Tag Archives: Body Image

Stop Telling Fat People to Be Thin

source: fiercefatties.com

Last month, Harriet Brown published an article on Slate comprehensively laying out the science around weight loss and showing how (a) diets don’t work long-term; (b) weight loss isn’t healthy; and (c) that it’s out culture’s obsession with being thin that drives people (including doctors) to assume that being thin is healthier than being fat. The Slate article was a summary of what’s in her book Body of Truth, and reflects what fat activists have been saying for years.

In response, Julia Belluz published an article on Vox claiming that Brown’s article was misleading and that losing weight is a worthwhile and attainable goal. Belluz’s article is terrible. It’s so terrible that I have to rant about it at length here. So consider this your trigger warning for angry ranting and diet talk.

Claim One: Diets Don’t Turn Fat People Into Thin People

Brown lays out what we know about diets:

doctors know the holy trinity of obesity treatments—diet, exercise, and medication—don’t work. They know yo-yo dieting is linked to heart disease, insulin resistance, higher blood pressure, inflammation, and, ironically, long-term weight gain. Still, they push the same ineffective treatments, insisting they’ll make you not just thinner but healthier.

In reality, 97 percent of dieters regain everything they lost and then some within three years. Obesity research fails to reflect this truth because it rarely follows people for more than 18 months. This makes most weight-loss studies disingenuous at best and downright deceptive at worst.

Brown’s statements reflect scientific findings about the ineffectiveness of diets over the long-term, which more often lead to weight gain than weight loss (83% in the linked study). Nobody quite knows why that’s happening, but one of the most plausible theories is set point theory, which is the idea that each body has a certain level of fat that it wants, and without drastic interventions, it will remain at the same level long-term. Set points can change, but nobody really knows how, and most diets tend to slightly raise a person’s set point rather than lower it. Set Point Theory applies to fat people and thin people alike:

Kolata goes on to discuss a later study that demonstrated it was just as hard to gain a significant amount of weight and keep it on. Male prisoners agreed to do this weight-gain experiment, and it turned out they had to eat a ridiculous amount of food–literally up to 10,000 calories a day–to increase their weight by 20-25 percent. Once they did that, their metabolisms went apeshit trying to get them back down to their normal weights. As soon as the study was over, the weight fell off.

There is also some evidence that gut microbes contribute in a significant way to weight gain or loss. The thing about all of the theories, though, is that they are not yet proven, and more importantly, that nobody understand them well enough to say how to turn a fat person into a thin person (or vice versa).

Belluz disagrees:

Some of the best research on what works for weight loss comes from the National Weight Control Registry, a study that has parsed the traits, habits, and behaviors of adults who have lost at least 30 pounds and kept it off for a minimum of one year.

[…]

“What makes maintaining weight loss seem ‘almost impossible,'” writes obesity doctor Yoni Freedhoff, “are the goal posts society has generally set to measure success.” So no to quick diets, yes to long-term lifestyle changes. They can help.

Can you spot the error? I can! A few of them in fact! But the most glaring error is the one-year time requirement. There is no question that people on diets can lose weight and keep it off for one year, maybe even two. But once you get to year three, and especially when you get to year five, nearly everyone has not only regained the weight that they lost, but put on additional weight.

The other error is what’s known as selection bias. The registry includes 10,000 people who have successfully kept their weight off. Belluz tries to use the registry as evidence that long-term weight loss is possible for most people. However, nobody has argued that weight loss is impossible for anyone, just that it doesn’t work for 97% of those who try. Given that 45 million Americans diet every year, that’s over a million people every year who are successful. The existence of a registry of 10,000 people who have successfully lost weight proves nothing other than that they are part of the lucky 3% whose metabolism is cooperative.

Belluz tries to claim that the people on the registry have valuable advice for the rest of us. I’m reminded of a parable about mutual fund management I was told in finance class. Let’s pretend that picking stocks at random will outperform an index fund 30% of the time (the actual number is probably much higher). Let’s also say that there are ten thousand asset managers in the market. That means that, statistically, there will be 24 managers who are able to say “I beat the market every year for the past five years!” They will claim that their success is due to their incredible skills and insights, and try to convince you to invest all of your money with them. Their success is actually due to dumb luck. Their stock picks for the current year are no better or worse than anyone else’s.

The same goes for people who have successfully lost weight. Yes, they exist. No, they don’t have anything to teach the rest of us. For some reason, they got lucky. However, as the vast majority of studies have found, their success is not replicable for most people. They are not role models, and they have no helpful advice for how to turn fat people into thin people. Yes, this includes you.

Claim Two: Losing Weight Doesn’t Improve Health

Brown’s article claims:

Studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention repeatedly find the lowest mortality rates among people whose body mass index puts them in the “overweight” and “mildly obese” categories. And recent research suggests that losing weight doesn’t actually improve health biomarkers such as blood pressure, fasting glucose, or triglyceride levels for most people.

Brown’s claims have been well-documented by various sources. There is an effect some call “the obesity paradox” where “[o]bese patients with heart disease, heart failure, diabetes, kidney disease, pneumonia, and many other chronic diseases fare better and live longer than those of normal weight.”

Belluz takes issue:

Stokes actually looked at more than 10 years of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and death records of American adults between the ages of 50 and 84, and went back in time, accounting for people’s weight histories. This made it possible to break up the normal weight category into two separate groups that are usually lumped together: those who had maintained a normal weight throughout their lives, and those who were normal weight at the time of the study but had experienced weight loss.

Stokes found that people who were always normal weight had an extremely low risk of death, but that the other normal weight group — with people who were formerly obese — had a much higher mortality rate. After redefining the normal weight category to only include the stable weight individuals, he found much stronger associations between excess weight and mortality.

Belluz claims that this “definitely has implications for the intensity with which we should be pursuing lifestyle and behavioral modification.”

inconceivableThis was the point at which my jaw dropped. I’m still having trouble believing Belluz is serious. She just presented a study that shows that losing weight not only doesn’t make you healthier, but it makes you so unhealthy that it throws off the statistics for the rest of the group, and she uses that as an argument in favor of weight loss! Belluz discovered really good evidence against the idea that weight loss is good for you and then wrote an entire article about how we should all be dieting! And claiming that it will improve our health! I feel like I’m in the Twilight Zone.

Related to the health question, Brown addresses the kind of energy is takes to maintain weight loss long term:

Debra Sapp-Yarwood, a fiftysomething from Kansas City, Missouri, who’s studying to be a hospital chaplain, is one of the three percenters, the select few who have lost a chunk of weight and kept it off. She dropped 55 pounds 11 years ago, and maintains her new weight with a diet and exercise routine most people would find unsustainable: She eats 1,800 calories a day—no more than 200 in carbs—and has learned to put up with what she describes as “intrusive thoughts and food preoccupations.” She used to run for an hour a day, but after foot surgery she switched to her current routine: a 50-minute exercise video performed at twice the speed of the instructor, while wearing ankle weights and a weighted vest that add between 25 or 30 pounds to her small frame.

“Maintaining weight loss is not a lifestyle,” she says. “It’s a job.” It’s a job that requires not just time, self-discipline, and energy—it also takes up a lot of mental real estate. People who maintain weight loss over the long term typically make it their top priority in life. Which is not always possible. Or desirable.

Belluz is unsympathetic:

But I would ask Brown: does being obese require any less mental energy?

Is it really more mentally freeing to feel tired when you walk up a flight of stairs, to have to buy two seats on an airplane because one won’t do, to not be able to play with your children because you’re too unfit, to continually worry about whether your clothes are going to fit in the morning … the list goes on.

This is where Belluz reveals what is at the root of her science-denialism and wrongheaded thinking: prejudice against fatties. Belluz assumes that being fat means you’re too “unfit” to walk up stairs or play with children? That you have to worry whether your clothes will fit? Seriously? In the same way that body size doesn’t determine health, body size does not determine fitness. Newsflash, asshole: fat people exercise! And when a fat person exercises, their muscles, lungs, and heart develop strength and endurance. Just like a thin person! Being fat doesn’t mean it’s tiring to walk up a flight of stairs. There are many fat and thin people alike who end up out of breath after walking up the stairs. There are also many fat and thin people who have no trouble walking up a flight of stairs. Body size does not determine cardiovascular health, and to suggest it does is nothing short of bigotry.

Do you know what actually uses up a lot of mental energy in fat people? Fat stigma, which is exacerbated by ignorant articles pushing tired bullshit that’s been disproven over and over again. Want to improve the health of fatties? Spread the word about Fat Acceptance and Health at Every Size.

I am fat. I have always been fat. I am actually one of the lucky few who has managed to lose weight and keep it off long-term, which I did almost a decade ago by starting low-carb and then going low-calorie. Since then, my weight has been slowly but surely creeping back up. I’ve tried low-carb followed by low-calorie again, with no effect. I’ve tried going low-carb for longer. No effect. I’ve tried Whole30. No effect. I’ve tried The Smarter Science of Slim. No effect.

I’m not doing it anymore. I live a healthy lifestyle. I drink green smoothies for breakfast. I eat salad for lunch. I probably eat fewer calories than you do. I exercise regularly. I’ve started jogging. I walk up three flights of stairs to my office no problem. My doctors tell me I’m in excellent health. I have no reason to lose weight, and I’m not going to.

If Julia Belluz has a problem with that, she can kiss my fat ass.

The Fat Kid, 1994-2013

When I was in 5th grade, I found out that I was fat. I was cast to play Santa Clause in the school Christmas play, Some kid, I don’t remember who, said something to the effect of “heh, you won’t even need any stuffing.” It wasn’t until that moment that I learned to be ashamed of my body. Before then, I didn’t really think about it. But at that moment, it was revealed to me that my body was ugly and unpleasant. That was the moment where I changed from being able to watch “Stand By Me” unaffected to flinching every time Jerry O’Connell got referred to as “the fat kid.” That was the moment where I stopped wanting to take my shirt off at the beach.

Being “the fat kid” makes life difficult in a lot of ways, but none so much as dating. I’ve been interested in girls since first grade, and probably before that. Dating in elementary school is just weird, so I don’t really count that. I even had a girlfriend in 5th grade. It seems like a ridiculous thing, to have a girlfriend in 5th grade. I don’t think we even kissed, but it because very important to me later. She and I didn’t particularly interact after we dated, and I can’t even begin to remember how or why we broke up, but I it meant a lot to me all through middle school that someone was willing to give me that kind of attention.

Middle school (6th-8th grade, in my district) was a near-constant stream of rejection. I watched my classmates form romantic connections and hold hands in the hallways. I would hear stories of experiments with adolescent sexuality. Girls would express interest in my friends. I would look around, and clearly see what all of these people had in common – no fatties. The point was driven home by social rejection in other ways, most notably a regular outpouring of teasing for my weight, my fat ass, my “tits.”

Remember how I said that my 5th grade girlfriend ended up being important to me? That’s this part of the story. That “relationship” was probably the only thing that kept me from feeling like a complete loser throughout middle school. As with most adolescent boys, I was obsessed with girls, not only because I had strange new desires, but also because I wanted to be a person with a girlfriend. Somewhere along the line, I internalized the idea that having a girlfriend was the most important thing a person could do to be worthwhile. The longer I spent single, the more pathetic I felt. The only thing staving off complete despair was the fact that I had a girlfriend and one point in my life, so clearly I wasn’t completely worthless to girls.

Except, really, I always knew I wasn’t completely worthless to girls. Girls liked me. I had a number of female friends, and I tended to get along well with girls in general. There was only one part of me that was worthless to girls – my body. No matter how much of a connection I formed with a girl, she would be repulsed at the idea of touching me on any level beyond a friendly hug. My body was disgusting to girls. Sometimes, they would tell me so. Most of the time, they would give me one of those so-called “polite” rejections, e.g. “I just don’t feel that way about you,” or “I don’t have time to date right now,” or “I’m busy on [every evening you ask me out].” Until Mandy.

met Mandy in 9th grade. Well, back up. I met Mandy in 7th grade and thought she was really cute, but she disappeared over the summer. I next saw her again once I got to high school (turns out she skipped a grade). Mandy changed everything. Mandy liked me. Mandy like-liked me. She was beautiful, and smart, and fun, and soft, and amazing to touch, and she. liked. me. Naturally, I had no idea what to do. We dated for over a month before I would even kiss her. But I did kiss her, and she kissed me, and we didn’t stop kissing each other for two months. I, being 15 years old, made some poor decisions, and Mandy left me in July of that year, but I never believed that it was because of my body.

After Mandy, I didn’t date again for almost six years. Oh, I went out with girls. But they would make it clear that we were not on a “date.” As before, girls still liked me, just not my body. In the latter half of high school, I started developing real, deep feelings for girls. I started getting emotionally close with people, even intimate. But none of that changed the fact that my gross, fat body was undesirable at best and repulsive at worst. And every year, I got fatter.

By 2002, my freshmen year of college, I was 275 pounds, and my body-shame was at an all-time high. I was a 19-year-old virgin and hadn’t kissed a girl since 1997. I would fall in love with any woman who even looked in my direction. My shame was so great that I felt unable to turn away any attention, even if it wasn’t the kind I wanted. I let myself be used as not much more than an emotional sounding board. I had a drunken makeout with someone whose name I didn’t even know at a party and I looked at it like I’d just been awarded a Nobel Prize. Hey! A girl who was near-falling-down drunk could stand to touch me! It was pathetic. By the time I went home for the summer, I was convinced that college was going to be a lot like high school.

The Fat Kid, 2000

The Fat Kid, 2000

Mandy saved me again. She randomly came into the record store where I worked that summer. It had been four years since we dated, but she was as attractive to me as ever, probably moreso, since I was now convinced that nobody else would ever be interested in my stupid, fat body. The situation was a complete mess. She was going to school in Pittsburgh, and she had a boyfriend that she would break up with, and then get back together with in the course of a week. But I didn’t care. I wanted her so badly, and we finally had awkward sex in the front seat of my Oldsmobile 98, ducking to make sure nobody on the not-10-feet-away sidewalk could see us. It didn’t matter to me how awkward it was. It wasn’t the sensation that was important. It was the status. I wasn’t a virgin any longer. I wasn’t a total loser. I wasn’t undesirable. This person desired me. She desired me so much that she was willing to massively complicate her relationship situation to be with me.

The Fat Kid, 2001

The Fat Kid, 2001

Unsurprisingly, the situation went to hell within a few months. I visited her in Pittsburgh a few times, and those are some of my fondest memories of that entire time period. She made me feel amazing, and sexy, and she reminded me that not everyone saw my big belly or my fat face as revolting.

Sadly, and to my shame, I didn’t do the same thing for her. While all I wanted was someone to take an interest in my body and my sexuality, she was all-too-familiar with such things. Her life had been a mirror image of mine, and she was convinced that her body and her sexuality were her only assets. While the relationship did wonders for my self-esteem, I suspect it did the opposite for hers. In retrospect, I used her as a self-esteem booster and a status object. I think she just wanted to be valued, and didn’t know how to say “no.” She tried to tell me, and I didn’t listen. Mandy, if you’re reading this, thank you, and I’m sorry.

The Fat Kid, 2002

The Fat Kid, 2002

Around that time, I tried the Atkins diet. It was in vogue at the time, and it was the first time that I tried any kind of rigid diet. It worked amazingly well. I lost 10 pounds in a week. 5 pounds the following week. Another 5 pounds in the next two weeks, for a total of 20 pounds in a month. Eating bacon. I was still 250 pounds, but I felt great. My clothes fit looser, and when I looked in the mirror, I looked thinner! I decided to keep it going, and signed up for Weight Watchers (I figured Atkins would give me a heart attack if I actually kept it up). Over the next year, I lost about 40 more pounds. The need for smaller pants gave me indescribable joy.

Spring 2003 was when I got to know Gina, and fell for her almost immediately. This, also, was a mess. She had a boyfriend at the time, and we were all in a 6-person show together. This was not new to me. By this point, I was used to having unrequited feelings for “taken” women. Even with my new smaller size, I was still “obese” according to my handy BMI calculator, and didn’t harbor any illusions that my body looked good to anyone but me.

It’s a long story, mostly involving me being too desperate to give up and Gina not wanting to admit her feelings. BUT it all worked out, and we’ll be celebrating 10 years together this January.

The Fat Kid, 2005

The Fat Kid, 2005

My body image issues got better after that, but they still weren’t great. I still saw my body as unattractive, but actually having a girlfriend, especially one as great as Gina, was helpful.

Wanting to feel wanted while in a monogamous relationship is a strange thing. Up to that point, I always wanted to be wanted for practical reasons – I hated being single, and I wanted somebody to be with. Now, I was with somebody, and didn’t need to impress anyone but her – but I still wanted to. I still wanted to be wanted, not for any practical reason, just for how it made me feel. Or, more accurately, how not being wanted made me feel. Being wanted by one person was great, but I still didn’t feel attractive, and I still didn’t like what I saw when I looked in the mirror.

The Fat Kid, 2009

The Fat Kid, 2009

It wasn’t until Gina & I opened our relationship, and I lost another 30 pounds, that I started actually feeling good about my body. My first relationship after opening up was kind of a disaster. I was still feeling vulnerable due to my body issues, and she represented all the girls I couldn’t “get” when I was younger. She was skinny, outgoing, popular, and every guy I knew wanted to be with her. When she kissed me, I felt like the coolest kid in school, like I’d never felt before. She was also self-absorbed, inconsiderate, and within a handful of weeks, her attraction to me waned, and she started seeing a much skinnier guy. Like I said, kind of a disaster, but she meant a lot to me at the time.

The Fat Kid, 2011

The Fat Kid, 2011

In February of 2010, I started dieting again. March 27, 2010, was a big day for me. That morning, I weighed myself, and the scale came out to 201.5 pounds. That number might not mean a lot to you, but it meant everything to me. For my height, weighing less than 202 pounds moved me from “obese” to “overweight” on the BMI scale. I honestly never thought I would get there. It felt great. Over the next year, I lost another 25 pounds, and bottomed out at about 175.

More than the weight loss, my body image was improved by joining okcupid. On okcupid, I could meet women who actually found me attractive, and who were ok (or even enthusiastic) about dating a married man. I stopped being able to count on one hand all of the women I ever knew who found me attractive. I started seeing real evidence that my body and my sexuality were not generally looked at as disgusting and repulsive. Women appreciated my body. I even met women who didn’t seem to like me that much, but were still interested in my body. It was surreal at first.

Since then, things have gotten much better. I’ve gained back about 30 of the pounds I lost. I’m not happy about it, but I no longer believe that I need to be thin in order to be attractive. I’ve also stopped viewing women as status objects that I can use to prove to myself how not-hideous I am. Because my insecurities are under control, I’m able to connect with people on a much deeper level. It still hurts when people tell me that my body holds no value to them, but it’s bearable. I love Gina more than I ever did, and I have an amazing fiancee who can’t get enough of me. I’m performing in a burlesque show (and yes, I take my clothes off).

This week is weight stigma awareness week. This morning, I weighed 208 pounds. I’ve eaten 1,397 calories today. My pants fit a little tight. The buttons on my shirt are pulling a bit. I have a lot of love in my life. So it goes.

The Fat Kid, 2013

The Fat Kid, 2013