Feminism | Posted by Julie Z on 03/21/2012

The Truth About Fat

I can honestly say I’m sick of hearing about, talking about and thinking about fat. And yet it’s everywhere – whether it’s the fear-mongering headlines that claim our country has been consumed by an obesity epidemic or if it’s the innumerable magazine articles written on the newest get-thin-quick scheme, it’s undeniable that over the years, our society has become obsessed with fat. But despite the often one-sided, overwhelmingly negative attitude our country has towards fat, the question remains: what is the true nature of fat as an issue of health?

As a feminist, I’ve always felt that the way our society views fat on the individual level is seriously messed up (i.e. unrealistic standards set for women’s bodies) But I’d never spent much time thinking about how fat is framed as an actual medical illness, nor had I heard much detail about fat as a health-related issue other than the headlines claiming we’re all obese. So I decided to look into it. It turns out that that debate is pretty messed up, too.

The debate over obesity in this country has largely been split into two parties: those who caution against the evils of obesity (the Anti-Obesity Movement) and those who claim that fat is not inherently evil, but rather a natural body type for some people (the Fat Acceptance Movement). The Anti-Obesity movement generally argues that obesity is detrimental to one’s health and is a preventable illness. The Fat Acceptance Movement, on the other hand, claims that fatness is a form of body diversity, and should be respected in the same way that identifiers like race or sexual preference are (ideally) respected. There are also those who fall somewhere in between the two movements, who argue that obesity is a disease. However, these arguments essentially boil down to two concepts: control and blame. Anti-obesity activists argue that weight loss is within the realm of an individual’s control and that they should be blamed for what they see as unhealthy bodies that need remedying, whereas Fat Acceptance activists argue that it is not a matter of control for myriad (often socially based) reasons and that those individuals should not be directly blamed.

From a biomedical standpoint, there has been much argument over the true medical cause of obesity and many theories have been posited. In her groundbreaking book Fat Is A Feminist Issue, Susie Orbach outlines five major causal theories. These theories range from claims that fat is genetic, that it is based on the number of fat cells that exist in one’s body from a young age, and that it’s related to a delay onset of the satiation center in the hypothalamus. But the ultimate point Orbach makes in her book is that none of these medical theories can fully explain somebody’s obesity: there are too many other emotional, psychological and social factors that contribute to the issue.

This was just the basis of my research, but it was apparent to me as I read through existing health-based research of fat, we’re doing the same thing with this issue that we do with so many other pressing issues: trying to cleanly explain away something that is born from myriad causes, many of which are deeply embedded within our very society, as the source of a single causal factor. Is obesity a serious health concern for many people? I would say yes. But I think to leave the discussion there, to try to shame people into “fixing” a problem that is positioned as their own making, is ignoring a lot of complex factors that contribute to somebody’s weight and moreover isn’t doing anything to stop this so-called “epidemic.”

Now, I’m not a medical professional in any way, shape or form. But it seems to me that the best way to cure a health issue is to focus on eradicating its causes rather than treating (or, really, shaming) the final product. It seems to me, when we talk about fat we need to consider things like the role gender plays in a person’s weight – for example, as Orbach states, “compulsive eating in women is a response to their social position,” in that women use compulsive eating as an emotional reaction to many of the issues and stressors they face in their lives.

We also need to consider race. As Byllye Y. Avery notes in her article Breathing Life into Ourselves: The Evolution of the National Black Women’s Health Project, the roots of why women of color may be prone to obesity are complex, and can exist on a very personal level in accordance to the individual and unique experiences of those women are not paralleled in their counterparts of other races. For example, Avery, in an attempt to educate a group of obese black women about their weight, found that they all knew about dieting, that they had all been to Weight Watchers multiple times, but they would tell her things like: “Things are not well with me. The one thing I know I can do when I come home is cook me a pot of food and sit down in front of the TV and eat it. And you can’t take that away from me until you’re ready to give me something in its place.”

Until we finally recognize that there are a ton of factors that play into the greater picture of an “obesity epidemic” – not just unhealthy eating habits, lack of exercise, or ignorance about health and nutritional (although those are real factors as well) – I think we’ll be hard pressed to comprehensively understand this issue. Until we incorporate a feminist lens into our attempts to understand it, I think we’ll make little progress.

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  • Halle @ at 4:25 pm, March 21st, 2012

    While this article is very well researched and written, I disagree entirely with your conclusion. Say what you will, but people can control their bodies. I’m tired of hearing so many excuses for obesity. People are lazy and don’t like change. Sure, we are being fed disgustingly unhealthy food but who is trying to stop it? These things entered our society because we let them. People need to get real with themselves and stop blaming other things.

  • Ron Berntson @ at 7:05 pm, March 21st, 2012

    Talking about fat is talking to the wrong end of the elephant! The only measures of health that matter are cardio capacity, core body strength and reasonable flexibility. If you have those, it really doesn’t matter how much you weigh – you are healthy. I would far rather encourage all women to find joy in physical movement and pleasure in physical strength.

    We in North America have a strong Puritan ethic – we take the joy out of so much. When one of my daughters was young, she loved to dance. Of course, she gave it up because, after a time, she wasn’t “good enough.” How many girls who loved to dance grew up as women who no longer dance and in fact found the experience poisonous?

    We also take the joy out of food. Cooking should be about making really great meals out of unprocessed ingredients and sharing that food with people you care about. If that means butter, then go for it.

    Enough with “Thou Shall” and “Thou Shall Not” – how about “Thou Might Enjoy?”

    I loved raising my daughters, but if I had a son, I would have taught him to cook and dance. Who wouldn’t like a Gene Kelly who was good in the kitchen?

  • Angie @ at 4:33 am, March 22nd, 2012

    As a health coach, personal trainer and body image activist, I have worked with hundreds of women, and I agree with you wholeheartedly. Women face incredibly amounts of pressure, are playing multiple roles in their own lives, and face ridicule regardless of their body type. Loneliness, anger, stress and shame do fuel disordered eating behaviors, and the pressure to be perfect fuels body image trauma.

    I’d be interested to see more studies done in this area, and to see just how to best apply the “feminist” approach, as men struggle with disordered eating behaviors as well.

  • Renee @ at 7:32 pm, March 22nd, 2012

    I loved this article it was beautifully written, decisive and I don’t know what it is about your writting style but you come off as really level headed like you know who you are and what you are angry about but I don’t fell like you’re screaming or yelling it’s just chill.
    *sorry for the rambling botton line keep doing what you are doing

  • mightyjo @ at 1:53 am, March 24th, 2012

    I dislike the term race and its definition. In my opinion, it is a culturally constructed idea. I am classified as yellow in one country, white or brown in another. Overall, nice article.

  • bre @ at 5:51 pm, March 27th, 2012

    @Halle-

    It truly depends per person. You really can’t judge the person next to you and say they’re fat because they’re lazy and ignorant about nutrition. I for one have pretty legit MEDICAL reasons for gaining weight every year and eating right and exercising right .I have a hormonal disease. and I’m sure a lot of other people do too. you REALLY shouldn’t judge them. you have NO IDEA what they’re going through!
    Julie-Great post.

  • Katie Grosso @ at 7:25 am, March 29th, 2012

    Great post Julie!

    It might be interesting to consider how the lack of a sense of community and the role of the market produce an ‘eating disordered’ America. How can one achieve or maintain a resonant relationship with food when, as Julie aptly demonstrated, our daily interactions are overflowing with messages about food and body? We are not let alone to live and eat, instead we are left to attempt to live and eat in a body that is wound up in a matrix of discourses that are an incitement to ‘health’ and yet are also at the same time the very thing that produces our unhealth. It seems to me that so much has gotten in the way of us being able to have an affective relationship with our bodies and our fellow beings. I don’t intend to engage in a limiting critique that places the blame solely on the internet, TV or technology in general, but I think what merits some thought is how these actors are far too often mobilized to create a simulacrum of life, where we play out our pleasures in fantasy rather than in and upon our corporeal bodies. How can the ‘weapons’ that encourage this focus on food and body be re-construed and re-deployed as tools for harmonizing what has become rather overwrought?

  • Svetlana @ at 8:29 am, August 15th, 2012

    When I was in the USA, I realized that you eat too much and too unhealthy. Moreover, your portions are too big. You need to change your eating pattern

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