A few thoughts on surveys

An article published in the Chronicle today discussed the results of a survey on fat bias. Curiously, the headline was “Some Americans OK With Being Fat.” The headline was only curious if you bothered to read the article, though. Although I note the Chronicle hedged their bets with “some.”

The lead-in claimed that according to the survey, the percentage of Americans who “found overweight people unattractive” had dropped. The article continued, saying that while body image is “still an issue” in the United States, fewer Americans are as concerned with body image as they were before, fewer Americans are changing their food intake or eating restricted diets, and fewer Americans have a personal problem with being overweight. Indeed, the first part of the article makes it sounds as though fat is widely accepted and embraced in the United States, which is clearly not the case as any woman over 115 pounds can tell you.

This article was interesting to me since overweight and obese people are constantly being maligned in the media. The way they talk, it’s as though the real problem with America is our “growing waistline,” rather than lack of access to health care or good education or something. I’m surprised that they haven’t declared a “war on fat” to motivate us into trimming down. It’s totally acceptable for mainstream news media to slam people for being fat. I can’t imagine the New York Times publishing an article claiming that women in the workplace were destroying American society.

The article made a brief nod to fats rights activists, and pointed out that style trends change–there have been periods in history when overweight women were revered, and there are still parts of the world where more weight is desirable and attractive–clearly it’s a matter of societal taste rather than instinct or some such nonsense.

However, the crux of the article came in the end, and it’s a crux that I agree with. Several researchers have pointed out that surveys and studies are very flawed for determining social attitudes. In the PC era, I’m sure many survey respondents did not answer truthfully, because it wouldn’t be “nice.” I actually believe that overweight individuals experience a great deal of bias–probably more than at any other point in history. One individual they interviewed, Kelly Brownell, pointed out that if you held a survey about racial bias, most people would not respond truthfully. Who in the post civil rights and politically correct era would say “yeah, I don’t really like black people, you know?”

Fat people are subject to immense hurdles if they want to succeed in American society, as studies looking at unconscious bias have shown. You don’t have to like fat people any more than you have to like Mexicans, but a basic measure of courtesy and respect is not unreasonable to ask for. In a fitness-happy nation, fat is one of the few things it’s still socially acceptable to talk shit about. Fat is the subject of countless cruel jokes and tasteless movies–I am often astounded by the amount of fat bias in Hollywood films. Imagine the central plot of a movie being a greedy Jew or a stupid black woman with eight children, and being expected to laugh at it. I believe that comedy and parody have their place in society, but I think that comedy surrounding fat people has a sharp undertone–not only should you laugh at this because it’s funny, but you should laugh at this because fat people are pathetic half humans who don’t really deserve the respect skinny people get by rights.

Can being overweight lead to health problems? For sure. But so can smoking. So can a lot of things that skinny people do. Sometimes they are even condemned for endangering their health. However, it’s possible to be fat and fit just as it is to be skinny and unhealthy. I greatly dislike the attitude that if you aren’t skeletal, you aren’t “healthy” and that we somehow owe it to society to endanger our health in the pursuit of perfection. Being fat is not inherently unhealthy, and this has been proven in numerous studies. Being anorexic, on the other hand, is always unhealthy.

Furthermore, if someone next to you on the street is smoking a cigarette, that affects your health and environment. This is one of the reasons the campaign against smoking has so many backers, because things like smoking, drinking and driving, and so forth do affect others in directly negative ways. If the person next to you is fat, it should have no affect on you whatsoever, except that merely standing next to an overweight person causes people to be more likely to evaluate you in a negative way–up to 22 percent more, according to a University of Liverpool study.

Now that is fucked.


p.s. There is a call for submissions for the Big Fat Carnival over at Alas, a Blog. Submissions about all aspects of the fatosphere (hah!) are welcome, although “…please note, The Big Fat Carnival is not a place to advocate weight-loss diets, weight loss surgery (WLS), or feederism.”