I was in a documentary called America the Beautiful 2 – The Thin Commandments (now available on Netflix.) The director, Darryl Roberts, asked me for my thoughts on an e-mail he had received from someone who watched the film. I think that it illustrates a lot of common misconceptions about fat people. Darryl agreed to let me blog about it, of course keeping the author anonymous. I’ve split the email up to answer. It contains some highly triggering language, you can skip the indented sections if you just want to read just my commentary. Of course I can’t answer for everyone in the film, or all fat people, or anyone other than myself, but here are my thoughts:
I was teased mercilessly at school. You can say that a more accepting society wouldn’t tease me, so this wouldn’t be a problem, but consider this: the reason that people tease, pick on, make fun of people that are different (and always have across cultures), is to help stop the behavior that makes the person different, and bring him/her more in line with societal norms. While obviously there are less mean spirited ways to help people fit in, in the end, the desire not to be teased motivated me very much to lose weight.
There’s a word for this behavior and that word is bullying and it’s not ok. While the desire not to be teased motivated you to want to lose weight and you were lucky enough to be able to succeed in solving social stigma by giving your bullies what they wanted, consider this: some kids can’t change, some don’t want to, and none should be forced to comply with their bullies demands in order to live life without merciless teasing. Kids are different, that’s a good thing, and the notion that bullies are just helping out kids who don’t conform is desperately misguided. Consider this: you were able to solve your bullying problem by giving the bullies what they wanted. Some bullied kids commit suicide.
Not to mention, we don’t know how to make fat kids thin and the experiments that are being tried are failing miserably. Instead of leading to thinner kids or healthier kids (two different things by the way) they are leading to eating disorders.
Research from the University of Minnesota found that: None of the behaviors being used by adolescents for weight-control purposes predicted weight loss…Of greater concern were the negative outcomes associated with dieting and the use of unhealthful weight-control behaviors, including significant weight gain.
The American Academy of Pediatrics reported that hospitalizations of children younger than 12 years for eating disorders rose by 119% from 1999 to 2006. There was a 15% increase in hospitalizations for eating disorders in all ages across the same time period.
A new study is looking at the effects of “school based healthy-living programs.” that were implemented without research about effectiveness or inadvertent harmful effects. This study found that these programs are actually triggering eating disorders in kids.
A second motivator for me was that I loved sports. I could never run as fast, jump as high, or play with the same endurance as the other kids because of the extra weight I carried.
The pillars of athletics are strength, stamina, flexibility, and technique which can be worked on by kids (and adults) of all sizes. We all have different athletic potential, there are plenty of unathletic thin people so being thin is not a guarantee of athletic performance. There are over 2,000 members of the Fit Fatties Forum pursuing athletics at every level from just for fun to professional. Considering that most weight loss attempts end up in the person being heavier than when they started, perhaps the best thing that we could do for all athletes is to encourage them to work on athleticism rather than body size.
Mostly though, the hardest part of being overweight for me was the lack of interest from the opposite sex. Undeniably, every society throughout history has evaluated the worth of partners based on looks, and humans are not alone in this (think peacock’s feathers). While a ripped physique may be tough to attain, it is not nearly as insane as the tiny bound feet found attractive by past Asian cultures, or the stretched necks and earlobes of the Masai in Africa. In fact, it could be argued that today’s beauty ideals are indeed the healthiest ever held.
When you talk about “today’s” beauty ideals, you are discussing the beauty ideals of a very specific group of people – there are places around the world with very different ideals.
Considering this culture’s increase in eating disorders, and the amount of money spent on the beauty, cosmetic surgery, and diet industries, it could also be argued that today’s beauty ideals are seriously unhealthy – based on a Photo Shop perfection that isn’t even attainable by the people in the pictures we’re trying to emulate. It’s also worth pointing out that the ability to attain a ripped body by various definitions is highly tied to genetics and also to socioeconomic status (having the time and resources to make a ripped body a priority over, say, working a third job to pay the electric bill) as well be willing to have a partner who only wants someone who fits into a very narrow stereotype of beauty. People are allowed to do all of those things but it’s not the only option.
I like that those who date me have shown the ability to perceive beauty beyond the stereotype that has been spoon fed to them by industries that profit from people’s desperation to fit in. I also don’t live in constant fear that time or circumstance will change the superficial, causing my partner to go looking for the stereotype that I no longer am. My friends who do fit the beauty stereotype constantly tell me about their frustration with being approached because they meet someone’s shallow beauty ideals with little care about the amazing women and men they are so I know that, at least for some, it’s not all rainbows and fuzzy bunnies on the lower end of the BMI scale.
I agree wholeheartedly that BMI is a ridiculous measure of health. Obviously it doesn’t adjust for skeletal muscle mass percentage compared to body fat percentage. Clearly the school in your film did not explain BMI clearly, because the students had no idea how it worked (being tall does not make you overweight, nor do you have to divide anything to calculate BMI). As much as we all hate calipers, I feel very strongly that body fat percentage does give you a much better indicator of health.
You’ve been misinformed. The formula for BMI is: weight in pounds times 703 DIVIDED BY height in inches squared. The BMI calculation is also skewed against tall people because typically mass will increase with the cube of the linear dimension, but – as you can see from the formula – BMI uses the square which will skew to higher BMI’s for those who are tall.
As for body fat percentage, you are welcome to feel strongly about whatever you want, but there is plenty of research supporting behavior as a predictor of future health. And once again, even if body fat was the best measurement, there isn’t a single study where even a majority of participants were able to maintain significant weight loss over time so if you think body fat is bad, then suggestion intentional weight loss attempts is statistically the worst thing that you could suggest.
Excess fat leads to all sorts of problems. While you can easily point to myriad professional athletes with high BMIs, you will be much harder pressed to find those with above average body fat (sumos and offensive lineman withstanding). Carrying excessive body fat slows you down.
I’m not sure that we should be using professional athletes as our models for health -many of them actually put their long term health in danger to pursue their sport. If you want to focus on health, there’s good research that shows that those who do 30 minutes of movement 5 times a week get tremendous health benefits at any size. Consider that, if we choose to prioritize health, healthy behaviors are our best chance for a healthy body – though of course there are no guarantees.
As you carry more and more body fat, life gets harder and harder. It’s harder to go places. It’s harder to find comfortable clothes. It’s harder to clean yourself properly. It’s harder to play with your kids. It’s harder to get up off of the couch. Everything is harder.
There are people at all sizes who have good mobility and people at all sizes who have poor mobility for all kinds of reasons, none of which are a barometer of worthiness by the way. As a fat person who has been both fat and thin I can tell you that bullying and stereotyping make my life much more difficult than extra weight does. Not to mention that even if being thinner would make things easier we don’t know how to get that done.
Though some people are able to maintain weight loss long term they are statistical anomalies, the vast majority of people who attempt weight loss fail in the long term. My life would be way easier if I could fly but I’m not going to jump off my roof and flap my arms really hard – and the chances of flying are only about 5% less than the chances of long term weight loss.
Multiple recent studies from highly credible sources have come out showing that underweight people (who eat extremely restrictive diets) may actually live longer than those with what we consider to be healthy weights.
Cite your sources please. There is research that suggest that people who are in the “overweight” category actually outlive those in the normal weight category so obviously there isn’t scientific consensus on this.
For me, the real question is this: at what point does quality of life trump quantity of life? If you love eating more than you love playing with your kids, then perhaps morbid obesity leads to greater happiness for you. I think that most people would find the opposite to be true.
You’ve drawn a ridiculous false dichotomy here, relying completely on the stereotypes. There are thin people who eat tons of food and don’t gain weight and there are fat people who eat a moderate amount of food and stay fat. Body size is a matter of genetics, behaviors, and the effects of past behaviors (with past dieting predicting a higher body weight since most weight loss attempts end in weight gain.) It’s complicated and not entirely within our control.
The joy of eating is a very small joy compared to other joys for me. I have more fun riding my bike, competing in soccer and hockey, reading a good book, or spending time with my friends and family than I ever have eating.
That’s absolutely your choice to make. Plenty of fat people make the same choice. This is also not an either/or. People can, and do, enjoy food and do all of the things that you mentioned.
Food should be viewed as fuel for life. You can put low quality fuel in a rental car because you are only going to have it for a few days, but your body is kept for life. For this reason, I choose to feed my body a healthy amount of high quality fuel to keep it running smoothly.
You are breaking the underpants rule. You get to decide what you believe but you do not get to tell anyone else how to live or what food should be for in their lives. The belief that someone’s body size can tell you the quality of food that they eat is a myth.
I fear that half the message of your documentary was right. People can certainly yo-yo diet. Kids are teased because of being overweight. BMI is not a good enough metric for determining health. That said, I do not think that happiness comes from loving yourself as you are, and forgiving your shortcomings. Love yourself, certainly, but work on your weaknesses! Make yourself the kindest, happiest, healthiest, best person you can be!
You are welcome to view your body as a shortcoming or weakness, but nobody else is obligated to view their bodies that way. My body is awesome and I’m not going to trash it just because it doesn’t meet some stereotype of beauty. You are welcome to attempt to make yourself into whatever you want but it’s not your job to tell other people what to make themselves into, nor is it your job to dictate what defines happiest, healthiest, or best for others, or that they should strive for that.
Though I cannot agree completely with your message, I enjoyed the movie very much.
PS. I am not sure which character was more sad, the extremely fit real estate agent who obsessed over her weight, or the dancer that ate 10,000 calories a day. Both are pretty extreme examples of eating disorders, and neither seem healthy to me.
How sweet of you to mention me specifically. I met the Real Estate Agent at several of the premieres, she seemed like an awesome person. The second time I met her we laughed at how people do what you are doing here. I am curious where you got the idea that I ate 10,000 calories a day, or how you feel comfortable diagnosing either of us with an eating disorder. It seems to me that you may suffer from an over-exaggerated sense of self-importance, but that’s just my guess, I could be wrong.
In general it seems that this person has fallen prey to the Galileo issue of our time – the idea that “everybody knows” that a cursory glance at someone tells you everything that you need to know about their health and habits, and no amount of evidence can change their minds. The truth is that there are people of vastly different weights with the same eating and exercise habits and people of the same weight with very different eating and exercise habits. Body size and health are complicated, multifaceted and not entirely within our control. When you make guesses about people based on the way that they look, that’s stereotyping. When you attach judgments to those guesses, that’s bigotry. To paraphrase the brilliant Marilyn Wann, the only things you can tell from someone’s body size are the size of their body, and your prejudices about bodies that size.
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