Stop calling it an ‘epidemic’: A guest post

(Originally posted at riotsnotdiets)

Guest blogging for me today is longtime bestie (and all-around kickass FA-allied feminist) Lauren, who, when she’s not busy schmoozing it up as a publicist in NYC, finds the time to blog and tweet.

OK, so I’m a month late on the uptake…but this is still bothering me. If you’ve seen the May issue of The Atlantic, then you’ve seen the preposterously engorged rendering of Lady Liberty, so fat that her toga seems to suffocate her. And why not? She is a symbol of America, and so are fat people. We’re all dangerously, disgustingly fat. It’s a fucking epidemic people! The end is near, but none of us can see it because we’re so motherfucking fat that we can’t see over our own enormous goddamn cheeks!

I mean, right?

The “Beating Obesity” cover story is penned by Atlantic politics editor, Marc Ambinder, a journalist I have always read with great interest and respect. He makes some sound arguments, and his research is solid, but his stance on the issues seems to come from a place of self-loathing informed by what he recognizes as a “social illness,” namely: obesity.

Formerly 235lbs, Ambinder fits the mold of one of those many formerly-fat people who are unsympathetically judgmental of currently fat people. He sees obesity as something to “beat,” and if it is, well, he has certainly done it. Just look at his before-and-after photos. Ambinder has not only succeeded in losing 85lbs, but according to the completely accurate, to-scale photos, he has also dropped about 64% of his total skeletal structure.

The very word “obesity” is problematic. It institutionalizes a body type, and many people are falling into this category even though they might just be fat. Or not even. (Click here for a great slideshow on what “obese” means to the government.)

This so-called “obesity epidemic” is not actually an epidemic. In 2001, the U.S. surgeon general happened to say “obesity,” then “epidemic,” and then everyone seemed to accept it because, well, if the S.G. said it, it must be true. I recognize that there are fat people whose fatness is seemingly linked to their poor health. But by the same token, there are fat people who are completely healthy, and yet no one seems to attribute that to their weight/BMI.

Margitte is fat. I am not. I don’t approach these issues as someone who feels personally attacked or marginalized, and at 5’4” and 130lbs, I don’t think much about my weight. However, I’m pretty sure that if you did an analysis of my health compared to Margitte’s, I would be revealed as the unhealthy one. I hate cardio, consume disgusting amounts of sugar, and otherwise survive off of coffee, chicken nuggets, and hummus. [Ed. Note: all of these things are delicious.  Especially hummus.] There may be a considerable weight difference between the two of us, but the day doctors discover that I have an ulcer and a fatty liver, she will still probably have a clean bill of health.

And that’s what it’s about: health. Obviously, I’m no great example, but it’s stupid (I’m not being colloquial, it is literally stupid) for this country to approach an issue as important as health from the one-dimensional side of weight. So let’s just be honest. As Ambinder writes, “We don’t want to look at fat people, much less pay for their medical care; we don’t want to be contaminated by them (74).”

This is a totally valid point. This country has a wonderful socialized and universal healthcare system, and my tax dollars should not go to supporting the sloth and gluttony of some fat…oh…wait.

This is where I give Ambinder his due. He admits that, “When I was fat, I avoided meeting peoples’ eyes. I didn’t want to subject them to my ugliness (77),” and recognizes that “stigma makes fat people, more likely to be depressed, to miss school or work, to feel suicidal, to earn less, and to find it difficult to marry (72).”

“Obesity has become a scientific fad of sorts,” he adds, “a commercial goldmine that draws on the same kind of audiences that used to go to circus carnivals a century ago…[TV] now features obesity-programming blocks…Fat people are funny (77).”

(By the way, Margitte wrote a fantastic paper on this topic.

When it comes to fatness, we live in a culture of disgust. This is no different from the way America has faced racial and queer issues, which is to say: shamefully. In fact, many studies of obesity focus on a racial differences, and “without some form of intervention, researchers worry, large numbers of black and Hispanic children in the United States will grow up overweight or obese and leave shorter, less fulfilling lives (74).”

It is to Ambinder’s credit, here, that he recognizes the inherent racism, and even dismantles Michelle Obama’s flawed “Let’s Move!” initiative. (I also encourage you to read Kate Harding’s fantastic Salon.com letter.) He writes:

“The government can’t ask someone to pursue a healthier lifestyle—to obtain a “normal” BMI, to become a non-stigmatized being—if it isn’t prepared to provide that person with the foundation for health granted to some of us purely by the accident of birth. “Increasing awareness” about healthy lifestyles is not simply gentle paternalism; in the absence of real support, it’s immoral. In that context, stigmatizing young children for being fat is unconscionable; stigmatizing poor adults is only marginally less so; and stigmatizing Mexican American boys and black women and American Indian children of both genders for their weight is both immoral and racist.”

I recently read Deborah Rhode’s new book, The Beauty Bias. In it, she notes that the average size of female models over the last century has grown by 6in and decreased by 30lbs. Yet, this epidemic status of fat people rests on the statistic that in 1960, 45% of adults were “overweight,” compared to over 68% today. For anyone blind to the contradiction here, allow me to restate: the ideal body type for American women is now 10% taller and 27% thinner.

These are the sort of numbers we are basing national health policy on?

I’ll grant policy-makers and the Meme Roth’s of America the following: Are our portion sizes out of control? Yes. Are we eating more artificial, processed, pre-packaged foods than ever? Yes. Do we increasingly spend more time sitting in front of computers and TV screens, rather than being physically active? Yes.

But stop calling fatness an epidemic. Remember the 90s? AIDS. That was a fucking epidemic. IT STILL IS. Fatness does not belong in this category, and to suggest otherwise is nothing short of unconscionable.

Lauren lives in New York City and Tumbls at The Thirst. You can also follow her on Twitter, not that you’d want to.

Tags: ‘obesity epidemic’, The Atlantic, fuck the BMI, guest post, popular culture, big post, | Notes: 5