Tuesday, July 6, 2010

You Are Not Killing Yourself (Unless You Are)

Occasionally, I watch some fairly old television shows. For instance, I have the Twilight Zone series on DVD as well as some old 50's television shows. One of the things that you notice if you pay attention to how the characters are written and treated is that fat characters are, in general, not treated the same as they are in entertainment these days. In modern entertainment, a fat person can't be on a show without their weight being the focal point. What is more, it is fairly frequently mentioned that their weight is related to health.

In “Friends”, when there is a flashback and Monica goes from being overweight to skinny, she mentions that her heart is safe and she's “all healthy” now. On the Simpsons, “Diabetty” talks about eating sugar and her cousin Cletus says that the doctor is going to amputate her foot if she keeps it up. In modern entertainment, there is a focus on the fact that you are inevitably going to die if you are fat. Note that no one ever mentioned the fact that Ally McBeal was practically a skeleton with a bowling ball on its shoulders in that show and that anorexia can shorten lifespan significantly. The evidence of health concerns related to excessive thinness are ignored in entertainment and emphasized for fatness, even when one is moderately overweight.

Any time weight is discussed, there is an implication that you are going to die from your fat. While it is true that weight contributes to some health problems, it has rarely been proven that that is the main cause of certain illnesses. In fact, I don't know if it has been proven that being fat, as opposed to stress, causes heart disease. People eat when stressed as well as experience increased bad cholesterol levels and a suppressed immune system. Is being fat a correlation to heart disease or a causation? Are we fat because we're stressed and due to that same stress we develop heart disease or do we simply develop heart disease because we are fat?

For many people, the answer to the aforementioned question is irrelevant, because they'd like to lose weight anyway. I'm all on board with that, obviously. If you are unhappy with your body and your life, then you should do what you can to become satisfied with them. I am. However, I think all of the fear mongering about health and weight is greatly overblown and only makes life harder for overweight people. Since I firmly believe that there are many people who for one reason or another simply cannot lose weight, telling them constantly that they are killing themselves with their fat only increases the stress they feel, which in turn increases the chance that they develop any of a host of diseases that can be exacerbated by stress and its effect on the immune system and insulin levels. Their misery and fear will get them fatter (from stress eating) which will make them feel more helpless and fearful. It's a vicious circle of anxiety and bad health effects.

What is worse these days is the conflicting information that is starting to spread like wildfire about dieting, exercise and weight loss. The fat acceptance blogs love nothing more than to say that “dieting kills” and that losing more than 10% of your body weight increases your chances of keeling over. The thing is that they may be promoting this information, but they're not making it up. Studies support these assertions, just as they support the ones about being fat moving you down the street right next door to death.

One might wonder why there is such conflicting data. The answers are actually pretty simple. One primary reason for conflicts is that data is interpreted, and can be seen in different ways by different entities who want to use that data to further whatever their agenda may be. Another is that every person who does a study does so with a small sample, generally with groups of people who are desperate for something or other and are willing to undergo tests or people who are paid or get some sort of academic credit for taking part in tests. The test subjects are not average people and the doctors and researchers tend to structure the tests to increase the chances that their theories will be proven. They don't do this because they are evil or want to misinform. They do it because they want to be right and because they get more financial support for studies that support their ideas when they are correct.

The bottom line is that you aren't killing yourself by being fat nor are you doing it by dieting, unless, of course, you are. Merely being fat is not deadly, and you may never develop a weight-related health issue. Merely losing weight is not deadly, and you may not die prematurely from losing more than 10% of your body weight. Each person needs to regard herself as an individual and try not to simply accept the results of studies about weight or dieting and fear that they are making the wrong choices. Instead of spending every day worrying that you are killing yourself, it's more important to consider how well your body functions for you and how you feel. If you have trouble moving and are in pain, you should probably lose weight. If you are fatigued and your hair is falling out while you try to lose weight, you should probably consider changing your eating plan.

If you're really afraid, go to a doctor, but don't accept any sort of pat conclusion about weight (either up or down) simply because of arbitrary notions of what is "right" for your height and bone structure. Many doctors will tell you to lose (or gain) weight because of potential threats to your health whether there are physiological indicators of those threats in your body or not. This is the doctor advising you based on nothing but fear and a misguided notion that every person will be healthier if she is absolutely statistically average in every regard. You may not be broke, but they think you should fix yourself anyway. And trust me, I've heard from perfectly healthy people who were told to gain weight so it doesn't only happen to fat people.

My objection is never to people making the choices to live their lives as they choose or to live in the bodies that they inhabit. My objection is to the fear-mongering meant to bully people into believing that whatever they are doing is killing them, and the way in which that information is used to place people who may be perfectly healthy regardless of body size into a state of panic which in turn causes them to distort their relationship with food. Fear is by far the most avoidable destructive influence on any person's health.


NewMe said...

Excellent post. It really is time that we decouple weight loss and health. There are medical conditions that are sometimes linked to one's weight, but making the blanket assumption--as many do--that losing weight is the key to perfect health is not only erroneous, but dangerous.

Ten percent of anorexics die from the disease and it kills within a matter of a few years. (Sorry, I should back this up with a citation. Forgive my laziness.) Strangely, society is not all up at arms about the anorexia epidemic, although eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia are quite common amongst young women, in particular.

My own personal struggle right now revolves around stress. I don't want to go into the details, but the way I deal with stress frightens me a lot more than the weight that I could stand to lose.

In the final analysis, one's health status is much more complicated that simply a number on the scale.

Anonymous said...

I agree that the relationship between fat and stress is grossly underestimated. I am finding I am a significantly less happy "moderately overweight" person than I was when I was obese. Until the underlying forces that lead people to overeat are addressed, I fear many diets will be unsuccessful.

screaming fatgirl said...

Greetings to both of you and thank you for taking the time to comment.

NewMe: I think the focus is on weight instead of stress because Western society doesn't want to address stress as employers might have to treat employees differently to reduce stress - working fewer hours, working under better conditions. I have often wondered if weight loss improves health, in part, because exercise relieves stress and the stress associated with being overweight is lost as one loses weight. In other words, we are stressed because we're told we'll die or develop poor health because we are fat and then we lose that stress by becoming less fat. I will be curious to follow your concerns on your blog in regards to how you handle stress.

fatinthehead: I started reading your blog and am really enjoying it. I've added you to my blogroll and RSS feed.

I have been cautious about how I deal with my life in regards to areas unrelated to food as I lose weight. The medicating qualities of food are something I've lost and I have to balance other factors to make up for that or I will also be a less happy person at the end of the line. Right now, I'm focusing my energy on creative output and, to a very, very mild extent, exercise. I'm also trying to limit stress and adding in any activity which I feel pressured to do because of my improved condition. I think taking on too much could really set me back.