27 October 2013

Politically Incorrect: Obesity

Let's talk about obesity.   

Anyone paying attention has likely seen all kinds of perspectives about obesity.  There are the fat-shaming comments and articles like some see this as:

Then there's the pro-fitness camp, like this: 

And of course there's the "fat acceptance" crew:

Let's start at square one: no matter your opinions about weight, the women featured in these images, or the messages on the images, it is always unacceptable to insult others.  On the internet, in person, through email-- it's never ok to insult each other.  Never.  Not even strangers.  It's just never ok.  Ever.

With that out of the way, let's continue.

As a country, we have to discuss our national prejudice against overweight people.  They are being denied jobs and academic opportunities.  They're living with hate crimes so socially acceptable that we barely see them as hate crimes.  The hate is a reality, the suffering is real, and it's getting worse.  The fat-shaming camp seems to think that people choose to be large, and that intense bullying will knock the extra pounds off a person.  

At the same time, we have to discuss the problem of idealized bodies.  The pro-fitness camp has the motto: "Fit is the New Thin."  It's pretty catchy, and a person can feel good supporting fitness.  There's a problem though.  Not all fitnesses are treated the same.  A quick Google search will show that in this camp, "fit" means "thin with muscles."  It's hard to imagine this woman as their poster child:

That's Sarah Robles. She's sometimes referred to as the strongest woman in America, and she's a freaking Olympic athlete.  There's no denying she's fit.  And she's probably healthy, too.  But we don't see women with her body type featured in the "fit is the new thin" conversation.  The absence of diversity of bodies reveals this camp as a new version of the older "be skinny at all costs" movement some of us grew up with.

And that brings us to the fat acceptance movement.  My first reaction to hearing there's a fat acceptance movement was horror.  I imagined an organization of people encouraging each other to ignore health problems, to avoid exercise, and to binge eat everyday.  Of course, it's not quite like that.  The movement is mostly about shedding light on the social issues people with high BMIs face everyday.  I can get behind that.  Like I said, we're extremely prejudice against our heavier neighbors, and there's no excuse for our behavior.

But I also have concerns with the fat acceptance movement.  Not always, but often, risks associated with being larger are trivialized.  True, weight isn't the only indicator of health, but it's still an important indicator.  So are waist measurements, lifestyle habits, and family history. Together, they paint an almost complete picture of one's health risks.  Saying one isn't important at all creates a situation where some people feel less compelled to take responsibility for their health.  If you have a high BMI, you should take it as a warning and seek medical council.  You could be incredibly healthy, and you could be incredibly unhealthy.  Either way, don't ignore any indicator that you might be unhealthy.  After all, even fit, robust people get cancer, have heart attacks, or develop diabetes.  That's just the human condition.  But what if you were diagnosed with an illness you could have prevented by simply having a medical screening?  So if you have an indicator of higher risk, address it now.

The other concern I have is when people repeat what they've read-- that weight might not be the best indicator of health-- and then apply it to themselves without considering their own state of health.   This especially bothers me when friends or family make these claims.  I have friends and family at all weights and all levels of health.  Because of our relationship, we're generally aware of each other's health concerns, exercise habits, and diet.  And it's disheartening to see data intended to clarify health assessment used in ways that enable poor lifestyle decisions.  

So I have concerns with each voice in the weight debate.  I'm inclined to want to combine the pro-fitness group's message (exercise, eat well, make good lifestyle decisions) with the body variety and social issues awareness messages from the fat acceptance folks.  Like, take the best of the two and stick them together.  

The last weight issue I want to address concerns body image and media.  I often read articles along these lines: "Media tells us that women should be extra thin and have a gap between their thighs and  that men should have a perfect v-shape on their abdomen.  It's the media's fault I have unhealthy body expectations."  

Ok, let's get straight to why I hate commentary like this.  You're a grown-up who can think critically.  TV says you need to be thin?  Media also tells us that women will rip their panties off around men wearing the right cologne.  That alcohol is the key to all fun to be had.  That yogurt is better than sex.  You don't believe all that crap, so why would you choose to believe the body-image stuff?  Stop and consider the healthy people in your life who you admire.  What do they look like?  Do they exercise?  Do they make healthy eating choices?  Have you ever in your life seen a person who looks like the people we see on ads?  The answer is no, never.  All of the images we see are digitally manipulated and in no way represent reality.  Shouldn't real life inform your perceptions more than advertising?  (I'm excluding those with diseases that affect one's perception of body image.)  

Of course, it takes maturity to understand that media doesn't show reality, which is why we need to teach young women and men how to interpret media: as an untruthful depiction of reality designed to sell us stuff.  Not sure how?  Start by showing this interesting video that Dove released a few years ago.  Let's teach young people that they're comparing themselves to what are essentially cartoons.  And let's really appreciate that fact ourselves as well.

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