The Fight for the Soul of Fat People

(Sorry about the glitch yesterday, folks! WordPress prematurely published my post without any content as I was working on it. Here’s the whole tamale.)

It must be a slow news cycle or something, because there are lots of stories floating around about the health of the nation and how to help those who are overweight or obese. The New York Times alone recently had several pieces on the theme, so let’s constellate those together and give me something to rant about, shall we?

  1. Black Women and Fat. A peek inside the cultural perspective of fat in relation to women in the black community in America. The author remembers how desirable curves were for her growing up but now she takes it as her personal mission to help her family be healthier.
  2. Talking to a Child Who is Overweight, but Unaware. A post from the Times’s Motherlode blog in response to a dad’s well-intentioned question about how to broach the subject with his 12-year-old daughter in a way that won’t drive her into the pit of disordered eating despair. Yeah, good luck with that one.
  3. Workouts, Times 2 (or 3). Hey look! A tiny sliver of affluent New Yorkers decide to waste all their free time exercising! Don’t these people have anything better to do?
  4. The Surprising Shortcut to Better Health. Contributing writer Gretchen Reynolds has a new book out about how being healthy requires far less activity than Americans who think they’re an utter failure for not running a marathon realize. The missing piece for me here—and maybe she discusses it in her book, but I suspect not—is that you can’t correct the crappy inputs with active outputs.

That’s just a smattering of the offerings. I was going to include a link to a piece on childhood diabetes, but it was so wrong-headed I almost exploded from sheer exasperation.

All of these bits gelled with some thoughts I’ve been having recently. I kind of touched on it last week when I talked about how those of us who’ve gotten the real food message are a separate sector of society (Ooh! Look at that alliteration!) and may even be…*gulp*…sort of elite.

But…it’s my water. I can’t live without my water.

People-watching confirms this for me. What all of these articles and ideas and musings on obesity miss by focusing on the individual is the fact that something big is driving this. Something bigger than one person’s willpower. Bigger than an individual’s shame, embarrassment, cultural identification, motivation, or desire. How can a goldfish recognize that the very water in which they swim is the cause of all their misery?

Another cultural phenomenon I see emerging from this mess is the idea that you can be healthy at any size. There’s a bonafide movement around this: Health At Every Size. The heart of this movement jives with me. Everyone is different and a positive voice like this can help those struggling with these issues. I personally have always had a problem with my huge-ass calves which barely taper into some Hillary Clinton-esque cankles. There’s no surgery in the world to fix them (aside from some possibly extreme leg-lengthening surgery they do in Korea) so I’m stuck looking like I’m standing in 6 inches of water. So yes, accepting ourselves is important. A great idea, in theory.

But WHAT are we accepting? Whose terms? When we use human history as a guide, we see that obesity on this scale is a massive aberration that hasn’t existed in any other known time. We don’t see animals in the wild having these problems until we put them in a concrete zoo cell. So why isn’t anyone blaming the zoo?!

I think we can all agree that media images of thin people are already ridiculous. But I predict this fetishization will get even worse as thin people become an even slimmer minority in a sea of overweight and obese citizens. We already see this with breathless women’s magazines headlines like, “Salma Hayek’s Secret to Sexy Curves!” See that? It’s a “secret”. The rest of us don’t know it, and until we do, we will remain a part of the unwashed masses. And what the magazine won’t tell you is that many of these folks put themselves through extreme, unhealthy rituals like starving themselves and using drugs to attain these figures. And then? They’re primped by professionals, lit flatteringly, and airbrushed and Photoshopped. And this is what we’re comparing ourselves to?

And yet, when you understand the scope of the problem, it’s easy to understand the lengths people will go to in order to avoid gaining weight. If you haven’t already seen Swedish doctor Andreas Eenfeldt’s AHS11 presentation, then you missed a great, succinct review of some startling statistics. He shows a map of the United States and its obesity statistics over the last few decades and then with projections for the future. It’s shocking. He sums it up by saying that in only a few decades nobody will look “normal” anymore. Let’s put aside the usual ivory tower eviscerating of the word “normal” and take it to mean not obese and not suffering from the diseases of civilization like diabetes, heart disease, and the rest of metabolic syndrome. I also recently spied a Facebook post from Clifton Harski, former MovNat master instructor, about how he refuses to accept a fat body as normal and linked to this as an example of why.

And I agree. We can’t accept it as the standard. We can’t. We have to be able to accept ourselves on an individual level for our perceived “flaws”, but we cannot as a society, culture, or nation accept being overweight as okay on an epidemic scale. We have to make this separation. Because if we continue to blame ourselves for our “failings” and yet continue to patronize McDonald’s, then we are sending the message that it’s okay for these corporations to continue with business as usual.

I understand that people’s feelings get hurt about this. But if we’re going to make any progress on this front, we have got to get over ourselves and realize that we’re all a part of a larger dynamic. And depending on our actions, that dynamic can continue to be a shame- and corporate-fueled spiral or we can say, No more. It ends here. It reminds me of going through school for writing. I’m the veteran of numerous writing workshops, and you can’t survive them without developing a tough skin. In order to improve as a writer, I had to keep my feelings about what was being said about a piece separate from the process. Yes, I learned to step aside while my sweet little baby poems were eviscerated by my peers. It’s this separation from whatever your own fears or evil internal voices may be from the larger issue of obesity in America that is necessary. If we could take all the shame, disappointment, and rage that people have inflicted upon themselves and focus that against the powers that deserve it? Wow, man. We might actually get somewhere.

We can’t solve this with more of the same. We have to acknowledge the problem, admit that there will be a transition period that may extend beyond our current generation, and sit tight. Not everyone will be able to bring themselves back from the brink, but our children deserve better because, make no mistake, this is compounding over generations. (Suddenly that link about childhood diabetes is applicable. Go here but don’t throw your computer out a window in frustration.)

Would you like a second helping of shame with a side of pariah?

This will require some radical action. My advice to the dad with the 12-year-old daughter is to make the changes on a family level rather than singling his daughter out. Just as we’re all vulnerable to the massive ubiquity of corporate food interests, this girl is one small element in a larger scenario. And in that scenario the parents, the gatekeepers of their household, are currently playing the role of corporate food interests by showering their family with food and lifestyle that are compromising the health of their daughter. Until that’s acknowledged, there will be no change.

I’m not into cheerleading or motivational speaking or life coaching but for some positive messaging, I highly recommend Revolutionary Act. Be sure and click on the link to their Manifesto and then click on each of the sections to read more. It’s good stuff and it just might make a revolutionary out of you.


One Response to “The Fight for the Soul of Fat People”

  1. I’m a new reader. Totally blown away by this post. Wow. I’ve been thinking about this stuff for YEARS. You’ve explored the topic articulately. Rock.

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