Yesterday, I wrote about being a fat-positive feminist who’s losing weight. Today, I’m finishing up with a look at one of the trickiest and most loaded balancing acts in this struggle: being both fat-positive and a skeptic.
See, here’s the thing. As you may or may not know, there is something of a pitched battle between feminist fat- positive advocates, and advocates of a skeptical, science- based view that fatness is medically harmful. (I’m not sure what to call the anti-fat-positives. Fat-negatives?) The fat-positives think the fat-negatives are hysterics who exaggerate the health risks of being fat; the fat-negatives think the fat-positives are denialists who dismiss those risks too easily. The fat-negatives point out the well- documented connection between being fat and a whole host of health problems; the fat-positives point out that many of these health risks significantly diminish with a healthy diet and regular exercise… even for people who don’t lose weight.
Now, I don’t generally cotton to the “golden mean” fallacy: the misguided notion that in any dispute between two opposing sides, the truth will probably fall in the middle. But in this case, I genuinely do think that both sides have some valuable ideas… and that both sides are missing some seriously important truths.
I also think that when the fat-positive movement keeps repeating the “Dieting doesn’t work” mantra, they support this view by stubbornly focusing on the stupidest, most extreme diets out there. It’s certainly fair to point out that a lot of popular diets are essentially semi- starvation, guaranteed to make you crazy and miserable and ultimately guaranteed to fail. But it’s also fair to point out that not all weight-loss programs are that dumb. (Of course, this is also true for fat-negative skeptics, who focus on the stupidest, most extreme forms of fat-positivism while largely ignoring the more moderate, pro- exercise- and- eating- right, “be as healthy as you can at the weight that you are” folks…)
(Of course, that does beg the question: Why are some people able to sustain behavior changes like these, and others aren’t? Diets generally don’t work partly because many diets are stupid and unsustainable… but it’s also partly because people don’t stick with weight loss plans even when they are reasonable. But why is that? There’s a whole science about behavior change and why it’s so hard… and we need to not frame it as a moral judgement about weak character. It’s common across humanity. As a society, it’s been like pulling teeth to get people to quit smoking and wear seatbelts. If we’re serious about addressing the American obesity epidemic, we need to be looking at major social and political change about how we deliver food and design our cities… not just haranguing people about how fat they are.)
So yes, I think the fat-positive movement has been missing the boat. A lot of boats.
But I think the hard-line fat-negative skeptics are overlooking some important truths as well.
I definitely think the fat-negative skeptics can be dismissive of just how difficult and complicated this issue is, and how loaded it is — emotionally, psychologically, indeed politically. Especially for women. (The practical mechanics of how I’m losing weight are insanely simple: counting calories, keeping a food journal, regular exercise, patience. The emotional and psychological and political mechanics are a minefield. Did I mention the endless processing, the obsessive planning, the hysterical crying fits in grocery store parking lots?) I think the skeptics often ignore our culture’s obsession with an unattainable ideal of physical perfection — especially for women — and the effect this has on people who are never, ever going to even come close to that ideal, no matter how healthy they become. And I think the skeptics can be oblivious to the effect their words have on people: how, for a fat person, especially for a fat person who’s tried more than once to lose weight, hearing something like, “Weight loss is simple, it just takes will power, just eat less and exercise more” basically translates as, “And if you don’t, it’s your fault, you’re weak and lazy and you deserve to get sick and die.”
And for all their passion about being reality- based and sciencey, the fat-negatives have a serious blind spot when it comes to one very important, extensively- documented fact about weight loss:
It rarely works.
Consistently, across the board, about 90% of people who try to lose weight either fail, or gain it back within a year. To my knowledge, every single method of weight loss that has ever been rigorously tested has a failure rate of roughly 90%. (Interesting tangent: If you join Weight Watchers, and you lose and re-gain the same 20 pounds three times? They don’t count that as a failure. They count it as three separate successes.)
10% success. That’s not a very good rate. And it’s something that fat-negative advocates need to deal with. I mean, what the hell is the point of raising the Dire Warning Alert System and telling everybody, “Being fat is horrible for you, being fat will ruin your health, being fat can kill you” — if, once you’ve successfully freaked everybody out, you don’t have anything constructive to offer about what they can do about it?
But given that this 90% failure rate is true, and until it is no longer true, then at least some of the visions and goals of the fat-positive movement are still pertinent. The idea that it’s useful to eat a healthy diet and get regular vigorous exercise — even if you don’t lose weight? As long as weight loss efforts fail about 90% of the time, that’s a pretty damn important message to get across.
And here’s a freakish irony: The ideas and ideals I learned from fat-positivism? They’ve been incomparably useful to me in my efforts to lose weight.
Here’s what I mean. The degree to which I’ve had to alter my life in order to lose weight has been pretty dramatic. If I’d had to do it all at once, I probably wouldn’t have done it at all.
And a huge part of why I was more than halfway there was my fat-positivism, and the ideals I learned from that movement. I was flipping the bird at the corporate mainstream media industry that wanted me to look like Paris Hilton… but I was also flipping the bird at the corporate mainstream food industry that wanted me to eat a steady diet of Cheetos and Hot Pockets and Stuffed Crust Pizza. I was committed to being as healthy as I could be at the weight that I was… and that involved eating well and getting regular exercise. Goals that the fat-positive movement actively and passionately encourages. (The fat-positive activists I was reading, anyway.)
Plus, the fat-positive movement gave me the tools I’ve needed to frame my weight loss primarily as a health issue and not as a cosmetic issue: to pursue it, not to fit some mold of ideal womanhood, but for myself, for my health and the enjoyment of my life. If my efforts to eat better and get exercise had been entirely focused on the goal of looking better, I might well have given up long ago. After all, no matter what I do, I am never, ever going to look like Paris Hilton. Or even Heather Graham. I’m short, I have a square, stocky frame, and I’m 47. It’s not gonna happen. But because of the fat- positive movement, I was already thinking of how I eat and exercise, not in terms of what society expected of me, but in terms of my own pleasure and health. So paradoxically, once my weight started being a serious impediment to my pleasure and health, it didn’t take much to shift gears.
And the skeptical movement has also given me tools that I need to do this. Being part of the skeptical movement inspires me on a daily basis to face reality, no matter how difficult or emotionally loaded it might be. It inspires me to base my decisions, not on wishful thinking, but on the best hard evidence currently available. It’s gotten me thinking more clearly about the evolutionary aspects of food and appetite and weight loss… and has thus given me some seriously useful practical strategies to bypass the triggers that evolved on the African savannah 100,000 years ago.
So I’m not sure what to do here. I’m ticked off at both sides. I’m grateful to both sides. I see truth and value, and stubborn obliviousness, on both sides. In my personal life, I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing: taking what I need from wherever I can get it, doing whatever works for me to be as healthy and sane as I can. But as a writer, and as a member of two conflicting social and political movements, I’m not sure how to handle this.
Fast Food wasteland photo by Apathetic duck.
42 thoughts on “The Fat-Positive Skeptic (Part 2 of 2)”
From my perspective, it’s a little easier. My blood sugar levels change in direct proportion to my weight. If I gain weight, my blood sugar goes up and I start directly and measurable damaging my body. When I lose weight, the levels come back down and the damage stops.
It’s hell losing weight. And there are loads of politics surrounding it. There are loads of excuses and valid explanations for being fat. But in the end, my diabetes doesn’t care. If I get fatter, it fucks me over, hard. If I get skinnier, it lets me survive.
That’s the bottom line. For me, the rest is extraneous.
Ah.. just what I needed. I’m currently being diagnosed with Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS, which pretty much means I’ll have to lose weight. And as I’ve always been a fat-positive feminist… well, like you said in your last entry “How do you be a fat-positive feminist who’s losing weight?”
I pretty much have to take the best from both fat-positives and negatives – to convince myself that I am actually not losing weight because of the ideals of beauty, but for my own health. (which is gonna be a challenge considering how much I hate working out and vegetables, but that’s another matter ;P)
Where I’m coming from, it’s pretty much “okay so you’re fat and that’s not healthy. Period.” No fat-positives what so ever. The term is actaully new to me. I’ve tried not to join “the dark side”, not to become a hypocrite… but that’s pretty much excuses for me being afraid of not making it.
This piece seems very heart felt, and it’s really informative. I’ve got friends who are trying to lose weight who I think could really, really use this information. Unfortunately I can’t think of a way to send them here without coming across as a dick, but if it ever comes up in conversation…
I think they often overlook the degree to which American obesity is not a personal problem, but a political one.
As far as handling it, well, maybe you can be the bridge that connects the two communities. (Not to put it all on you, but just using “you” as an example.)
Maybe we need to set aside the emotions just for a bit to have a sane conversation. Truths are hard to swallow–always. We need an atmosphere in which both sides agree to accept evidence no matter where it might lead.
This has been a superb couple of posts, and done a really good job of outlining a couple of the things about the fat-positive movement that exasperate me. I think it’s understandable, given the overwhelming media wanking about the obesity crisis, to ignore the ways in which fatness can be a contributory factor in poor health, and the (moderately strong but far from exact) causative corellation between poor diet and low activity levels and fatness. But being understandable doesn’t stop it being wrong.
I do think you missed one important points that the fat-positive movement makes, which is that unsuccessful dieting actually makes physical health worse, as well as the tolls it takes on your mental health.
Speaking as a fat guy who used to be anorexic, I’m pretty sure I’d be healthier now if I hadn’t spent much of my adolescence screwing with my metabolism. And whilst that’s a relatively extreme case, yo-yo-ing weight isn’t good for you in any case.
My biggest problem with fat-positive skepticism is how incredibly hard it is to find good information. The diet industry is infested with hype and woo; the medical journals are hard to interpret, and studies are often based on tiny samples and bad controls. And second hand measures.
There’s the junkfood science blog, which I don’t really trust. But she does point to some very interesting papers. As a semi-professional in statistical analysis, I have not yet caught her in any obvious data interpretation errors. The obesity paradox series is worth a read.
One thing that I am convinced of is that BMI is dead wrong as a measure. My physics degree tells me that using a two dimensional measure of a three dimensional object is fundamentally flawed. Your BMI will be higher if you are taller. It will also be higher if you are more muscular, or more stocky in build. And many studies seem to show that the overweight category is the healthiest in both mortality and morbidity stats. If I’m going to use BMI as any guide, I’m aiming for the middle of the “overweight” range.
Cath: I don’t have a source for this immediately at hand, but as I recall, BMI was first developed by insurance companies that were trying to forecast average life expectancy. It was developed from actuarial tables which correlated height, weight, and lifespan of policy holders.
I’m not saying this to cast more aspersions on the insurance industry, but to point out that BMI is a statistical measure. By its nature, it’s valid for populations, not necessarily for individuals. As you said, it doesn’t take body type into account: some people are broader in build than others and will naturally weigh more for a given height. And it counts every pound the same, which means that people who have lots of muscle and very low body fat can still be judged as “overweight” by BMI standards, which is ridiculous. BMI can be a useful rule of thumb, but it’s certainly nothing to live and die by.
Great post. (Or is it because it agrees with my ideas and comment on your last post on this?!)
I do think one extra major factor is the whole intersection of our perceptions of sensuality, pleasure and sin and how they affect people’s perceptions. There are plenty of skeptics and atheists whose view of fat issues is almost indistinguishable from a tractate from one of the Church Fathers about the hideous sin of sex.
I totally understand that feeling of being ‘torn’. And after having read your Fat-Positive Diet post, can totally identify with your journey so far.
I spent a lifetime with a body I was never ‘thin’, but I accepted it and loved it for what it was. I knew I was overweight, knew I should I do something about it. Never did. But never hated myself, firmly believing this was what I had been dealt and that I should be happy and proud of it. And screw all the messages out there telling me otherwise. I was overweight, but still friggin’ fabulous.
Eventually I did do something about it. Lost a heap of weight, felt great for it. It was fucking hard work though! People who think weight loss is easy truly have noooooo idea. Worse still it is an ongoing struggle. I am not sure there will ever be a time that I can put something in my mouth without thinking about it. Which sucks, but at the same time was part of the ‘problem’.
I guess the point of sharing this is that when you transition from overweight to ‘slim’, it is hard to do it without de-valuing where you were at before. I wasn’t in a healthy place, but I didn’t hate myself either. And even though I’ve ‘given in’ to the health and fitness thing, I absolutely abhor the way it capitalises on people’s negative feelings towards themselves, and perpetuates them when things, more often than not, fall apart. And sometimes I really berate myself for contributing money towards the gyms and the products etc.
Side note: Sounds like you are doing some really great things for yourself, and despite all of the agonising self-reflection and changing of values (which I totally get), it is well worth the effort.
Ideas around staying motivated . . . well you can definitely look forward to the increased libido from all the exercise and the body confidence. You think you’re randy now? Just wait!! Ooofh.
And remember to celebrate your successes, even the little ones. Yes, walking away from the cookie jar totally deserves an air-punch.
Good luck! And thanks for sharing – it is v brave to put yourself out there on this one!
This is what I love about Greta’s posts: she can thoroughly critique two (or more!) sides of any issue without saying “a pox on both your houses!” and she can highlight positives on opposing sides without the teeth grindingly stupid “can’t we all just get along?”
My two cents to you, Greta: keep doing what you’re doing now. Your combination of articulate skeptisism & openmindedness is working beautifully.
My thoughts? You. Are. Awesome. Reposting.
I disagree. I think that the “fat positive” position, or, at least, the Health at Every Size aspect of it is one of questioning the evidence base behind the anti-obesity crusade, and finding it wanting. Just for example, there are strong correlations between obesity and diabetes. But every scientist knows that correlation is not causation. Possibly obesity causes diabetes – but this is confounded by the fact that many thin people also get diabetes. Possibly obesity is one of the potential effects of diabetes. Possibly some third factor causes both. Or possibly, the correlation disappears when something else, previously unconsidered, is accounted for – example age, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, etc. At this moment, scientists have not put sufficient evidence on the table to decide among these, yet crusaders are quite happy to run with the first possibility and put obese people squarely in their sights for “loving interventions”.
Also, the data in relation to obesity and actual mortality runs entirely a different way. The CDC’s Flegal study, (BMI and Mortality – 2005) is strongly supported by similar studies carried out in Japan and Canada. The data analysed in each, clearly show that the BMI region between 25 and 35 (which is where by far the most of us find ourselves), and more specifically, is the longest lived. BMI’s over 50 are less-long lived, but by far the most endangered of all are those with BMI’s under 18.5. On the whole, when it comes to longevity, the extremes at either end of the curve (where very few of us live) are the most hazardous, but the hazards go up much more precipitously at the low end than at the high end. Yet the “safe” range of 25 to 35 happens to be the range most intensively targeted for weight loss interventions.
Finally, none of the current obesity “researchers” are able to explain why our weights, heights and longevity figures continue to increase in lockstep.
“Fat positive” is IMHO a sound, evidence based position, not denialism.
Speaking of feminism and politics, I wonder if this isn’t a also “pro-choice issue” e.g. it’s your body: if you opt to lose weight — for whatever your reasons — t’aint nobody’s business if you do.
Thank you Greta for an honest and heart-felt sharing of your journey. You spoke directly to me because I think most people would call me fat-positive, though I think of myself as size-neutral. It’s really hard to be size-neutral in a culture that hates fat. Every time I say “You can’t judge someone’s health based upon her size” people hear, “fat is healthy.” I can show you blog posts and responses that will prove this!
Yes, there are health risks associated with being heavy for some people. I also know several very thin women who have severe osteoporosis, a great risk for those with little or no body fat. Do we see anyone telling these women to GAIN weight? No. We continue to congratulate them. “I don’t know how you stay so trim and thin. I am SO jealous!!”
The truth is that our culture is hysterically obsessed with thinness and spewing hatred about fat. When I work with people to help them become Intuitive Eaters, I help them take the focus off of weight and put it on being their healthiest, happiest selves. Do they lose weight? SOmetimes. I personally think that living and eating intuitively is the most likely way to lose weight permanently if a person is not already at her natural weight, AND the whole idea is that you take the focus off of weight loss. It is doable for the long term. In fact, it gets easier. And the best part is that you NEVER count calories, you just cut through all the hysteria and emotions to a place of peace and trust with your body.
thanks, Greta! How succinctly you illustrate the difficulties of being a feminist, fat-positive feminist, engaged in actively losing weight. As much as I believe fat phobia is the last bastion of acceptable hatred, I know I feel better, mentally and physically, when I’m exercising and eating better and down a few pounds. I’ll happily post this on my fb page in hopes it might help some of my friends understand…
Question for Greta: what are the best scientific sources you’ve read on this? It’s an area where my science knowledge that I really don’t know much about, but would be useful to get down.
Comments: You mention avoiding insisting that the truth is somewhere in the middle, but there still seems to be too much of it here. “Be as healthy as you can at the weight that you are” isn’t a moderate position, it’s a fancy way of saying you shouldn’t lose weight. The problems you see with the skeptics may be real, but I don’t see what fat-positive feminism does to help the issue. And finally, in your last post it actually sounded like fat-positive feminism actually increased the amount of processing you had to do–though it’s your experience, so correct me if I’m wrong
As a couple of people have noted, BMI is total BS — IIRC, it was invented by a 19th-century statistician working for the U.S. Census, with no input from actual doctors. (Just for kicks — take your favorite sports team whose height and weight are publicly available, and figure their BMIs. Hint: Muscle is heavier than fat.)
Also re BMI, see this article:
Overall, I have to say that this post, and the last one, are very good and represent some of my thoughts on the issue, as a feminist and a skeptic.
However, I might have to quibble with this: “I bought the idea that I could be every bit as healthy at 200 pounds as I would be at 140. ”
While that might be an idea you could come away with from reading fat positive blogs, I’m not sure that they actually advocate that. I believe they generally say that given any random person who weighs 140 pounds and a random person who weighs 200, you can’t say for certain who is healthier without knowing any other information.
For you, personally, your healthiest weight may be higher or lower, but even that has to be balanced with quality of life issues and whether it’s worth it to you to really focus on losing weight/being healthy given other things that might be more worth your time. Also, for me, maybe I would be healthier if I lost 20 pounds, cut out most sugar, exercised more, etc, but is it really worth it if that kind of focus is preventing other things from getting done? If someone’s starting a new business, trying to get through med school, going through trying family issues, etc then they might have more important issues to deal with at that moment.
(again, you probably know all this, but anyway)
Also, I freely admit that my interpretation of the fat positive movement is colored by what I would say and agree with, so there’s that.
I agree with Scotlyn’s comment.
I also think that when the fat-positive movement keeps repeating the “Dieting doesn’t work” mantra, they support this view by stubbornly focusing on the stupidest, most extreme diets out there.
I am sure there are some fat-positive activists out there who stubbornly focus on extreme diets, somewhere, but after nearly 20 years in the movement, I have yet to find such a person. All those I know who have talked about dieting have included the modest-calorie-controlling style diets in their analysis of the high failure rate of diets.
P.S. with regards to
the very serious, extensively documented, no-joke health risks of being fat
The risks are rarely “very serious”, they are extensively mis-documented (exaggerated or invented or ignored).
Have you actually looked at the medical literature on this topic (this being “the mountain of studies” you refer to)? Found out what the “the actual scientific facts on the ground” are? As opposed to just looking at the media’s version of the results of research (which is very different to what the researchers themselves write)?
Because I have to say, it really sounds like you haven’t. If you’re going to write blog posts on this topic, I suggest that you at least consider writing from a position of having looked at the evidence.
If you do go and look at the medical literature, please be sure to pay attention to the studies that addresses potential health benefits from fat people losing weight, rather than studies just comparing fat people to thin people. Fat people don’t have the option to become naturally thin people, at most (if at all) they have the option to become formerly fat.
Comparing fat people to thin people, finding thin people have a lower risk, and deducing weight loss as an appropriate treatment, is like comparing men to women, finding women have a lower risk, and deducing a sex change is an appropriate treatment.
Thank you for this post! This is an issue that I’ve struggled with myself.
I know a couple of people who are extremely anti-fat-positive, or at least they think they are. But their image of the “fat-positive” movement seems to come entirely from the most extreme examples, from a version of fat-positive that is so uncommon as to be a caricature.
I have noticed that a surprising number of fatphobic atheists don’t see the parallels between their attitude toward fatness and the attitudes of various religions toward various types of “sin”.
I think it’s reasonable to handle the apparent conflict here by doing what you have done in this post – looking at both sides, evaluating the good and bad points of each, and taking what you find valid from each. And what you come up with, you can bear witness to in both movements. The fat-positive movement could use skeptics. The skeptics could use a better understanding of the personal and political issues surrounding fat, and could stand to have some of their own assumptions (e.g. about it being easy to lose weight) questioned.
“Finally, none of the current obesity “researchers” are able to explain why our weights, heights and longevity figures continue to increase in lockstep.”
Your whole comment was spot-on, Scotlyn, but this point in particular is just fantastic.
Thank you all so much for your thoughtful responses! Lots of what y’all have said has been enlightening and helpful and good food for thought. A few answers to a few specific comments that have been made so far:
Sebastian Conolly: “I do think you missed one important points that the fat-positive movement makes, which is that unsuccessful dieting actually makes physical health worse, as well as the tolls it takes on your mental health. Speaking as a fat guy who used to be anorexic, I’m pretty sure I’d be healthier now if I hadn’t spent much of my adolescence screwing with my metabolism. And whilst that’s a relatively extreme case, yo-yo-ing weight isn’t good for you in any case.”
I am smacking myself on the head for not having said this in my piece. I meant to, but the piece got long and sprawling and I forgot. Yes, absolutely: our culture’s obsession with thinness does lead to unhealthy dieting practices that can wreck physical and mental health and can actually make people gain weight in the long run. (There’s lots of evidence that crash diets make your body think you’re starving, so it starts storing fat more efficiently.) And I’d also point out the large number of smokers who don’t quit because quitting makes them gain weight.
Everyone who slammed BMI: Yup. Even my trainer thinks I should re-evaluate at 160 or 150 pounds (my medical provider and all the charts say my target weight should be 140 tops). Especially since I’m doing weight training and am putting on serious muscle. Body fat percentage is probably a better metric, if a metric is needed or wanted.
Michael “I do think one extra major factor is the whole intersection of our perceptions of sensuality, pleasure and sin and how they affect people’s perceptions. There are plenty of skeptics and atheists whose view of fat issues is almost indistinguishable from a tractate from one of the Church Fathers about the hideous sin of sex.”
Yes, yes, yes. I’m mostly not saying “Yes” to every comment I agree with or found helpful. But I think this is a very important point, and it’s one I want to emphasize. If skeptics are serious about encouraging people to lose weight for medical reasons, we need to not treat fatness as a moral failing or a character flaw.
Scotlyn: “None of the current obesity ‘researchers’ are able to explain why our weights, heights and longevity figures continue to increase in lockstep.”
Sorry, but that is flatly, 100% not true. There are plenty of explanations for why our society’s longevity is increasing even as our weight goes up to an unhealthy degree. Improvements in medical science, in sanitation, in public health, in public safety, in financial security, reduction in child mortality, etc. etc. etc…. all of these increase longevity. My understanding is that, in first-world countries with similar improvements in medicine, sanitation, etc. but without the weight gain of American society, longevity is greater than in the U.S.
JoLaine Jones: “I personally think that living and eating intuitively is the most likely way to lose weight permanently if a person is not already at her natural weight, AND the whole idea is that you take the focus off of weight loss. It is doable for the long term.”
I dearly, dearly wish that were true. Intuitive eating (or what I’ve been calling “the Michael Pollan diet”) — eating whole foods, listening to what my whole body wanted and not just my tongue, eating when I got hungry and not waiting until I was ravenous, etc. — was a big step for me, it got me into some good habits, and in combo with exercise, it did help keep me from gaining more weight. But it didn’t get me to lose — and because of my bad knee, I really need to lose. The big, hard realization I had to come to about this was that I cannot trust my instincts about food. The human instincts about food evolved 100,000 years ago on the African savannah, in an environment of scarcity, and are not appropriate for today’s food landscape. And my particular instincts about food are definitely not working: like a lot of fat people, my hunger triggers are hyper-sensitive. If it works for other people, then great; but the whole point of this for me is that I have to let go of thinking of eating as “natural” or “intuitive,” and shift to making it more conscious and mindful.
Everyone who asked what my sources are: Mainly, my sources are Ingrid, who is a nurse practitioner and is therefore the one in our family who reads the medical journals and keeps up with the latest medical research. So alas, I can’t give citations or links. But it may help you to know that she isn’t coming at this from a reflexive, mainstream- medical, “fat is bad” perspective. She’s coming at it from a perspective similar to mine: having been down with fat-positivism for a long time, then starting to question whether that was really supported by medical evidence, while also being aware that there is a certain amount of hysteria and sexism among many pro- weight- loss advocates. (I’ll let her speak for herself in more detail if she has the time.) I’m also getting info from science and medical blogs.
The Uncredible Hallq: “‘Be as healthy as you can at the weight that you are’ isn’t a moderate position, it’s a fancy way of saying you shouldn’t lose weight.” No, it isn’t. No, no, no, no, no. I’m actually rather puzzled at how you could arrive at that interpretation, given the entire content of this two-part post. I am losing weight, I’m certainly not telling anyone else that they shouldn’t. My point is that eating well and getting regular exercise are useful goals in themselves that will improve health and happiness… even if they don’t result in weight loss. (And they’re useful goals for everybody — not just fat people.) Since weight loss fails such a drastically large percentage of the time, and since we still know so little about it, I think this is an extremely important message.
Hallq again: “The problems you see with the skeptics may be real, but I don’t see what fat-positive feminism does to help the issue.” I’m pretty sure I explained what fat-positive feminism does to help the issue. Kind of ad nauseum. To recap: It helped me see this as a political/ social/ economic issue and not just as a personal issue of willpower. It helped me see that eating well and getting regular exercise were worthy goals in themselves, regardless of whether I lost weight doing them. It helped me love my body and see it as worth taking care of, even though it doesn’t fit the cultural ideal and never will. Does that make it clearer?
SharonC: “I am sure there are some fat-positive activists out there who stubbornly focus on extreme diets, somewhere, but after nearly 20 years in the movement, I have yet to find such a person.” I have. I’ve read fat-positive activists describe the effects of dieting as light- headedness, anxiety, difficulty concentrating, becoming obsessed with food, constantly being hungry, etc. That’s not a description of healthy weight management. That’s a description of semi-starvation.
Finally: There’s a theme running through many of the fat-positive comments here, about how our individual bodies have a natural weight that they gravitate towards and we should just accept that. My response: My body also has a natural tendency towards high cholesterol — and I don’t just accept that, I take statins. My body has a natural tendency towards depression — and I don’t just accept that, I exercise and stay active and get sunlight and do other things to prevent depressive episodes. My body has a natural tendency towards severe astigmatism — and I don’t just accept that, I wear glasses. So yes, my body probably has a “natural” tendency to weigh about 200 pounds (whatever “natural” means in the American food and exercise landscape)… but given my bad knee and the effect that weighing 200 pounds has had on it, I am not going to just accept that. I am going to do what I can to improve my chances of a healthy, mobile middle and old age in which I can walk and dance and climb stairs. And that means losing weight.
Your doctor told you to lose weight. Not your fashion consultant, not Cosmo, not even Ingrid (unless it was based off of your doctor’s advice). Your reasons are virtuous.
When your social circle comments, “Damn, Greta, you’re looking good lately,” you can reply, “More importantly, I’m feeling good … my damn knee hasn’t bothered me in ages.” This will be your way of staying true to your fat-positive view. As you have said, the fat-positive view only has a leg to stand on when it doesn’t incapacitate the legs it stands on.
Paris Hilton is not at a healthy weight, and neither were you. If fat-positive means you need to maintain an unhealthy weight so as to revolt against a different unhealthy weight, then fat-positive is thought-negative … Find your healthy weight, and be true to it.
(Posted by Greta for whwiv, who was having trouble commenting.)
Inhale, then count to three and exhale.
Pretty easy, right?
Now do that for the rest of your life without skipping a breath.
Eventually, something will distract you, or you’ll gasp, or have a coughing fit…
That’s basically what weight-loss is. It’s something very easy to do in the short term that becomes very difficult to maintain in the long-term.
You are not destined to fail, but you will get the flu, or sprain an ankle, or go through an emotional breakup. And these things will take your attention off your diet and you’ll gain weight. Even something like changing your schedule at work can throw you off.
The question doesn’t seem to be can you lose weight – cause you absolutely can if you want to. The question is will you have the interest and commitment to get back on your foodexercise plan after you’ve stepped off it?
Inhale – 1-2-3 – Exhale
Greta, I don’t think you can legitimately compare other first world countries with the US on a mere 2-variable correlation of obesity & longevity. Sure, the US has the highest obesity rates and the worst life expectancy in the west, but at the same time you guys still do not have a public health system!
You’ve got a whole lot of diseases of poverty messing up the correlation. Higher infant mortality and maternal mortality and deaths from addiction and violence mostly aren’t consequences of obesity.
“Your reasons are virtuous.”
To continue my comment about the notions of sin and fat, I think this attitude are unhelpful.* This is the idea that there are decisions that stem of “virtue” and others that stem of “vice” and that we can judge people because of their motivation (and shame them for their “wrong” motivation).
Of course to lose weight for purely health reasons might seem more rational to a lot of readers of this blog — but that doesn’t make the decision to lose weight for other reasons “unvirtuous” even if is from a desire to conform to harmful ideals of beauty.
*whwiv, I can see from the rest of your comment that you probably don’t have this attitude so this isn’t about the sentiment expressed by you but rather about others whose attitude is solely shaped by something like that quote with no caveats and qualifications.
Greta, This is so right on!
“To continue my comment about the notions of sin and fat, I think this attitude are unhelpful.* This is the idea that there are decisions that stem of “virtue” and others that stem of “vice” and that we can judge people because of their motivation (and shame them for their “wrong” motivation).”
Something was bothering me about the “Your reasons are virtuous” comment, but I couldn’t quite articulate it. Thank you, Michael, for doing so.
“Speaking of feminism and politics, I wonder if this isn’t a also “pro-choice issue” e.g. it’s your body: if you opt to lose weight — for whatever your reasons — t’aint nobody’s business if you do.”
As someone who does a lot of pro-choice and abortion access activism, I agree with the parallel. You get to control your body.
Cath: I agree. That actually was my point: longevity rates are complicated and multi-factorial.
To clarify my point: Some commenters here are trying to argue that, because the US has both a high rate of fatness and a high longevity, therefore fatness can’t possibly be bad for anyone’s health. And they’re trying to argue that no weight-loss advocate has ever come up with any explanation for these facts. (And yet, ironically, at the same time they themselves are trying to argue, “Correlation doesn’t prove causation!”) I’m simply pointing out that there are other possible explanations for the high U.S. longevity that allow for the possibility that fatness still may not, on the whole, be healthy. (I mean, would they argue, “The U.S. has no public health insurance, the U.S. has high longevity, therefore not having public health insurance isn’t bad for people’s health”?)
(One factor that I missed, btw: We’ve gotten good at keeping people alive who have the illnesses most commonly associated with fatness, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease. That doesn’t mean everyone with those illnesses is at the peak of health. It just means that they aren’t dead.)
Danarra Ban: Your analogy doesn’t hold up. Not even a little bit. While you can temporarily take control of breathing, it is primarily controlled by the autonomic nervous system. Eating is not. With the possible exception of severe circumstances such as starvation, eating is something we do consciously. Yes, it’s affected by unconscious processes like appetite triggers; but it’s not controlled by the autonomic nervous system.
Also: We breathe thousands of times a day. We eat about three times a day. (Or in my case, six to eight times a day.) In order to control my eating, I don’t have to inhale, then count to three and exhale, thousands of times a day. I only have to do it a few times a day. You’re basically assuming that we have no control over what we eat; and that’s just flatly absurd.
I’m sorry to be harsh, but this has to win some sort of “Worst Analogy Ever” award.
I enjoy your writing, and think you’ve done some brilliant blogging on atheism in particular. But these two posts are breaking my heart.
Honestly, I’m happy for you that you’re enjoying more activity and less pain. I’m thrilled. But I don’t feel like you really understand the skeptical position here.
while it’s fairly easy to be a healthy, active fat person in your youth, it gets increasingly harder as you get older.
As one gets older, doesn’t it become harder to be healthy and active regardless of weight?
But it’s also fair to point out that not all weight-loss programs are that dumb.
Yes, many diets are dumb. Unfortunately, the ones that aren’t dumb aren’t proven to work any better than the ones that are. In your previous post you wrote I know that weight loss typically fails about 90% of the time.
I don’t know where you came by that info, but it’s still grossly optimistic. Actually, it turns out that pretty much any diet will work for a while (see Comparison of weight-loss diets with different compositions of fat, protein, and carbohydrates by Sacks FM, et alia). However, there is no weight loss method proven at 5 years, including all the gastric surgeries. All diets fail everyone.
The fat positive movement also often claims that being fat is purely genetic, not behavioral… a claim that ultimately isn’t supportable.
Play fair. If you’re going to use “claims” you should be able to find a quote somewhere, eh? Nothing is “purely” genetic, even genes. However, a quick Google will show a number of twin studies indicating that height and weight are both pretty much the same heritability, roughly .75. Obviously, a child starved or sickly will achieve neither her full genetic height or weight. But as “supportable” goes , this is really rock steady.
I bought the idea that I could be every bit as healthy at 200 pounds as I would be at 140….I ignored the fact that my bad knee was getting worse, until it got almost too bad to do anything about it.” Really, I’m glad you’re feeling better and I wish you all the luck in the world with continuing that. But didn’t your little skeptical senses tingle when you wrote that bit? The fat acceptance movement and the Health At Every Size movement neither of them advocate ignoring that you’re in increasing pain. “Could be every bit as healthy”, sure, but that’s kind of dependent on actually being, you know, healthy.
If you want to practice your skepticism, try this: find an article on weight loss that doesn’t treat diet and exercise as one thing. Really I think that is what HAES comes down to (by way of contrast, I think Fat Positivism is more about recognizing human dignity and rights). In medicine you have to test the effectiveness of every piece of the treatment, as well as the success of the components together. The cliched dietandexercise solution consists of only one component that’s actually long-term effective, and that’s the exercise part. Only.
Again, glad your knee is better; hope the improvement continues!
(posted by Greta for Kaethe, who had tech trouble commenting)
Sorry I missed your point on that one Greta, thanks for clarifying.
A point about the heritability thing – yes, I’ve understood that weight is as heritable as height. Which absolutely does not mean a specific weight is predictable, let alone unmodifiable.
Height is a good illustration: recent generations are much taller than their parents and grandparents. Even I, at a mere 165cm, am taller than my ancestors. The basic genetics give you a relative taller/shorter prediction, *given the same environment*. The genes don’t say “absolutely will be 165cm” (me) or 145cm (my grandmother).
But what you have in US culture, and other western cultures to a lesser extent, is a massively different environment than our ancestors had. We’ve got better medical treatment, but also wildly less physical activity and crazily more high sugar, high fat foods.
Change the environment, change the outcome of the genes. Now how much that can be affected as an adult, I am really not sure. Height – not at all. Weight – I’m pretty confident that small changes are possible; I’m much less certain about large ones.
Not to get too side tracked, but what are your thoughts regarding fat porn? I fail to see why mainstream feminism (including fat postitive feminism) is antagonistic towards this media. If a man (or woman) finds a plus size woman sexually attractive and jerks off to that image, why is that such a bad thing? Doesn’t fat porn stand in opposition to the corporate monopoly over body image and the consumers’ obsession over beauty standards?
For example, let’s take the following website:
The owner and creator, Nancy, is an accountant who publishes busty pics of herself free to the public. She is over 50 years in age and overweight. She does not come anywhere close to the contemporary Paris Hilton “beauty standard”. Yet scores of men flock to her site. I’d say, let free speech reign so that this spills over into the mainstream media. Why not a plus-size Maxim magazine or a bbw Playboy mag?
So, Greta, why isn’t there a bbw section at Blowfish?
Sorry you didn’t like my analogy. Perhaps I should dispense completely with it and just say things plainly. I’m one of the 90% who failed. Lost 90 pounds, kept it off for a couple of years, and have now gained it all back. I have no doubt that you can make your goals, and have no judgements about your reasons for wanting to lose weight. I also have health concerns that prompted me to lose the weight and that I thought were strong enough to keep from gaining it back.
I am in no way saying that your efforts are doomed to failure. They’re not. Trying to pass on my experience that it wasn’t losing the weight that was the hard part. It was developing new coping mechanisms for those slings and arrows life throws everybody’s way. For me, I thought exercise, particularly walking, would keep me sane – and it did for a while.
But under extreme emotional stress (diagnosed with a chronic illness and literally unable to walk), I fell back on the coping mechanism that was most accessible. Kraft Macaroni and Cheese with a hostess fruit pie chaser.
So, I was just trying to say, forewarned is forearmed. Losing weight is easy compared to maintaining a significant weight loss. It absolutely can be done, just develop some new ways of coping with emotional stress, preferably something that can be practiced anywhere and costs little to no money.
And when you have those figured out, can you pass them on to me?
Kaethe: First, I want to say that I appreciate your supportive words about my knee. A lot of the fat-positive advocates in these comments (and in private emails) have basically had the attitude that they don’t give a shit about my knee or my health generally, as long as they can be proven right. So I appreciate your support on that. That’s basically why I’m taking the time to respond.
Now, to the response. First:
Yes. Of course. But in my experience, and in the experience of many other people, being fat makes it even harder. The natural decay of the body with age gets exacerbated by being fat. Most obviously when it comes to joints and mobility. And there’s a nasty vicious circle: the bigger you are, the harder it is to exercise or be mobile… which makes it harder to lose weight.
Well, I don’t know where you’re getting your info… but it doesn’t jibe with the research I’ve seen, and it doesn’t jibe with the reality I see around me. In a not-huge circle of friends and family, I could name you about a dozen people right off the top of my head who have lost a significant amount of weight and kept it off for years. The fat-acceptance/ HAES manta that weight loss never, ever, ever, ever works — or works so rarely as to be statistically insignificant — is simply not supported by the evidence.
It’s true that if you study any given diet or weight loss program — low fat, low carb, high protein, vegetarian, whatever — it fails most of the time. Which is exactly why weight loss researchers are now beginning to reverse engineer the question. Instead of looking at the success rate of any given diet or weight loss program (which granted is very low across the board), they’re instead looking at what the few people who succeed, in all programs, have in common. And what they have in common is: counting calories, keeping food journals, weighing themselves regularly, exercising regularly, losing the weight slowly (no more than two pounds a week), getting support from friends and family, and — very importantly — keeping all this up as a permanent lifestyle change, even after the weight is off.
I never said there wasn’t a genetic component. I even said that there was. But if weight is roughly .75 heritable, doesn’t that mean that it’s .25 not heritable? Again, I ask: If weight were purely genetic with no behavioral or environmental component, then why are Americans so much fatter than the rest of the world? Why are Americans so much fatter now than we were 50 years ago, or even 20? And why do non-American populations start to gain weight as soon as they start eating an American diet? The overwhelming evidence is that this has happened because our eating end exercise habits have dramatically changed in that time. (See in the post re: sedentary jobs, city planning based on cars, the profit-based industrial American food industry, etc.)
Actually… yes, they are. Many of them are. Look at all the comments here saying, “You’re going to fail, so don’t even try.” I even got an email from an old friend who’s in the HAES movement, sending me to her website… which basically said, “If you’re having joint problems due to weight, don’t try to lose weight, it won’t work. Try everything else, but don’t even bother trying to do that… even if everything else that you’ve tried isn’t working.” They would rather I be crippled than be proven wrong about weight loss never working.
And again, that’s not what the current research I’ve seen is saying. The current research is saying that both are necessary. And that’s what I’ve found as well. I had a very hefty exercise regimen before I started losing weight… and while it definitely helped stabilize my weight and helped keep me from gaining more, it wasn’t enough to get me to lose. I have stepped up my exercise somewhat with the weight loss program… but the big change has been in what I eat. “Calories in calories out” is too simplistic — for one thing, if it were true then crash diets would work — but there is obviously something to it.
Danarra Ban: Sorry if I was needlessly harsh. I’ve just had it up to here with people whose response to these posts has been, “You’re going to fail, weight loss never ever works, it’s impossibly difficult, so don’t even bother.” It seemed like that’s what you were saying; my apologies for misunderstanding.
As to the hard part being maintenance — keeping the weight off, especially in times of stress — yeah, I’m aware of that. (Although the warning is appreciated: the more I know ahead of time about the pitfalls, the easier they’ll be to avoid.)
I can’t give much advice from my own experience on the long range stuff, since I haven’t been at this very long. But I do have a couple of thoughts, from things I’ve read and from my own experience with other long-term behavior changes.
It may be helpful to think of relapses, not as failures, but as part of the process. I quit smoking years ago… but I had several relapses, for a few months each time, almost all during times of great stress. And instead of saying, “Well, that’s it, I failed, I guess I’m just going to smoke for the rest of my life,” I said, “Okay, what do I need to do to get back on track… and what can I do the next time I get stressed that would be better than starting to smoke again?” And every time I quit, I learned more about quitting and staying quit.
I can also say, without getting into details, that the last month and a half or so have been TREMENDOUSLY stressful. And I can tell you two things that so far have helped keep me on track. One is that I keep my food journal, no matter what. It’s becoming like brushing my teeth: just a part of my daily routine. And like other routines, it’s actually becoming a comfort in itself. (Plus, as Ingrid has said: When things are chaotic and difficult, it’s comforting to have one aspect of your life that you have some control over and where you’re being successful.)
It’s also helped to remember that the good feelings brought by comfort food are very short term. It’s not just that it makes me feel bad in the long run because of my weight. It makes me feel bad in the just- past- short run, hours or even minutes later.
Anyway, I hope this is helpful. If you have things that have helped you keep on track in the past — or other pitfalls to warn me against — I’d be happy to hear them.
This dates from a while back, but still quite funny…
Greta, I owe you an apology, and it’s late coming because I wasn’t checking the comments on this post. I never meant to imply that you are telling people not to loose weight, and I was stupid not seeing there are a couple ways of reading “be as healthy as you can at the weight you are.” What you had in mind was clearly, “you can do things to be healthy aside from losing weight.” But I’ve also seen it used by the people who believe, as you put it, “I could be every bit as healthy at 200 pounds as I would be at 140,” and for them it seems to mean “whatever weight you happen to be, that’s the weight you should be healthy at.” But I know that’s not what you meant, and realize now there are probably lots of other people who use that slogan with the first meaning in mind.
Still not happy with the slogan because of the ambiguity–“there’s more to health than weight” would be a better slogan. But yeah, scratch my original comment.
You know, as a naturally stick-thin person, every now and then when I talk about needing to eat better I get blank stares or proclamations of, “No, you don’t”, which I think illustrates an important detail in this whole thing: our cultural misperceptions about weight are bad for *everyone*, because they take the focus off of health for everyone (though I don’t mean to trivialize what people perceived as overweight go through–I’m sure dealing with cultural weight issues is about infinity times harder for them than for me). If I listened to those people, I would be a less healthy person.
Like yogurtbacteria, I’m naturally very thin. And my diet at the moment isn’t the best. I know it isn’t. But no one else is telling me that (except my mother, who’s smart about these things). I need to tell myself to buck up.
I’ve seen commenters at Shapely Prose talking about exercising as fat people and being jeered for it. Fat people have to exercise and lose weight, apparently, but they’re not allowed to do it where anyone can see them. Because fat people jogging is just gross, or something. Add that to the list of why it’s very hard for people who can’t afford gym memberships to do these things.
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