Saturday, December 24, 2011

Normalization of Obesity

"Normalizing" has several different meanings and one of them is sociological. You can find many complex meanings, but one of the most simple ones is that it is the process of making something seem natural, logical, and commonplace. The word carries no value judgment about what is being normalized, and the act of doing so should be seen as a logical and expected part of the changes to culture.

That is not to say that "normalizing" is always a positive thing in the minds of everyone who witnesses it. One of the biggest examples of normalization which has been successful and ongoing over the past half century has been the perceptions of homosexuality. In my lifetime, I have seen the normalizing of it by society in action. What was once considered deviant and abhorrent is closing in on being considered normal and mainstream. For those (like myself) who believe that homosexuality is a biological inevitability and that sexuality is not a "choice", this is good news as we view it as the end of an unfair and oppressive environment. For those who have philosophical objections and believe a true choice is being made, this particular type of normalization is upsetting and unacceptable. They feel it is removing restraint from behavior that should be held in abeyance.

Normalization comes as a result of a great many factors. One is technological advances. Another is scientific discovery. Yet another is the evolution in philosophies based on education and integration of new ideas. Very generally speaking, there is a movement in most cultures toward more liberal thinking. That is, this is the direction until there is some shift back toward conservatism based on hardship. Those difficulties can be economic, medical (such as the outbreak of disease), or brought on my aggression (e.g., war).

All normalization is resisted by a certain segment of any society. When those views act in opposition to yours, it is easy to see them as small-minded, irrational, and selfish. When they agree with your views, they seem to be "right-minded". It's hard not to apply value judgments to both sides of the equation when it comes to normalizing of behavior, but it is important to understand and accept that the perspective of others has some validity. Dismissing alternate views out of hand lowers the quality of discourse and encourages rigidity on both sides.

With this in mind, I've been pondering both sides of the equation when it comes to the fat acceptance movement's efforts to normalize widespread occurrence of obesity. As someone who has spent her entire life overweight, and the vast majority of that life over 300 lbs., I know all too well the damage that is done to someone based on body judgment. I strongly believe that punitive attitudes toward fat people only do harm whereas people who fear the normalization of fatness as an endorsement of what they view as a "fat lifestyle" and what they often erroneously conclude is sloth and gluttony believe that social censure will increase the chances that people will not engage in behaviors that result in obesity.

Unfortunately, having lived a fat life, I also know that normalizing (as opposed to accepting, which is a whole other kettle of fish) obese bodies isn't necessarily a good thing on some levels. For one thing, accepting that being fat is expected, normal, and "usual" means that people will not attend to it based on health concerns. Despite all of the HAES propaganda, being obese (as opposed to merely "overweight") will eventually impact your health. You'll find that there are few fat advocates out there over 40, and even fewer over 50, who will latch onto the notion that being obese doesn't mean being unhealthy.

When I was younger, my body dealt a lot better with obesity than it has after 40. I'm now 47, and I have the joints of a person much older than me because of the extra pressure that has been on them for so many years. I'm not sure how anyone can say in good conscience that carrying 50-200 lbs. of extra weight will not take a toll on ones joints eventually. There is also the fact, and fat advocates are in denial about this, that pressure on the glands affects type 2 Diabetes development. Weight gain can bring on this condition and loss can send it into remission. That is not to say that one does not have to be genetically predisposed to develop it, but simply that it is a fact that weight affects development of such a condition.

Because of the health issues associated with obesity, normalization of fatness is a more complex issue than other social issues, trends, and concerns. On the one hand, fatness needs to be accepted because fat prejudice is unjust and highly destructive. I am certain that, had I not been tormented as a chubby child, I never would have grown up to be an extremely obese adult. It was the disapproval which sent me from overweight to class III obesity. Dehumanizing a group of people based on superficial characteristics serves only to create a loop of neurotic behavior which creates conditions that encourage eating disorders, including compulsive eating, overeating, and binge eating. As a psychological and social issue, fatness needs to be normalized and what I mean by that is that it needs to be regarded as a normal state for some people and they should not be treated with prejudice.

On the other hand, however, normalization which discourages people from dealing with their weight when weight will affect health (which is certainly the case for many people who are obese, especially in class 2 or 3 obesity), mobility, or quality of life (especially mentally) isn't such a great idea. While I fervently believe there are some people who were "born to be fat", it is undeniable that more and more people are fat and getting fatter compared to the past. If being fat were a normal human condition brought on by genetic predisposition, we wouldn't see the recent increases in the number of overweight people nor an increase in the amount of weight they gain. I realize that BMI was shifted to statistically move a great many more people into the "overweight" category, but that does not account for the dramatic increase in obese people and especially the super obese (such as I once was).

The issue with normalization and obesity needs to be split between societal and philosophical acceptance on the one hand and medical attention which indicates it is to be viewed as an undesirable condition on the other. In societies in which fatness is seen purely as a bodily issue related to health (there are some, but just not in the West) rather than a moral or character failure, people address their weight the same way that they do other factors which affect health. If someone is anemic, has poor circulation, etc., the measures taken to look after their body given these conditions are not seen as oppressive or unfair. They are simply seen as what is necessary. The same applies to weight in such cultures. I know because I live in such a culture at present. Fatness isn't about morality or character, but about health. While I don't believe that anyone is required to be healthy, I do believe society should encourage people to act in a manner which promotes happiness and the highest possible quality of life. And if you are not healthy, you will not have a good quality of life. Do we want to normalize conditions which decrease quality of life? I don't believe this is good for society on the whole, let alone the individual.

Unfortunately, the prejudice and venom directed at fat people that society is currently indulging in is what encourages more extreme  and broad efforts to normalize obesity. The harder you push people, the harder they will push back. It is similar to the way in which the NRA pushes to keep extreme weaponry legal in order to make sure they can keep their hunting rifles and hand guns.

The answer is simple, but people are reluctant to take it because they have to change their personal slant to a more objective one. Stop judging and abusing people based on their bodies. Stop encouraging the false notion that health and weight are completely different factors for most people. Deal with this like adults without injecting value judgments or personal opinions. As is so often the case, I'm not holding my breath.


FredT said...

I think you are right, overweight and obesity are becoming normal and accepted. There is so much pressure to overeat, how can we be expected to resist.

screaming fatgirl said...

Hi, FredT, and thank you for reading and taking the time to comment.

My feeling is that we deal with this one person at a time with individual choice and attempt to create a culture through our actions which favors moderation. The main issue is that we definitely are encouraged (through food cuing, social pressure, and distorted information). The bottom line is that unhappiness encourages consumption and in countries in which the interests of business rather than public well-being are allowing to run unregulated, unchecked and unchallenged, we are saturated with messages meant to push us in a particular direction. That direction is to overeat, feel bad, then buy products and services to lose weight.

This cycle is something that can be stopped and resisted, but it is far from easy or simple. Part of what I've discovered is that we often choose to cue ourselves to eat or put ourselves in a place which makes it easy to overeat because that is what we want to do (for many reasons, some of it biology, much of it psychology). I do this myself sometimes, and I do it because habitual behavior is comforting. I even do it with full awareness of the consequences.

So, I think the first step is to make very conscience decisions about lifestyle and the one I will continue to promote is moderation, not rules or absolutes about food, but simply adopting a relationship with food which moves one slowly from overeating to eating amounts in line with promoting health, happiness, and satisfaction.

As I said, I live in a culture with small portions, and they don't starve or become malnourished. We (Americans) have such a distorted view because of the way in which serving sizes have scaled up over the decades. This is, again, serves commercial interests as restaurants can't lure Americans to pay for pre-made meals unless they offer quantity over quality.

A cultural shift to a mentality of consuming experience and quality over volume is something which would fix a lot of America's eating problems, but "value" has become about how much you get, not what you get. If we would pay the same money for a nice meal with small portions in a good atmosphere, we'd eat less and restaurants would carry on this habit as it would be profitable. In the end, commercial interests are dictated by our values (not the other way around), so a shift in our mentality would be the beginning.

My feeling is that we start with splitting meals at restaurants rather than ordering full ones. If enough people did this, restaurants would lose the economic incentive to offer huge portions and possibly start adapting more reasonable serving sizes. However, the next stage is that we have to be willing to pay for smaller portions once they are offered. This seems unlikely, but it is what is necessary if you want the culture to head in a direction which de-emphasizes overeating.

Norma said...

I think about this concept a a way, it's become sort of like a snake eating its tail, hasn't it? One illustration: in 1987, when I was a high school senior searching for a prom dress, the largest juniors' size in any department store was a 13. And I was wearing an 11 or 13 at that time depending on the brand, cut, style, etc. But that was as big a gown as you could find (and I was probably 165-ish lbs. and 5'4"). The two (yes, TWO out of 125 girls) in my class who were larger than I was had to have their prom gowns made by a seamstress because there really weren't any to be had commercially (also, we wore uniforms that were only sold up to size 13; these girls' mothers had to purchase fabric from the uniform store and have their skirts made special). TODAY, a size 18 or 20, 200+ lb. high school senior can go to any department store or mall specialty store and choose from dozens of fashionable, strapless, colorful gowns exactly like the ones that come in sizes 0-13...because now instead of two girls of larger sizes in a class of 125 girls, there are probably 40 girls who need gowns in sizes >13. So the demand increases the supply. In turn (and maybe I'm simplifying here), does the supply then negate the "incentive," or what have you, for high school girls (in this example) to make an effort to fit into a "regular" size? What I'm saying is, the more ready availability of larger size clothing that was originally offered to satisfy the wants and needs of a relatively small consumer group is now making it possible for more consumers to say, it's no big deal if I stay large or gain weight because I can still find pretty clothing in bigger sizes; I am no longer relegated to a small specialty store with big price tags and small selection? I don't know...but there are a lot of larger teenage girls now than there were 20 years ago and being large is no longer an impediment to easily finding trendy clothing.

On the flip side, smoking used to be normalized and is now shunned...what's our culture's rationale on one as opposed to the other? Much to consider.

screaming fatgirl said...

You make a good point, and a good analogy, Norma.

It's ironic that you mentioned the dress sizes when you were in school because I had the same problems finding clothes. My entire school life was dominated by stretch pants that were designed for women much older than me. I never went to prom (no way that a guy was going to ask out "the fat girl").

I hadn't considered the smoking issue, but it does possess many parallels to obesity. My feeling about smoking has always been that I don't care if people do it as long as it doesn't affect me. That is actually not too dissimilar to how I regard anything (including obesity). I never felt comfortable squeezing into seats on public transport or occupying more of my fair share when I was much bigger because I didn't think it was right for me to put other people out because of my problem.

One interesting contradiction that I find among fat advocates is that they insist obese people (of which I am still one, just not as big as before) should be accommodated and given all of the space they want regardless of who is put into an uncomfortable position as a result. My feeling has always been that obesity is either a choice or a handicap acquired without choice. I've always seen it as the latter (a mental or biological (or both) health issue with a physiological consequence) and therefore special considerations should be made just as they are for other handicaps. Fat advocates, on the other hand, want to view it as a "normal" default condition for a huge number of people, not a handicap. You can't have it both ways.

Either it is a handicap (brought on by psychological issues or metabolic ones) which requires special consideration or you have no right to put others out. If it's merely a choice, then you, like smokers, choose to indulge in a manner which bothers others and it is your responsibility to make sure you don't trouble others with the consequences of your condition. My view is more compassionate, but embraces a perspective that FAs do not find tolerable because it sees obesity as a symptom of a problem, not a natural state. It is very complicated, of course, but I think normalization is not the answer.

Norma said...

I think of it sometimes in terms of a densensitizing issue...the way that say, a kid exposed to hours and hours of video game or TV violence is not really at all shocked/emotionally affected if he witnesses real-life violence with real people being hurt. That is to say, overweight and obese people are much more visible and commonly seen now than they were x years ago - and again, this is a chicken/egg type of question. But it's not shocking at all to go to a public place today; a mall or concert or convention or anyplace where hundreds of people would be at any given time -- and see many who are very overweight or obese. It's not a rarity or an oddity to see overweight or obese people at all; in fact, if statistics are to be believed, overweight & obese adults constitute the majority of the US population...whereas 20 years ago, the relatively few who fit that description were, I guess, more noticeable *because* there were fewer of them...? We are used to seeing graphic violence in our "entertainment" so we're no longer very shocked by true stories of it and we are used to seeing, year by year, more overweight and obese people so we no longer notice it as much. But anyone who dares light up a cigarette is GOING TO BE NOTICED now because it's no longer "normal" or common to smoke. These kinds of discussions make me want to go back to school for a master's in anthropology or something...but not really... ;)

Rita FP said...

Thank you for this. Very informative. I was wondering, if you're not obese or fat yourself, how can you address this issue and share these views without being considered offensive? Because this encompasses two important issues (the accepptance and respect by society as a whole but also the accepting by FA that there is a health prob that should be addressed). But somewhow when you mention these things, it seems legitimate for you to do only if you're obese or overweight yourself. How could someone who is neither, do this?

screaming fatgirl said...

RitaFP: I answered your question one way at first, but then I thought I misunderstood and answered incorrectly. Hopefully, this time I'm getting it right in terms of your intention. If not, please let me know.

If you are speaking in general about other people (such as yourself?), I don't know if they can say this without being seen as being "fattist" or prejudiced. I'm not even sure that I wouldn't be seen that way despite my history.

I can say that the attitude you project is important, but even the most compassionate posture won't do you any good with people who have been abused their entire lives due to weight. I think that context really matters. Mainly, I think it's important to never make it seem like you're judging or telling people how to live their lives. It's important not to express concern for their health, for instance. That's the same as saying, "you're not okay."

This may be a situation akin to black folks being able to say things about black folks that white folks can't say. Bill Cosby can criticize African American cultural trends, but Billy Crystal can't (though he can make jokes about Jewish folks). Sometimes, you can't say such things unless you are "one of (them/us)."