If I Agreed with You, We Would Both Be Wrong

I am a fan of Linda Bacon. her work introduced me to Health at Every Size.  The first time she commented on my blog I called my best friend and my mother.  I have met her in person and she was just as awesome in person as online.  Recently at the American Dietetic Association’s Food & Nutrition Conference & Expo, Dr. Bacon debated John Foreyt, PhD an obesity researcher at the Baylor College of Medicine.

Sadly I was not at the debate.  Janet Helm, a registered dietician, was kind enough to  blog about it and it’s her interpretation that I want to discuss today,  because what she wrote is the type of problematic thing that I hear from a lot of people:

Round 1 Winner: John Foreyt
I don’t think it serves Linda Bacon’s position well to deny the health consequences of obesity. She spent so much of her time sharing data that the obese live just as long as normal weight individuals and downplaying the health risks of being obese. Why go there? I think that’s why some people just shut down and never hear what this movement is all about.

I don’t think it serves Copernicus well to deny that the sun revolves around the Earth.  He spent so much time explaining the evidence that shows that the Earth revolves around the sun.  Why go there?  I think that’s why some people just shut down and never hear what this movement is about…

This is the main issue – there is a lot of evidence that goes against the traditional thinking about obesity, and it gets suppressed by “everybody knows” arguments (and you know how I feel about those).  If someone who has earned her doctorate in physiology, specializing in weight regulation, holds graduate degrees in psychology, specializing in eating disorders and body image; and kinesiology, specializing in exercise metabolism, and has professional experience as a professor, researcher, psychotherapist, exercise physiologist, and consultant starts talking about evidence – you should maybe listen instead of discounting her because what she is saying goes against traditional thinking.

You’re right, Linda, perhaps this shouldn’t be “war,” but I don’t see how you can dismiss the health risks associated with obesity. And there are certainly quality of life issues (not being able to play with your kids, ride a bike, etc.). I just don’t think this is the question we should be asking. Our priority should be discussing what we do about obesity — not debating if there’s even a problem

Allow me to try to paraphrase: I prefer to think of fat people as miserable people who need me to fix them- I don’t like it when you challenge that view.  Why can’t we confine our “debate” to things that don’t make me uncomfortable?

There are people of all sizes who have issues playing with grandchildren and riding a bike.  There are people of all sizes who DON’T have trouble playing with grandchildren and riding a bike.  Seriously, enough with the Save the Fatties Campaign.

I fully agree with the woman in the audience who asked the last question during the session. She ended with “why can’t you both kiss and make up?”  Good question.

No, it’s really not a good question.  The only way that it’s a good question is if our goal is to make everyone comfortable and avoid the conflict that is inevitable between two diametrically opposed views to an issue that affects millions of people. Linda’s comment on the blog really summed it up for me. It reads, in part:

There’s no question of “making up,” really, because there’s no “fight.” What there is is a vast and unbridgeable difference in opinion and outlook. It’s not just desirable but required of us — as professionals and thinking people — to tolerate such differences, weigh the evidence and reach our own opinions.

We don’t ask climate change researchers to “make up” with global warming deniers, do we? … This is where the broad acceptance of the obesity paradigm proves so pernicious: How can we consider evidence that counters what we “know” to be true? (Copernicus’s opponents “knew” that the sun that the sun revolved around the Earth.) It seems to take time, as evidence builds and sinks in, for most paradigm shifts to happen. For the sake of the majority of Americans who struggle with weight, it can’t happen soon enough.

Amen to that Dr. Bacon.

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35 thoughts on “If I Agreed with You, We Would Both Be Wrong

  1. Does this mean I’m aligning myself with heretics again? Oh well. I find they make for intellectually stimulating company, as they’re not afraid to challenge the status quo.

  2. I often wonder if people who make the claim that “the obese” can’t play with their children or ride bikes etc actually know any fat people.

    Although I suspect they do and like my in-laws just defend their position with “but you’re not THAT fat, I’m talking about people who are REALLY fat”.

    1. Argh! I get that argument too and I’m always just astounded. I always want to say – I’m “Type 3 Super Obese”, I’m so fat is should come with a cape and a secret identity – I am EVERYONE’s definition of REALLY fat. Accept that, at least in my case, you are wrong.

      Ok, I’m done ranting in response to your comment now. Thanks for bringing this up!


    2. Yeah–and the hideous irony is that so many people, if they do see a fat person riding their bike or running or playing with their kids, make a snarky comment or worse. Lovely people.

  3. I just don’t understand how someone could disagree with HAES. Seriously, what do you want overweight people to do? HAES encourages people to exercise and eat healthily for themselves. Starving yourself and overexercising is not a long term solution!! This may seem weird, but HAES has made me so much healthier and I happened to lose some weight. I learned to love exercise and not guiltily binge on food, I eat what I eat. What diet culture really encourages is self hatred, disordered eating, and possibly injury-causing overexercising. Which means that after a little while of dieting, most people gain back more than they lost. Why would the multibillion dollar weight loss industry want this to stop?

  4. Shut up about the truth, stop throwing your evidence in our faces, now make nice. These are the cogent, thoughtful responses to Linda at the debate? We’ve got a long way to go. I would feel sorry for Linda up there, but I’m sure she did great with what she was working with.

  5. I am a 62-year-old woman with cerebral palsy & arthritis. I cannot ride a bike, because I have NEVER been able to ride a bike; I have very serious balance issues. However, I CAN play with my grandchildren; for nearly 5 years, I have taken care of my granddaughter while her parents work, often more than her parents do, have had her live with me fulltime for awhile, & now that she is in school, I go to her home 3-4 mornings per week on days her parents both work to get her ready for school, get her onto the bus, then I walk about 45 minutes to get home from her home, where I go on living my own life & taking care of my own home, chores, etc.

    Today her mom is off, so my husband & I did not need to go over to get K off to school. Instead, we decided to go to a 50’s style diner for breakfast. We do not have a car or a license, so we walk most everywhere except for major grocery shopping, for which our son takes us. So we walked to the diner, had breakfast, & walked back. It was a round-trip of about 6 miles, total walking time of 1 hr & 50 minutes. I was in some pain when we got home, not surprising because I do have chronic pain, but it was not excruciating & it is pretty well gone now. I was a bit tired, but now I am feeling fine, feeling well, & glad that we went & glad to know that, fat, old, disabled woman or not, I can still do this. And, if, as is likely to happen, I become more disabled with time & someday no longer can do this, I will still be a worthwhile, functional human being living as fully as I can & doing as much for myself as I can. And IF I do become more disabled with time, it will NOT be because of what I weigh.

    Why should we deny the health consequences of ‘obesity’? Because, quite frankly, when you take away the stress of living in a fat-hating society, the consequences of discrimination in education, employment, medical care, public access to all the things thin people take for granted, I don’t believe that there ARE any particular health consequences of ‘obesity’. I know that there is not one illness which happens to fat people which doesn’t also happen to thin people, that fat people can & do live as long as thin people on average, sometimes longer, that study after study has shown that, on average, fat people eat no differently & no more than thin people & often less, that we know dieting does not work & is in fact damaging to health, moreso as we age. We also know, through very large & long-term studies, that fat people who exercise are every bit as fit as thin people who exercise, as healthy, etc. Most of all, we know no one gets any guarantees & that everyone dies eventually. Why are we supposed to ‘admit’ that we are flawed & diseased & need to be ‘fixed’, especially since many efforts to ‘fix’ us succeed in killing us? Oh, I know that a lot of people have well over 60 billion reasons every year not to agree with what is being said by Dr. Bacon & the rest of us, but it doesn’t make it any less true.

  6. Funny, Because riding my bike the other day – at 297 (I think.) lbs with 3 of my five kids I didn’t feel limited. And I came home and went up and down the stairs a bunch of times doing housework. Then in the afternoon I mowed the lawn and pulled weeds in my garden. Then I fixed dinner with food from my garden and ate it at the table not on the couch.
    Later that night I made love to my fat husband. And I was on top and didn’t get winded, and it was wonderful – take that Kirstie Alley, maybe you’ve just had bad fat sex.
    Too bad I didn’t have trouble being morbidly obese and pretty fabulously happy at the same time. Maybe I should be rescued from this miserable life?

    1. “Bad fat sex”? Sounds more to me like, “Bad partner sex.” If a woman is in the mood, and doesn’t get her bells rung, it’s most likely because someone just didn’t try to please her.

      Of course, some idjits still believe the old myth that fat women are desperate and grateful for any attention, so having sex with them at all is doing them a big favor. Operative word here is, “idjits,” because they really are being stupid.

  7. We are just all unhealthy, limited in our ability to live life, & miserably unhappy, Janie…it’s just that we have so much fat around our brains that we cannot realize it.

  8. There are health consequences to being fat, thin, short, tall, old, young, male, female, white, black, you name it, if there’s a human variation it’s somehow going to affect how we live. I think what really scares the “fat MUST mean unhealthy” crowd is they are desperately seeking the magic bullet that will mean you are going to healthy and live forever. (Those who aren’t in denial about it being a pure aesthetic judgement, ie the 99% of people who say Chris Christie would be too fat to be president. Paging William Howard Taft, who would like to remind a bitch that he was probably almost twice as heavy as Christie and managed to be President AND Chief Justice of the United States.) If you find the right weight, diet, exercise plan, amount of sun exposure, etc. you will live forever.

    Life = 100% fatal. No one’s ever found a way around that. Why make other people’s lives more miserable by basically accusing them of causing their own health issues and telling them they cannot possibly be healthy OR happy unless they’re playing Sisyphus with a giant diet boulder?

    And thanks, Ragen, for your blog. I don’t always agree with you on every issue, but your stance on HAES inspired me to finally fire back on a forum where a poster started with the “Why can’t it be about health” but had to go to “Of course there is such a thing as too fat to be healthy.” I asked if they could make that judgement call without having bloodwork and a medical degree? I do three very body-judgemental sports (oddly enough dancesport, where I mostly work with hetero men, is where I’m most likely to hear “Uh, your body is fine, you’re not built to be a size two, you look fine, you dance fine”, while women-dominated hunter-jumper riding is the most visciously nasty and I give doing it as a ‘tween’ a lot of credit for my ED) and even though I’m not clinically obese, just ‘overweight’ I’ve spent a lot of my life hearing why I’m not fit to do X, Y, or Z. One major health crisis thus far *touch wood* and it had NOTHING to do with weight. I needed to read someone who head a lot of the same things and has the backbone to say ‘enough.’

    1. … while women-dominated hunter-jumper riding is the most visciously nasty…

      Just as a continuing (not competing) thought… I’ve shown dressage for a few years in the past, where we have the luxury of written feedback from the judge. A couple of times, I’ve had comments that declared that I was too big/heavy for the horse I was riding.

      Knowing the horse and my body size at the time of these comments, it really couldn’t have been objectively true. But this was also in a time and place where the aesthetic fashion was to have riders (of whatever size) on very larger warmbloods. Looking back — though I couldn’t have put words to it then — I wonder if some judges internalized this aesthetic as “riders looking not tiny on their horses is bad.”

      1. Ah, yes, dressage, where if we aren’t all Anky we are too fat for our (17.2hh 1400 lbs) warmblood. I was going to say, what do you mean, “a time and place?” 5’1″ women are convinced if they aren’t riding a giant import they’re undermounted.

        I get by fine on my 15.3 1/2 hh skinny OTTB (or on my friend’s 13.1 hh QH pony!) I think I’m at a stage now where if a judge said it, I would roll my eyes, because they’d also be complaining about my wool-blend hunt coat being the wrong color and my horse being a short skinny TB and OMG I RIDE IN A FLAT CROSBY HUNT SADDLE AND NOT A $4000+ brand-of-the-month! Took me a long time to face it, but it’s all about the fashion. As far as competing goes, I’ll stick with dance–they sell dresses in a range of sizes for a reason and when you ask if a color’s in, it’s not “what variation of navy blue is everyone else wearing?”

  9. “Facts are stupid things” (Ronald Reagan’s famous misquote of John Adams) seems to apply here. Those pesky facts get in the way of perfectly good prejudices which fuel an enormous business at the price of good health. So stick your fingers in your ears, Janet, and “la la la” them away so you can continue perpetrating a myth that injures people for profit. Bonus! You get to feel all smugly superior to those “fatties.”

  10. I should hire you to do PR for me, Ragen! Great post. And I love seeing the intelligent commentary you draw in too – kudos to others as well. Glad to get the reinforcement that the community of people who are thoughtful on these issues just keeps growing.

  11. And there are certainly quality of life issues (not being able to play with your kids, ride a bike, etc.).

    I was reading a book the other day, where the main character was about my weight (slightly heavier, probably several inches taller, given his age and gender), and it surprised me the amount of stuff he was described as struggling with or unable to do because of his weight. He couldn’t climb ladders, he couldn’t fit through turnstiles, he was frequently described as out of breath and sweating over minor exertions, and he wasn’t supposed to have any physical condition that explained any of this other than his weight.

    The thing is, I’d read the same book when younger and thinner, and I totally bought that someone that size would be incapacitated by his own fat. Because I didn’t know, and the same “This weight is hugely incapacitating and will ruin you ability to function” message was really widespread.

    I think a lot of thin people do that – envision some level of incapacitating fatness and assign numbers and estimates based on a small amount of poorly-understood actual information, a lot of stuff they just make up in their own imaginations, and a lot of stuff they hear from other thin people who just made it up.

  12. I’ll stop “denying the health consequences of obesity” when you (where you = people like Helm) produce a record of evidence proving a causal link – NOT SIMPLY CORRELATION – between body size and all these health conditions y’all insist are caused by the obesity monster. Your evidence must be in the form of well-constructed peer-reviewed studies NOT FUNDED BY THE DIET INDUSTRY.

    Go ahead. I’ll wait.

    They really do like to uncritically cite “health risks” that have never been proven, don’t they?

    1. I would also like to actually see a study where sustained (>5 yr) weight loss significantly (in the statistically and the biologically relevant sense) improves lifespan. In people who have been fat for a while (not someone who gained weight briefly and then lost that weight to go back to baseline). Then we’ll talk about how to solve the “obesity crisis” with weight loss.

      I’ll wait with you for the data.

      Wait, no. Instead, I’ll probably go back to work and live my life (as a ::gasp:: scientist! … although sadly not a clinician, so not qualified to do the study myself) since I’ll probably die waiting. Those kinds of studies take too long anyway, especially since it will never be published, as the results aren’t likely to come out the way the diet industry (and the “common sense” of most obesity researchers) presume it will. Plus, it would never be funded since a) it would be a hugely costly study in this bad funding climate and b) we already “know” that fat people have death sentences, so why waste the money on a study? That grant would never get past the review stage.

  13. Ah, ye olde “fat people’s quality of life is poor and they can’t move around” argument. Does Janet Helm get out of the house on a regular basis? She must not, because she obviously doesn’t see the fat people who walk, dance, bike, do yardwork, yoga, (not to mention the numerous “obese” athletes who play sports for a living). etc. She obviously hasn’t seen me do line dances, work a very physical job as an activities assistant at a nursing home or walk from Times Square to Central Park without stopping. All this at 300 lbs +.

    And if even if some can’t move all that well, should it really be a public matter? The problem with Helm and others like her, even if they are not in the business of making bodies smaller, is that bodies are not the property of society but they want them to be, especially big ones and they feel that being big without doing something about it is very threatening to them. It’s like the people who complain about same-sex marriage: they feel that it somehow makes their own quality of life decrease. It doesn’t. My fat doesn’t affect anyone else’s life except when it comes to their narrow-minded moral and personal judgments.

    1. And if even if some can’t move all that well, should it really be a public matter?

      This is very important. People make their own decisions about how to manage their health for their own reasons, and it’s not up to the general public to decide how much effort a particular person is required to make to be healthy.

      Some people are healthy with little effort. Some people need to put in a substantial effort to be as healthy as they can be, and decide they’re willing to. Some people would have to put in a substantial effort and are willing to live with imperfect health in order to focus their time/money/energy/etc. on other things. Some people have limits on how healthy they can be. Some people have to trade off one kind of health against another. Some people honestly don’t care.

      There are fat people and thin people in every one of those categories.

      And unless the person in question wants you to know about their situation, it’s not your business what category they’re in.

  14. Well, I have a BMI of 18 or so, andI can’t ride a bike or play with my grandkids!

    Because I never learned to, and because I don’t have any grandkids.

    I am the definition of suffering.

    (this comment makes a much sense as those debate commentaries do)

  15. “Our priority should be discussing what we do about obesity — not debating if there’s even a problem”

    That is THE single most idiotic thing I have read all day, and the person who said that should stop talking and go hang their head in shame, because the concept of logic clearly eludes them. Finding a way to fix something without bothering to spend the time to decide that “there’s even a problem”, is a monumental waste of time.

    1. I completely agree (and was going to leave a comment to that effect). I thought the debate was *supposed* to be about whether obesity was a problem or not. It seems like the original poster (Janet Foreyt) really doesn’t understand what HAES is. She can’t seem to grasp that the amount of fat a person has doesn’t correspond to how healthy they are (or not healthy, as the case may be). It is a fundamental shift in thinking, for both individuals and health care professionals, but it’s sad that they don’t even understand that that is the point Linda Bacon is trying to make. Therefore I say, “Our priority should be discussing whether there actually is a problem – not debating the solution to a problem which may not even exist”.

  16. Thank you so much for this post. It reminds me that things take time to change. My work, life, and research is so tied to a HAES perspective, and I think I am discounted because of my size, so it is oddly reassuring to read that a true expert (Linda Bacon) has her work dismissed too, when I know that she really knows what she’s talking about. Somehow this whole post really gives me hope. Thank you.

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