Two thirds of the North American population carries excess body fat, and yet fat shaming is rampant. But it’s not always in the form of “Put down the cheeseburger, fatty.” Sometimes it is masked as something else.
I’m concerned for them! Healthcare costs! What’s your excuse?
The top-voted Urban Dictionary definition of “fat shaming” speaks volumes: “A term made by obese people to avoid the responsibility to actually take proper care of their body and instead victimize themself by pretending they’re discriminated like an ethnic group …” However, the clear majority of those who engage in shaming of people with obesity are sinners throwing stones.
Allow me to put concern trolling of obesity into perspective with a biblical quote from John 8:7, English Standard Version: “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone …”
Let’s shelve the ludicrousness of labeling body fat as sinful and reveal the results of a recent study of 4,745 American adults by researchers at Oregon State University, which found that only 2.7% of them live healthfully. This means fewer than 3% of people don’t smoke, exercise at least two-and-a-half hours a week at moderate to vigorous intensity, eat a healthy diet and don’t have excess body fat.
So, are you among the 2.7% who is not a lifestyle “sinner”?
Public Service Announcement: The way other people choose to live their lives is none of your business. Unless you are someone’s physician or close relative / friend, their health is not your concern.
Acting as health police for everyone you meet is a full-time job, because humans are inherently self-destructive in myriad ways. We’re talking about a species that purposefully developed a technology that could instantly vaporize an entire city. Then, after trying it out a couple of times and learning that in addition to the earth-shattering kaboom it came with bonus invisible cancer air, said, Hey! That was pretty cool. Let’s build a shit-ton more of those, strap them to rockets, and point them at each other.
The nature of humanity to do things that are harmful to ourselves does not mean we can’t discuss these issues at the macro level. Nevertheless, sometimes I feel like I’m walking on eggshells in regards to discussions about obesity, weight loss and health behaviors. There is a middle ground of self-awareness that needs to be found between acceptance to the point of denial and drill-instructor-style shaming of body fat.
Reacting By Escaping Reality
As I’ve examined for my Chicago Tribune column, excess body fat, especially around the midsection, often IS an indicator of increased health risk. People at Health at Every Size pitched a fit over that column because they’d mistakenly like to believe large quantities of body fat pose no risk at all, but it’s wishful thinking taken to an unhealthy extreme. HAES is a group that took a noble concept of body acceptance and went off the deep end into science denial in regards to the dangers of obesity.
If someone proclaims excess body fat comes with no increased health risk, it’s my job to show evidence disagreeing with such a statement. It is no one’s job to berate people for carrying excess body fat.
The weight loss industry is a steaming pile of male bovine droppings. As a result, many with obesity have become disillusioned with weight loss to the point of feeling traumatized by the industry.
Ashleigh Shackelford, creator of a body positivity community called Free Figure Revolution, is one such person.
Recently she posted a photo and commentary mocking before and after photos on her Facebook page. I support her right to not want to lose weight with her statement of “There is no thin person inside of me waiting to get out.” But this part is problematic: “There is no health condition that is inherent to fatness.”
While technically true, it ignores the fact that obesity comes with significant increased health risk and even length of exposure risk. That means someone can have obesity and show no ill effects, but after carrying it for another decade or so it can create negative health consequences that would not have been present if they had lost the weight.
A 2016 study published in Obesity examined 4,340 subjects and reached some unfortunate conclusions regarding the health consequences for high levels of body fat. While there are those who may be metabolically healthy while having obesity in their younger years, the study referred to this as a “transitory state.” Obesity in the 30s and 40s may not be associated with negative health outcomes, but in later years the risk of it becoming metabolically unhealthy (such as leading to development of type 2 diabetes) was significantly elevated.
Ending “Us” vs. “Them”
It’s not just a problem of the lean talking down to those with obesity.
Another quote from Shackelford’s post: “Diet culture and weight loss as a health standard are destructive and violent.” I’ll agree that diet culture is bullshit, but the reality is that weight loss is often a justifiable medical recommendation. As long as communicated in a respectful manner, a physician telling a patient that losing weight would help alleviate a medical condition is NOT shaming them.
Ashleigh also sees displaying before and after photos as triggering.
And that may be true, but my accepting someone else’s right to live their life as they see fit means they should respect my right to be proud of my accomplishments. I’m not saying, “What’s your excuse?” or including a stupid fitness saying with the photos. I’m just showing that I worked hard and am pleased with the result. It’s unfortunate that she is triggered by the before and after photos on my site, but she has no right to ask me take them down.
Body shaming and diet culture created denial and backlash and now we’re caught in and “us vs. them” death spiral.
Ashleigh’s post was shared almost 6,000 times, and although there was support, her point regarding hostility towards those with obesity was proven with comments such as: “What a fucking idiot she is. She needs to go find a safe space so she can no longer get ‘triggered.’” And another: “You so fat your blood type is Ragu!”
That is but a glimpse of the vitriol.
On one side we have science denial and hypersensitivity; on the other there are people being such hateful ass monkeys it makes being triggered by before and after photos understandable.
Much Ado About Triggers
People can be triggered by anything. There are those who were abused by their church or in the name of their religion. And so, they may get triggered every time they see a church. This isn’t to suggest we tear down all houses of worship to alleviate their discomfort. There are people who were abused by alcoholic parents who get triggered by commercials for booze. But we don’t ban such advertisements so they don’t have to relive the horror. Rather, we acknowledge that someone is allowed to feel bad, and we endeavor to accommodate them if we can, and show them compassion as much as possible. It’s called not being an asshole. At a micro-level, my wife can’t stand whispering, so I don’t do it. I hate the sound of nails being clipped (I have to use scissors), so she does it in another room.
The Law of Interaction
Whether you’re a member of the super fit and healthy crowd, or living with obesity and asking people to treat you with respect, or somewhere in between, we could all do better by endeavoring to live by Wheaton’s Law when talking to each other:
“Don’t be a dick.”
James S. Fell is an internationally syndicated fitness columnist for the Chicago Tribune and author of Lose it Right: A Brutally Honest 3-Stage Program to Help You Get Fit and Lose Weight Without Losing Your Mind, published by Random House Canada. He also interviews celebrities about their fitness stories for the Los Angeles Times, and is head fitness columnist for AskMen.com and a regular contributor to Men’s Health.