exciting, informative, snarky, and very likely fabricated tales of life as an american expat in london

what’s the big fat deal?

by Jen at 7:29 pm on 20.03.2010 | 7 Comments
filed under: rant and rage

this is me. just back from a 13 mile run the other day.


would you say i’m “underweight”, “normal weight”, “overweight”, or “obese”?

moreover, why on earth would you care?

there’s been so much “concern” lately about those who’re overweight. from michelle obama’s concern that her kids were getting chubby, to howard stern’s invective of “concern” over gabourey sidibe’s obvious obesity.

seems whenever anyone is overweight, the general public now think they have a right to be “concerned”. for their health, of course.

but let’s be honest and call it what it is: it’s not concern – it’s repulsion. we’re repulsed by fat people. we’re repulsed because we believe that the physique of someone’s appearance is a reflection of their behaviour. behaviour we find repugnant, and ascribe morality judgements to: lazy, weak, slovenly. and therefore we feel free to discriminate, punish and openly mock.

think about that for a minute. when it comes to physique, we believe someone’s *appearance* reflects their behaviour. how fucked up is that? we would never ascribe morality judgements to someone’s eye colour, skin colour, or height. we would never ascribe morality judgements to someone who had a different number of legs/arms/toes.

i hear you saying already, “but weight is different! weight is something that can be controlled by behaviour!” and maybe sometimes that is true. maybe sometimes it is not. but do we make morality judgements about people who are underweight? do we express concern?

we do, in fact – but in a very different way. we may call them “sick” or “scary” out loud… but we glorify them in the media and express admiration in lots of other ways. we may call them “sick”, but we are *attracted* to them. we think of them as strong-willed, disciplined, in-control. we’re often secretly jealous of their habits. in fact, as a society we *encourage* the disordered eating of the underweight by giving them lots of money to act, model, or sing. our “concern” is often the equivalent of high praise.

and the way in which we express “concern” about the overweight doesn’t even correlate to other public health issues, like drugs, smoking, drinking. walking down the street we may see lots of people smoking cigarettes but we don’t think, “ugh, i bet they can’t even run to catch the bus”. we see people drinking themselves into oblivion in the pub, but we don’t think, “they should drink more water!” we see people addicted to heroin and we don’t think, “if only they had more willpower – they shouldn’t shoot up between meals.”

people we don’t know kill themselves in front of us every day on drink, drugs and tobacco. people who overuse drink, drugs and tobacco don’t get publically stigmatised in anywhere near the same way as the overweight, and yet we feel perfectly comfortable judging strangers we think are too heavy.

we don’t look at a fat person and see someone who may be poor or disabled. we look at a fat person and think, “if only they would *educate* themselves. if only they would eat less and move more. if only they had some willpower.” we look at a fat person and intuitively believe we know something about their values, their hygiene, their work ethic.

we look at a fat person and are repulsed.

which brings me back to the question: why do we care so much? why are we so “concerned”? why the knee-jerk condemnation? what the hell does it matter to you or me?

a person’s health is between themselves and their doctor, if they so choose. a person’s weight is their own business, not yours or mine. a person’s eating or exercise habits are something we are not privy to. and yet we judge.

i’ll tell you why we care so much, why all the “concern”.

1. it makes us feel better about ourselves. the same old reason we made fun of people back in the schoolyard as children – we get an ego boost by putting others down. it makes us feel superior, self-satisfied to think at least *we* are not fat. if someone else is lazy, weak, or slovenly, then we, by comparison are energetic, strong and disciplined. feels good, don’t it?

2. it’s so easy. the thoughts are already planted there, the stereotypes are have been around since forever – we don’t even have to think up new ones. every fat joke, every snide comment about weight, has always been right out in the open. it’s no longer acceptable to say bigoted things about people of other races, but a fat joke has always been a guaranteed laugh. hear or see enough of that, and eventually it starts to sink in.

3. cloaking our “concern” under the rubric of “health” gives it a veneer of validity. of *course* we just want people to live long lives and be healthy. what’s so wrong with that? (never mind the skinny people living on cigarettes, diet coke and cocaine.) so we come up with platitudes like “eat food, not too much, mostly plants” and reassure ourselves that it’s not that hard to be healthy, and healthy people are not overweight. cool, that lets us go back to #1.

4. it’s easier than thinking about and finding solutions to the root causes. trying to think about what it might be like to live in a neighbourhood without a supermarket is so hard. trying to think about what it might be like to be unable to exercise because you’re working two jobs and taking care of children is so hard. trying to think about how to change the industrial food industry which injects high fructose corn syrup into everything because the u.s. subsidises farmers for excess production of corn is so hard. trying to think about how to fix the economy so that one-in-five children don’t experience hunger growing up is so hard. trying to think about how to change the infrastructures of cities and suburbs which make it difficult to walk/bike places is so hard. trying to figure out how to reduce the prevalance of childhood asthma is so hard. trying to change the societal structures which make us more sedentary and less active is so hard.

in other words, we continue to be “concerned” about overweight people because it is easy, a cheap ego boost, and intellectually lazy to do so.

so when you looked at my pictures above, which category did you put me in?

the answer? i’m 5′ 3″, and i weigh 137 lbs. (62 kilos, 9 stone 11 lbs). that gives me a bmi of 24.3. put 3 more pounds on me, and i’m officially “overweight” at a bmi of 25.

not that it’s any of your goddamned business, of course. why, are you “concerned” about my health?

4 people like this post.


  • 1

    Comment by Sarah

    21.03.2010 @ 02:44 am

    Great post – and very brave. I think part of it is also fear. We are so afraid of being fat, overweight, etc, that we criticize others. Somehow we don’t fear addiction or poverty.

    I rarely buy magazines anymore. The airbrushing used to smooth out the naturalness of bodies freaks me out.

  • 2

    Comment by charlotte

    21.03.2010 @ 05:59 am

    Great post, Jen. Have you checked out Kate Harding’s Shapely Prose – it’s body acceptance activism. I’m on the path towards trying to be less judgmental of bodies, my own and those of others, but I come from a family obsessed – and I mean obSESSed – with good looks. Rewards for being thin like you can’t believe. Posts like this and KHSP are helping me to get over it and realise that no-one should judge anybody for their size and shape.

    Meanwhile that BMI thing? How crazy is that?

  • 3

    Comment by Jen

    21.03.2010 @ 10:37 am

    @sarah – i def. see what you’re saying. and i’d add that it’s also tied in with insecurity. but really some of the reasons people fear being overweight are precisely because of the stigma we’ve attached to it, and because we know that others will judge us in the same way we judge them. it’s part and parcel of #2. if we can change that, perhaps we can all begin to show a bit more empathy instead of scorn. and that will lead to more solutions under #4. but fatism is still part of acceptable mainstream culture, despite the fact that 2/3 Americans are considered “overweight”

    @charlotte – yeah, i’ve read kate often. like you (and so many, many others), i think i’ve always internalised judgement of bodies (both my own, as i’ve written about here, and others). and just in the past few years, the penny has really dropped for me – why *do* i (and others) care?? why does it personally matter to me what other people look like?

    and the more i ponder it, the more i realise, it shouldn’t. i don’t feel personally invested in whether or not some random stranger is drinking too much. but a fat person eating “unhealthy” food in public? most of society will immediately make assumptions about who they are *as a person* because of that. and the more i think about that particular scenario, the more i realise things have got to change.

    and yeah, the bmi indicator is just sooo skewed.

  • 4

    Comment by lisa

    22.03.2010 @ 03:16 am

    have you seen food inc? He has also wrote a book and made some interesting points in an interview. One thing that has stuck with me was when he said ‘ we have been eating low-fat diet foods for 40 years and we are more unhealthy then before’.

    I proudly admit that I am ‘obese’ but i am active,strong and live well. And sure a heck of a lot healthier then my guy friend who eats crap to look thin. Now where is my pint of Ben and Jerry’s. LOL!!

  • 5

    Comment by Becks

    22.03.2010 @ 10:32 am

    Excellent points, especially 4. The other week when Michelle Obama was out promoting healthy eating really irritated me.

    It is a little hypocritical of the government to lecture us on healthy eating while colluding with the food industry to keep processing, modifying and pumping shit into our food that completely screws up our hormones/metabolism (i.e. high fructose corn syrup (US), steroids in meat, hydrogenated fats,refined grains, etc ). Excuse me, you are “concerned” about how fat we are and “concerned” over our eating habits? Hello?

    According to that blog link Americans were encouraged to “provide fresh, unprocessed and locally grown foods to their families and the families of the neediest in their communities”. What about the food industry? They don’t do that anymore? Oh, are they called chemical companies now (Monsanto).

    The govt created this mess (as usual), go lecture the “food” industry.

    And don’t even get me started on the drinking culture here (in the UK), at times and in places it can be like one big frat house.

  • 6

    Comment by Jen

    22.03.2010 @ 12:42 pm

    @lisa – yes, food, Inc. was great. definitely highlighted the industrial issues at play.

    I have people in my family who are also very overweight. and you know? it’s not my business to ask, recommend, or judge. they will deal with it (or not) in whatever way makes the most sense for their life. and hopefully do whatever makes them feel best and happiest in themself.

  • 7

    Comment by Jen

    22.03.2010 @ 12:46 pm

    @becks – yes, the govts responsibility is not to lecture people on their own personal responsibility, but rather to address any government contribution to some of the many causes. the food industry, poverty, the cuts to phys. ed in public school systems, urban planning, etc. etc. etc.

    but it’s easier for them to just lecture people about vegetables, isn’t it?

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