I’m a terrible girlfriend. That is, I am never really comfortable hanging out exclusively with a group of women. I like to cook and I like fashion, but mostly I don’t get women things. I hate when my female friends talk about their partners behind their backs, and I’m never exactly sure what I’m supposed to say when other women start talking about their weight.
Sure, I have a critical Virgoan eye, and I notice physical changes, but – and I don’t want this to sound heartless – I don’t really care. A loss or addition of 5 pounds or 50 pounds isn’t going to make me change my opinion of someone. As someone who has been fat since puberty, I know better than to judge another person by some arbitrary number on a scale. Which is why I so dearly wish other people would stop judging themselves that way.
These thoughts are prevalent in my head at the moment for a couple of reasons. First, because I’ve just finished reading Rethinking Thin: The New Science of Weight Loss – and the Myths and Realities of Dieting by Gina Kolata. When I put that book down the next thing I read was a series of three essays in the most recent Utne Reader, all on the topic of fat politics and fat acceptance. Combine that with the recent discussion with a friend about her need to lose 35 pounds, despite a plethora of other health and life concerns that make that task very difficult, and I’ve got fat on the brain.
What is so terribly frustrating about the whole thing is how we’ve all bought into the myths. Particularly that being fat is a health risk. In his 2005 book Fat Politics, J. Eric Oliver points out that only 2 illnesses are directly linked to obesity – osteoarthritis of the weight-bearing joints (which makes sense – the more weight you force your joints to carry, the harder they have to work and the more quickly they wear out), and ovarian cancer in women due to the increased estrogen fat produces. Everything else, from diabetes and cancer to heart disease have no direct cause and effect related to excess weight.
Since it’s almost conclusive that a tendency towards obesity is genetic, it’s reasonable to assume that obesity can be considered a genetic marker for these other health concerns – but it’s not a cause. That is, people who are genetically fat are more likely to end up with some of these other health issues – but the fat isn’t **causing** these issues.
This is an important factor in a society where the overweight and obese are not just teased and taunted, but are told they’re costing the health care system billions of extra dollars per year. Fat people are being denied airline flights, health insurance and in some cases in the US are being forced out of their jobs for not losing weight.
Both Kolata and Oliver touch on the issue of a “set point” – the range in which an individual person’s weight will not stray. No matter how many diets a person goes on, no matter how much weight they lose, their bodies will eventually return to their set point range. What this means is that the entire diet industry is arranged to prey on our insecurities and desire to meet an unattainable ideal. That “results may vary” disclaimer at the bottom of all those fitness and diet ads – it’s there for a reason, because all of these organizations, from Weight Watchers to LA Fitness and everything else, are counting on their customers to lose just enough weight that they’ll come back and use this programme again when the weight inevitably returns.
But what about the Body Mass Index? people will exclaim. Eric Oliver explains the origins of the BMI, as well as its many failings – it was never intended to be used to determine health weight for the average person, and it doesn’t take any factors other than height and weight into consideration. In fact, pretty much the entire “obesity epidemic” can be explained by the 1997 decision by the World Health Organization to change the limit for “overweight” from a BMI of 27 to 25. Sure, in the past decade, there has been a huge surge in weight gain as measured by the BMI – millions of people who were considered a normal weight were, literally overnight, considered overweight. And why did the WHO change this definition? Because they were lobbied by a group of drug companies – all of which just happened to make diet drugs.
Not having true control over our shape and size isn’t an excuse to run rampant through a pastry shop, mind you. We all, fat, thin and everything in between, still need to take responsibility for our own health, and that includes eating healthy foods and exercising regularly. But we need to stop blaming. We need to stop blaming fat people for being lazy (we’re not). We need to stop blaming junk food for making kids fat. And we all need to stop blaming ourselves when a few pounds don’t come off.
Maybe it’s the rebel punk in me who hates to see good, intelligent people buying into society’s twisted sense of manipulated beauty, but I have a hard time listening to the women I know put themselves down because of some perceived failing. Who cares if you don’t hit that perfect number on the BMI chart? I’m not going to think any less of you because of it. In fact, I’m likely to have more respect and admiration for someone interested in living their life to the fullest. Someone who, yes, takes care of themselves, but also someone who is able to say “To hell with it. Pass the cheese!” without counting calories and making jokes about where on their body it will end up.
To all my friends and readers – please – learn to be happy with who you are, regardless of your BMI or the size of your hips. Enjoy all the pleasures of the holidays, including the eggnog and the shortbread. Life is too short to spend it wracked with guilt.