The Judgment Against Fat People

Slate.com has a series called The Hive, where they enlist the Slate reading community to submit ideas to fix a larger problem. The ideas are then voted upon by the community and a winner is chosen.

I normally would think this was a brilliant marketing and networking project, but their maiden voyage fills me with dread. The topic? Fix childhood obesity (read the introduction here).

Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign is obviously the timely inspiration for Slate, with its attention on school lunches, exercise, and fruit and vegetables. All good things in theory.

But what has been particularly heartbreaking for me are the comments people make on this topic:

  • “Kick thier [sic] asses outside for a few hours, get them off their video games. Get rid of little debbie and the microwave food. This is not rocket science…”
  • So much [sic], I don’t even know where to start: “The parent need to push the kids away from the table. An u can have junk food u just have to modify dont eat a whole box of donuts have one. Buy a small bag of chips instead of a big bag its all in moderation.”
  • “Seriously limit the video games and tv time, and get them involved in outdoor play activities.”
  • “Take a look at the parents.. and then you’ll see why.”
  • “Kick their rears outside to play! NO taking them to school…if they live less than 1 1/2 mi. they walk, otherwise they can ride a bus! Take ALL electronics away and cell phones. NO vehicles are provided…Turn off the TVs & anything else like that! See, this was how it was back a few years and there were very FEW fat kids in school. And they all lived in town & Mommy & Daddy took them everywhere and they didn’t play outside like the rest of the kids!”

Hmm…I think I see a pattern. It involves kicking their asses, generalizing, and blaming the victim. Way to go, team.

If you haven’t read Gary Taubes’s Why We Get Fat, I highly recommend you do. I learned a lot about myself, and not just in the sense that I figured out why my body was packing on pounds. This is very hard for me to admit out loud, but I learned that even though I consider myself to be a compassionate, understanding person, I held a lot of judgment against overweight people. That they were lazy. Consumed nothing but chips, cookies, and sodas. Didn’t exercise. It never occurred to me that perhaps they were following all the advice they were being given, not succeeding, and then being told they were lying or fooling themselves. How tragic is that? As Taubes puts it, you don’t blame a child for eating a lot in preparation for a growth spurt. We say, “Oh, he’s a growing boy, he needs to eat.” Likewise, adults are fulfilling their genetic potential, just in a more horizontal orientation. As long as carbs are readily available, the fat cells will drive people to give them more of what they want.

Once I understood that it was a combination of genetics and our broken food system, I felt like running up to every overweight person I saw and screaming, “It’s not your fault! It’s not my fault! We can fix this!” I’m glad I didn’t, because it would have been arrogant and possibly grounds for being institutionalized. But I also learned that even though I couldn’t be truly considered overweight yet, the power of that judgment was already turning against me and turning into poisonous thoughts about myself (“Maybe liposuction is the only way to go?”). It suddenly gave me tremendous gratitude for the fact that my weight had only been an issue for a relatively short period of time instead of my entire life.

So now we have a generation of children growing up this way. But my concerns about Slate’s project are:

  • No matter what they come up with, they will miss the point. Are we really going to ask that children go on a Diet? Move more? As we know from studies on adults, this will just make them hungrier and end in failure.
  • No matter what they suggest, it will come across as being insensitive to issues of class, race, and culture.
  • No matter how they frame the advice, it will sound like a bunch of elitist snobs bullying children.
  • Whatever programs or education campaigns are suggested, they will all fail. Idealism is great and all, but deep personal change has to be more than just a pretty idea with a catchy tagline. Remember Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No? As long as carbs are everywhere and considered normal food, obese children (and adults) will continue to be an issue. A possible exception to this rule is the willingness to take the long view. The stop smoking campaign didn’t help anyone already addicted, but it has made smoking undesirable for subsequent generations.
  • Are we really going to overburden parents with one more thing to worry about? Remember, this is an entire household lifestyle shift that requires an enormous amount of energy, planning, and resources. Judging from topic threads I’ve seen on MDA‘s forum, it can be very difficult to get everyone on board, especially if the kids are older. If they are accustomed to coming home after school and having Oreos, that habit will be a tough one to break. In addition, it can divide spouses/partners when one wants to change and the other doesn’t.

The problems are so huge, I’m not even sure I can think of all of them. But I’ll list what comes to mind (let me know what I’ve missed in the comments):

  1. The Industrial Food Complex in cahoots with our government. Carbs are ubiquitous because their shelf-life is extraordinary, making life more convenient for millions of Americans and lining the pockets of the food industry, health insurance/big pharma, industrial agribusiness/feedlots, and all those diet/exercise gurus who promise you the body of your dreams. Corn and soy subsidies have to go.
  2. While I hesitate to blame parents, many of whom are simply doing the best they can, it all begins at home. Have you ever tried to tell a parent they were parenting wrong? I hope you’re wearing head gear. Either you get it or you don’t. And I’m guessing that line is often drawn along socioeconomic borders.
  3. Again, as long as sugar and refined flour products are considered normal food, this will continue. It will take a massive vote with our dollars to reverse this. Think about it: restaurants, food companies, advertisers, marketers, grocery stores, convenience stores, etc. Have you ever been to a grocery store where you didn’t have to avoid about 8 center aisles of boxed, bottled, and canned “food”? When’s the last time you went to a restaurant and didn’t have to perform menu-gymnastics to get a meal that is mostly Paleo/Primal?
  4. Let’s suppose said boycott vote did take place. There would be a prolonged and extremely uncomfortable economic transition. We’re talking about major companies like General Mills, Kellogg’s, Kraft, Heinz, ConAgra, and Coca-Cola laying off millions of people. Grocery stores and restaurants would have to tailor their offerings to a more savvy public. And I’m not sure anyone has figured out how to make fresh vegetables and fruits as marketable as processed foods, or pastured beef/pork as profitable as feedlot products. Without economic incentive, our economy just doesn’t support movement in that direction.
  5. It is difficult and rare for the human creature to make lasting change. I have seen it, I have experienced it, and I know it is possible. But it is not easy, and without support coming from other sources, it’s hard to turn abstract ideas into reality.

For my part, I think it’s a dangerous proposition to tell anyone what to do and how to do it. I try to make the best decisions I can for me and my family. I believe in the powers of responsibility and self-reliance. But with such an overpowering presence steering so many down the wrong road, how do we begin to turn that hell-bent car around?

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3 Responses to “The Judgment Against Fat People”

  1. You are so right. All our lives we’ve been told to eat one way, then blamed when it didn’t work for us. I’ve heard the snickers and the rude remarks. I’ve read many of them online and realized the people saying such ignorant things have never had a weight problem, or they’d know differently.

    I realized almost 10 years ago that conventional “wisdom” wasn’t the answer for me. I did research and started a low-carb diet. I’ve never looked back. It’s a hard change, especially when everyday you have to kick against the “norm”, but it’s worth the effort.

    I recently was part of a podcast and we were discussing the Dietary Guidelines. The other guest, my friend Tom Naughton, said the only way we will make a difference is to make the USDA guidelines irrelevant. I agree. It will take people like us, working in the grassroots movement, to educate people and help them see the truth of it all. Once you have the power of knowledge, you don’t need anyone else telling you what to do.

  2. Thank you for that, Amy, well said. I also found that some friends of mine were sympathetic about my weight concerns before Paleo, but then got weirdly defensive when going Paleo facilitated that weight loss. There are so many forces working against all of us, you have to get very comfortable ignoring or actively thumbing your nose at all the noise. It’s becoming quite fun. :)

  3. Isn’t it strange how dietary choices bring out the worst in some people? It seems to rate right up there with politics and religion. You do need a pretty thick skin to publicly thumb your nose at it all. The debates used to intimidate me. Now I feel as you do and I say “Bring it on!” LOL

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