You always hear, these days, people saying that “the question is more important than the answer.” Well, the more I think about it, the more I agree with the sentiment.
Take for example, the case of “fatness.” I’m not talking about obesity, but rather about the vacuous and unfounded social judgment that people of a certain size and shape are bad—and therefore socially worse off because they are allegedly physically worse off.
And I do mean, allegedly. There are very real problems with obesity, problems which strongly detract from quality of life, especially towards elderhood. However, the social judgments that we make about someone’s “fatness” are usually unrelated to whether they have the underlying metabolic syndrome that generates obesity. In other words, “fatness” usually has nothing to do whatsoever with health.
Our social judgments are based on a visual correlate of obesity, a sort of “best fit” analysis that takes in a wide array of indicators—musculoskeletal, morphological (of their body shape) and possibly even socioeconomic, racial, and political—associated with that person, and inducts from that whether they are “fat.” Notice that not one of those indicators is metabolic.
The only indicators that truly matter, that can truly tell us if their “fatness” is not something more than a social mirage—their levels of leptin, their resting levels of blood sugar—are the ones we don’t have access to.
(Granted, it is possible to make an assessment of obesity from the amount of subcutaneous (external) fat. However, even that test has a huge margin of error, is performed by trained, impartial specialists with the right equipment, and cannot be done at a glance, by a layperson who likely has a social stake in the situation).
What I mean to say is that “fatness” is a bullshit way of understanding people. “Fatness” is not, and never has been, about health or exercise—or obesity, for that matter—(and in fact, part of the reason it is so deleterious to its victims and to society in general is because it insists to be about health). “Fatness” has always been about organizing ourselves on yet another social pecking order. It is yet another example of the intersectionality of privilege.
The argument that fatness has anything to do with health is one big lie, and usually only detracts from the capability of those who do suffer from obesity to do something about it. Thanks to the idiotic confusion of fatness with obesity, we have collapsed a socially constructed category that has nothing to do with health—“fatness”—with a medically useful category that is all about health: obesity. By confusing fatness with obesity, we have created a trap: for starters, obesity has lost credibility as a genuine problem.
Consider the understandable, reasonable (and wholly necessary) reaction from those who are categorized as “fat.” They have, rightfully, called bullshit on the whole game. Because “fat” is not unhealthy, they have exposed the construct of “fatness” as nothing more than a construct. Thanks to its illicit association with “fatness,” obesity has lost credibility.
This intricate web of sociopolitical negotiation wreaks havoc on the strategizing of those who do want to, say, “lose weight.”
The first problem, of course, is that the game has been defined around “losing weight.” In other words, one of the main reasons that people exercise is to distance themselves with the indicators of fatness.
But, as with the case of obesity, losing weight—and maintaining that weight loss—is predicated on a variety of factors: the proximal ones are metabolic and physiological, but ultimately, we see that economic, social, and political factors also play a role.
By focusing on the indicators of fatness, and not the systemic causes of obesity, we miss two realities: that our weight gain is a function of our context, and that our “weight” has little to do with our athletic capabilities.
In concrete terms, focusing on weight loss means that we don’t know if we are destroying our body’s capabilities to maintain that weight loss. For example, excessive dieting has been linked to thyroid problems, and excessive running to anemia and chronic injury.
We need to turn our focus away from such superficial indicators and towards the actual roots of the problem. We could say that the problem of “being fat” starts with a lack of someone’s athletic capability. But as I mentioned above, it actually runs much deeper than that. It begins with a society that frames the problem as one of “fatness,” and focuses attention on weight, or apparent levels of subcutaneous fat, or body structure.
This attention to weight distracts us from what really matters all along: proximally, metabolic health, and ultimately, psychological, social, political, and economic environments that are conducive to quality of life.
In a very real way, everyone is at their “ideal weight”—given the internal and external contexts they are subject to. By understanding this, we can ask of ourselves: what is the root of the problem that we want to solve. Whether the problem is weight loss or obesity, “fatness” will always obscure the answer, and limit our ability to solve it.
The right question to ask is, therefore, not “how do I lose weight?” but rather, “how do I cultivate a powerful metabolism?” Only by re-framing the question and making our efforts fundamentally not about weight-loss (or being “not-fat”) will we actually succeed at our athletic endeavors, even if we initially came to them with the naive intention of losing weight. And, if enough of us do that, both “fatness” and obesity may cease to be the overwhelming social phenomena we know them to be.