The Big Fat Authority Problem

When I do break the cardinal rule of being fat on the internet and read the comments, I’m always shocked at the authority with which complete strangers tell me things about myself that, apparently, I did not know:

  • You cannot be healthy at [arbitrary] weight
  • Obesity causes [insert disease never proven to be caused by obesity]
  • Everyone who is fat will eventually get sick from it

These three things are common comments that are proven false but I think that one of the things that gives them power is that they are stated with authority.  Never mind that they are being typed out by someone who gets their information from diet commercials and wouldn’t know the difference between correlation and causation if it bit them in the ass. We live in a soundbite society and this type of comment is perfectly suited for that.

I think that one of the issues is that the more you learn, the more you know how very few things are certain, and how much is grey rather than black and white.

This leads to people like me saying things like:

Health is multi-dimensional and includes access, genetics, environment, stress, and behaviors.  The evidence that I’ve seen shows that 95% of intentional weight loss efforts fail and so for me, I think that if I want to be healthy the best course of action is to practice healthy behaviors rather than trying to change the size and shape of my body.

Then someone else who has not done one one-hundredth of the research I’ve done about this says:

It’s impossible to be fat and healthy

So I sound like I’m hedging and qualifying and trying to talk around an issue and they sound direct and authoritative.

This also applies to emotional intelligence.  I notice that the more emotionally intelligent and mature a person is, the more they realize that their experience is not everyone’s experience.  So I say

We celebrate X Games athletes who risk their lives everyday for a sport.  We celebrate people who jump out of helicopters wearing skis, who push their bodies to the limit running Iron Man Triathalons even those things are physically risky.  I value health but that doesn’t mean that everyone has to make it a priority, or that people who do the same things that I do will have the same results.   In the end, I believe in giving people correct information and affordable accessible options, and then respecting their choices as I expect them to respect mine.

And somebody else says:

 I lost weight and I’m healthier and so all fat people should lose weight and they’ll be healthier to.

Again, I sound like Wordy McWorderson while they appear to be brief and to the point (however erroneous that point might be).

So what is there to do?  Rarely do you get points for appearing to complicate an argument.  But the situation isn’t black and white and I don’t want to act like it is.  So I’ve tried to find statements that are short, factual, and that I can say with equal authority:

  • You cannot look at a person and tell how healthy they are
  • There are healthy and unhealthy people of every size
  • I am fat and healthy
  • People of all sizes deserve to be treated with respect

I believe in the power of discourse, and I have the intellectual humility, and emotional intelligence to know that I don’t know everything and to understand that my experience is not extrapolatable to others.  I do not want to overstate or overgeneralize but I also think that in a soundbite society, it’s important to have some brief statements that we can make with the firm authority that Body Positivity and Health at Every Size deserve.

36 thoughts on “The Big Fat Authority Problem

  1. I can certainly back you up on this one. I’m almost 70 years old and have kept my weight at a ‘healthy’ level almost my entire life and have suffered a myriad of maladies. At the same time, my older sister, who has been considered ‘grossly obese’ almost her entire life has almost never had a health problem beyond that of bad knees.

  2. Frankly my dear I find your Wordy McWorderson a breath of fresh air amongst the same old, same old. So please DO NOT change how you go about what you do for the sake of pandering to these people. If there is one thing I do know after hearing this dismissive type of sound byte over the decades it’s that it doesn’t only apply to a person’s weight or body shape. This parroting of “facts” reported in the media covers a wide variety of information from medical cures/treatments/symptoms to beauty treatments to fashion faux pas and is designed to keep a person in their place whatever that place may be to the authority doing all the dismissive talking. If it wasn’t about weight and body size it would be something else. Unfortunately these days it has become all about blaming and shaming people into conformity for the purposes of maintaining control and superiority Ultimately the “truth is out there” and intelligent people who use logic and reasoning over parroting know they are reading the truth when they read your blog. I’d say it is just as important that you speak your truth in your own words (however many you like) as it is to live your truth of health at every size.

  3. Yes! That’s what I keep running into! I’m going to take your simple statements and memorize them….maybe write them on the back of my hand. Although TBH, I wish I had the balls to just say MYOB.

  4. Well said, as always. But I believe I can simplify one step further.

    People deserve to be treated with respect.

    The things is, I don’t care what people think about my size or how I got this size or whether or not I’m likely to be healthy or survive to old age. If I had smoked my way to lung cancer like my grandmother did I would not be berated about it and denied treatment. If I’d jumped off a bridge and gotten paralyzed from the neck down like my friend Mark, people would not be telling me how stupid that was and how I deserved whatever consequences I had to live with.

    I may never convince someone I am not to “blame” for how I look. So, what if I am? What if I end up making myself horribly sick and become burdensome to people who love me and to the economy in general?

    My answer to people who ignorantly try to blame me is, “So?” When they realize I’m not the least bit bothered by any of these things they try to accuse me of, they shut the hell up.

  5. I needed to read something like this today after very stupidly reading a trending twitter topic yesterday #fatpeoplenightmares. I can’t believe the hateful and ignorant things people wrote on there. I’m glad you’re here.

  6. I think your last point is the most important. ‘People of all sizes deserve to be retreated with respect. To me, that’s the bottom line. . When I weary of the apologetics of health at every size I realize that I owe these people nothing; no apology, no explanation, no excuse, any more than any other racist or bigot would be owed the argument that the people they hate really ARE valuable and productive members of society.

  7. I think you cover such an important point in this post, Regan–effective communication is so central to changing minds. I remember being kind of boggled when my progressive friends and I were watching a political debate and they were so impressed with the crazy-talking candidate because he looked and sounded supremely confident while the vastly more intelligent candidate got fewer “points” in their minds because he talked about the nuances and complexity of a certain extremely complex political situation.

    To me, your post really points out the importance of balanced communication, of the pyramid-style of information architecture used in short-form journalism–essentially, cover the most important points as succinctly and quickly as possible, then have the rest of the story, in all its messy, nuanced reality, on hand to back up those first few sentences. Because, frankly, most people will only read the first few sentences anyway.

  8. As an obese woman, I am in the midst of training for a half-marathon. I am healthy. I am happy. I do what I love for a living and have written for many major newspapers, magazines, and websites. Yet, I have had people look at my bio on a national news site and basically say that I don’t have the right to write because I am fat. Instead of criticizing my writing, they criticize my body in multiple article comments on an article that is completely unrelated to any sort of health issue. So I try to avoid comments online. I cringed at what those stupid people said you, and I love your response. Well done! 🙂 I’m so glad to have your blog to read.

  9. The people I listen to are the ones who take a nuanced stance on issues, like you do. Sadly, I think I am in the minority. But I’m not going to change and I know you won’t either. Keep speaking the truth.

  10. I am thankful for you, your posts give me courage:)

    I try not to talk about my weight (or anyone else’s) unless I know I’m safe. There is just no positive reason for me at the moment but I’m practicing my responses on my husband of all people, who gives me reason to. He never says anything negative about me, but he’s one of those who believe those negative things about fat people and about diet and exercise. He also believes a lot of other stupid shit in my opinion,so I’m not all that surprised.

    I too have found its true what you said about EI. Good stuff to know!

  11. Bloody hell, they’re everywhere, aren’t they? The Ones Who Know Better and how we really should listen to them because after all, they’re just trying to HELP us.

    This reminds me of a friend of mine who’s here in Germany, who was in a restaurant with her son and reading a book to him in German, then reading it in English, her native tongue. Some random twonk came over and told her that she absolutely should not do that, that she should stick to her mother tongue only and leave the teaching of German to the experts. When she asked him what he did for a living that made him such an authority, he said with an air of smug confidence, “I’m an ACTOR”.

    So all those people who tell us “You’re fat. You’re gonna die soon. Lose weight or you’ll rack up costs in a health care system that’s already broke. Thanks a lot, lardass…” are experts because Everyone Knows That Fat Is Bad? My left tit. My hubby is 5’10, 165 dripping wet, and he has an irregular heartbeat, high cholesterol, and other problems. You would never look at him and think, Damn, he needs to lose weight. In fact, most people tell him he needs to add a few more pounds to get that healthy glow because he’s too skinny. Yeah.

    I’ve stopped trying to understand it. AND I’ve stopped listening to people tell me I’m not living up to their expectations because I’m heavy. I did a triathlon not long ago and scored pretty well. All as an obese person. GO FIGURE.

  12. This is such an annoying problem. I’ve been trying to talk to people about fat and it’s almost impossible to break an accepted paradigm (actually – it’s impossible to break an accepted paradigm of almost any kind). The thing I try and do now is ask disruptive questions e.g.

    Friend: look at those obese people eating chips. It’s disgusting.
    Me: I’ve seen you eat chips. Why do you suddenly hate chips?
    Friend: I mean fat people shouldn’t eat them.
    Me: Why not?
    Friend: Because it won’t help them lose weight.
    Me: How do you know they want to lose weight?
    Friend: puzzled silence

    But sometimes I get zingers that I would never have seen coming and it shocks me into silence. Case in point: I was talking to someone a couple of weeks ago about having been declared in remission from cancer. She said, “and now will you address whatever lifestyle issues you were doing to get cancer?”

    I mean, WTF? She spoke with this smug assurance that I had been doing something ‘wrong’ and had therefore given myself a deadly illness. It’s amazing how self righteous people feel entitled to be about health.

    Personally, I think it’s superstitious, magical thinking. The person thinks if they perform all the right rituals of health, they will be free of any and all health problems.

    A lot of self righteous people have got some very nasty shocks coming.

    1. That is awesome ( awesome about you being declared in remission too) but the ‘why do you suddenly hate chips? etc” – I am so going to start using that if I hear that sort of thing. Thanks!

    2. Yeah they’re out there like sleeper cells that suddenly spring to life with their sanctimonious crap when you’re at your most vulnerable. It takes a special kind of person. I’ll never understand what the pay off is for saying things like that to another who is dealing with serious health issues. It’s offensive in the extreme to me but unfortunately I suspect that it will be like you say, that their self righteousness would only be tempered by a very nasty shock of their own. It’s really sad that some people seem to have lost the ability to walk a mile in another person’s shoes. AND nobody gets out of here alive. I don’t care how many push ups you do or don’t do each morning or how much microbiotic/organic food you eat OR don’t eat.

      I LOVE your most excellent comment about the chips. And I am really pleased that you’re in remission. It’s such a great word to hear from a medical professional. I bet you were stoked to hear it!

    3. Incredible! Who would dare tell a person recovering from cancer that they deserved their illness because their lifestyle was unhealthy in some unknown way to cause it? Where do people get off? Medical researchers can’t pinpoint its causes, but some yahoo who read a poorly written article in the newspaper is an expert. “Okay… if I eat my broccoli and exercise and avoid nail polish and microwaved plastic I will never be sick!”

      Congratulations on your remission, by the way. 🙂

    4. Alexie, first and foremost, great that you’re in remission and I hope you continue to do OK.

      Secondly – yeah, right, WTF? I’m a cancer registrar (we keep in touch with patients after treatment to check their progress for research purposes – you’ll be getting regular letters from someone like me), and if that person had said that in front of me, they’d end up knocked into the middle of next week.

      There are very, very many people who get cancer who have none of the commonly named ‘risk factors’. That scares people, because it means sh*t really does just happen. If there are behaviours people think will prevent cancer (or any disease), they can reassure themselves that it won’t happen to them…and sadly, I so often read about people who’ve done all the healthy stuff and are shocked that it did happen to them.

      Another couple of suggested soundbites:
      Health is more complicated than we think.
      Health is not a moral issue.

    5. “A lot of self righteous people have got some very nasty shocks coming.”

      So true! Did you guys ever see the show where that a-hole Dr. Oz talked about his cancerous colon polyp? He just couldn’t understand why something like that could happen to someone as moral;y superior as he is.

      You are absolutely right about it being magica,l superstitious thinking.

  13. For the blanket/absolutist statements I hear — e.g., “all</b. fat people are lazy" or "it's impossible to be fat and healthy” or “that weight cannot be good for you” — I am sometimes a fan of asking people to prove it and cite their sources. It doesn’t work, of course, because a lot of those statements tend to be overgeneralizations that don’t actually apply across the board. But it’s sometimes enlightening to see who does and does not recognize that.

  14. I’ve been reading HAES blogs for about 1 year now and in the last 2 weeks I actually bought those skirt/short combinations. I have dared to show my fat legs! And I am wearing sleevelss tops. So all my glorious wiggly flesh is out there – and it is tanned!

    I workout with weights at least 3 times a week and get as much physical exercise as I can just by keep my garden/lawns and house cleaned and I damned well eat anything I want. I refuse to diet anymore.

    I actually think I’ve never looked better and I feel good – and what’s more, my health tests have all checked out. Rock on Regan!

    1. This is completely awesome! I’m really glad that you’ve found your own path to health, and you are feeling happy with your body. You inspire me 🙂

      Rock on right back at you!

      ~Ragen

  15. I think one motivator for people saying fat equals unhealthy is the fear of death. There seems to be this underlying thread of – if I do everything I’m told, I won’t die. And then there’s the whole, how dare you not do everything we’re told and not die!

    Well, everybody is going to die – too soon, or not, it’s going to happen. So I believe in concentrating on the quality of my existence because nobody can predict the quantity.

    Tante Terri

  16. Have I told you lately that I love you? Cause, I do!

    Best,
    Ismoon Maria
    Librarian, Portland, Oregon

  17. I completely agree with the fact that you cannot tell what a persons health is like based solely on their weight. As someone who once suffered from an eating disorder, at the height of it people would have looked at me and thought I was healthy. Little did they know the lengths I had gone to to look that way. Thankfully, I am now fully recovered and it is amazing blogs like this that lead me to believe that even though I’m now classified as overweight if you actually listen to those stupid BMI charts, I am much healthier than what I was. 🙂

  18. What really blows is that many otherwise healthy “obese” people chant the same things to themselves. Is it possible for negative self-talk to make a healthy person unhealthy, sheerly by the power of suggestion? I just got back from listening to an otherwise sane professor interrupt her own lecture several times with self-deprecating comments about her love of brownies and her personal “war on obesity”. It was creepy, depressing, and sad all at once.

    1. I never self-deprecate in class. I do point out that my short, compact frame (5’2″, 190lbs) makes me a near-perfect Neandertal though 😉

  19. “…wouldn’t know the difference between correlation and causation if it bit them in the ass.” This made me very happy 🙂

    I’m a statistics-oriented social scientist and I HATE that most medical professionals have no concept of how stats work work. Here’s an issue I’ve been dealing with lately – my 63 year old mother is 5’2″ and probably 260 lbs, but pretty healthy. Her doctor put her on a high blood pressure medication because her BP was measuring around 130/85, which for a 63 year old of any size is pretty good. (The 120/80 “standard” is a metric derived from 18 year old male Army recruits.) Lately she’s been having problems with weakness and shortness of breath, and it turns out her “medicine” was lowering her BP too much! The worst part is that she’s bought into the medicalization of fatness and thinks that just because she’s bigger she needs all this excess medical care. It makes me want to pull my hair out sometimes….

  20. When I hear these sound bites, part of menwants to start spouting things like:

    *[insert a sport here] injures people and cost the healthcare system a lot of money. It should be banned.

    Blah, I had more but now I can’t think of anything ridiculous enough. I think the idea is there.

    1. I agree. We let people bungee jump, we let them cross the street without looking both ways, we let them drink like fish etc. There is an olympic sport called Skeleton (it’s like luge but head first – WHAT?)

      ~Ragen

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