In the Blog

The “gross” factor and the “health” factor

November 5th, 2009     by Julia Horel     Comments

I probably don’t need to tell you that size acceptance / fat acceptance (SA/FA) has lots of opponents. One would think it’s hard to argue that feeling good about yourself is a bad thing, but I’ve encountered a surprising (and disappointing) number of people who think that fat people having high self-esteem is dangerous - they might actually dare to stay fat! The horror!

These people are often of the opinion that fat is gross, and that’s all there is to it. This belief is impossible to counter, since personal aesthetics are just that - personal. But why do other people get to decide whether how you look is acceptable or not? As I explained in my last post, SA/FA makes the very important “personal autonomy” argument: the way your body looks is no one’s business but your own. You do not owe it to anyone to be attractive to them.

The other main argument made by opponents to SA/FA is that fat is unhealthy. Kate Harding at Shapely Prose provides a fabulous overview, complete with links, explaining why this correlation just isn’t as black-and-white as people think. The main points I’m going to discuss from her list are that 1) fat is not an accurate indicator of the way people treat their bodies or their state of health, and 2) diets don’t work.

People are built differently, and weight is largely genetic (within a range). There is a popular assumption that fat people must spend their time munching on donuts and watching TV while their asses grow bigger. In fact, there are fat athletes, fat vegans, fat health fanatics … you get the picture. Of course, there are also fat people who eat poorly and don’t exercise. Fat people are constantly advised to eat more healthfully, eat less, and exercise more, no matter what their current behaviours or health measurables (blood sugar, blood pressure, etc.) are.

Conversely, everyone knows someone who subsists primarily on junk food, is a couch potato, and is thin. These people are considered “lucky.” Why aren’t they constantly told to eat better and exercise? Because they’re thin. Too many health professionals and members of the general population use the Body Mass Index (BMI) as the be-all, end-all of health determination, even though the BMI was never intended to be such a rigid guide and is generally accepted to be badly flawed. For a visual representation of how bizarre the BMI standards are, check out Kate’s BMI Project.

Even if fat were in itself a health concern, there’s a pretty major obstacle to overcoming it: no one has figured out a safe, long-term method of making a fat person thin. There’s also some pretty strong evidence that yo-yo dieting, or weight cycling, is more harmful than maintaining a consistent higher weight. It’s often said that 95% of diets fail over a five-year period. As a former chronic yo-yo dieter, I can attest to this first-hand. I never maintained weight loss for longer than a year at a time, sometimes even gaining weight while still dieting (I point this out to combat the argument that I must have simply stopped practicing “good behaviours” and let the weight come back on. Not so much). Since giving up dieting, my weight has settled within ten pounds of what I weighed before my first diet. Coincidence … ?

Tags: body politics

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