Fatism and Going to Extremes

Discrimination against fat people is a problem. People who are overweight are often judged to be less competent, less intelligent, and more lazy–not to mention less attractive–than people who are of a “normal” weight. They face discrimination in the workplace, and there are some jobs for which they are unlikely to ever be hired at all.

It’s only natural, then, that a movement has sprung up to combat “fatism”–and that’s awesome. What bothers me, however, is the tendency of anti-fatism activists to deny the fact that being severely overweight has negative effects on one’s health. I hear a lot of “weight has nothing to do with health” arguments these days, and this sort of denialism is simply dangerous. Obesity is a problem in America, and it does put you at increased risk for a lot of health problems, such as:

  • high blood pressure
  • heart disease
  • stroke
  • type 2 diabetes
  • sleep apnea
  • breast and colon cancer
  • osteoarthritis
Given that heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, I feel like its prevention is something that should be taken seriously.

Regardless, denying these health problems does not help anyone, and admitting that being obese is unhealthy is not tantamount to justifying discrimination against obese individuals. After all, one’s health is one’s own business, and not taking care of your body shouldn’t result in being discriminated against.

It worries me when social movements respond to a problem in society (such as fatism) by taking the extreme opposite view. This happens a lot with progressives. For instance, noticing that our society has pervasive and restrictive gender roles, some claim that gender is entirely socially constructed and has no basis in biology whatsoever. (Apparently these people never noticed that men and women do actually have at least one very noticeable biological difference.) Some note that homophobia is rampant in society, so they insist that heterosexuality is actually constructed and unnatural, and that same-sex relations are the only “genuine” ones. Similarly, some people think that because discrimination against fat people exists and discrimination is wrong, therefore, there is nothing whatsoever bad or unhealthy or in any way undesirable about being overweight.

But being fat isn’t the same as being part of other marginalized groups, such as being a woman, being gay, being transgender, or being Black. No reputable scientific study has ever found that being gay or transgender is in any way unhealthy or abnormal (except, of course, in the statistical sense). No reputable scientific study has ever found that women or African Americans are inferior in any way to men or Caucasians. But our entire body of medical evidence shows that being severely overweight comes with significant hazards to your health. This is something that is simply true. Regardless of whether you think BMI is a good measure of obesity, and regardless of how easy or difficult it is for you to lose weight, being obese is unhealthy. Does this mean that discrimination against fat people is okay? Hell no. But it does mean that obesity is something that should be discouraged.

Incidentally, some of the things that anti-fatism activists consider discrimination simply aren’t. For instance, when airlines ask obese people to buy two seats, guess what–it’s not because they just don’t like obese people. It’s because if your body requires more than one seat, then you should have more than one seat–in which case, it follows that you should pay for more than one seat, because it wouldn’t be fair to give some people a second seat for free. Furthermore, it would be unfair for a person who paid for a seat to effectively receive only half a seat because the person sitting next to them clearly requires part of theirs. Does it suck to have to pay more to fly if you’re fat? Yes. But in that case, lobby for airlines to make seats bigger, not to give you permission to use half of another customer’s seat.

Also, companies that provide incentives for their employees to exercise/get down to a healthy weight/whatever are not being fatist. They’re doing two things: 1) encouraging their employees to be healthier, and 2) saving themselves money by reducing lost productivity due to medical problems and by reducing the amount they have to pay as insurance. Fact: being healthier and not obese reduces medical expenditures. Similarly, doctors who recommend that their obese patients lose weight are not being fatist. They are being doctors. I am terrified of the day when doctors are prevented from dispensing sound, evidence-based medical advice for fear of offending someone.

Regardless, it is, in fact, quite possible to discourage obesity without promoting eating disorders, obsessive dieting and exercising, and holding oneself to an impossible standard of beauty, as the mass media does. Conflating  efforts to discourage obesity with efforts to promote unhealthy behaviors or stigmatize fat people is intellectually lazy. There is, for every issue, a solution that is healthy, reasonable, and benefits the greatest possible number of people. Just because that solution is extremely hard to find doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It’s there, and I can guarantee that it is almost never at one extreme or the other. It’s usually somewhere in the middle.