Monday, February 11

The Ex-Dieter Complex

They say that ex-Catholics and ex-Smokers can be recognized by others from miles away. I wonder if this goes for dieting, too.

One of the more sociologically interesting things about the whole subject of obesity is how people react to not wanting to be fat.

I don't mean by dieting. (Actually, dieting may be one of the least interesting subjects to me on earth right now. I'm simply not in the zone for it to fascinate me at the moment. I have, temporarily, reduced my eating life to two simple truisms: Eating healthily is good; Eating poorly is bad. This doesn't actually determine my diet. It simply provides moral commentary on it from the background of my attendant guilt complexes.)

I mean by how they behave. There is more to diet-related behavior than what you put in your mouth, of course. Including a good deal of what spews out from it.

Recently I was reading an article from the Sunday Times by India Knight, called Face it, fatty, your genes are innocent (2008Feb10).

There was something curious about it, which was this: the writer, once you waded through the swamp of scathing insult, and if you happened to know something about her aside from this piece, is actually promoting a low-carb eating approach. This is rare enough to see in mainstream media that it's usually almost a celebration.

Alas, the article didn't actually say anything useful enough to do readers any good, but, I don't think that was the point of the article anyway.


I feel that what the article reveals is something that has nothing to do with food, but with prejudice, and the way that socially people adapt to living within a culture permeated by that prejudice.

Obesity-ism has gotten so pervasive and so brutal that fat people have begun developing a world-sized case of Stockholm Syndrome. They now identify more with the people terrorizing them than with their own feelings or those of others in the same role, past or present.

In part to psychologically distance themselves from the horrible role of victim, they become the aggressor, victimizing others with the same demeaning and snide, patronizing and invalidating forms of insult that bullies have used since time began, no matter what the "-ism" being practiced.

Knight wrote:
Fat gene, my foot. Funny how it seems to manifest itself only in the prosperous, cake-guzzling carb-and-sugar-laden West. Where are the obese Sudanese toddlers? The porky Ethiopians?

The Gary Taubes book "Good Calories, Bad Calories," debunked the idea that obese people are only found in 'rich' countries. Foods that create obesity are available even to--and often moreso for--the poor. I did appreciate that she recognized carbs as a culprit, obviously, but this didn't seem to take the argument anywhere different than the typically misinformed dietary commentary, which is a bit odd.

She continues:

The excuses that people make for their own fatness drive me mad (I know whereof I speak and am not wholly unsympathetic: I was very fat myself at one point), and you can just see the mileage they’re going to get out of being told that it’s all down to genes. It’s not. It’s down to taking control of your life and down to choice: you can choose to be fat or choose to be normal. You can choose to make sacrifices or choose to be lazy -- and if you choose to be lazy and remain fat, then fair enough, but accept that it’s your own doing and take responsibility for it.

All the mileage they're going to get out of it. I see.

I agree with her on the part about responsibility. In fact, I don't know anybody -- including just about every morbidly obese person I know thanks to my involvement in the lowcarb world -- who would disagree with the above perspective about responsibility.

But then when I step back and think about it, I realize: exactly who, in today's world, is NOT considered responsible for their obesity?

Despite that thyroid can add weight, despite that other hormones can add to weight, despite that physical ailments and medications can contribute to either gaining weight or not being able to lose it, do you ever -- have you EVER -- seen one of the near-infinite number of fattists, in the midst of their sneers and remarks and jokes about fat people, build-in the caveat that perhaps they should be compassionate as it might not be the fat person's fault? No? Because I never have. Ever. Even in the rare cases where a person IS fat and it is genuinely something they did not "do" (even via ignorance or accident), I have never seen anybody of the nature to snark about "fat people" or "why people are fat", make the slightest allowance for that.

So let's turn that perspective a bit: have you ever known a seriously fat person, no matter what their eating habits, who felt zero sense of guilt or shame or blame for their weight? Who honestly believed that no matter what, they were somehow "totally not responsible" for their weight? I know plenty who will say that little they do NOW affects their weight or metabolism, but I never met a fat person who considered themselves completely unresponsible for their weight in the first place.

Sure, I've met fat people who will attribute less cause to their eating than they should, and I've met fat people who have seriously said (and I happen to believe them) that they eat what person X they live with eats, who is 1/3 their size. But I've never met someone who simply projected the entire situation onto some force outside them, like it had nothing to do with them at all. I think I would probably consider that a form of pathology.

Put it this way: I've never met someone who so whined about it being totally not their fault, that they would NEED someone in an article telling them that genetics don't matter, they just need to quit eating pie.

Someone needed to be told that?

On the contrary, what I have mostly seen is a big world filled with people who feel if anything such a ridiculous level of guilt, shame, and humiliation about being fat, that en masse in the USA alone they are willing to spend upwards of 30 BILLION dollars annually to try and deal with it. They are willing to buy and try infinite magazine advice and TV infomercials and books and more, to help them deal with it; they are dedicated to buying frozen meals and attending meetings and counting calories and weighing protein etc. all of this to "deal with it." To deal, in great part, with their sense of overwrought responsibility, with their sense of utter mortification for wearing the modern sin-mark of Cain on the outside: FAT.

They don't feel empowered. They just feel to blame.

So who exactly is this writer trying to save from themselves with the so-witty sarcasms of, "Fat genes, you see. More pie? Frappuccino with sweet whipped cream to wash it down?"

Maybe in her reality, fat people just love being fat, deliberately go out and do something to stay that way every single day, and feel zero sense of responsibility, let alone any nearly crushing, mind-bending shame that results in not wanting to leave the house, feeling like a personal failure, or whatever (I hear many variations on this theme from others over time). All those self-responsible, socially humiliated, media-mortified fatties are living in MY world apparently.

She added:

It’s no good wailing about rising levels of obesity if you show no interest whatsoever in trying to understand why people overeat in the first place. People overeat for psychological reasons, not physical ones.

Hmmm. Well, I do know many people who say they eat for psychological reasons. I personally think we attribute far too much to psychology, and I'd like to see obesity research and approach as a whole get back to biology where it ought to be rooted, and out of the armchair of psychotherapy. But I do agree that getting your head right is the first step (for certain), and that a lot of "eating disorders" have firm correlation with psychology. I simply suspect that nearly every serious eating disorder, however, is at least equally if not moreso rooted in physiology. As long as we simply "blame" people for either over-eating or eating poorly, rather than look at what physiology may be driving that, we're unlikely to learn much.

Blaming psychology for fat is an existing precedent, and one of the reasons why obesity is equated with some failing of character or morality. Because it is not seen as a disease -- as "a disorder of excess fat accumulation" as Taubes put it -- but rather, is seen as a psychological state, it can be grafted onto all the assumptions about what's in your head: gluttony and sloth, greed and laziness, emotional weakness, etc.

So while I agree totally with the "personal responsibility" angle, still what I see is just another harmony to that same getting-very-old insulting refrain applied with a broad stroke to all fat people:

Above all, we need to get to grips with the fact that fatness is a personal choice, one that can’t be blamed on anybody - or anything - other than our own greedy behaviour.

For whatever reason, there doesn't seem to be any ordinary humans involved here, only the far-extreme of greedy gluttons who won't be responsible at all.

It appears since India lost weight, she is now entitled to be just as stereotyping and insulting of fat people now as I'm sure others were when she herself was overweight.

In some people, weight loss brings greater wisdom. In others, it just brings the opportunity to leap over to the other side of the fence, and in the determination to not be a victim anymore, to become one of the victimizers.

It is a bummer when I actually AGREE with 90% of what someone says, and yet despite this, still manage to feel like they provided little in an article which could be construed as helpful in any way, and plenty which is pretty plainly hurtful.


It's a fine line. I've seen people who lost weight on low carb have a hard time finding that line: the good intent that wants to demand people take responsibility, step up to the plate (no pun intended), and go to bat for themselves, believe that they have the power to shape their lives and their bodies, and refuse to let anything get in their way, is a GOOD thing.

But there's that fine line to walk, where just on the other side of it, one is ignoring every possible mitigating circumstance, ignoring every detail that makes a unique human situation, and that leaves a person "where they are now" no matter what/how it came to be. That a person IS fat, does not mean they are doing something to be that way right now; it does not mean they don't consider themselves responsible. They may eat better than 90% of the population and work hard at it every day and still be fat.

The whole approach is basically the attitude, "If you want to be fat fine, but don't blame anybody but yourself," but who actually does blame anybody else? Nobody I know. You start wherever you are, and you move forward by believing you can and you're worth it. It is the pompous editorialists who assign blame for obesity: most fat people don't assign it anywhere outside themselves.

The very psychology that makes people feel empowered enough to make a change, that makes people feel strong and optimistic enough to believe they can do it, that this can work for them, is the same psychology that is simply mortified by snappy jibes about their gluttony, by assumptions about their assumed major eating disorders, and by snarky public insults that equate the size of their thighs to the degree of their moral inferiority.

We are taught all our lives to hate fat, and by extension, to resent and belittle fat people. It is not so different than women who clearly hold a sexist bias against women in general, despite being one, because that is the cultural mindset they have grown up in. It is more than possible to grow up inside a culture with pervasive prejudice and, despite being part of that group suffering the bias, to learn to hold that bias yourself.

Even in decent people, even in well intentioned people, the bias still stands out at times, highlighted by the tendency to put emphasis not on proactive shared-empowerment, but rather, on negative demean-the-assumed-weakness.


I call it the ex-dieter complex. Now that they lost some weight, and it doesn't matter how, they feel completely at ease not only sharing the same insulting prejudices that the culture at large already suffers, but doubly righteous in doing so, since "they used to be fat."

Fat is one of the few situations of prejudice that would breed this, of course. People cannot behave that way because "they used to be black." Only in the case of obesity can the victim become a stereotyping, insulting bully and actually walk away from it feeling as if they've done those they just insulted some kind of favor.


1 comment:

sussex said...

Used to be fat? Meaning what? She ate too many cookies and gained 25lb?