January, and the Roman New Year, tends to bring about a slew of activity surrounding New Year’s resolutions. For women, these pledges to improve in some way in the coming year often include weight loss, thanks to the value judgments surrounding weight and bodies. The idea that losing weight will make you a better, happier, more productive person is pervasive, as is the idea that losing weight is ‘healthy,’ even though there’s actually considerable debate on this subject. What seems to matter more than absolute weight is the body’s set point, which can vary considerably, and thus makes it hard to talk about health and weight in purely linear terms.
What research shows about dieting is that, as a general rule, it doesn’t work. If you diet, you will probably gain the weight back when you stop, unless you’re willing to go on an aggressive management plan for life. Permanent lifestyle changes like increased exercise can also help keep weight off. But it will be a battle, and it will be constant, and as soon as you let up, the weight will creep back, because your body will push toward the set point.
Every January, people, especially women, hit the gym and cut out sweets and drop pounds. Maybe they keep it up for a few weeks or months. Then those pounds come back on and they return to the starting point. Maybe they repeat the process in the next year, feeling guilty about their failure or pressured into it by someone else, like a ‘friend’ who insists on having a weight loss buddy. This is known as yo-yo dieting, for the constant bouncing up and down between weight points.
And, it turns out, it’s not very good for the body. Research suggests that it can lead to a loss in bone mass which may be permanent, especially in women after menopause, who are already at increased risk for problems associated with bone mass. It can cause kidney disorders, and some patients develop gallbladder problems and high cholesterol. Blood pressure can also rise, which of course often leads to a medical recommendation to lose weight, setting the whole process off again.
Studies focusing on the risks associated with yo-yo dieting sometimes underplay them, and in the news, the end stress in the story is usually that people should try to lose weight anyway, because being fat is ‘dangerous.’ Few media sources will openly admit that most of this advice is rooted in fat hatred, rather than genuine concerns about health; if the concern is whether people are healthy, the focus should be on actual metrics of health, with an awareness that absolute measures are rarely reliable. Some families, for example, have naturally high cholesterol with few health problems. Other people are unhealthy for reasons completely unrelated to weight and will not benefit in the slightest from losing weight.
Fat hatred kills. It kills every day in insidious, sneaky ways, and every January, the dieting resolutions are a reminder of how fat hatred kills, by creating such intense social pressure to lose weight. Some of the people pushing their bodies in the coming days and weeks may push them too far. Some people consumed in self hate may turn to more aggressive measures when their weight loss doesn’t go fast enough, like eating disorders and excessive exercise, or invasive surgical procedures to completely reroute their digestive tracts so they can’t absorb nutrients properly.
Others may push the people around them into bad places; the parent who stresses out a teenager, for example, with constant dieting and exercise talk and statements about how fat is disgusting. The ‘pacts’ to lose weight in the new year where people may become competitive, or may goad and push each other into dangerous activities. When one partner loses more weight more quickly than the other because of quirks of biology, metabolism, life, bodies, it suddenly becomes a measure of personal worth instead of a fact of life. The person who keeps the weight off by force of will, by radically cutting calories and exercising aggressively, becomes a figure of hatred and envy while the person who gains the weight back is ‘disgusting.’
Fat hatred is the thing pushing at many people’s lips when they decide to make a resolution to lose weight, when they say that 2012 is the year they will fit into their high school cheerleading outfit or wedding suit or other iconic item of clothing. It’s the thing that drives people to join gyms in droves and sign up for weight loss programs and ask their doctors about medical options for weight control, even if those things are dangerous or not particularly necessary. It’s the thing that feeds the multibillion dollar diet and weight loss industry, which relies on fat hatred to feed it. It certainly isn’t reducing its intake in the interests of health, that’s for sure, but apparently customers don’t identify the juxtaposition there.
January is the time when people around me talk about how much they hate their bodies and want to force them into something they’re not, or when people who are happy in their bodies get sidelong glances because they didn’t resolve to lose weight and have no intention to, because they have better things to do with their time. The new year is the crest on the wave of fat hatred, when it rises to a pinnacle fed by social pressures to ‘be a better person’ and ‘turn over a new leaf,’ because obviously fat people are bad, and hate being fat, and thus must want to turn over new leaves, to be new people.
I worry, as I do every January, about how many people will die this year because of fat hatred.