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Fat people are a drain on society?

August 2, 2013

As an abominable egotist, I have Google email me any time the phrase “a drain on society” enters the search engine’s database at a higher level – I guess the first 10 pages or so, so I don’t get the thousands of people tweeting about Scroungers, Evil Scroungers. This gives me an unwanted insight into the murky minds of people whom I usually avoid; people who write articles designed to sideline and criticise one particular group of people.

The article I came across was entitled “Why Can’t Fat People Accept That They Are A Drain On Society?” I’ll admit I didn’t read it. Anything that makes me angry right from the off is unlikely to capture my heart by the end; I had to stop reading The Female Eunuch abruptly after the introduction for its description of transwomen as “men who mutilate themselves and are given passports as statutory females”. I can’t accept that kind of misinformed claptrap. What’s it have to do with anything anyway? Female Eunuch was a book about bio-women, it could have stayed away from transwomen entirely, as a completely different issue. It would be like if somebody wrote a really pro-LGBT book and decided to drop an anti-Semitic bomb right into the middle of a page about epigenetics. There was no reason for it.

What’s so annoying about “Why Can’t Fat People Accept That They Are A Drain On Society?” is immediately obvious. “Why”? You even need to ask? Imagine pulling some random person over in the street and asking “Excuse me good sir, would you mind accepting that you are, in fact, a flagrant drain on society?” I imagine he’d tell you to piss right off. People don’t generally “accept” that they are negative things because, if they knew that they were and could do something about it, they would quickly stop.

Which immediately indicates a level of inability to change. When someone doesn’t change an attribute even though society constantly tells them that they must, it kinda suggests that they can’t. People who get all hot under the collar about gays (which I’m sure has nothing to do with arousal *cough*) don’t seem to realise that if these people could change, why wouldn’t they? OK, so they shouldn’t have to, but “I shouldn’t have to” is just a more pro-active way of saying “I really have no choice”. If it were genuinely easier to change, then they would. It wouldn’t be worth putting themselves through the kind of crap they have to put up if they could just go *poof* HOLY SHIT, I’m normal! This is why some bisexuals don’t come out, they just stick to the opposite sex. They have the ability to ignore half their urges and still have a functioning sex life. In return, they don’t get buried in bullshit just for living.

Being fat is hard to change. If you aren’t, I encourage you to take a look at your eating and exercise habits, and be honest with yourself about how healthy they are. If you eat fries and crisps, meat and stuff like cheese and butter everyday, you’re already eating waaaay more luxurious food than your body expects to receive. We live in a culture that accepts that you will consume a boat-load of sugar and fat everyday; advertising may have taken a shift into the healthy range, only because it knows it can find its market by playing on the fears of an increasingly paranoid, vain and shallow society. Most of the food you walk past in the supermarket isn’t in this “healthy” range – it says a lot about the way we eat that we need healthy to be a special range, rather than the standard. It also says a lot about the quantity we like to eat.

When you’re buying junk food you can be sure that it tastes good just by the packaging; bright colours with little cartoon critters indicate either junk food or children’s food, and children’s food is some of the worst junk around. High salt, high sugar. Children are programmed to want this stuff because they need energy and they need to grow. Your sense of taste develops to appreciate the flavours of foods which are disgusting to your younger self because your body needs different things. Yet the urge to eat sugary foods doesn’t entirely go away. Sure, you might not eat a mountain of gummy bears a day any more, but it’s likely you’re still partial to cake or chocolate, and your liking for fat will stay the same, because fat stores are energy reserves and adults need them as much as children do.

You don’t get criticised for buying and eating that stuff. Apart from that one annoying friend who tuts whenever you open a foil-plastic bag, the criticism is saved for when the effect of the food arrives – the Dreaded Fat. The Dreaded Fat accumulates slowly, and tells you nothing about current eating habits; the immediate indication of how someone used to live tells you nothing of how they live now. They could have been steadily losing weight for two years on an incredibly healthy diet (especially since healthy diets work slowly). This makes our tendency to judge people’s habits on how they look especially misguided. Actually, you can eat whatever you want. You’re allowed to do all the things which might lead you to getting fat. You’re just not allowed to be fat.

Ever been offered food by someone, and when you declined they looked at you like you were mad, or being silly? Then, if you say something like “Ooh, no, I couldn’t possibly, it will go straight to my hips!” They’ll leave you alone, perhaps after a couple more prods and few fake assurances, because everyone understands the fear of being fat.

But people do not immediately make a connection between someone not wanting food and not wanting to be fat. We love eating, it’s crazy not to eat. Not eating indicates that you have problems. Eating itself is not stigmatised – even though the first criticism of any fat person (disregarding the obviously prejudiced “eww gross”) is how greedy they are, closely followed by how lazy. Notice how rarely people who eat a lot or exercise little but remain thin are called either of those things.

We reserve judgement for people who show some physical change, as if physical change is the start and end of the problem, and lifestyle has nothing to do with it. Then we have the gall to make out like it’s other people’s health we’re concerned about when we make comments about how fat they are – without regard for that person’s self-esteem and how this kind of narrow-mindedness might exacerbate the problem, if the problem is partially stress-induced.

There are a couple of reasons why we do this. One is because we’re misled about health. We think that fat versus thin is the ultimate indication, and our doctors and scientists do not help. The apparently “scientific” BMI scale measures weight versus height. In a world where we accept that muscle weighs more than fat (regardless of whether that’s even true or not), the logical conclusion might be that a short-statured body builder would be shown on the BMI scale as morbidly obese. This is a person who exercises for a living – hardly lazy – and who has to eat large quantities for their job; if you called them greedy, you would have to say they same about any professional athlete, as it is the job that requires the most food intake. A bit of thought might tell you that all we are doing here is blithely accepting science which substantiates pre-existing prejudices, regardless of the social outcome, while ignoring whatever sheds new light on the subject.

The other reason to react to fat in this way is straightforward fear. People who are fat reflect back at us the fears that we have about being fat, or potentially becoming fat. We fear being fat because we are led to think it is unhealthy, but also because it is heavily stigmatised and we do not want to be on the receiving end of that stigma. So, in true insecurity, those of us who are afraid to be fat make a big thing out of fatness, which makes the whole process a self-fulfilling prophecy and a vicious cycle; we continue to make it impossible for humans to be fat without being ridiculed, and thus make it impossible for ourselves to be fat without being ridiculed, which in turn makes us fear being fat in case we are ridiculed.

It’s too easy to get up on one’s high horse about being average size or under, because we figure that we have done something right. We make few allowances for genetic differences, even though we can see it at work; if you have a friend who is larger than average, head to their house and see if their family aren’t largely of the same build. Even when they move away and change their eating habits, likelihood is they’ll remain big even if they do move slightly in one direction or the other. People just suffer the consequences of our collective unhealthy diet to different degrees. You don’t see evidence of this in poor countries not because they’re all eating so well, but because they’re all eating so badly; there’s not an awful lot of variation amongst the malnourished. Only here in our rich society do we get to see the potentially large differences incurred by the tiniest of genetic changes.

>We tend to not pay enough credence to genetics. Now, scientists and particularly nutritionists can never agree with each other, which is why we get such mixed messages, but through all the dietary advice, one idea has stood firm and that is fast and slow metabolisms. Why, in a world where we can accept that different people have different metabolisms do we still find it so hard to accept that people can vary in size through no fault of their own? It’s almost like we need blame culture, so we can feel better about ourselves. One justification you may hear goes along the lines of “Well, sure, metabolism can make you vary a bit, but not that much.”

That argument doesn’t work mainly because you really don’t have to be much over average to be considered fat. Likelihood is, most people you know are over this mythical idea of “optimum weight”. That means that you are living in, and helping to construct, a society that tells you that you are not good enough. It is a strange society that thinks of itself as being fat but still finds time to criticise others for it; rather than having simply a culture of blame, we find ourselves in a culture of self-blame, and think we must be doing something wrong because we are not as thin as the person next to us, not acknowledging the possibility that the person next to us has not done anything better. They simply are what they are, and we think it is better than what we are. If you were to ask them what they thought of themselves, they would no doubt find something to criticise. Scarily enough, the same doctors who advise everyone to be as thin as possible also classify this kind of obsession with weight and distorted body image as two clinical characteristics of an eating disorder.

>It may not have escaped your notice that I’m not terribly impressed with doctors and scientists on this subject. In a world of photoshop and gossip magazines with an intense weight obsession, I would have thought it was up to the doctors to sit us all down and explain that we are all different, and closely examining your eating habits and energy levels is a better way of ascertaining whether or not you are healthy. Instead, if I sit in a waiting room at any doctors’ surgery, a big LCD screen informs me that if my waist size is above a this point (showing me a cartoon drawing of two glassy-eyed, misshapen humanoids), I need to lose weight.

The moving picture shows three body types. When I first saw them, I thought I was looking at overweight, average, and underweight. However, it transpired that what I thought was average was actually overweight, and what I thought was underweight was what I “should” be. I think it’s pretty telling that it didn’t give any indication of what one might consider underweight. In fact, as far as I know, we don’t have a concept of it; we identify when someone is eating too little and we draw conclusions about their health from there. But for fat people, it’s the exact opposite. It is judged by how you look, not your habits.

>“Fuck me,” I thought, looking at the screen and its cardboard cut-outs. “I’ve never been that size in my life, even when I was 8 stone (112lbs).” The size they were showing was literally about half what I used to be. That’s indicative of the problem we have here; our obsession with shape and weight clouds or ability to see health, even for professionals. They are worried about what they see as a health crisis derived from weight – a loose connection that is nothing more than a convenient way of roughly identifying lifestyle choices. As a result, they make blanket statements about what we should all look like, in the hope this will iron out bad habits, rather than tackle the habits themselves.

In my case, I remember being 112lbs and thinking that it was too much, mainly because I still had what I called “flab” – basically, I wasn’t toned enough to fit what I was taught was acceptable. When other people told me I was looking “good” (i.e., thinner), it didn’t register, because all I saw were numbers. In those days, in order to get to 8 stone I skipped meals, I gave away half my lunch every day for a year, and asked for half portions of things I was eating whenever I was being watched and felt like I couldn’t “get away with” not eating. I was always hungry, miserable, felt faint sometimes, and often lethargic.

This people did not notice. They reserved their observations for my waist line, which never cut down to a point far enough to cause concern, even though the weight-loss techniques themselves ought to have been worrying in their own right. The same people who were telling me I should lose weight were also policing my food intake, getting annoyed when I was eating too little and encouraging me to eat more. It’s a confusing, crazy world where you eat exactly what you are told to eat, but when the consequences start to show themselves (that is to say, when you get fat), you are criticised and people simply don’t believe that you are doing exactly as you have been advised by people who supposed know better.

These days I am 13 stone or 182lbs at the same height, and honestly I am not all that much fatter. There’s a bit of a pot, but mainly I am broader and just heavier for reasons I can’t explain. These days I eat much better foods and I feel better for it. As for appetite and intake, my genetics are a little less clear cut that some people’s – my entire family are thinner than me, some more than others. My middle brother is a lot thinner than me, though he eats worse foods and more of it, despite us having about the same appetite – I am not blessed with his penchant for exercise, so I try not to eat as much. I eat mainly the same, if not slightly better foods as my dad in the same quantities as him. Yet, until very recently (he’s got a bit of old-aged spread) I was a fair bit fatter.

But he’s a man who can’t accept that we have much the same habits, because he listens too closely to what science is currently saying, without paying much mind to the “currently” part. Seriously, scientists change their minds all the time. It’s obviously a complicated thing, and I don’t think that judging each other based on something that even out most qualified people aren’t sure about is the way forward. We’ll all just look like idiots when certain theories are conclusively disproved. Refuting theories happens a lot more often than proving them, that’s for sure.

Personal experience is not to be devalued here. We could take at face value the personal details of someone’s life when factoring in their health against their weight. We could accept that, through trial and error and a vast amount of weight variation, diet experience and health advice fired at all sides towards people who are considered overweight, those people who happen to be intelligent and realistic might just have a better measure of their own biology than someone who, no matter how qualified, is trying to lump them into the same category as a bunch of distinctly different people based on a similarity which is observed in just one glance. One problem is that we don’t listen to fat people. We don’t consider that their evaluation of their own life is worth anything. It’s really very condescending, and something which we would be pretty annoyed about if it happened to us.

When a fat person says they have a slow metabolism, or they don’t eat that much, or whatever else they have to say that might indeed be a contributing factor to their weight even if it isn’t the whole story, we tend to dismiss it. Against our admittedly limited understanding of bodies, against common sense and against fairness and courtesy, we just assume that fat people are lying or don’t know what they’re talking about, in a way that we make no such assumptions about other groups of people. To my mind, this is just another facet of fataphobia; if fat people are right about it not being their fault, that means it could happen to anyone. That means it could happen to your children, no matter how much care you take and how you try to feed them. Since people are genuinely petrified by this notion, it’s safer to ignore it and all pat ourselves on the back for how thin and healthy we are.

Coming back to “drains on society” though, let’s talk about that. OK, so I assume by “drains on society” we’re talking about people who cost the state money. Passing over the fact that I’m sick of the callous way in which people who can well afford it object to paying money into the system in order to help people less fortunate than themselves (since whichever way you look at it, fatter people are less fortunate than thinner people), we pay a huge amount into other systems that are a drain on our resources all the time.

This is because we deem them to be worth the money. Prisons cost a lot, but you wouldn’t go without those if it meant ne’er-do-wells rampaging the street. Birth control costs an extraordinary amount, but the consequences of removing that would be catastrophic. It all comes down to where your tolerance is at; we hate to pay for alcoholics, drug addicts, the homeless or fat people to get help, because we consider them lost causes and that helping them renders no benefit to ourselves. As much as some such people may hate criminals and disapprove of These Ere Scarlet Women And Their Antics, they understand that letting criminals walk free and allowing potential over-population will affect their lives badly. But fat people? Meh, let them die. Who needs them? It will serve them right for not listening to good advice when they hear it.

That’s how we think of fat people, as all one and the same. Never mind that there are as many reasons to be fat as there are people – we only entertain a few reasons: the blame reasons. It’s the typical dehumanisation of a group that we see in all types of prejudice; when you judge someone’s behaviour as “wrong” or decide that a particular group of people and set of behaviours go together, you are already subscribing to a prejudice. Fat people may eat more. They may eat the wrong food. They may do so for social reasons, not genetic ones. The question is; so what? Whether someone does something “wrong” in their life or whether their difference is social not genetic are not good reasons to decide whether or not someone is worth your compassion. Everybody is. To this day, we have never managed to get rid of a social problem by side-lining the people whom we deem to be subject to it, and that is what we do when we look down on fat people.

Whatever changes may happen to particular individuals, fat people in general will exist in the first world for a long time to come. If you don’t learn to accept that, you will find that you spend an unreasonable amount of time feeling anger, hatred and disgust that will serve you no purpose other than to make your own life a little harder. It’s better to just let go, let people worry about their own health, and see where it takes you. I leave you with this quote from Margaret Cho, a comedian whose own story on pressure to be thin is as eye-opening as it is heartbreaking: “For me, to be ten pounds thinner is a full time job and I am handing in my notice!”

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