Healthy Obligations

The Fat Nutritionist said it best: You are under no obligation to be healthy.

It’s an important point to make in general, but especially when discussing size acceptance. The insistence on coupling fat and health is very much tied into the paradoxical idea that society as a collective has the right to comment on the health of others, while individuals are responsible for their own health. In other words, we’re going to judge you, but we’re not going to support or assist you for failing to live up to a healthy ideal.

The ideal of personal responsibility, of course, is closely linked with the belief that if people don’t behave as society wants them to, then they are personally responsible. Personal responsibility, the rallying cry of conservatives the world over! In other words, being fat is your responsibility, so if you are fat, you are obviously a total moral failure. And thus, society is permitted to shame you, because, you know, what kind of worthless person can’t even take responsibility for ou own actions?

Setting aside, for the moment, the debate over fat and health, it’s important to discuss the fact that you are not obliged to be healthy. I think that a lot of members of the size acceptance movement focus a little bit too much on the health aspects, a little bit too strenuously on debunking the false link between fat and health, and they forget the key message:

I’m fat. You think fat is unhealthy. So?

Why is it considered appropriate to meddle in the health of others? Why do people feel that they are somehow entitled to comment on the health of everyone from complete strangers about whom they know nothing to family members? And why is anyone tolerating this? How is the fact that I am fat, right now, right this very minute, in any way, shape, or form impacting your life?*

People with disabilities encounter this on a daily basis; people informing them that they know someone with the exact same condition, or that they know the best treatment available, or saying “but you don’t look sick,” or generally being meddlesome and irritating. And when people dare to point out that this behavior is not acceptable or appropriate, the result is a hissy fit in which the person being an unpardonably rude knob refuses to take responsibility for his or her behavior.

And here’s the thing, I’ll say it again: you aren’t obligated to be healthy. There’s no requirement to be healthy, and in fact the definition of “health” can be rather nebulous. If you want to be unhealthy, that’s your business, and no one can tell you otherwise. I think there are some definite benefits to being healthy, but I think you already know about those, so I don’t need to enumerate them.

Now, I would argue that I would prefer that you be healthy, because it makes me sad to think that there are unhealthy people in the world. But, ultimately, your health is not my business. Nor is it anyone else’s but yours. You get to choose what to do with your body, and that includes being unhealthy if that’s how you feel like being.

This is not to say that I don’t think health education should be available. That I don’t think all people should have access to health care. That I don’t think that the link between poverty and ill health should be examined. That I don’t think nations like the United States should be ashamed of themselves for letting people die because they are too poor to afford health care.

It just means that you, yes, you, don’t have an obligation to be healthy. And it also means that you, yes, you, do not have the right to comment on the health of others. And don’t you forget it.

*Ah, the old “but they have to retrofit airplanes” and “chairs in restaurants are breaking because of fat people” and “fat people take up too much room on the bus” arguments. Allow me to debunk those, so that you can stop using them: airplanes originally had larger seats which were torn out to accommodate more passengers so airlines could make more money. People of all sizes complained that they couldn’t fit in seats anymore. When I weighed 100 pounds, I didn’t fit in seats on airplanes. Airlines reluctantly adjusted in response to consumer complaints. Additionally, restaurant chairs (and really furniture in general) used to not be made out of cheap crap which falls apart when anyone sits on them, let alone people. And fat people on the bus? You seriously want to go there? So, people in wheelchairs should be banned from buses/trains because they take up too much room? As should people with bikes/packages/baby strollers/backpacks? Furthermore, are you seriously arguing that in situations where specific accommodations do need to be made for fat people, that they shouldn’t be made? That accommodations for humans of any sort who differ from the socially-dictated “norm” shouldn’t be made? Right. That’s what I thought.

Oh, ok, so you accept that fat people have a right to exist in society? Excellent, now you want to tell me that we’re costing the health care system money? Yeah, except that we’re not. Go read this for a debunking of the fat=unhealthy argument, and this and this which discuss why we don’t cost the health system more than anyone else.

1 Comment on Healthy Obligations

  1. Perhaps, when people tell me that my fat is unhealthy, I should tell them that I will see someone about it when everyone in this country has access to health care and good food. A lot of what is going on is classist. Rich women and upper class women in this country (and, yes, we are a class based society) tend to be quite thin. Lower class and lower middle class women tend to have higher BMIs for a number of reasons, including access to and time to cook better foods, access to and time to exercise, and genetics. Because class lines in this country are also usually ethnic lines as well. But, if we did have universal access to health care, some of the unhealthy weight might (or might not) vanish and the weight/fat that remained would not be a health issue or, at least, not seen as one.

    Oh, and of course, we have all the descendants of the Puritans still wanting to tell everyone what to do, what to think, and what to look like.

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