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Tuesday
Apr202010

Make it about what goes in, not what comes out


With Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution and Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign happening along side ongoing promotion of incredibly unhealthy food as reasonable meal options (french fries passing as vegetables, "Lunchables" passing as lunch, Kraft Dinner passing as a reasonable donation to food insecure families, toddler meals laden with sodium passing as specially made for toddlers, McDonald's passing as the food of champions, and more), there has been a lot of talk about food, body image, and health.

Personally, I am not a proponent of fat shaming. By that, I mean that individual overweight people should not be held up as examples of our poor nutrition and lack of exercise. I say that for four reasons. First, I know that not all overweight people are overweight due to poor nutrition and lack of exercise because genetics plays a strong role. Second, even if someone isn't eating as well as they should or exercising as much as they should, there probably are tons of societal factors working against that person and making it difficult for them to change their habits. Third, I don't think that shaming people is likely to bring about any real change in behaviour. It will just make people feel worse about themselves. Finally, too many people (girls and women in particular) are obsessed with their looks, size and bodies.

That said, I don't think it is wrong to talk about statistics. I think we need to talk about statistics to make it real to people that our society is getting more and more unhealthy all of the time. Sure, obesity is genetic to some extent. But when the entire population is getting fatter and fatter, that isn't one person's genes. That is an epidemic. Heart disease is also genetic to some extent, but when more and more people are suffering from heart problems we need to ask why.

But at the same time as talking about the outcome (we're less healthy), we need to talk about the cause and what we can do to change the status quo and stop the trend. I think those changes have to happen on an individual level (i.e. we need to be motivated to get outside more, to exercise more, to eat healthier foods) and on a societal level (more green space, more active time in schools, more affordable healthy food options, less promotion of crappy food to kids and families). People always talk about choice...you can choose not to buy the crap that is pushed on you, you can choose not to sit inside watching TV, you can choose not to smoke. I believe in giving people credit for being smart and being able to make their own choices, but I also call bullshit on anyone who says that societal influences are not significant.

Let's focus on healthy food and healthy lifestyles and how we can make them more accessible to each of us and especially those less fortunate than us, rather than singling out the fat kid or the fat mom.

P.S. Thanks to blue milk for her post we are what we eat, which inspired this post even though I didn't find a way to work it in to the text directly.

Image credit: woodleywonderworks on flickr
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Reader Comments (11)

There's another reason that I find fat shaming inappropriate, and that is that someone who is thin is not necessarily thin because they are making better choices. Some people struggle to gain weight, for instance. So while we don't want to shame others, we also shouldn't necessarily hold someone up as an example because they're thinner. Not everyone who is thin has a lifestyle that everyone else should emulate.

I love Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution on so many levels. But I wish it didn't have that fat shaming element.

April 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAmber

I'd add a fifth reason: 'It's none of my [anyone's] damn business what size a person is, and fitting into a societal standard of size OR health is not a moral imperative anyway.' And a sixth reason: 'No diet or lifestyle change has been shown to have any long term effectiveness in weightloss across a large sample, and in fact 95%-98% of people will regain all weight and then some within 2-5 years, so it's pointless and harmful to tell individuals to lose weight.'

Another comment would be that when you say that we are getting 'fatter and fatter', it's a little bit simplistic. The CDC recently reported that USian women haven't gotten heavier in ten years. There is a lot of panic out there about an obesity crisis, and a lot of reason to think that whilst within the relatively small category of morbidly obese people, people are fatter than before, the rest of the population is not in as much of a "crisis" as the media would have us believe.

On the other hand, I'm all for lifting systemic barriers to health and in a lot of ways I agree with your general position. It's similar to the formula/breastfeeding thing in my opinion: I am not interested in shaming a mother for not breastfeeding, but I am supportive in getting statistics about the risks of formula out there and in promoting ways to lift systemic barriers to better breastfeeding rates across the population. And whilst I reject the premise that a population's weight is necessarily a good measure of a population's health, I do agree that regardless of the obesity issues, our diets need to improve and activity levels almost certainly do as well.

But there is no point just telling people not to eat high fructose corn syrup or to not feed their children McDonalds or indeed to somehow find transport to a fresh food market, the money to buy things there, the skills to shop and cook well, and somewhere safe to store and prepare food, when they do not have these resources. I know that where I live, a huge amount of classism is imbedded into conversations about food - a lot of people seem content to talk about 'those parents who feed their kids junk all the time' without actually considering why this might occur or what could be done to assist those parents and children. Many people seem content to feel smug whilst they eat their organically sourced salads and write off their peers as simply less virtuous and more stupid. Which belies, I think, a great deal of fat hatred as well as ignorance of the mechanisms of privilege.

So - at the end of this epic comment - (sorry!), I just want to say thank you for this because whilst I don't agree with every word, I certainly think your position is much more helpful than the one taken by most.

April 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSpilt Milk

In Canada, we can get tax breaks for gym memberships and the like as part of an incentive to encourage the population to lead a more active lifestyle. I think it should go much farther than that; I htink that unhealthy foods should have health taxes on them, like cigarettes. (I'm specifically thinking of pop at the moment, as it's cheaper per litre than milk at my supermarket, but there are a million other examples I'm sure!)

April 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAlannah

That's about how I'm trying to teach my kids. My daughter already sometimes gets concerned that she might be getting fat (she's 7), so we've had talks about how what you eat and how active you are is more important than your weight. I've also explained that thin does not necessarily equal healthy.

I also enjoy teaching my kids about how photographs and such can be touched up to make people look better than they are. I've never been into any fashion magazines or women's magazines as a general rule, so those only have limited influence on my kids (I hope).

April 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie

I think claiming "‘No diet or lifestyle change has been shown to have any long term effectiveness in weightloss across a large sample..." is also a little simplistic. Having read Mann's original article re: the review of diet studies (http://mann.bol.ucla.edu/files/Diets_don't_work.pdf), I have several concerns with the authors' claim that diets don't work (I checked out the article link from your Fat Goddess post and decided to read the original study - so many great posts, by the way! I'll definitely be back when I have some time). The authors didn't (and really couldn't) explore the reasons why most dieters gained weight - it's impossible to determine whether the diets themselves are ineffective or whether societal influences prevented dieters from maintaining their new eating habits. I feel like this review "threw the baby out with the bath water"... It just claimed healtier eating (not sure if the studies really looked at healthy eating or just ridiculously unsustainable diets) doesn't help people lose weight or increase health without looking at the reasons why it doesn't work and what could be done to make it work. I have several other issues with the review but this isn't really the place for a full critical review of the paper...

Anyway, I don't think we can ever go wrong with healthy eating and active living. If societal influences were more supportive of healthy lifestyles we wouldn't have to worry so much about whether diets work - it's hard to lose weight for so many reasons, preventing weight gain is likely more attainable.

So back to the fat shaming - I totally agree that judging people about their weight or eating habits is no more helpful than judging a formula feeding mom for her choices. Focusing that energy toward social/cultural change is far more beneficial.

April 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

I totally agree with you Amber. It really bothers me hearing everyone, including Jamie Oliver, go on and on about obesity as though it's the problem. It's not the problem, it's a symptom of the real problem which is the horrifying eating habits and chair bound lives of most of the Western world. When you make it all about 'fighting obesity' you make those who are overweight/obese subjects of either pity or contempt (or often both).

Fat or thin, if you live on deep fried, processed, packaged junk you will be unhealthy and at risk but as things are, it's the fat kid whose lunch tray is scrutinized and the fat kid who's held up as the shining example of "where did we go wrong." On the flip side, if all of the examples of what not to do are the fat families it gives all those metabolically gifted junk food eaters an excuse to feel superior and unscathed.

For once lets stop going the easy route and blaming the fat chicks (because let's not forget it's always that fat mom that served that crap food and made her kids fat) because frankly, I have too many other thing to deal with to also shoulder the burden's of other people's fat phobia.

April 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKristin Craig Lai

I am not a fat person. In fact I am fairly petite. 5'8" and 122lbs. But, if I eat a salad for lunch, or a bowl of oatmeal and fruit for coffee most of the people around me will make fun of me and tease me. I am insulted for my body size pretty much anytime the subject of weight comes up. When I go out I usually walk or bike (within a reasonable distance), yet again I am subjected to ridicule for my lifestyle choices. Because I am small I am made fun of for making healthy choices. But If I was fat I would be less likely to receive the same types of comments - or if I did it'd be more likely to come from one person at a time rather than 4 or 5 at a time.

Fat shaming may happen, but it goes both ways. A small person is accused of being anorexic, bulimic and is shamed for trying to live healthy. The difference? It's socially acceptable to insult a thin person, but taboo to say anything to a fat person. The media blatantly tells us everyday that obesity is a problem and what it means and what should be done. Dr.s rarely bring it up to an overweight patient, friends don't mention weight around a larger person - in fact everyone says all the time - you are beautiful just the way you are - unless your thin - then you're scrawny, emaciated, sickly etc.

Fat shaming will not stop until people learn how to be healthy and accept themselves for who they are and what they look like.

April 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSarah

As someone who build health ed web sites, rock on.

April 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAimee Greeblemonkey

I've been thin all my life; probably some of that is the way I was raised (hippie mom, whole wheat bread). A lot of it is probably genetic. But I'm educated and aware and well-off and it's easier for me to make some choices over than others.

What kills me now that I have a kid is this: I teach her to love food, to love cooking, to love dinner parties, and all the rituals of eating and all that's great. I teach her that food is basic, elemental, primal, wonderful.

Not great? That I also have to teach her that food lies, that grocery stores lie and trap you, that food ads aren't true. That the entire cultural representation of food and eating is completely off-base, driven by profiteering. Basically, food in a box is the enemy, not to be trusted, to be consumed not at all according to what the picture on the box or on the TV says. If any of us can manage a healthy relationship with food in this kind of crazy climate, it's a miracle.

We eat KD sometimes. That's fine. I'm exaggerating to make the point that the whole sales and marketing apparatus around food runs completely counter to healthy, sane eating, and that defending my daughter against that means I have to teach her to have a fundamentally distrustful relationship with food, which is the total opposite of what I want.

April 21, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermimi

Sarah,
I know that when you are quite small people comment and criticize, I know that it can be frustrating and hurtful but you're understanding of what fat people experiences is woefully inaccurate. Fat shaming and fat phobia are very much socially acceptable. Doctors do 'mention' it to their fat patients. They frequently make them feel guilty, ashamed and less than human. Thin people are everywhere on TV and in the media. But if you pay close attention you may notice that most of the time when they bring a fat girl on to a single episode of some prime time drama she is depicted as either a pathetically insecure victim, a violent psycho or both (driven to the edge by being treated like crap she lashes out and goes on a killing spree). On comedies she is a joke. When I go shopping for clothes I frequently wind up crying in the change room because there are so few clothes for me that I feel like I am being told that I either don't or shouldn't exist. When I was (briefly) thin, people I had known for years were suddenly so much friendlier to me. They were even giving me hugs when they never had before. Sales women were suddenly nice to me, something I rarely experienced as a fat girl. When I went shopping for my wedding dress I actually got laughed at when I asked for my size.

So yes, thin girls take some shit too. And yes, that sucks. And yes, it's just the other end of the spectrum of a culture that insists that every woman's body is public domain. But it is not the same as being made to feel that you are inherently bad and undeserving of basic common courtesy, never mind some real honest to goodness respect. For a better understanding I encourage you to read this post: http://www.kimwrites.com/Fat_is_Contagious.html

April 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKristin Craig Lai

I'm sorry that you're given a hard time about your body and your eating and exercise habits. That is wrong, and I'm sure it is distressing.

But research shows that fat patients are at risk of sub-standard care because a majority of health professionals are prejudiced against them, and statistics also show that fat people earn less because they are discriminated against in the workplace. So whilst thin-shaming and fat-shaming may have some elements in common, they are not on a par.

I find your last sentence to be pretty insensitive: I do accept myself for who I am and what I look like, and I know lots about how to be healthy. Doesn't stop other people from treating me as a lesser person because I wear plus sizes. Fat shaming will only stop when people stop judging, shunning and shaming fat people. Simple as that.

April 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSpilt Milk

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