Sunday, August 15, 2010

America, the free to do anything but be fat

I often hear or read comments about the weight of American people. Many non-American bloggers and commenters who have visited the U.S. or met Americans in their home countries talk about how disgusted they are to see all of the wobble bottoms hugging each other in greeting at airports. They mention how massive and unhealthy everyone looks. They express disgust that these people don't "do something about" their weight or look after their health.

One fellow in particular, a professional writer, wrote about how he lived abroad, and during a year-long stay, he effortlessly lost 10 lbs. He said that this loss was due to working long hours of overtime and not having any time to eat. In the same piece, he wrote that he felt irritated with American folks who were overweight (like himself) that he saw walking around this foreign country. He reiterated the oft-stated notion that his disdain for them stemmed from the fact that they didn't "try" to lose weight. Never mind that he wrote by the end of the post that he regained the weight he lost after going back to the U.S. and not having to work 12-hour days.

I'm sure one thing that all fat people find very frustrating is the pat judgment of strangers who decide with a glance that they aren't "trying" or "doing something about" their situation. Many people are "trying" and many are having various levels of success. You can't tell with a glance that someone has been losing weight or living a healthier lifestyle if they are in the process of getting fitter. Here I am, a bit under 245 lbs., down from 380 lbs., and the judgmental jerk who wrote the post in the aforementioned post would dismiss me as another American fatty who couldn't be bothered to improve her lot.

All of this is actually beside the point. The truth of the matter is that fat people don't have to do anything about their bodies. It's nobody's business how they live their lives. They are not obliged in any way to "do something about" their weight or even their health. Just because society is currently in the throes of a zeitgeist which puts a big stamp which has huge red "A-P-P-R-O-V-A-L" letters on it when it comes to fat prejudice doesn't mean everyone has the right to decide how we should live our lives. I choose to lose weight because it's what I need to do for myself. I shouldn't be pressured to do it because others have decided I'm "bad."

The interesting aspect to me about this is that America is supposed to be built on the ideas of personal freedom and individuality, yet these seem to be tossed aside when the topic comes to weight. Rather than respect a person's right to live, look, and eat the way they choose, immense pressure comes to bear on them from all sides. The government wants you to lose weight. Your family and friends want you to. Random strangers definitely want you to.

The thing that makes me angriest about all of the arguments about the "obesity epidemic" is that a plethora of arguments are made to make my problem (being fat) your problem. This ranges from ridiculous (correlation, not causation) studies which suggest becoming fat is contagious to bitter arguments about health costs which are utterly inaccurate. The truth is that fatties save money for society on the whole as they die earlier and therefore do not require as much in the way of long-term care expenses or pension payments. The extent to which people will go to rationalize and validate fat prejudice is impressive, and it's also just a big cover-up for their inability to simply see themselves for what they are, shallow, small-minded, judgmental bigots who judge people based solely on appearance.


re said...

Ahhh! I was just talking about this today! You are dead on in your observations, in my opinion. I was looking up the acronym BBW because I had never seen it before and after finding page after page of hateful comments concerning the subject of fatties, I was shockingly speechless. The hatred I was not surprised by, really, but the reason for the hate. The Big Beautiful Woman was being bashed for not being obese, but for being confident and obese. It's horrifying that this is how people my age and nationality think.

screaming fatgirl said...

"Good fatties" must have the decency to hate themselves. "Bad fatties" oppose the majority view that they are to loath themselves and their bodies at all costs.

I'm afraid that I'm a "good fatty" in that I'm self-hating, but rather a bad one in that I'm trying not to be. ;-)

Thanks for your comment, though it does affirm what I believe, it's still sad that it is validated so roundly everywhere.

Fat Grump said...

Sometimes I despair of the world in which we live. So much emphasis of late - in publications and on TV - is about appearance and it's's evil!

Our minds become warped as to what is and isn't visually acceptable, as decreed by writers with power who can find cellulite shocking but bones with hardly any flesh covering them attractive and desirable. I believe the BMI scale of determining obesity was created by insurance bods. Now we all have to look at the numbers.

Of course being overweight isn't healthy - that's my main reason for wanting to shed my blubber. However, if I don't, I remain the same person. Being lead to believe that we have more value and are more socially acceptable because we are thin really is destroying the minds of so many impressionable people. Fat people have become pariahs almost. It angers me so much.

Anonymous said...

Hmmmm. An interesting post with which I agree for the most part. Although I offer this:

Are the consequences of being fat truly confined to the person? France (where I live as an American expatriate) used to use this conceit to defend the individual's right to smoke. Smokers claimed it was an issue of personal choice and that the government had no right to put into place smoke-free zones. Of course they lost this fight and the smoke-free zones went live in January 2007. It has not, by the way, decreased the number of smokers but it has decreased greatly the income for nightclubs and bars!

We can also make the claim that smokers cost the healthcare industry less money because they die early and they die quickly. But I wouldn't use that claim to support smokers' rights.

People will say that the difference between smokers and the overweight is that smokers impose their vice on others, with second and third-hand smoke being a toxin for those around them. You will find, however, the same argument made when citing overweight people on airplanes and the (frequently) unpaid space they take from their seatmates. And, as you state, the costs on the healthcare system. (An specious link, as you point out as well.)

While I agree with your post, I dare to offer this story, which really drove home for me one of the public consequences for those who are obese. It is NOT a condamnation of the obese at all, but an anecdotal illustration.

Last month I found myself in the emergency room of a Paris hospital, having fallen down a flight of stairs and exploding my ankle in three places. I was on the gurney waiting for the OR to open up for my surgery. In the hallway was a morbidly obese young woman, 400 pounds, with her mother. The mother was yelling at the medical personnel. Her daughter was unable to be treated for her back problem at this or the other hospitals they had visited that evening. Why? The hospital's equipment was not big enough to treat this person. They did not have an MRI machine large enough to place her in. She was not on a gurney because it could not support her weight. The mother came and took the chair my boyfriend was using to sit next to me, because the mother was too heavy herself to stand and wait with her (seated) daughter. Eventually they left, having been "refused" treatment, for lack of large-enough equipment.

There is no fault here and that is not the point I'm making. What I'm saying is that there are consequences to being that size, and one of them is that certain societies will not have the resources to offer you when you need to avail yourself of public services. America is pretty good about this, I find. Since the average American is larger than the average Frenchman, I suspect that a 400 pound person could find treatment at any public hospital in the USA. In France, it is not so. I am currently in a wheelchair, waiting for my cast to come off (only 11 more days!!!). I note my wheelchair and walker, both French-made, support 'only' up to 110 kgs (240 pounds). If I were any fatter than I am, what would I have done? I cannot ask that a society bend to my body shape. Or can I? Where do my rights begin and end, as a larger person in a country filled with thin people?

Man...this comment is going all over the place! I hope you understand the point of it. There is not finger pointing, but there is pause for asking the question of how much infrastructure should any society put into place to accommodate everybody who falls outside the lines of "typical"?

screaming fatgirl said...

Grump: I find myself feeling exactly the same way. I do sometimes feel that, since all other prejudices are denied people, they are embracing this one with a passion.

emmabovary: I get your point to some extent. However, keep in mind that airlines now make very overweight people buy two seats so that one also doesn't work anymore as an argument.

The thing is that anyone who is physically different will require special equipment or accommodation. We build wider bathrooms for people in wheelchairs, for instance. The idea that obese people have a "choice" about their condition makes people argue that they can change. They are physically capable, but obviously not mentally so. Again, I believe fat prejudice is, at its core, a type of bias against a form of mental illness in many cases, and a physical one in others.

Interestingly, your example actually turned around the concept at the end. The woman who was denied treatment didn't inconvenience others. She hurt herself. For the most part, that is always going to be the case. Being overweight or obese hurts the person who is these things, not those around him or her.

I realize your smoking point is a good one. There is one major way in which smoking differs and that is that it is omnidirectionally destructive. If I eat, I get fat, but others do not. If I smoke, others can develop breathing or lung disorders from my actions - they do nothing and can get sick.

All of that being said, I'm not onboard with smoking prejudice either. I detest cigarette smoke, but I don't think smokers should be vilified or marginalized. I think there should be smoking areas which are closed off from other areas as long as smoking is a legal activity.

The bottom line is I respect every person's right to do what they want to their body as long as it doesn't directly affect me. If we start working with the whole, "it could hurt society with increased medical costs," there is no end to the lifestyle policing that can be done - no booze (I don't drink alcohol, so I don't care, but many would), no smoking (I don't smoke), no junk food, no non-mainstream sexual practices (like S & M), etc.

We can't force health and wellness on people, nor can we lay the burden of doing what is "right for society" at their feet when it comes to their own bodies. There has to be a point at which we do not have any obligation as citizens. We pay taxes, obey laws, treat each other respectfully and with civility (well, hopefully), but I'm not willing to extend that line to our bodies.

I hope that doesn't come across as strident or argumentative. It's no meant to be, merely explanatory. ;-) It's a bit late, and I'm tired of the heat here, so I may come across in a tone which may sound too confrontational. I hope you receive what I say in the spirit I mean it, which is a friendly one. :-)

Ruth said...


This post is RIGHT ON.

I'd like to bring up 2 things:

I think it is much more effective to focus on BEHAVIORS rather than CHARACTERISTICS. In other words, eating certain foods and exercising are BEHAVIORS. Weight/fat is a CHARACTERISTIC.

Behaviors are, to some extent, within our power to control. Characteristics, not so much (though some CAN change as a result of behaviors).

2nd thing is that I think that some vilify fat people because of the whole cognitive dissonance thing of wanting to believe that fatness is something they can control. If they admit that some people might be fat despite eating healthfully (quantity and quality) and exercising, then such a fate could also befall themselves. But regardless, I agree with you that another's health choices are none of my business.

I am enjoying your thoughtful blog.

screaming fatgirl said...

Hi, Ruth, and thank you so much for your kind and interesting comment!

I absolutely agree with you that the vilifying of fat is part of a need to feel it is something that one can control, and I do believe it is more productive to focus on behaviors.

Personally, I think that we need to focus even deeper and that is the mechanisms that drive those behaviors, but not on a superficial and pat level as is so often the case. I think it's good, for instance, to say, "I eat when I'm stressed." However, I think that it is more useful to understand why you're stressed and how to deal with the cause of the stress in addition to the behaviors it stimulates.

Unfortunately, thoughtful reflection about such issues is rarely forthcoming because people like things to be simple, even when simple doesn't work (which is certainly clear when it comes to weight).

Inner said...

SFG, Thanks for an amazing blog. Your insites are almost always eye opening and quite often make me feel like you are inside my head. You are brave and strong and have greatly influenced how I think about my struggles in a very short period of time, and for that I am very thankful. MIS

Inner said...

People in pain are stressed. They have short tempers, aren’t happy and find fault with many aspects of life. There’s a lot of stress in the world right now, and in my view underneath that stress is a world of hurt. People don’t have enough money; they are worried about their jobs, their children, their debt and even their health. As a society, (in theory) we collectively get together to take care of or help heal those who need the most help. Even as an individual in pain, it’s extremely difficult to help others when you have no reserve left. In the best of times it is difficult to extend help to those less fortunate than you. When things as bad as they are now, well, it’s clear cut that extending grace or kindness is almost impossible to do. I think it also makes it easy for the majority to start picking on a minority in order to shift the blame of all that ails society to a sub group of vulnerable individuals. I’ve been heavy all my life and morbidly obese for the last 15 years. I know I’m picked on and scrutinized, but no more so than immigrants, gays and unwed mothers. (Or whoever else is on the scapegoat agenda) So I know as a group of folks who get on line and support one another we feel each other’s pain. I would just like to think that when folks start to pick on us, really….it has nothing to do with us. It is all on the person who is doing the picking. What pain do they have in their life that makes it so they won’t or can’t be empathetic to those who are also struggling? I don’t say this to say the views expressed here aren’t valid, they most certainly are. I just want to get feedback on my current train of thought.
Also, in regards to health care and where the costs lie, the majority of people spend healthcare dollars when they are born, and when they die. Some people die when they are 90 and others when they are 10. Whenever the end comes it is the standard in healthcare to throw all the resources and dollars we have to try to heal the dying. If we cured obesity tomorrow and no one ever smoked another smoke, people might start living longer, but eventually some disease would threaten their mortality and we would spend all sorts of money and do all sorts of research to eradicate the illness, no matter how it manifests itself. Unless society starts to “get” that all of us eventually need serious help to stay alive, then there will always be minorities onto which the majority will want to stack all the blame.
I’m looking forward to hearing what everyone thinks! MIS
PS Dear SFG, I tried to post this before, but I don't know if it was successful. If it was please delete this one!

screaming fatgirl said...

MIS: You are certainly right that many people act against others out of their own pain, though often that pain is not so much related to real difficulties in life (job security, money) so much as psychological pain. Most people pick on others to elevate their own status. They feel better by cutting other people down. I have sympathy for people who are suffering inside, but that ends when they turn that pain around and inflict it on others. Acting in an omnidirectionally destructive manner to make your pain feel less only spreads that pain around, makes it harder for others to help you or anyone else, and just brings everyone more suffering.

There are productive and destructive ways to act on ones suffering, and abusing others is destructive on all fronts. It serves a short-term desire to retaliate against ones own feelings of suffering and the inequities of life, but it's like pulling the wings off of flies as a stress reliever. People have a responsibility not to hurt others to relieve their suffering, but rather to seek help through appropriate channels. Frankly, abusing fat people to cope with pain and suffering is just the same as shooting up your office when you get fired - it's merely acting on another level of the same thing.

" I know I’m picked on and scrutinized, but no more so than immigrants, gays and unwed mothers. (Or whoever else is on the scapegoat agenda)."

This is true, but there is one crucial difference which is extremely important. Fat people get it all the time from everyone. Gays, immigrants, unwed mothers don't wear their status in public every moment of the day. They have to do something to reveal their status so they get to exist in peace sometimes. We can never, ever hide the fact that we are fat and therefore cannot escape the abuse. This is one of the things which makes fat bashing more pernicious and soul-destroying than many other types of similar behavior. The closest thing to it would be prejudice based on skin color, because that's another thing a person can't hide.

Thanks for your thought-provoking post, MIS. I appreciate it and the fact that you take the time to read and comment.

Inner said...

I can sense the pain, hurt and anger in your thoughts on people who discriminate against the obese. I’m sorry discrimination has affected you in such a profound way. You are obviously a bright insightful and well-spoken person who deserves a medal for sharing your insights with us to help us heal in a way that you’ve been healing yourself. It is so extremely sad when our covers are read before someone peaks inside to see what type of people we are inside.
“I have sympathy for people who are suffering inside, but that ends when they turn that pain around and inflict it on others”
The conundrum for individuals who inflict their pain onto other individuals is they are unaware of the causation of their actions. Not so long ago I was suffering some terrible hurt from undiagnosed depression and some other personal issues in my life. I didn’t realize how my pain was being projected onto those around me until I had time to heal in a very low stress environment. I never stooped so low as to discriminate, but I can bet you wouldn’t have wanted to be my friend or coworker during that time. I was miserable and made everyone around me walk on eggshells. At the time I had no clue that I was suffering depression. I had no clue that the pain in my life was the cause of my irritability; I was just beginning to think I was no longer a “good” person. Nonetheless, the effects of my moodiness were felt by those around me. Living through this painful period and having the ability to reflect back on my darkest moments makes me think differently about people who are mean spirited, or even discriminatory.
I now see these individuals that judge me and others like me in a much different light. When they act out, my first thought is, “What pain do they have in their life that makes them so quick to judge me.” No doubt this is not what I always achieve. But I have to ask myself: If I react to their actions with anger or hurt, am I not perpetuating the whole cycle of pain? Or am I just being a doormat and giving these butt heads an easy way out?

Sarah@LowStressWeightLoss said...

Interesting post, and even more interesting discussions in the comments.

One thing I have zero tolerance for is people judging other people for ANY reason. Fat, religion, etc. I don't see why people can't just let people be different from themselves, and celebrate human diversity.

I don't think the social pressure to lose weight in the US is particularly higher than in other countries (at least in Europe, which I know fairly well, I feel there is MUCH more social pressure to lose to lower weights than in the US).

In the end it's really about accepting yourself and not giving a damn about what other people think, no matter what size you are or shape you have or any other characteristic.

In my blog post yesterday I get there via a different approach (my recognition of my size being much bigger than those around me, but refusing to let that hold me back). The comments have been interesting too.

screaming fatgirl said...

MIJ: I don't think reacting to the infliction of intentional emotional pain with anger is perpetuating a cycle. Being angry isn't the same as acting out on that anger. Disapproving of their actions isn't the same as retaliating in response. In no way do I advocate lashing out at people who act abusively toward me.

We're all in pain for the most part. Everyone has stress and difficulty. In civilized society though, there is an expectation that we will not misdirect that anger by kicking the dog, beating our spouses, or yelling ugly things at random strangers. Acting on pain in this fashion is something that people would not accept in either of the first two cases, yet we are supposed to have pity on people who make fun of fat people? Our being abused is somehow less abusive than those other things?

Yeah, I'm mad, but that's no secret. The damage that has been done to me from people who have judged me at a glance is immeasurable and has contributed to my difficulties in life on all levels. That's part of what this blog is all about - helping people see how one cannot be bullied, tormented, or tortured into losing weight, but rather that it always makes it harder to lose weight.

Sarah: I think it'd be a lot easier to be myself if people weren't treating me like something warranting disgust. It's one thing to look different and just accept yourself. It's another to tune out a chorus of behaviors which let you know how unacceptable you are.

I can't speak for other countries, but America is supposed to have a culture which endorses and celebrates individuality. That makes their response to people who are different looking more hypocritical than other cultures. I'm not really interested in a competition between who abuses fat people more, X or Y country. I just know that America's overall cultural values and high incidence of obesity make it seem worse when it judges its people so harshly. And that's not even getting into the way food manufacturers are supported by law and subsidies to feed people the worst possible combinations to improve profits at the expense of health in the U.S.

I did read your "fattest girl on the beach" post and found it interesting, though I think it's harder for some people to live that sort of bodily acceptance than others. My feeling is that we shouldn't have to be the ones to adjust. People shouldn't force us to make the effort through their actions. It's up to them to act like civilized and decent people, not up to us to learn to ignore them. Of course, my attitude won't get me very far and yours will take you to the ends of the world. ;-)

Thanks to both of you for your thought-provoking and thoughtful comments!