These are the Fat FAQs

I just couldn’t resist that title. Say “Fat FAQs” fast a couple of times!

Thanks to those of you who replied in the “rude questions” thread. I’ve taken ideas from that thread, cleaned up some of the concepts from the rude comments the other night, and pulled ideas from other conversations I’ve had and questions I’ve been asked privately. I’ve strung them all together into a single chain of questions and given you a wealth of links if you want to learn more. If you have more questions, let me know. It’s a big topic, but let’s help each other spread more good information!

Are you really saying that it’s okay to be fat?

Yes. I like the phrase “fat acceptance”, because at the end of the day all the science and the studies don’t really matter. It’s really just okay to be fat. Even if being fat is caused by eating too many cookies (which it isn’t) and it dooms you to ill health (which it doesn’t), people are allowed to make decisions about their bodies and their health all on their own, and it’s none of anyone else’s business.

You aren’t serious about this “diets don’t work” thing, are you?

Completely serious. Diets don’t work. By diet, I mean anything you are doing to fuck with your eating habits in order to lose weight. Even if you’re fucking with your food to lose weight “for your health”, that’s still a diet. If you’re calling your attempt to lose weight a “lifestyle change” or “eating better and exercising”, it’s still a diet. Whenever attempted weight-loss is studied, the results are a resounding failure. The researchers say things like, “It is only the rate of weight regain, not the fact of weight regain, that appears open to debate.”

If you truly want to learn about the failure of anyone, anywhere to find a way to make people lose weight and keep it off, there is plenty out there. You can’t just read the headlines, because headlines are written to sell things rather to inform people. But scratch the surface on the available information, and you’ll find a world of evidence. Evidence of failure. 6-10 pounds lost over two years. 3-10 pounds over a year. 4 pounds after 18 months. No change in weight after 3 years. No change after 8 years. A review of 31 different studies with various levels of failure. A narrative literature review of journal articles on weight management concludes that it “fails to meet the standards of evidence based medicine” and questions the ethics of continuing to promote failed treatments.

And exercise? Yeah, that doesn’t make people lose weight, either.

But what about calories in/calories out, thermodynamics, or how losing weight is obviously SO SIMPLE?

First, if you’re using the word “thermodynamics” in your argument about losing weight, you’re talking out your ass.

Second, if you’re using a “calories in/calories out” argument, you don’t understand how bodies work and what metabolism means. I recommend reading about set point theory and thinking about the ways that limiting your “calories in” is actually just cheating your body. The bottom line is that your body is complicated, and it’s working just fine, thank you, without you getting your thinking involved with your calories and messing up the program.

At the end of the day, we have no idea how to make fat people into thin people or thin people into fat people. No amount of sputtering about laws of physics or what you think is “simple” and “obvious” will change the fact that who is fat and who is thin is largely about genetics. Oh, and also, dieting seems to cause weight gain. I don’t have any studies to back me up on this, but I’ll wager a guess that if you want a culprit for some of the uptick in weight in this culture, it’s the diet industry itself.

Aren’t fat people just lazy/not trying hard enough/not motivated enough?

Dieting is basically self-imposed slow starvation. During the Minnesota Starvation Experiment, the men were on a “diet” that many would consider modest these days. During the experiment they became “nervous, anxious, apathetic, withdrawn, impatient, self-critical…depressed…obsessed with food.” Sounds an awful lot like how a lot of dieters feel. As a result of this experiment, we got the term “semi-starvation neurosis”.

When you understand that dieting is self-imposed starvation, calling it lazy or a lack of effort or motivation is revealed as a really callous thing to say. It’s not a demonstration of poor moral character to be unable to starve yourself for very long. Imagine being tasked with holding your hand over an open flame for as long as you can. Some people could do it for longer than others, but whenever it is that you snatch your hand back, it hardly makes sense to chide you for not trying hard enough. How about trying to breathe 20% less than you currently do? Again, different people would be more or less successful at this task, but when you gasp and go back to taking in enough air, it’s not because you’re lazy.

If you think fat people aren’t motivated enough, you have a serious misperception of how much it can suck to be fat in this culture. Trust me. We are motivated. The “willpower” nonsense is truly nonsense. Almost every fat woman in this culture has actually performed many acts of extraordinary willpower in her lifetime, by voluntarily starving herself over and over and over again.

What about me/my sister/coworker/friend who lost X amount of weight in the last X amount of time just by doing X.

Almost anyone can lose some weight using any number of popular methods. However, the research and the odds overwhelmingly say that you will gain that weight back. The more recently someone has lost weight, the more enthusiastic they are about explaining how everyone can do it, but they’re still wrong.

This is an area where I’m taking a really strong stand. Promoting weight-loss attempts is at best highly misguided and at worst unethical and cruel. Almost no one can lose significant amounts of weight and keep it off long-term. Of the few who can, many do so by adopting obsessive eating habits and essentially making weight-loss their full time job. Suggesting that significant, long term, intentional weight-loss is simple, easy, or even possible is itself a hateful thing to do. Don’t do it.

Then how do you explain the starving children in Africa?

No one is arguing that starvation doesn’t lead to weight loss. It does. However, purposefully starving yourself long-term, voluntarily, is a ludicrous proposition. A person who is stuck underwater will eventually run out of air and die. That doesn’t mean that I should be expected to hold my breath for an unlimited amount of time. That’s just silly.

Even if losing weight is hard and most people don’t succeed, shouldn’t you still try? For your health?

No. The whole fat and health thing is way more complicated than than you’ve been led to believe. Oh, it sounds all dire when the media gets going, but the truth is that being fat is NOT an indicator of bad health (edit: dead link removed), does NOT increase your risk of death, is NOT a risk factor for heart disease, and “NONE of the 21 diseases popularly attributed to obesity…are actually associated with excess deaths at any BMI category, including obese.”

Want more? Fat people don’t go to the doctor more or have more medical procedures or hospitalizations. They don’t take more sick days from work. The are no more likely to have chronic diseases than thinner people.

Still more? Fatter cardiac patients are more likely to survive. Fatter dialysis patients are more likely to survive. Fat people have better outcomes (edit: dead link removed) with blood transfusions. And then there’s this: Fatness is protective and beneficial for health issues that include infections, cancer, lung disease, heart disease, osteoporosis, anemia, high blood pressure, rheumatoid arthritis, type 2 diabetes, and fat people are more likely to survive a hospitalization at all than thinner people.

On the other hand, dieting may very well be bad for your heath. Intentional weight-loss is associated with increased aggressiveness, loss of lean muscle, kidney stones, decreased immune function, disordered eating, negative self-image, increased mortality, and increased risk of heart attacks, stroke, diabetes, higher cholesterol, higher blood pressure, depression, anxiety, and social withdrawal.

If/when your size does affect your health, what can you do about it?

Whether you’re skinny or fat or somewhere in between, you should address your health concerns by addressing your health concerns. Type II diabetes should be treated, regardless of what size you are. Sore knees should be addressed, regardless of what size you are. Weight-loss should not be prescribed as a medical intervention, since we have no idea how weight-loss can actually happen, and the attempt itself has negative health consequences.

Aren’t you just looking for a way to justify not exercising/being fat/not working hard enough/eating whatever you want?

No one needs a justification for that. I don’t have to exercise, and I can eat whatever I want. You don’t have to exercise, and you can eat whatever you want. You’re in charge of you, and I’m in charge of me, forever and ever, amen.

If that makes you uncomfortable, then we may be getting closer to the root of the problem. It’s not the fat people; it’s the desire to own and police the bodies of other people.

Are you saying that eating like shit and not exercising aren’t bad for you?

Nope. I’m saying that being fat isn’t bad for you. How you eat and how much you move around are separate topics. Eating well and moving around more are good for you, whether you’re fat or thin. This is a really important point: weight and health are two separate things. Your weight and how much you eat and how much you exercise are all different things.

So it’s true! Fat people eat like shit and don’t exercise.

Where did you get that idea? Think about it for a minute. Is it possible that you don’t really notice when you see a skinny person eating a cheeseburger, but when you see a fat person eating the same thing, you think, “Hmm, well, there ya go.” Some fat people have great, nutritious, modest diets and exercise their butts off. Some fat people are Cheetos-dust-covered couch potatoes. Some skinny people have great, nutritious, modest diets and exercise their butts off. Some skinny people are Cheetos-dust-covered couch potatoes. It turns out that fat people don’t generally eat more or exercise less than thinner people. It’s just that our collective narrative renders fit fat people invisible.

Aren’t you promoting fat/encouraging people to be fat/making people fat?

It doesn’t really matter if I am, because you can’t make thin people fat any more than you can make fat people thin, and by the way, remember, it’s okay to be fat. So maybe I am promoting it. I’m saying it’s okay to have a body like mine. What of it?

But obesity epidemic! 

Please drop the scary words attached to obesity from your vocabulary. Obesity isn’t an epidemic, a crisis, or a nightmare. “Obesity” is simply a description of a ratio between height and weight. It isn’t any scarier than tall people. Besides, when you read about how obesity is on the rampage, apparently going to take over the world, you’re being misinformed, since obesity rates have been steady for about a decade.

But the children!

Just no. Children being fat is not related to negative health outcomes. What is a negative outcome is shaming children about their weight. When everyone from the First Lady on down is convinced they’re at war against your body, that has to take a toll on a kid.

How can you be healthy or get healthier as a fat person?

The same way everyone else gets healthier. Many of the things that we hear as weight-loss advice is shit, of course. But some of the basic stuff in there – eat more whole grains, fruits, and veggies, get your heartrate up a few times a week, find ways to move around that are enjoyable to you – these things will positively affect your health, even though they don’t lead to weight loss.

This is one of the great tragedies of our focus on weight. It makes eating well and exercising a means to an unattainable end. There are lots of great reasons to eat nutritious foods and move your body around more that have nothing to do with weight-loss, but fat people who have tried to lose weight and failed may give up on these activities. Anyone can pursue greater fitness. This includes thin people. Thin people don’t benefit from the false equation of health and fat, either. Moving around more and eating better can improve the health of everyone, regardless of their size.

Also, let’s keep in mind that there is no moral imperative to be healthy. No one has an obligation to be healthy, to value health, or to do anything in particular about their health. We can focus on our own health, but the health of other people is none of our business.

In pursuing fat acceptance, are you also pursuing a fitness/exercise/workout routine?

I’m not. I promised myself years ago never to “exercise” again, because doing so is always an act of hatred against myself. Other fat people do exercise, for fun, for fitness, or to build certain skills. Fitness and fatness are two separate things. Some fat people work out, some don’t. Some thin people work out, some don’t.

Does being fat accepting assume that the doctor says you are in good health and you feel good and have the energy to participate in all the activities you want?

No, it doesn’t. Most people don’t get a doctor’s permission to live their lives. Being fat accepting is for fat healthy people. It’s also for fat unhealthy people. It’s for fat people who exercise. It’s for fat people who don’t. It’s for fat people who get winded easily. It’s for fat people who run marathons. It’s for fat people who go in for twice-yearly physical checkups. It’s for fat people who haven’t seen a doctor in years. It’s for fat people who are pursuing fitness. It’s for fat people who aren’t.

What are your thoughts on all the different ways people are fucked up about what to eat?

I think it’s no surprise. The weight-cycling industry has been marching on largely unchallenged for decades now. Who cam blame us for being a bit confused? Almost everything you read about food is framed as a pressing moral concern, an intricate puzzle to be solved, or a battle to be waged. Advice about what to eat and what not to eat is scattered, contradictory, and sometimes downright incomprehensible.

When it comes to GMOs or organic or whatever, I mostly try to avoid putting too much attention there, because it’s too easy for me to get sucked back into attaching moral issues to food. It’s more important to me to release that need for control over which foods are “right” and which are “wrong” and just eat what seems desirable to me in the moment.

Why are you so rude/aggressive?

(Yes, I really got this question.)

I get pretty worked up about this stuff sometimes, because the lies and the social pressure aren’t just interesting. They are actively harmful to real people. Over 60% of the adults in the US are categorized as overweight or obese, and we face discrimination, abuse, and in many cases extreme self-loathing as a result of the rampant moral panic about our bodies. I hope that I can muster up more aggressiveness and more energy to battle this issue. As Ragen Chastain has pointed out, our culture has declared war against us. It’s time to fight back.

And forward:

This post has 50 some-odd links in it. It took me a week to put my research in order and then write this post. I don’t expect you to read and absorb everything here immediately. I’ve been studying this topic for almost two years. And I’d love to hear your comments and questions! If you are going to comment, though, I do expect you to have a basic grasp of what I’m saying here and have accepted that at the very least, what you have “always heard” or what “everyone knows” is much more complicated.

It’s okay to be fat. Almost no one can lose significant amounts of weight and keep it off. Dieting is bad for you. You can’t make fat people thin or thin people fat. Genetics mostly decides who is who, and your bodily processes take care of the rest. It’s not unhealthy to be fat. Eating well and moving around more are good for everyone but don’t cause weight loss. No one is obligated to pursue health.

I’m interested in examining fat from a more personal perspective, and writing about how to change your relationship with yourself and your size. I feel like I needed to get this basic, factual, foundational stuff out of the way first. These are my premises. I’m excited to explore what comes next, after some of the bullshit about fat as been cast aside.