Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Fat as metaphor

Meowser's comment on an earlier post got me thinking. She wrote:
"Whenever I see/hear anyone complaining about fat people walking around, or at the gym (where we're just piddling around and slowing things down for the buff crowd, you see, no fat person could possibly be getting an actual workout there), or dancing, or riding around on bikes, it totally gives the lie to the "unhealthy! unhealthy! diabetes! diabetes!" meme. Because people like that would totally rather we stay home and stuff our fat faces where they can't see us, rather than actually move around. I believe my mother cares about my health. I don't think some random stranger who doesn't know me really gives a damn if I'm "healthy" or not, and in fact, it would really piss them off no end if I had numbers proving that, apart from my weight, there is nothing wrong with me.'

I've been thinking as fat-as-a-symbol, the way it's most often used: as a metaphor for imperialism, greed, overconsumption, etc. Meowser's comment makes me wonder if it's also used as a symbol for questioning authority. Do fat people stick in the craw of the entitled thin establishment because we're not following the rules? Because we aren't doing whatever it takes to get thin, and stay thin? Do we piss them off because we're perceived as thumbing our noses at the authority figures?

I find it interesting that in a time of such extreme individualism, this is one area where being quirky, or not fitting the mold, is perceived as being unacceptable. We've become such a tolerant society in so many other ways. Though I know we have a long way to go on racism, still we've come a long way. When I was in college I was at the center of a near race riot, caused in part by my dating a black man and by the reactions of both whites and blacks on campus. That wouldn't happen today, not even in the deep south. The kind of anti-Semitism I bumped into as a child wouldn't be tolerated today, either.

So what is it about fat that gets people so riled up? Maybe fat people challenge, by our very existence, the marketing economy we can't escape. We're not buying into the pills, creams, products, etc. that are supposed to make us thin. (Though God knows many of us *have* bought those things, in the millions.) Maybe it's that fat people are perceived as not buying into the marketing imperatives about aesthetics, which are used to sell everything to everyone, from cars to cereal. We're not good consumers in the broadest sense of the word.

I wonder.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

And what's the point, anyway?

This whole you-can't-be-fat-and-fit, fat-is-always-unhealthy thing is really bugging me. Because really, what's the point?

The debate is beginning to remind me of my second-grade friend Linda Read, who had just learned in catechism that people like me--i.e., Jews--were going to burn in hell forever. And because she was my friend, she tried to convert me, of course, to spare me the suffering she knew was coming my way someday and forever.

Now let's say that guys like Walter Willett and Paul Raeburn (see previous post) are like my friend Linda. They really really believe that people like me--i.e., fat people--are going to health hell. Either we're going to get terrible diseases or we're just going to keel over at a tender age. (I once listened in astonishment to a neighbor talking about a certain fat actress on TV: "I can't even stand to watch her because I just know she's going to drop dead at any second!") So they set out to convert us.

But they know that it's not that simple. They know, for instance, that for most people dieting does not work, for a variety of reasons. Now here's where I really don't get it. Because you'd think the next tactic would be to encourage positive behaviors like fitness. Some fat people will lose weight that way; some won't. But we do know that being fit is a good thing no matter what your weight.

So why, then, do we get drivel like Raeburn's piece in Scientific American on how you can't be fat and fit?

Is the point to to shame us out of getting out there on our bikes and exercising? (I thought the photo at the front of that piece was exploitative.) Is the point to make us throw up our hands and say, "Well, no reason to bother exercising, since the only thing that counts is losing weight."

It feels so disingenuous. It feels like the point, such as it is, is fat bashing. So what if you're a triathlete--if you weigh 300 pounds then you can't possibly be healthy, so don't even bother.

And this bothers me far more than the other kind of health crusaders, the ones who are really like my friend Linda Read. Who worry for our fat souls, as it were, and want to save us.

These guys just want us to go to health hell already. And that makes me mad.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Because he said so, dammit

This article by Paul Raeburn in the September issue of Scientific American, starts out well but quickly goes belly-up. So to speak. Raeburn's burning question--"Can fat be fit?"--is presented as genuine, but it's clear from the second graf that he's got an agenda rather than a genuine curiosity about the question.

He pays lip service to Katherine Flegal's research showing that being overweight (BMI between 25 and 30) may actually lower your risk of mortality. Flegal's drawn a lotta flak since her study came out, of course, and no doubt there's more to understand. But Raeburn doesn't try too hard. He sets Flegal up as a straw man and knocks her down fast with other research that seems less than compelling. He quotes Walter Willett of the Harvard School of Public Health, and writes, "Willett’s research has identified profound advantages to keeping weight down—even below the so-called healthy levels."

Here we have it once more, ladies and gentlemen, the mantra of so much that's being written these days about fat and thin. Flegal's research doesn't count because, as we all know, the lower your weight the better.

I can hear Willett saying, "Fat is too bad for you! [foot stomp] Why? Because I said so!"

I don't know Paul Raeburn's writing, but I do expect better than this paltry effort from Scientific American.