First, some background. Not too long ago I wrote a post in which I observed that pudgy Southern teen girls often grow up to be pudgy women. I expected some reaction, but I didn’t expect the reaction I got, which was to get pelted from every angle. The right and the left. Men and women. Old and young. It was as if I spit into the ocean and caused a tsunami.
OK, at the bottom of the page before you post a blog there is a small box that says “Check to allow comments.” If you check that box, as I do, and write about controversial topics in provocative ways, as I do, then you shouldn’t whine (even though I do.)
But as is usually the case, from pain comes insight, or at least insightful questions. In this case: Why the extraordinary sensitivity to comments about overweight young Christian women? If I’d written a line critical of skinny adolescent male Muslim pot smokers, do you think people would have leaped to their defense? I don’t.
What was it about this group that drew this reaction? Was it because they were young? Women? Christian? Overweight? I think it was because they are overweight.
90% of my blogs are humorous. This is one of the other 10%. I am profoundly serious about what I am about to say. Many people believe it is unfair or cruel to call out people for their weight. They are dead wrong, and here’s why.
There is a general trend in our society to be less judgmental. Since you have no choice whether you are born white or black, male or female, smart or dumb, or gay or straight, we have agreed as a society not to judge based on those inherent characteristics. We use public approbation to try to enforce those rules on everyone in our society. Good for us. But our society has simultaneously decided that it is still OK to discriminate on the basis of the choices people make.
We discriminate against some choices for good and obvious reasons, like pedophilia and wife beating. Some for less obvious and less good reasons, like practicing a religion other than Christianity. Some choices we discriminate against more aggressively than others, like smoking. As a society, we have decided it is OK to be openly mean to smokers. In part, that is because we believe it to be a choice that affects all of us negatively, through second hand smoke, birth defects and health costs. In part, it is also because we believe by being mean to them we are helping them.
I don’t smoke. I have never smoked. I hate smoking. Most people agree with me. A few years ago in Berkeley, I saw a young professional woman cross the sidewalk to get as close as possible to two smokers, and when she got next to them wave her hand in front of her face, cough theatrically and mumble something. That same young woman would never, ever walk across the street towards two fat people drinking milkshakes, puff out her cheeks and mumble, “Oink! Oink!” The very idea horrifies most us.
Because unlike smoking, where most of us feel free to openly criticize our friends who smoke, we all give the obese a free pass. Perhaps it’s because so many of us carry extra pounds ourselves and we sympathize. Or perhaps it’s because it seems too personal. Or perhaps it’s because we view obesity as a condition rather than a choice.
If it’s the last reason, we are simply wrong. Less than 1% of all people have a medical reason for obesity like thyroidism or Cushin’s syndrome. That means that for 99% of people who are overweight, obesity is a choice, or accumulation of choices. The choices are subtle. It’s hard to see saying yes to whipped cream and caramel on your frappucino as deliberate decisions to be fat, but they are. Semi-medical reasons like “slow metabolism” are not legitimate and sufficient excuses for being overweight, any more than chemicals in the brain are excuses for smoking, drinking, or gambling. If you have pale skin, use more sunscreen. If you tend toward gaining weight, eat less or exercise more.
There are good arguments for being mean to fat people. Like smoking and riding a motorcycle without a helmet, obesity is a choice that drives up health costs for all of us. And there’s an even better argument: Because it works. In 1950, roughly half the population smoked. It’s now fallen below 20%. Why? Because of a panoply of mean-spirited anti-smoking measures, from taxation to advertising to social stigmatization to good old fashioned scolding. Humans are social creatures. We can’t help it. We care what others think. Make something uncool enough and we will stop doing it. Currently 2/3 of adult Americans are overweight and 1/3 are obese. If we are mean to fat people as we are to smokers, could we get that down below 20% as we have smoking?
Instead though, not only are we not mean to them, but we bend over backwards not to be critical, particularly young overweight women. It’s well intended, but foolish. We seem to think that nagging them about their weight will either cause them to get an eating disorder or erode their self esteem. 1000 people die each year from anorexia, 300,000 die from obesity. Eating disorders are a tragic problem. Obesity is a pandemic. And no, we don’t want to erode young women’s self-esteem. But do we really think scolding them for being fat is going to erode their self-esteem more than being fat itself?
Why weren’t we this considerate for smokers? We never worried about their self-esteem.
Most of us have been fat at one time or another in our lives. We all have fat relatives. We all have fat friends. If we love them, we will nag them continuously. We will make it uncool. We will tax frappucinos just as we did cigarettes.
A few years ago, a seriously obese relative invited us to a party. My wife and I, each of whom could stand to lose ten pounds or so, were by far the thinnest people there. The tables were loaded with the least healthy assortment of food I’ve ever seen. Her friends ate from paper plates stacked high with cheese and fried chicken wings dripping with sweet sauce. One chubby six year-old stood at the table with a deviled egg stuffed in each cheek and one in each hand. If I was at a party where the host allowed her six year-old to smoke, or do cocaine, or even drink a beer, I probably would have said something. But I said nothing to this kid or to the parents. Instead I was polite. Or lazy. Or cowardly. Take your pick.
For some reason, we are reluctant to call out fat people and the behaviors that cause obesity. But our silence isn’t kindness, it’s enabling.