I’d like to take a moment to break down some assumptions, homechickens, because I am really tired of seeing concern trolling in which people attempt to screen blatant fat hatred with some sort of worry about the health of fat people. This kind of behavior is rooted in a family of widely believed assumptions, and these assumptions are wrong, and it’s starting to piss me off to see people perpetuating them, especially people like scientists, who should know that correlation is not causation.
So. The assumptions, they are these.
- Fat is caused by overeating/not exercising.
- Therefore, fat is within the control of the fat person.
- If fat is in someone’s control, being fat is obviously the result of a lack of control, which makes fat a moral failing.
- Furthermore, fat is bad for you.
- Fat people do not know this.
- If fat is bad, and it’s controllable, fat people must also be bad.
So, let’s talk about what causes fat. Short version: it’s complicated. The simplistic assumption is that when people eat above the base number of calories* required by the body to function, they store the excess calories. The body is in fact programmed to do this. People who store excess calories will become fat, unless they exercise, increasing their caloric utilization. So, yes, there is a clear link between being fat and eating food. And not exercising.
However, the truth of the matter is that it’s much more complicated than this. You see, caloric demands from body to body vary, as does the efficiency of calorie utilization and storage. While most people know that the caloric requirements for people like athletes, pregnant mothers, and developing children are higher than those for mature events, the calorie requirements for individuals vary. To lean on anecdotal evidence (which is scientifically unsound, but I’m using it to illustrate a point, so bear with me) for a moment, different bodies work differently, which is why that super-thin girl eats so much food and never exercises and doesn’t seem to gain weight, and why that super-fat girl eats a limited amount of food and exercises constantly and seems to be fatter every time you see her.
So, yes, food and exercise levels play a role in weight, and all but the most extreme fat activists are going to freely admit this. So do issues like genetics, underlying medical conditions, and location. The food and exercise issue is not as simple as calories in/calories out, because there are a lot of factors at play here.
Is fat under the control of fat people?
Well, given the fact that being fat is hugely socially stigmatized and many fat people are very unhappy about their weight, to the point that they will undergo highly invasive surgical procedures which fundamentally alter their digestive tracts, I’m gonna say no, fat is not in the control of fat people. Not entirely. Because if it was, believe me, there would be no fat people.
Clearly, some fat people can control their weight to some extent. I, for example, can become thin if I eat an extremely restrictive diet and work out for several hours a day, every day of the week. I know because I’ve done it. That level of control and focus would have to be maintained for life. And while I’m privileged enough to be in the position of being able to do that, if I wanted to, other people are not.
Which is where social factors come into play. People in lower socioeconomic classes do not have access to the guidance of a physician to eat a highly restrictive diet safely. They do not have access to foods which can be eaten on such a diet. They do not have access (by which I mean time, money, ease of travel to) a gym to work out in, or to exercise alternatives like biking, running, etc.
And, for others, fat is genuinely not in their control, even with the measures I described above. Some people are fat because they have underlying medical conditions which make them fat, because they are taking medications which cause them to gain/retain weight, because of genetic traits which cannot be overcome. You know how you can look at someone in a wheelchair and see that ou is in a wheelchair, but not know why? Well, the same is true of fat people: you can look at a fat person and recognize that ou is fat, but you don’t know why, or whether or not the condition was in his or her control.
Is my inability to make getting and staying thin a priority a moral failing? Uhm, no. Different people choose different priorities for their lives. A moral failing is failing to intervene if I see child abuse. A moral failing is sitting on the bus when you are able bodied, young, and not tired and there is a disabled person standing. Having different life priorities is not a moral failing, which means that in the cases where fat is under control of the person who is fat, and ou has chosen to be fat, either directly (trying to get fat) or indirectly (not trying not to be fat), ou is not actually morally bankrupt. And in cases where weight is genuinely out of the fat person’s control, obviously, that person’s weight is not a moral failing, because he or she has no choice.
Is fat bad for you?
This question is actually really complicated. A number of studies have illustrated that being fat is not bad for you, by a variety of measures (general health, amount spent on health care, specific conditions, life expectancy, etc). Some studies have suggested just the opposite. Other studies have suggested that the type/distribution of fat is a far more important predictor of health; certain kinds of fat may be dangerous no matter how fat someone is overall. Since there’s a lot of social bias coming into play (even among scientists), it is difficult to get solid information.
The overwhelming conclusion seems to be that being unhealthy is bad for you, but that fat is not inherently unhealthy. Weight may sometimes be correlated with ill health due to the fact that it is associated with a slew of medical problems which cause people to be fat, but being fat doesn’t automatically make someone unhealthy. Conversely, being thin or of “normal weight” does not mean that someone is healthy. Furthermore, measures such as the BMI which are supposedly yardsticks/predictors of health are not at all functional; it’s important to be aware that they were developed by people who are not scientists, in an era when the science of fat was not well understood.
The general assumption and common wisdom is that fat is bad for you, but that doesn’t actually appear to be the case.
So, the newsflash: do fat people know that some research and most people think that fat is bad for you? Again, yes. There has been ample coverage in the media of the supposed dangers of fat, doctors routinely fat shame their larger patients, and members of the public are unafraid to loudly proclaim that fat is bad for you. Put it in comparison to another commonly maligned group, smokers: smokers know that smoking is bad for them. Just like fat people are well aware that conventional wisdom believes that fat is bad, and many genuinely also believe that being fat is bad for them, because they aren’t acquainted with information to the contrary.
Of course, unlike smoking, fat is not actually necessarily bad for you, but we shall set that aside for the moment.
There’s a weird double standard here, because the argument is that fat is controllable, which means that fat people are failing and therefore bad because they are not controlling themselves. However, people also seem to widely believe that fat people do not know that fat is both bad and controllable, which means that they are allegedly guilty of a moral failing they are not even aware that they are culpable of. Wild, eh?
So, here’s the real problem with the maligning of fat people: it has much more to do with the fact that fat bothers and disgusts people than it does to do with health. Just like the maligning of smokers, which is very much related to the fact that people find them disgusting. Were people to be honest, they would admit that they don’t give a fig for health, and are far more concerned with eradicating people who gross them out.
People who break their legs in climbing accidents are not accused of moral failings because they failed to prevent something which society believes is preventable, namely an injury related to climbing which could be avoided by not climbing. Likewise, construction workers are not maligned for workplace injuries, which they could have easily prevented by not working as construction workers! See how gross people get concern trolled under the “health’ argument, and other people don’t? Yeah. With fat, it’s even more problematic, because fat is not necessarily preventable or unhealthy.
The issue here is that when people attempt to engage with or combat fat hatred, people hide behind the health justification for fat hatred; it’s not that they have a problem with fat people, honest, it’s just that they are worried about the health of people who are fat! So you have to break these false assumptions down before you can even get into the question of whether or not fat people deserve to be treated like human beings, and people are usually extremely resistant to this, because when you take the assumptions away, you are left with fat hatred, and nothing else. This process of constantly educating people, as you might imagine, starts to get extremely frustrating when you are doing it on a daily basis, which is why people like me write primers like this, in the hopes that people who need to read them will see them and start thinking about them. And believe me, this is far from the only one; others have written much more detailed discussions which include ample citations of scientific research and much less abuse of italics.
* Hi there, scientists! I know that the correct term is kilocalorie, but since nutritionists/common usage favor “calorie,” I’m going to be incorrect. Sorry. I know that annoys you.