The myth of an obesity epidemic

People would rather be dead than fat. In a poll run by Esquire magazine, two-thirds of respondents said they would rather be stupid or mean than fat.

At least 54% said they would rather be run over by a truck than be extremely fat.New research by Chantelle Malan and Louise Vincent from the Department of Political Studies at Rhodes University demands dignity for fat people, challenges the myth of an obesity epidemic and promotes “health at every size”.

Fat children are taunted and bullied, and fat people are discriminated against in the job market and are routinely the subject of vilification. Fat people are thought of as somehow weak willed, gross, emotionally damaged, lazy and incapable of controlling themselves.

While the media and the worldwide multibillion-dollar dieting industry tells us there is an “epidemic” of obesity, we believe that the real epidemic is the daily, minute-by-minute obsession with weight and food that many people experience.

Vast numbers of people, many of them women, are constantly dissatisfied with how they look, aspiring to impossible beauty ideals, which they associate with extreme thinness.

In one survey, nearly 80% of teenage girls expressed dissatisfaction with their bodies.

 In another, 90% of women surveyed said they “needed to lose weight”.This is actually a rational response to the way in which fat people are treated and regarded.

It is an obsession that saps our energy and diminishes our power to lead happy lives, to form friendships and fall in love, to believe in our competence, to experience joy and to focus fully on what is really important in our short lives.

While the media tells us that “obesity” will kill us, as we began to read the scientific literature we were shocked to discover that precisely the opposite was true.

So pervasive is this myth that the denunciation of fat people – by everyone, from our moms, to our doctors, to our school teachers and pastors – is almost thought of as a moral imperative. Being fat will kill us, right?

So it’s right to think of fat as revolting and bad, to condemn fat people and to make them want to change their disgusting ways.We never question this association (in certain cultures) between the aesthetically and culturally valued thin body and the idea of health, wellbeing, vigour and productivity.

We aim to promote a South African chapter of “Health at Every Size”, an international programme that acknowledges that good health can best be realised independently of considerations of size.

It is a movement that recognises that it is perfectly possible to be both heavy and healthy, that there are many heavy people who excel at sport, and that while body weight may be a marker for imprudent lifestyles in some, it is not itself the cause of illness.

Its role in determining health, as Linda Bacon has shown conclusively in her book Health at Every Size – the Surprising Truth about your Weight, has been grossly exaggerated.

Regular exercise is much more of a determinant of health than body fat, but you’d never know it.

Exercise becomes about penance, punishing ourselves for eating a slice of cake, instead of having fun with other people, enjoying moving our bodies.

Almost all efforts to lose weight fail in the long run. Most people who take weight off put it back on again in time. But this is not the message dietitians, pill peddlers, personal trainers and others who make their living off other peoples’ body dissatisfaction want us to hear.

Our research aims not only to question and challenge assumptions about weight and health, but to demonstrate how much pain and poor health is caused by the way fat people are treated.

Women report never going for medical check-ups such as pap smears because they are afraid of how their doctors will respond to their size. Children are weighed in public at school and criticised by teachers. Wives are sneered at by husbands and made to feel worthless.

 The research will also look at making policy interventions to protect the dignity of “fat people” and to make those in authority aware of how their behaviour can damage the very health goals they are trying to achieve. The global definition of “obesity” is a BMI over 30.

However, this is an extremely problematic and damaging “measure” as are all attempts to measure and calibrate, and impose uniformity on the human body in all its richness and diversity. We use the word “obesity” to refer to what others are saying about what obese is.

We hope many people will write to us, using anonymous email accounts or any method they choose to preserve confidentiality, about their experiences of being “overweight” – according to their own definition and experience of what that means.

Their actual weight is of no relevance to us as long as they consider and experience themselves to be overweight. Many of the critics of the discourses surrounding obesity today question the use of words like “overweight” and “obese”.

As one has argued, it seems ridiculous to call someone overweight because you can ask the question “over what weight?”.

And since when is there a particular weight that is right for everyone?The underlying assumption in this research is that a person’s weight is just a particular physical attribute, like having curly hair or brown eyes.

It is not a morally relevant factor and we have no business telling anybody what weight they should be or how to achieve it.

In this sense, the only way that the word “obese” is useful to our study is to show how others have used it and how harmful this has been.

» Vincent and Malan would like to hear stories of how people have experienced being “overweight” in society – whether negative or positive.

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