Saturday, May 29, 2010

Mental Health Prejudice and Fattism

Since I've been overweight most of my life, I've often thought about what factors cause a person to be fat. Is it biology? Psychology? Both? The difference between the way I ponder this point and the way it is generally bandied about in the media and by many people (both those who are thin and those who are fat but trying to lose weight) is that I do not concern myself with this issue in order to assign "blame" or "responsibility". I'm not looking to find out why in order to let someone off the hook or to hang them on one. I simply want to understand the factors that go into weight problems so that solutions, when they are desired, can be found.

One of the things I realized lately is that the accusations related to being fat are based in a bias which we supposedly have overcome. If the person's weight issue is deemed to be a physical issue, then we "forgive" them because it's not their fault. If the person's fatness is the consequence of a psychological issue, then we say it is their fault because they are "weak-willed", eat emotionally, or are lazy, or piggish. In essence, if overeating is a mental health issue, we feel they should just be able to overcome it alone by sheer force of desire.

Psychology, in my opinion, always plays a role in eating. We have a psychological relationship with everything because we are human and have feelings about everything. Unless you're in a coma (and maybe even then... I've never been in one so I don't know), your limbic system is going to be engaged in regards to food. To deny this is foolhardy. The only issue at play is whether or not you have a psychological relationship with food which results in physiologically undesirable results (a lack of health) or desirable ones (robust health).

It's important to keep in mind that each individual's biology and psychology are unique when it comes to food. A person with Type 1 diabetes can have a perfectly "normal" psychological relationship with food and eat within caloric limits and still have a degradation in health. A person can have a horrendously bad relationship with food like compulsive eating and not suffer any ill effects if that compulsion leads them to eat say, a dozen oranges everyday. So, the situation is never simple.

At any rate, one thing that I have realized is that much of the disgust and judgment of fat people is based in the idea that psychological issues with food which lead to being overweight are to be regarded with disdain, anger, and condemnation. If we consider that any weight gain as a result of a psychological issue is a mental health problem, then it would seem that the underlying idea is that it is acceptable to blame someone for a mental health disorder, but not a physical health problem.

Some people would deny that the psychological factors which compel people to overeat can be classified as true "mental health" issues, but this is merely an attempt to justify fat hating and the underlying processes that drive it. Any behavior which causes you to behave destructively toward yourself (or others) is a mental health problem. Any emotional problems which drive you to do things which promote poor health are mental health problems. Mental health problems don't only cover the extremes. They cover a wide variety of quality of life issues, including emotional issues which drive people to food for comfort.

The irony is that fat people, who are often the victims of abuse, often tacitly buy into this prejudice as well. When they attempt to offload their weight problems onto metabolic disorders, medication, etc., they are saying, 'my problem with weight is a medical one, not a psychological one, so please don't blame me the way we blame fat people who "can't control themselves."'

The attitudes of fattists, and even fat people who apologize or nervously offer medical excuses for their weight, can be boiled down to a mental health disorder prejudice. We can't judge and blame people with medical conditions that lead to weight gain because that's like blaming someone for developing cancer. Apparently though, we can blame people with a psychological issue for their inability to simply "get over" the problem. The anger directed at fat people is akin to "blaming" a chronically depressed person for simply not "manning up" and "cheering up." In other words, a person with a weight problem, when that problem is in whole or in part motivated by psychological issues, simply cannot "eat less" and "exercise more" anymore than someone with any other mental health problem can simply decide to be well by "snapping out of it".


Anonymous said...

I'm about half way through reading your entire blog, and I am so impressed with the tone and thoughtfulness of your posts.

To me, what you have achieved here is much more inspiring than seeing a list of numbers revealing your weight losses or a chart showing your shrinking measurements, or how many reps you are doing at the gym.

This is a personal preference of mine, of course, and not a criticism of other people's unique needs. Yet I didn't realize how much I inwardly longed to find a voice of calm honesty, steady sanity and good humor as applied to the changes I am making in my own life.

Most of all, I appreciate this intimate look at the interior life of a courageous woman who is struggling to achieve greater freedom and better health.

Thank you very much.

The whole mental health vs. physical (physiological) health is a dichotomy that has never made much sense to me. Epigenetic research suggests that some genetic traits may be switched "on" by means of hormonal changes related to environmental traumas or left unactivated in the absense of environmental influences (including those within the womb). It is all very fascinating.

I wonder for instance about the ways that fattist discrimination (against children and adults) may contribute to individual experiences of trauma and in turn, over time, contribute to the epidemeological increase in obesity (in populations). The dread of obesity functions like a cultural self-fulfilling prophecy (at the level of social organization). Thus, the more prejudice and discrimination (and hate) directed against fat people, the more obesity (and/or eating disorders) are likely to be manifested in populations.

The interplay between psychological(mental) health, physiology, and sociology has barely even been considered by most people who consider themselves to be careful thinkers. (With tragic consequences for humanity.)

Even if a large percentage of obesity in populations could be attributed to psychological dysfunctions of the sort that involve problematic approaches to rational/emotive behaviors (which, as you suggest here and elsewhere, is too simplistic an explanation), encouraging prejudice against people who are suffering is not only irrational and unhelpful, it is barbaric and cruel.

Thanks again for publicly sharing your thoughts and experiences through your blog. It is helpful to me in ways I am only beginning to grasp.


Mrs. Happy Pants said...

I followed you here from A Merry Life, and I have to say that you are incredible to read.
So much of my blog is peppered with profanity, but yours is so cleanly articulate. I curse a lot, both out of frustration and habit. It's one of my flaws that I'm not in a huge hurry to correct (online anyway), being that I have bigger fish to fry. *understatement*
I'm looking forward to getting caught up on all you have written.
It's like reading my own thoughts with better punctuation and without the foul mouth.
I see you seem to prefer anonymity at this time. So do I. Admissions committees for my grad school program of choice don't look too favorably upon some of my opinions, and therefore, I have to play nice for the time being.
That being said, in spite of our anonymity, I look forward to getting to "know" you more.

screaming fatgirl said...

Greetings to both of you and thank you so much for your kind comments and for taking the time to read my blog. Knowing that my words are read with such a reception encourages me to continue on this blog.

One thing I'd like to explain is the delay in moderating comments as I don't think I've ever explained it before. I am American, but I currently reside in Asia, so I'm often asleep when comments are made and there will sometimes be a delay of as much as 7 or 8 hours before comments can be posted or responded to. Some people get frustrated with this delay because they think it is some sort of willful neglect, but I simply am working in a very different time zone. ;-)

Rebecca: Like you, I'm not a great fan of blogs that are just lists of numbers or charts. It's not that there is anything wrong with that, but just that it's not really reading that offers much to the reader. I do understand the value of public tracking of one's progress, but as you've probably seen, I don't even privately track anymore than I'm absolutely required to do.

"I wonder for instance about the ways that fattist discrimination (against children and adults) may contribute to individual experiences of trauma and in turn, over time, contribute to the epidemeological increase in obesity (in populations)."

You said this very well, and I agree. It certainly mirrors my weight gain experiences. Unfortunately, it's difficult to prove, and without proof, any explanation of obesity which does not "blame" the overweight person is dismissed as being an attempt to relieve fat people of responsibility for their actions.

Mrs. Happy Pants: Hi, and thank you for your kind words and taking the time to read. I will check out your blog despite the possible profanity (profanity doesn't trouble me... I just don't tend to "feel" like using it very much when I write).

I will always remain anonymous because I personally see no benefit in public exposure. Also, I am somewhat known through other activities on the web (in a very small way - I'm not famous or anything, but my real name and face are attached to something unrelated to weight which I am attempting to develop a career in). If I were to use my real name or face and people were to connect the dots, I might suffer some consequences in my other endeavors. I also simply don't see any reason to use my real name or face because it wouldn't lend any substance to the blog.

It's interesting to consider the fact that fat discrimination is so pervasive and pernicious that we both feel it would damage our lives to reveal our feelings. For me, of course, it's not only my opinions, but the very fact that I am fat at all which I fear revealing.

Thanks again to both of you!

Anonymous said...

I had to smile with affection at your explanation regarding the posting of comments. Admittedly, I do not read many blogs but of all the blogs I do read, yours simply stuns! Not only are your posts gems of thoughtfulness, self analysis and gentle and always considerate and respectful assessments of humans in general and the ones you know personally specifically, but your replies to the comments are so incredible gracious!
On some blogs, I almost never read the comments but on yours, the comments give followers the opportunity to read the equivalent of additional entries. Absolutely nobody takes the time, puts in the effort and is so thoughtful in replies to commenters. You are always so gracious, supportive and validating. The replies are so personal and never generic. Commenters have a sense that you actually READ their words and absorbed their meaning, gave them careful thought and considered carefully how you will reply.

Not that it would be for me to have a preference regarding your anonymity anyway, but I think of the delight of imagining that you are the person in line behind me, at the supermarket, at the next reading table at the library or teaching the Psychology class at the local University. I agree; nothing is lost by keeping your identity private and I cannot think of what would be gained by disclosing it.

screaming fatgirl said...

As always, thank you for your gracious and kind comments. I can't profess to being perfect. In fact, there are entries in this blog that in retrospect, I have some regrets to how I phrased things, but I do try. I think I once wrote something which was akin to "if I can do it anyone can", which I regret, but I'm leaving it out there as a record of my thinking (even when it really isn't something I'm proud of).

Regarding anonymity, some people think that if you don't place yourself at risk, then you are not to be taken seriously. Personally, I think only two groups of people expose themselves. First, there are those who wish to profit or gain notoriety through their endeavors. Second, there are those who want you to reveal yourself so they can more effectively attack you and intimidate you. The substance of what a person has to offer does not gain enhancement from a name or real face.