So there’s been a dust-up between a guest blogger named Monica at Feministe and fat activists (mostly on Twitter that I’ve seen), with Maia actually posting on it. I’m not interested in getting in the middle of it. I think both sides make good points. FAs are right that Monica is out of line suggesting their negative experiences with health care providers are figments of their imaginations, but Monica is right that the “but some highly muscular people are technically obese!” is a disingenuous argument. I think people were too hard on Monica, but also that she was incredibly unfair in some ways. I want to talk about the most glaring unfair assertion she made, one that was pulled out by Kate Harding on Twitter in particular.
Weight can signal a lack of activity or too many donuts, and that shouldn’t irk anyone. Yet, it does.
This was unfair, for the very simple reason that fat activists are 100% right that 95% of fat people are going to stay fat. Drastic weight loss that stays off is incredibly rare, and is usually the result of weight loss surgery or a complete 180 in personal habits that is the sort of thing that is really not in human nature. And when I say “180″, I mean 180—the only fat people I’ve ever known to get un-fat without WLS went from being people who didn’t get much exercise to people who turned into jocks. Moderate exercise—which I still have no idea what that supposedly means anyway—just isn’t going to cut it. Losing weight is really, really hard. I put myself on a gym regime when we moved to New York, on top of all the extra walking you do here, and I’ve lost weight, sure, but it wasn’t the kind of weight loss rate that would turn a fat person thin. I can’t imagine what it would take to lose 10 times as much weight as I’ve lost, much less the 20 times that some people would have to lose to go from being fat people to not-fat people. I hear people make cracks about soda and donuts all the time, as if merely giving up overindulgence would magically turn a fat person thin. If you sit down and calculate the calorie shortages someone would have to endure to lose a whole lot of weight, you should see the mathematical issues in play.
But it wasn’t just the “drop the donuts, lose 100 pounds” simplicity that was off here. It was also the invocation of the concept of personal responsibility that makes me more than a little queasy. Not to say that I think that people don’t have personal responsibilities to look after their own diets or exercise regimes, but to write it off to that and not look at the big picture is to miss the point. Americans have been getting fatter in recent decades, and there have been rising rates of diabetes and heart disease to go with it. To imply that the cause is simple lack of self-control is to suggest that Americans have magically become lazier or more impulsive. I would argue that the culture has changed dramatically and puts immense amount of pressure on people to have habits that are simply counter-productive to their diet and exercise goals.
I was really reminded of how bad it is out there when I went to El Paso this last weekend. In general, my forays into middle America for family occasions tend to shock me with how much the world outside of my little urban bubble* makes it hard to maintain just basic healthful habits that would probably keep you from gaining weight in the first place. The food I can’t comment on too much, because we were there for an engagement party-birthday party-baby shower trifecta (all for different people, though I see no problem with having your engagement party with your baby shower), and so there was going to be overeating, because that’s just what you do at parties. My main exposure to non-party food was the continental breakfast in the hotel, but that was a decent reminder of how the food culture of America is sort of sadistic towards the eaters of America. I found an item at the bar made by Smuckers that was a waffle with the maple syrup baked into it, to spare you the burning of precious calories pouring your own syrup before consuming it, I guess. Despite the fact that the waffles came pre-syruped, however, there was a big bottle of syrup available. One day, the brilliant minds at junk food central will figure out how to dispense with the waffle part of the waffle-and-syrup equation.
But what struck me about this whole inane product wasn’t just the calorie overload built into the breakfast experience. It was that it was one of those kind of crazy labor-saving things that are so prevalent in America and are waging war on the prevalence of incident physical movement. This was a small thing, but indicative of a larger culture that discourages moving your body at all costs, unless of course you’re inside a gym or engaged in some other formal kind of exercise. Then you get to move your body. But an hour of even intensive exercise a day isn’t really enough. It’s the constant use of your body throughout the day that’s just as important, if not more so. Not having to go through the motions to get a waffle into your body is a small drop in a sea of discouragement to exert even the slightest effort. (Take, for instance, the electric turnstile we saw at a concert that completed the push forward motion for you after you started it.) What was really disconcerting to me during our visit was how much pressure there was not to walk. No matter who gave us a ride to the hotel, for instance, they would automatically drive right up to our door, even though doing so struck me as more of a pain in the ass than dropping us off at the entrance and letting us walk. I suppose I could have interrogated people about why the front door service, but I don’t think they wouldn’t understand the question because the idea of walking when you don’t have to in a non-exercise context just isn’t really something many people do. I mean, I could bother to explain why I ask, and that would be an interesting discussion, I guess. But I just didn’t want to go through the whole explanation. In all honesty, I think the reason is that since everything is so far away and can only be gotten to by car, the car starts to feel like an extension of yourself. At least, that’s how I felt until I started to live in places where walking was a lot more acceptable and certainly a lot more doable.
On top of that, a lot of people work too much to really make a lot of time for exercise. So they get a double whammy.
What was clear to me was that if I was living in that kind of environment, the amount of personal responsibility I’d have to take to avoid gaining weight would be way more. Way, way more, like 50% more. And I don’t know that I have the time or energy to put towards that. So, I really think that suggesting that the reason Americans are getting fatter is strictly because they’re spoiled or lazy is missing the point by a mile. Our culture has gone to great lengths to make it very hard to achieve a baseline of physical activity, or to eat in a way that makes you feel satisfied and happy without consuming an excess of sugar and fat. If we want to change things, we have to change the culture.
*And this was true of Austin, at least the part where I lived. It was really walkable. Plus, the city of Austin is health-conscious, foodie-oriented, and veggie-friendly, which means the calorie to other nutrient ratio on a restaurant plate is way better in Austin than in the rest of Texas.