Beware the Fat-Fearing-Fanatics

Natalie Gold is tired of listening to the same old myths about overweight people.

The doctor who recently criticized New Jersey Governor Chris Christie for his weight, with the excuse that his death from a heart attack could be imminent, is far from the “genius” Christie sarcastically called her in response. She seems to be, like so many people nowadays, a suitable candidate for membership in the ubiquitous FFF, the Fat-Fearing Fanatics.

This unofficial group practices a form of discrimination and hate, but unlike their KKK counterparts, do not don white sheets (or any other color) or burn crosses on people’s front lawns, or even carry membership cards. They don’t need or want to hide themselves, or secretly band together in cohesive groups to plot their next attack. No, such uncivilized and unacknowledged behavior is too covert for the FFF, who function best on an individual rather than group basis.

What the Fat-Fearing Fanatics do instead is use the media and/or whatever other communications vehicles they can find to publicly bully, criticize, and attempt to humiliate people who are overweight. They fuel the rampant fat prejudice currently racing through this society, and feed the already raging antipathy towards overweight people.

Some do this with more aplomb, style and panache than others. If they hold a medical license, they use it as blanket permission to threaten and warn of imminent danger – endowing an insult with pretended concern over someone’s health, while repeating the mantra that it’s “for your own good.” This is what that doctor did.  She worried about Christie’s stress level. Never mind studies (such as the recent New York Times article) that show some overweight and obese people are healthier, in fact, than their slimmer counterparts.  Never mind, as Christie himself pointed out, that this doctor had never met him, and is unaware of his personal health history.

The FFF justifies their flawed health rationale in three main ways. First, they profess concern and caring for the individual’s quality of life and/or life span.  Second, they claim an interest in the health of the nation and are trying to reduce the country’s soaring health care costs, which have largely been attributed to obesity-related problems. Third, they espouse a so-called responsibility of people in public office to provide their constituents with healthy representation.

That Christie-criticizing doctor and her fellow Fat-Fearing Fanatics appear to limit their concerns to supposed stress factors they can see.  They don’t criticize the people, for example, with invisible stress markers – e.g., people who simply have weak hearts, or who eat unhealthy foods but don’t get fat, or who have digestive ailments, or migraine headaches, or who are prone to cancer or some other horrific disease that could be triggered or made worse by stress.  stressed out catThey don’t pounce upon the poor lifestyle choices of many in the public eye, who may be overworked, or suffer from lack of sleep, or drink too much alcohol, or pop too many prescription or over-the-counter pills, or have indiscriminate sex which makes them vulnerable to STDs. No. They focus on people who they imagine suffer from stress based on one sole criterion – that person’s weight.  That is one reason why their rush to judgement automatically entitles them to an FFF membership.

Another flaw in their thinking:  the FFF fail to recognize that fat itself may, in fact, be someone’s method of coping with stress!  That’s right, I said it.  Fat can serve as a physical and psychological buffer between a sensitive person’s being and the rest of the world.  Fat can serve as a way to store difficult emotions from long-ago events and/or current crises that the individual simply does not or cannot afford to deal with at this moment.  Fat can be (and has been in the past, on an evolutionary scale) a way to store energy, in case of famine.  Fat can also protect someone from unwanted potential sexual advances.  The list goes on, but I won’t here.

Incidentally, stress can actually increase weight gain and/or render weight loss more difficult, due to the increase in the hormone cortisol.  So, Governor Christie’s weight may, in part, reflect the price he pays for being in politics.

Some of the FFF are simply rude and crude, and use their social or media prominence in a mean way, to ridicule someone’s size.  There are plenty of these individuals. One, a movie reviewer who used to have some credibility, whose wit and clever repartee used to keep him basking in the media spotlight, has now descended into what seems like a desperate bid for attention by criticizing actress Melissa McCarthy, not for her acting skills in a movie he disliked, but for being fat. I won’t bother repeating the appalling names he used, because that would perpetuate the problem.

Ladies and gentlemen, the FFF is all around us. And in my not so humble opinion, they are, like so many others, not only willing to subject people to their obnoxious pronouncements, by doing so they are also contributing to the expansion of eating disorders. Some who suffer from anorexia – young women and a disturbing increase in young men – would rather starve themselves and die than get fat and risk incurring the condemnation of the FFF or people like them. And those who suffer from bulimia, who often go to outlandish lengths to avoid getting and/or looking fat, may eat what their heavier counterparts eat, perhaps even more, but compensate by spending the whole day exercising, or by using laxatives and/or purging after food binges.

While it is relatively easy to spot someone who gets too thin, people with bulimia still manage to look “normal” (a word I hate but for now, it suffices) – just like much of the population who are under a lot of stress, but don’t visibly show it. For example, NBC News reported a recent study showing that the millennials (young people aged 18-34) are more stressed out than any other generation. Should they not hold positions of responsibility?

Like all fanatics, the FFF themselves may lack or resist the ability to self-reflect, fearing the pain and/or discomfort that may entail.  Being self-unaware, they are unlikely to stop their bullying

The doctor and the rest of the FFF clan are unlikely to understand their true motives for attacking people who are overweight.  From a psychological perspective, do they need to feel superior?  Or do they need an object of hate or derision to manage what psychologist Carl Jung would call their shadow side, what Sigmund Freud would attribute to their own repressed and unconscious sexual needs, or what Gestalt therapist Fritz Perls would call the disowned aspects of themselves?

Like all fanatics, the FFF themselves may lack or resist the ability to self-reflect, fearing the pain and/or discomfort that may entail. Being self-unaware, they are unlikely to stop their bullying. Right now, society seems to permit and support their activities, or at least turn the other way, as society did back in the days when the KKK had more influence than it does now (although sadly, that is currently shifting, but that’s another article).

A short while ago, one of my favorite female media icons, the great Barbara Walters, interviewed Governor Christie as part of her 10 Most Fascinating People of 2012 television show.  She asked Christie whether or not he was too fat to be president.  Of course, Barbara asked this question in the usual clever reporter form, i.e., “some people say that …” You can put anything after this phrase and thus distance yourself from it’s impact.  (It’s not really you who is asking, but these “other” people). This question reflects our society’s ever-deepening intolerance that makes it okay to hate and shame fat people, to make less of them.

Just like the doctor, Barbara kept framing the question in terms of Governor Christie’s health.  So right away there is the false equation:  fat = bad health = can’t be president.  Do we ask about all the unhealthy habits of each potential presidential candidate?  Sometimes the answer is yes – for the more visible habits, such as smoking or alcohol consumption.  But for the less visible health factors, do we subject each candidate and their families to extensive medical testing, to ensure they can cope with stress?   what if drawingWhat if candidates are genetically at risk for heart disease?  Cancer? Multiple Sclerosis? Parkinson’s?  What if migraine headaches or liver disease runs in their family?  Of course not – that would be absurd and incredibly intrusive on their privacy.  But it is okay to look at Governor Christie’s overweight, and assume ill health (not!).

I have actually grown to like Christie himself. His candor is refreshing, and his ability to put his priorities ahead of politics, as in the case with Hurricane Sandy, has been unseen for too long a time. Christie is overweight for the same undoubtedly complex reasons so many others are overweight.  He told Walters that he has been dieting and regaining lost weight for a long time.  He has been trying to fix the symptom of a multifaceted problem, possibly (I dare not assume) without understanding the core underlying issues.  I do not claim to know or comprehend his particular set of personal circumstances, but I do suspect they exist.  And if they do, they are no one’s business but his!

In a politically correct culture (unless you are on the extreme right or left of the political spectrum), there are fewer and fewer targets you can actually poke fun at and demean.  Overweight people are sitting ducks in this regard.  Our negative attitude towards a little extra weight and the ubiquitous exhortations to be super thin (i.e., to look like magazine models or movie stars, whose bodies may be airbrushed or photo-shopped, or who may have body-part stand-ins) often provide the impetus for that first diet.  For some people, the first diet becomes one of hundreds that succeed for a certain period of time and then fail because it is so difficult to maintain amidst an ocean of social pressure and media enticements to eat, drink and be merry.

In a politically correct culture … there are fewer and fewer targets you can actually poke fun at and demean.  Overweight people are sitting ducks in this regard

Fat people are easy to judge.  Studies have shown the numerous negative stereotypes and discrimination against overweight people – including shocking and disturbing biases within the weight loss profession itself.  Yes ladies and germs, even those medical professionals, the doctors and nurses whose job it is to help the seriously overweight, even some of them have negative judgments against the very people they are trying to help.  Yuck.  Thanks but no thanks.

Governor Christie does not need me to defend him, that’s for sure.  And sometimes, ordinary people (or extraordinary ones) give the FFF haters a run for their money.  I’m thinking about Jennifer Livingston, the Wisconsin news anchor who spoke up on air last October in response to a viewer’s comment that she was too fat for TV.  (Unfortunately, many of the YouTube comments for this video are mainly derogatory to Ms. Livingston).

In closing, here’s a reminder that people come in all shapes, colors, sizes, and weights – in all types of health conditions, and all states of self-awareness and self-acceptance.  While I believe everyone is entitled to his/her opinion, I also feel strongly that public judgment and condemnation based purely on the basis of appearance says more about the condemner than the condemned.   As for the Fat-Fearing Fanatics – as Michael Jackson’s famous ‘Man in the Mirror’ lyrics advise – “I’m starting with the man in the mirror … I’m asking him to change his ways … If you wanna make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and … Change!”

Photo—puuikibeach/Flickr

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About Natalie G.

NatalieG is a Toronto-based psychotherapist, addictions and binge-eating specialist, writer, researcher, former blues/jazz singer, and internet free-speech fan who is so very glad to be alive during these best and worst of times. She has lots to say, and is just getting started blogging at nataliegtherapy.com

Comments

  1. This is the study you linked as evidence:

    Conclusions and Relevance Relative to normal weight, both obesity (all grades) and grades 2 and 3 obesity were associated with significantly higher all-cause mortality. Grade 1 obesity overall was not associated with higher mortality, and overweight was associated with significantly lower all-cause mortality. The use of predefined standard BMI groupings can facilitate between-study comparisons.

    And some analysis from the author Flegal:

    “overweight people may have lower mortality because they get better medical care, show symptoms of disease earlier or because they’re screened more regularly for chronic diseases stemming from their weight, such as diabetes or heart problems.

    “…being thin doesn’t make you sick, but instead being sick can make you thin.”

    Analysis includes WHO international reports from developing nations where a low BMI is often linked to chronic illnesses and starvation – higher mortality.

    • Hi Elissa: Thank you for your response, but I’m not sure what you’re getting at. You seem to have quoted accurately, but perhaps we have different interpretations. To me, as drilled by my stats prof, associations are not causation, and the study indicates that not all overweight/obese people have high mortality – which is really my main point. In addition, while Flegal’s speculative analysis might have some legitimacy, it is also possible that overweight people have lower mortality because they are healthy, play tiddley-winks, etc. People are individuals, and shaming fat people doesn’t cut it, as far as I’m concerned.
      All the best. Natalieg

      • HI there – … I mean that there is no need for you to counter mean spirited attacks against fat people by trying to prove how healthy fat people are relative to non-fat people. First of all, you’re wrong and second, it’s really beside the point. Shaming attacks can be addressed directly.
        The same way some gay people like the idea of a gay gene because it counters the argument that it’s just a bad choice that needs correction. You don’t want unintended consequences of a good ethical stance :)

  2. I’m not well-versed in the scientific literature. I only know anecdotally from observing my wife’s struggles that it can be very difficult for some people to lose weight and keep it off. Fat prejudice simply compounds physiological issues.

    But the one thing I’m struck by is the complete and utter lack of compassion on the part of those who sound off in public about peoples’ weight issues. Resorting to name-calling and abuse under the guise of health promotion is appalling behaviour.

  3. Wow.

    Comparing folks who are prejudiced against fat as KKK? Really? I’m not sure that could be a more egregious comparison, nor could it be more offensive. I’m sure these people, who will they offend and insult, are not stringing people up, burning crosses in their yard, and violently harming and openly oppressing.

    Additionally…fat as protection for unwanted advances? You may not have meant it, but what that reads like is “fat people don’t have folks sexually advance on them.” First of all, rape can happen to ANYONE. Regardless of weight, height, dress, etc–don’t start shaming skinny people. Moreover, what is this ridiculousness that “fat” people can’t get laid? My friends who are overweight, and I mean some even pushing over 200lbs, are often the ones having the most sex…and from what I hear, it’s not shabby sex either.

    Sure, fat isn’t necessarily an indicator of ill health any more than skinniness is an indicator of good health. But all of these comparisons and factors you are tying in? Quite problematic.

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