This is Not About Fat People’s Health

Stand up speak up fight backSometimes I break the cardinal rule of being fat on the internet and I read the comments.  I’m always a bit taken aback by the way people who have no health knowledge tell us all about our health, and in particular by the tone of superiority that people take against fat people:

“Fat people need to be shamed.  I have always been a big believer in shame; it is the most human emotion and impetus for corrective behavior.”

“I can judge the obese and know that they have no self control.”
“I wished more people would get an epiphany about the risks of being obese and do something about it. Too many are content accept themselves for who they are.”
“I’m not a doctor but if you’re a 225, 5’2″ female and believe you’re healthy, then you’re in denial. Everybody knows that.  You just need to eat less and exercise more and you’ll lose weight and be healthy.”

Some of the most difficult comments for me read are like this one: “I’m fat and I think that we deserve to be shamed.  I know that I could eat less and exercise more but I let life get in the way.  Maybe if we were more humiliated we would be more motivated to do something about our fat, lazy asses.”

Today I was pondering how people develop such a sense of superiority that making comments like this seems like a reasonable thing to do.  And why do fat people allow it, sometimes even joining in? Then I remembered a couple of experiments that I studied in school:

In an effort to explain racism to her third grade students, Jane Elliot conducted a two day experiment.  On day one she told her students “This is a fact.  Blue eyed people are better than brown eyed people.”  Moments later a girl took longer than the others to get her book prepared. One student immediately said “She’s a brown eye” and the other blue-eyed students all chorused in agreement. The next day she changed the groups, telling the class that brown-eyed students were superior.   According to Elliot, “I watched what had been marvelous, wonderful, cooperative, thoughtful children turn into nasty, vicious, discriminating little third graders in the space of fifteen minutes”

In the Stanford Prison Experiment Philip Zimbardo, a psychology professor chose twenty-four students out of 75 to play the prisoners, the remainder to play guards, and live in a mock prison set up in the Stanford Psychology basement. The participants quickly adapted to their roles even beyond Zimbardo’s expectations.  Within a couple of days the “Officers” displayed authoritarian measures and eventually tortured some of the prisoners.  Many of the prisoners developed passive attitudes and allowed the abuse, and, when asked by the the guards, inflicted punishment on other prisoners who tried to stop them.  The experiment was stopped after six day and remains controversial.

Imagine what would have happened if the experiments had continued for the rest of these people’s lives.  How would the brown-eyed kids be now?  How much money do you suppose people would pay to try to change their eye color?  How about the students who, after just a few days, allowed themselves to be subjected to torture just because someone told them that they are second class citizens?  Can you imagine what state they would be in after years of believing that they deserved to be treated so poorly?

I wonder if that’s how it became ok to treat fat people as if we’re a lower form of life?  It seems that at some point we started being told that fat people aren’t as good as thin people. That you can look at the size of a person and tell what they eat, how much they exercise, how much self-control they have, their physical fitness level, even how smart they are, and that you have the right to judge them.  Of course that’s not supported by the research, but based on the experiments above, all it takes is an authority figure.  (A role filled by plenty of “scientists” and doctors on the payroll of pharmaceutical companies and the diet industry that makes $60,000,000,000 a year by telling people that they can move them into the superior group.).

Are fat people the brown-eyed students and inmates of the present day in a grand, unintentional social experiment?   Let’s all remember that it’s not just a day, or a week of being called names and told the we’re less valuable than thin people -it’s a lifetime.  And it’s not an experiment.  The comments that I copied above aren’t third graders learning a lesson, they are regular people who’ve taken to heart the idea that they are better than us because they look different than we do, and they are perpetuating that just as Ms. Elliot’s third graders did by calling us names, putting us down, and adopting an air of superiority.

And I don’t believe for a minute that most of these people care at all about my health.  I think the “it’s for your health” argument to justify this type of behavior is nothing more than a tattered life-raft in a sea of bullying behavior – something that people can hold onto that they feel justifies actions that they know, deep down, are wrong.

Unfortunately we can’t just end the experiment like Jane Elliott and Phillip Zombardo.  But we can fight back.  And before we do I think that we might want to take a good hard look at our behavior and be sure that we don’t end up like the Stanford inmates – allowing ourselves to be subjected to horrible treatment and putting each other down to try to gain the acceptance of the “superior class”.  We can refuse to buy into the lie.  And when we read or hear people who are trying desperately to stay in the upper group by putting us down, we can realize that these people are behaving like confused third graders, sheeple who have fallen into a classic psychological trap.

Perhaps we can’t change their behavior, but we can support each other to stay out of the trap and, over time, expose this War Against Obesity OMIGODDEATHFATISCOMINGFORUS bullshit for the baseless, highly profitable, discriminatory, power trip it really is. Until then I offer you this mantra:  The world is fucked up.  I am fine.

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28 thoughts on “This is Not About Fat People’s Health

  1. With the sheer amount of social conditioning we receive every day, it’s far from surprising that so many of us develop Stockholm Syndrome and start parroting our oppressors.

    The world certainly won’t change overnight, but we have to keep chipping away at the wall of hate. This is for our lives.

  2. Don’t forget The Milgram Experiment, which involved wiring actors up to (non-functioning) electoshock equipment and then asking subjects to repeatedly turn it on. The Milgram has been completed multiple times, in many countries, and the results are always the same: the vast majority of subjects turn on the electroshock equipment when they’re told, every time they’re told, even after the actor has collapsed.

    That’s what these people who think they’re being so “brave and truthful” are doing. They were conditioned to press the “shock fatty” button when they were told, every time they’re told, even after the fat person has collapsed. So they do. And of course some of them are fat; being oppressed doesn’t make you immune to social conditioning (or just plain being a jerk, for that matter).

  3. Waht you say is sooo true. But besides that, I also wonder about the first comment and people really believing that shame is a good way to correct a behaviour. I mean, being fat or thin or whatever isn’t up for being corrected by other people anyway. But, for example, if I had a child, I sure wouldn’t want it to grow into a fat-shaming adult. But I sure don’t think the right way to achieve this would be that I shamed my child instead – on the contrary. Of course shaming alters behaviours – everybody wants to evade shaming – but it sure doesn’t help to really learn something. The child would just do the same thing secretly, or trade it for something else that is equally mean, or start shaming itself instead, whatever.
    Poor families of those who believe shaming is a good way to correct behaviour … and then also believe that being fat needs correction … bah, that’s awful

  4. I’ve often said that if shame made a person thin, then I’d have been thin long ago. All being shamed ever did was to make me hate myself. I suppose shame for *behaviors* might be effective in some circumstances to keep someone from repeating them (like, I dunno, swearing at your parents or something like that), but fat isn’t a behavior.

    1. Actually, research shows that shame is NOT an effective tool for changing behaviors. It just plain doesn’t work!

      1. Yes. Brene Brown talks about shame (and other awesome stuff) here – .I think her most important point is the difference between guilt and shame. Guilt is useful, shame is not. Shame dis-empowers us and defeats us. Shame *doesn’t* motivate us, and when it does it usually motivates us to give up. Shame makes us wallow in our perceived failures. IMHO shame is also emotionally manipulative and often a power play – people who want you to be ashamed are judging you as flawed and demanding you make up for said flaws. Shame is used to oppress. I honestly cannot think of a single instance where shame would be helpful – guilt yes but not shame.

        1. This reminds me of a lesson I had in church once, decades ago. The teacher explained the difference between “Godly guilt,” and “Satan’s guilt.”

          “Godly guilt” is that which makes you say, “Whoa! That was a horrible thing to do, and I’m never going to do that again! I learned my lesson.”

          “Satan’s guilt,” on the other hand, is like the unmotivating shame. In fact, it says, “You’re so awful, since you did that thing, that you’re just worthless! Why even bother to try improving yourself or making amends. You’re going right to hell. And as long as you’re going right to hell, you might as well really whoop it up and sin, Sin, SIN! while you’re here, to make it worthwhile.” Or, in other words, “You’ve already blown it, so why not go whole-hog?”

          I didn’t really get it, at the time, but now I do. I’ve experienced that very thing with weight and diet:

          “Shame on you for eating that piece of cake, you fatty! Just because you’re at a party doesn’t mean you get to eat cake!” My response? “Well, since I’ve already blown it with a piece of cake, why not a second piece? Heck, why not cake AND ice cream, and is that chips and dip over there? Why not just eat until I’m sick, since I’m such a worthless pig, anyway? Why’d they even invite such a worthless slimy, lazy, fat, ugly pig like me, anyway? Nobody could ever want me, as a lover or a friend, or even just a person to pal around with at a party! Well, at least I can enjoy the comfort food.”

          Yeah, fat-shaming isn’t going to get people to be thin. It’s just going to make them miserable, and likely even fatter than they already are.

          Pauline, I like your definitions of guilt vs. shame. No fuss about religion (and not everyone shares the same religion, or any religion at all), but the concept is there.

          Guilt, on the other hand, can be very useful in changing behavior. My mother was an expert at making us feel guilty (the good kind), by giving us her “disappointed” look. Disappointing Mother, and making her sad about us and our behavior was waaaaaaay worse than being yelled at, or spanked. We just wanted to make her proud and happy again, and we changed our behavior, accordingly. Meanwhile, Dad would ask us what we had learned from our mistakes, and help us accept that failure is human and natural, and a great tool for improving ourselves. They taught us kids to apologize, by apologizing to us, when they made mistakes. And once the mistake is rectified, and people forgive and let go of hard feelings, the person who made the mistake feels empowered to do so much better in the future.

  5. I’m in the position of weighing less this year than I did last year.
    The worst part is the comments of others and their desire for numbers and weight talk, and interference, as in “you’ve done so well, you don’t want to eat that now”.
    WTF? When did this get to be OK? I’m old. I don’t need or want a random parent to tell me what to eat. And anyone wanting to see this old broad go from sweetheart to pissy instantly only has to comment on my body or my choices.
    My answer to correcting this terrible interference is to correct it immediately, with certainty. “I eat what I want. You can too.” “That’s not your business.” “No thank you, I don’t want to hear about your diet”. Someone telling me I look thinner gets a blank look and an “Ok”.
    The bodies we are walking around in are not appropriate conversational topics, whether about size, color, condition or any other aspect.

  6. Another experiment that ties in peripherally are the Milgram experiments. These are the electrical shock experiments where people were told to shock unseen people in another room. The goal was to see how far people would go against their conscience. They were trying to explain things like the Holocaust, I believe. Even when people were told that the person in the other room had heart conditions, some of them would still send the “shock.”

    As time has passed, researchers have gleaned that people will do what they can to assist in science because: “The influence is ideological. It’s about what they believe science to be, that science is a positive product, it produces beneficial findings and knowledge to society that are helpful for society. So there’s that sense of science is providing some kind of system for good.”

    Unfortunately in the case of weight loss research, which is largely funded by the weight loss industry (the very people who benefit from weight loss) the “science” is faulty and Regular Joe and JoAnn don’t know that. They take the “truth” and go about spouting it as fact and go about trying to help everyone.

    Some people are just super douche canoe asshats when they do it…

    1. Science and politics and public policy are why my sister got out of the field. She loved science, on its own. A “pure scientist,” if you will. But once you get PEOPLE involved with it, it just becomes a political MESS, and she just couldn’t stand it, any more.

      Now she’s more into math, because it’s way less political. Although, as you can see from the BMI/Math discussion on ThisIsThinPrivilege.tumblr, there’s people-mess in that, too.

      Somebody posted some pictures of men who were really “ripped.” I think they are called “beefcake” pictures. Anyway, I looked at them, and thought two things: Do these guys even have enough fat on them to float? And they’re probably all listed as “obese” on the BMI chart.

      I once had a friend who had less than 4% body fat, and it drove him up the wall, because he wanted to much to swim! It was summer! In Florida! His apartment had a pool! And he couldn’t swim, because every time he got in the water, he sunk like a rock. And he wasn’t “ripped,” either. Just genetically thin.

      1. I got my daughter a highly rated “this is what’s about to happen to your body” book and discovered upon flipping through it that it treats BMI as a legitimate health assessment tool. Time for me to start telling her about the people I’ve known, as an insurance agent’s assistant and in daily life, who have been told (ordered in one case) to be less active because their muscles made their BMI “too high.”

        OK, they weren’t explicitly told “stop exercising, stop having a physically demanding job, and lie around without eating until your muscles shrink,” but that’s what it amounted to. The guy who was ordered by his superior officer to reduce his BMI by any means necessary? He was very fit, but not ripped; his muscles were all working muscles. Also his exercise mostly happened in somebody else’s garage. Meanwhile, the oiled, ripped guy showing off at the base gym got a pass because he was obviously “healthy.”

        1. For goodness’ sake! Hasn’t his commanding officer ever heard of the caliper test? It’s not quite as good as the water-displacement test, but that requires a very large tub and some special equipment. Calipers are cheap and simple, and they basically pinch your fat, to give a reasonable estimate of how much subcutaneous fat you have. With a few calculations, you can then determine percentages of body fat, vs. muscle.

          Time to go to the superior’s superior, and report that the fool actually ordered someone to become LESS STRONG, in the freaking MILITARY! UGH!!!

      2. Even Astrophysics is messed up. I originally chose to do a BSc in Astro. after graduating high school because I loved Physics to death. I was also in the AP program in high school, so most of the first year was more like review. In the 2nd year, that’s when you met all the profs who would be your judgers and colleagues for the rest of their lives. They were mostly older men, who you felt were 50 going on 80: real sticks in the mud. They couldn’t teach worth beans.

        What shocked everyone though, was the rampant sexism. At the science tables set up at high school recruitment fairs, and open houses at the unis, all the sciences try to put on a happy face and attract girls to the program. When you told them you were attending physics, they’d be thrilled! But one of the profs himself said that he hated seeing women in his classes and graduating, because we keep taking away men’s jobs.

        I left after 2 yrs and switched to the humanities, the rest of the girls left after 3 yrs, and even some of the boys left the program before they graduated out of protest. I had originally wanted to study the stars, because I wanted to get away from ppl and excess stupidity. Little did I know that physics is also highly politicized! They also told us that if we didn’t believe certain things (eg. the moon’s creation coming from another planet hitting Earth and smashing it away), we wouldn’t be allowed to graduate or get a job.

        1. Sorry to hear about your dream turning into a nightmare. Yikes!

          Did these jerks never hear of Annie Jump Cannon? The Queen of modern astronomy? No? Here’s a nifty link:

          I’m still amazed at the number of men in tech who still believe that Hedy Lamarr was just a pretty woman who could act. My nephew tells me about women in the early days of tech, and I’m so proud of him! He knows more about women’s history than I do. Well, at least women’s history in tech. He’s all about the tech.

          I’ve had teachers who would fail you if you didn’t SAY what they wanted to hear, but to actually demand that you BELIEVE it? That’s wrong on so many levels. Of course, the first is wrong, too, but not on quite as many levels.

          I’ve also had some seriously “traditional” gender-role devotee teachers, and it’s just horrible. Fortunately, I performed femininity well, and wanted to teach English, so I wasn’t hit too hard. But dang it, I was the top student in my section of Chem 101! Don’t tell me I can’t do science because of my two X chromosomes.

          When I was young, I wanted to be a teacher. Now, I advocate for home schooling, and tell my niece and nephews not to go to college unless it is actually required for their career, such as to become a doctor or lawyer. I found trade school to be so. much. better. It was all about “can you do this thing?” rather than analyzing what somebody thought about the thing. Hands on blue-collar work may not pay as much, but it’s not nearly as soul-crushing. And you can be as intellectual as you want at the library, for free, with no one telling you that “you’re thinking that wrong.”

          1. I have been looking into trade schools, actually, after experiencing all this pizzazz. I too, advocate home schooling, and I don’t believe getting a uni. degree is the way to get a job, or contribute to society. Plus the schools seem to teach some questionable things in all fields, so do you really want your kid to get that head start with wrong information?

            1. It depends on what career your child wants to have, or even what company your child may want to work for. Some places and jobs require a degree. But if you don’t NEED a degree, it’s a whole lot of money, and frequently, a whole lot of indoctrination, that isn’t necessary. I say leave the degrees for the doctors, vets, lawyers, engineers, and the like, who need the degrees, and let the people who don’t need a degree save their money and their sanity, and educate themselves. We have so many more options for education now than we used to.

              I mean, look at this website, for one example. I’ve learned a whole lot just from reading it, and the links to other sources, not to mention the links to real scientific studies. And that is just ONE place. Seriously, with a library card, an internet connection, and some curiosity, nobody need be uneducated in our culture. It may be informal and uncertified, but if you don’t need the piece of paper saying you’re certifiably smart, what’s the point of being formal?

              Of course, it’s up to the child to choose a future career, which is why high school, even home schooling, should be sufficient to get into college, if you later want or need that degree. People change their minds, after all, so if your fourteen year old says she doesn’t want to go to college, that’s no reason to cut off the option for her, by letting her slack off in school at that early age.

              Although, even if people drop out of high school, there’s still the G.E.D. option. I find that people work and study harder if it’s for something they want, themselves, rather than for something that other people told them they should do.

  7. And let’s not forget the doll test:

    The influence of our society’s bigotry is learned early and reinforced very frequently through our media and our culture’s attitudes. It’s heartbreaking to see children think so many bad things like “ugly and bad” about themselves and people who look like them. This stays with many people on into adulthood and influences their lives on many levels.

    I have a strong feeling that if this same test was done with thin vs fat dolls that it would have a similar outcome on the vast majority of the children presented with the questions.

    1. Stacy, that would be a very interesting experiment. I agree that the results would likely be very similar. The experiment would have to be done with drawings — where to find dolls with differing body sizes?

    2. Oh, my gosh! I had to stop at 30 seconds, because I was tearing up too much. It’s just so sad and horrifying to see these precious children already absorbing such hateful, negative messages about color.

  8. Whenever this topic comes up, I think about the Dr. Seuss story of the Sneeches ( One day they decide that having a star on your belly makes you better than everyone else, and the star-bellied sneeches are total dicks about it and lord it over the non-stars – even though they are only superior because they say so. Then the no-stars are desperate enough to give their money to some flim-flam guy who has a machine that gives them stars. And then he convinces the original star bellies that *not* having stars is the coolest thing and what a surprise he has a machine that gets rid of stars, for a price of course…
    It always struck me as the perfect allegory for, well, just about any group in real life who decides to invent arbitrary standards of social acceptance (always in their favor of course) and decrees that differences automatically make us superior/inferior instead of just, you know, different. And just like Seuss’ flim-flam man, there is an entire industry that thrives on our insecurity and profits from our desperation to fit in. They want our money so they tell us something is wrong with us and we need to change it and of course they’ll help us – for a price. They create the ‘problem’ and then sell us their solution. Change our weight, change our hair, wear the “right” clothes…it’s all arbitrary bullshit built for the benefit of others.

    Thin is better because you say so? Bite me.

  9. I did a rookie mistake and started to get into an internet argument with a concern troll over the model Tess Munster. Even worse, it was on FB. I was just sickened by the vitriol in the comments, from “I can’t believe this is a thing” to “she should be shot and force fed healthy food…” to “I’d kill her with my gun, but whaling is illegal…” Several even pulled the “she’s making me pay for HER health care!” cry of alarm.

    Most of it I let slide by because the tide of The Stupid was just too much. But one lady really pissed me off when she said obese people have no right modeling and ‘setting a bad example for young girls…shame on her for this horrible thing…’ to which I replied, “Wow, another concern troll hiding her fatphobia behind her bigotry. Go you.”

    Not helpful, but sometimes I just can’t take the ignorance. She responded immediately with “Why is it people put phobia behind everything these days! OMG, you might have onionphobia! HERE COME THE ONIONS, PATRICIA! You have a nice day.”

    And I said, “I see in your avatar you have two young children. Please do your best not to raise them with your horrible views on humanity and to be bigots-in-training. Also, you probably need to get laid tonight because it reaaaaally looks like you could use some loosening up.”

    Still…feels like a win.

    1. ?? Shaming somebody for her perceived lack of a sex life is a win? This is shaping up as one of those days where I’m afraid I wandered onto the wrong board by mistake. 😦

    2. I only go to those fb pages that I know I will like, and not to expose myself to haters and whatnot. I don’t think I could’ve lasted as long as you did.

  10. Like the column, but… in all seriousness, I hate the word “Sheeple.” It brings to mind the sort of Libertarians and Social Darwinists who also like flinging around “fat” as an insult.

    1. Depending on the breed, and how they are raised, sheep can be pretty amazing. They will look out for each other. “Some on, Henry, we’re all going over to this part of the pasture now. Don’t be left alone and vulnerable.”

      They’re herd animals, and more comfortable in a group, because of the safety in numbers, and given the chance, will actually herd themselves, to keep their young ones from wandering off and getting lost or attacked by predators.

      They’re not stupid. They’re acting for the safety of the whole herd.

      Humans are not herd animals, and value individuality, which is why “Sheeple” is considered pejorative. But I just had to put in a plug for actual sheep.

      1. 🙂 I guess aside from the bad association I have with the word, it’s similar to what you were saying about “bitch” in the other thread. I’m not an animal, nor a human-animal hybrid. I’m a person, and in the past I know I’ve fallen into the kind of thinking that Regan describes in the column. But I was wholly human then, too.

  11. Great article. I’ve been reading through your blog and really just wanted to comment to say how much I enjoy your writing and appreciate your activism. All of your articles that I have read are clarifying and, although the many facets of discrimination that you cover are really disheartening, I find your approach is so uplifting. Okay, off to read some more…

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