eat nutritious meals, get more than 6hrs of sleep a night, exercise regularly, and look both ways before crossing the street. So yes, I am healthy.

But if you are defining health the way that the NZ Immigration does, then no, I am not healthy because I have a BMI over 35.

People look at my fat body, and they believe it shows them that I am not healthy. They believe it tells them that I eat crap and never exercise (as though these are the only health behaviours that matter).  This is true for many doctors as well, as research finds that physicians do not counsel their non-fat patients about diets and exercise. They make the assumption that they are eating healthy and exercising, simply because they are not fat. And the research does not support this assumption.

If I walk into McDonalds with a non-fat friend, and we both order a Big Mac, people in the store might think, ‘why is that fat women eating that?’ or ‘she doesn’t need to eat that!’, and it will reinforce negative stereotypes they have about fat people. But it is unlikely that any of them will think the same things about my non-fat friend, even though we are both consuming the same item of food that is being deemed unhealthy.

Focusing on weight, instead of health, is dangerous.

Q: Why?

It is dangerous for many reasons. First, conflation of health and weight leads to confusion for fat and non-fat people alike. So you may have a fat person who doesn’t believe that what they eat matters, and why bother exercising, because they are fat=unhealthy anyway. And you may have a non-fat person who doesn’t believe what they eat matters, and why bother exercising, because they are not fat=healthy. Also, many people engage in unhealthy behaviours to lose or maintain weight.

Consider the social approval of a fat woman who severely limits her calories and obsesses about her weight. That same behaviour, in a non-fat woman, would possibly be diagnosed as an eating disorder. Why the discrepancy?

Another reason it is dangerous is because it contributes to fat phobia and oppression.

Q: Are fat phobia and oppression harmful?

Absolutely; fat phobia, or fat stigma, or fat hatred, is harmful. It stigmatises fat people, which is harmful for both physical and mental health. It also affects non-fat people – making many of them terrified of becoming fat. Being shamed, or bullied, is never good for anyone.

Of course, a lot of fat phobia and hatred is hidden behind a cloak of concern.

Q: A cloak of concern?

Most concern about the health of fat people is really just fat prejudice. People do not care about my health; it is a way for them to express their own disgust and fear of my fat. I know they don’t care about my health because they are not concerned with whether I wear a helmet when I ride my bike, or speed when I drive my car. They don’t care if I starve myself to lose weight or get regular exams at the doctor. This lack of caring about anything besides my weight is evidence that it is not my health they are concerned with. It is my fat. They find it distasteful, or disgusting, or it makes them uncomfortable. But that’s their problem. Not mine.