Over the last 17-18 years since I got fat, I've had the opportunity to experience quite an "up-close and personal sociological evaluation of how people react to other people who are fat." This would probably be a more pleasant study if I were not the fat person in question, of course, but it's no less interesting, despite that.
Most of us have experienced at least some of this. You may be sitting in a restaurant with several acquaintances. One of them, usually someone pointedly overweight themselves, but who is clearly delighted to observe that you are more overweight than they are, will suddenly become the Grand Vizier of Dietary Advice. (The probability of this happening is in direct proportion to their guilt about what they themselves are eating.)
They may assure you, some sincerely and some patronizingly, that you definitely should eat the junk they are eating because the entire secret of weight loss is just "portion control" and "moderation." The implied translation, of course, is: If you didn't eat like an uncontrollable pig all the time, you wouldn't be fat. They don't really mean that consciously, most would never say such a thing, but the theory underlies their advice: obviously, you're fat, so if you "ate moderately" they assume you would not be... you see where that goes.
They will assure you that if a person just gets adequate exercise, these things take care of themselves. Of course, the fact that your metabolism might require a triathalon to compensate for the dinner they want you to eat so they'll feel better about doing so themselves, escapes them. They assume that the fellow on the left who is thin and wiry despite eating enough for three people, has the identical metabolism as yourself, who is clearly fat despite eating less than everyone there.
Dr. Jeffrey M. Friedman, head of the Laboratory of Molecular Genetics at Rockefeller University (and the researcher who discovered the hormone leptin, which plays a crucial role it appears in how our body regulates our weight), said about obesity:
I think in contrast to almost every other medical condition where the lay public would just leave it to the scientist to inform them about what causes it, what the nature of the problem is, and what we should do about it, obesity is a condition where absolutely everyone has an opinion. Everybody has a deeply held set of personal beliefs about what causes the problem.
Well, I think fat is like the baffling tax code (and resultant nightmares about scary amounts of money you owe).
Plenty of people are lucky just to balance their checkbooks properly. The convoluted complexity of human metabolism is more than even the experts have a grip on at the moment, let alone the laymen. And it certainly doesn't fit into the sound-bite over-simplied spoon-fed media our culture has become as addicted to as we have to carbohydrates.
Humans love to feel like they know what they're doing, and what the answers are to things. We like it when everything has a place and just WORKS. No ambiguity, no confusion, no complexity. Nothing subjective. Only WE are allowed to be subjective: the rest of the world is not. When we are subjective, it is our right, our feelings, and who we are. When anything or anyone else is subjective, if we disagree, it is probably that they are irrational. Of course. If they were sensible, they'd agree with us! :-)
We are bred from childhood to fear fat. Fat is bad. Fat is the Other. Fat brings mocking, derision, abuse, social shunning, and pity. This is culturally bred into all of us and isn't even conscious in most cases. So when the question of fat comes up, the last thing anybody wants, is to feel it's an impossibly confusing morass of unfinished science and unanswered questions; we have no real handle on it. Survival instinct alone makes us want, makes us need, to feel like we have the formula and answer to fat, so we have power over it. The fact that we don't know is irrelevent. If we feel we know, I think our subconscious fear-based psychology feels better about the whole thing.
The persistent denial of an entire culture in regards to obesity, coupled with a nearly hysterical panic about it, only emphasizes this. Research studies have had some interesting findings on this sociological subject. Some people say they'd rather be seriously injured than fat. Some college kids say they'd date a wife-beater or drug-user before they'd date someone noticeably overweight.
As a culture, our attempt to 'stamp out fat' has been even less successful than our alleged war on drugs. We supply endless quantities of alcohol, and caffeine. The ghastly long-term abuse of cocaine-level drugs such as the entire class of drugs similar to Ritalin (and worse), for children as young as 2 years old, is mind blowing. (Every 'school shooter' in the news, was a kid officially drugged by parent/government/school for years, did you know that?)
Yet despite how easy it is to give someone enough legal drugs to have them wipe out families of four on the highway, efforts continue to outlaw vitamins and herbs without prescription for being "dangerous", and if a high school girl shares Midol for monthly cramps with a friend and is seen she can be suspended. We're completely schizophrenic about the drug issue in our culture. It is a WAR on drugs. A war in which the profiteers appear to be profiting (the war on drugs helps fund the covert military operations congress will not approve or the public cannot know about), and the problem continues to get worse instead of better. With that kind of 'help', we could be at least ten times worse off within years.
And so it is with obesity. Magazines neatly couple drool-able foods with the latest diet fad and both on the front page. "Healthy recipes" in them tend to be blood sugar grenades allegedly made 'healthy' by using low-fat margarine and whole-grain flour... rather than a recipe that was more healthy by being, well, less UNhealthy. We constantly model near-impossibly skinny women as 'the ideal'. We have endless ways of enforcing both subtly and overtly the 'sin' of someone being fat and daring to show up in public, and then we wonder why people especially young women develop anorexia, binging, bulemia, and other eating disorders. If our 'war on
obese people obesity' is as successful as our war on drugs has been, we can expect to have a far worse problem 5 and especially 10 years from now. The only real difference is that the diet industry is not funding black ops. We assume.
As Dr. Friedman said, everybody has an opinion. I agree. I have never met a person who openly said something like, "I have no idea how someone would get or stay thin." Everybody, but everybody, believes they know the way, and this includes nearly every obese person I ever met, every person who never had to diet in their life, and so on.
Many years ago, a research paper published in the parapsychology (psychic research) field reviewed the perceptions and opinions of scientists outside the field about the subject. (For those who don't know, many of the leading parapsychologists are/were legit reputable physicists and engineers and other hard scientists, before they dared touch the subject, which is the kiss of death to any science career: we are not allowed to ask those questions.) Pretty much all the scientists had an opinion about it (hint: it was definitely not a good one). Pretty much all the scientists believed that their opinion held scientific merit because they were a scientist, and they believed that they had enough information to have a right to opinion.
But when interviewed, it turned out that pretty much all of them were completely ignorant of the real science in the field, and their entire edifice of opinion was based on media: movies, magazines, comic books and fiction, and hokey commercial advertising. None of them knew anything about the real science, nor had they ever looked, nor did they want to know--but that did not keep them from pushing their 'expert opinion' on others with almost no provocation at all.
It is like being raised to dislike people who are a certain race or religion: You cannot reason with a belief that is not based on reason. We are bred to some prejudices, and they are constantly enforced culture-wide. Fat is one of them.
More from Dr. Friedman in the next few posts.