I recently read two articles that I think will help us all add context to what, thankfully, is getting acknowledged as increasingly complex: obesity. We often hear about the costs associated with obesity. Countless articles/media/scientists/pundits have attempted to pathologize the size of our bodies and tell us all that being fat – which is always falsely conflated with being unhealthy – is a drain on our health system & economy. This is a tired argument that has been used by many groups to ostracize others based on physical traits. There should be a whole chapter on this sort of rhetoric in post-colonial studies.
Mother Jones writer Sydney Brownstone wrote a piece earlier this week called, “Does this pollution make me look fat?” Not only does she discuss how more research is finding strong correlation between chemical exposure to increase in body size (particularly in children of women exposed while pregnant), she also discusses how increasing access to healthful foods in food deserts may be a rather fruitless endeavor (puns!). The reason I find this discussion so compelling is that it adds yet another layer to the complexity that is our environment and how it may be “making us fat.” I would personally like to understand more how endocrine disruptors affect insulin (resistance?) and metabolization; and am happy to see more studies that are at least pointing to how this may indeed be another factor in what I see as the growing pains of industrialization. What I would love to see more research on is what exactly this fat is doing to us. In other words – if we concede that environmental pollutants and food toxins are playing a role in increasing our fat accumulation, what kind of health effects does this have? What type of fat does this pollution tend to encourage or create? I hope more people will make the distinction when writing about this issue that increase in fat does not inherently mean increase in health risks. If you’d like to read more about pollution and fat, Julie Guthman and Linda Bacon address it. Did Weight of the Nation? Not so much. They (WON) were, of course, focused on us eating more reduced-calorie portions from their strategic partners, than with us actually questioning the shit that goes on around us. So what is the cost of us consistently fearing fat? We don’t question what else might be implicated in our body size outside of our personal choices; we worry less about our true health and more about whether our bodies escape the body-police.
Then, there’s the piece in Mother Nature Network by Melissa Breyer called, “Childhood Obesity Linked to Poor Math Skills.” It’s start with your typical intro to the “stats” on childhood obesity and then tells us:
“A study, published in the journal Child Development looked at more than 6,250 children from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten Cohort, a nationally representative sample that tracked children from kindergarten through fifth grade.
At five times during the study window, parents provided information about their families, teachers, children’s social skills and emotional well-being. Children were also weighed and tested for academic performance.
According to the findings, when compared with children who were never obese, boys and girls who were obese from the start of kindergarten through fifth grade performed worse on the math tests through the test period. For boys whose obesity emerged later (in third or fifth grade), no such differences were found. For girls who became obese later, poorer math performance was temporary.”
I’ve seen this same study written about all over the Internet. What do you think the natural spin is? That fat kids are some how intrinsically worse at math than their svelte counterparts. Ah.
But what does this actually tell us?
It tells us that the true costs of obesity are the costs we incur as a culture that polices body size. I think it’s hard for people with good intentions to understand that fighting obesity is a battle that cannot be won. Why? Because whenever you “fight” something, you have to have a measure of success. How do we measure the success of “fighting obesity”? Well, since obesity is defined by BMI (height to weight ratio) and we realize that asking people to gain height is illogical, we ask that people lose weight. Therein lies the major flaw – we cannot measure our success on whether people lose weight since weight is not a good proxy for health. And, in doing so, we’ve created these “measures” for success that are truly fucking with the development (physical, mental & emotional) of our children. That is the true cost of obesity – we are creating a society that condones looks-based discrimination under the guise of health promotion. I think this study truly shows the insidious nature of the “fight.” Fat kids do not perform lowly in schools because they are inherently less intelligent; they probably perform poorly and feel “more sadness, loneliness and anxiety” (said a professor who was quoted in the study) because they are stigmatized by society, their peers and by their SCHOOLS, endlessly. The study measured kids’ “obesity” at time when their bodies are going through all sorts of growth spurts and yet, I’m sure, the message these children hear – out of fear – is that any indication that they may hit an arbitrary number on the “overweight” and “obese” benchmarks of the BMI is a “problem” rather than something that is natural. Our weights are signifiers. They point to a vast number of interrelated components. They should not be moralized. In doing so, they are demoralizing a population. What’s worse is that facts are often left out of the argument because if they were advocated, we’d all understand that there are actually health benefits to being overweight. What? Yes. People in the “high-normal” or overweight range have the lowest mortality, or risk of dying.
So what are the true costs of obesity?
Ragen does a great job telling us, so I’ll quote her blog post here: “Studies from Yale showed that over 50% of doctors find fat patients ‘awkward, ugly, weak-willed and unlikely to comply with treatment’ and 28% of nurses said that they were ‘repulsed’ by their obese patients [Cranky note: Click here for a PDF]. Mary Huizinga of Johns Hopkins found that ‘The higher a patient’s body mass, the less respect doctors express for that patient. And the less respect a doctor has for a patient the less time they spend with that patient and the less information he or she offers.’”
What does this mean?
- It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Fat people are unhealthy? Sure, they are likely to be more unhealthy because they face stigma by their doctors and caregivers thereby receiving poor healthcare and often foregoing healthcare altogether, get charged more for health care, & when being treated are often given treatments meant to produce weight loss, which – we all know – are not meant to improve health.
- Worse – what is the toll on our society when we are are all obsessed with conforming to a type of body rather than what we can do with our lives?
It’s ironic to me that the top two issues on the presidential-ticket docket are childhood obesity and bullying. Does no one see they are one and the same?
The Cranky One