Category Archives: Obesity

“Fatness”: an insulting, oppressive, and unproductive social construct.

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.

The systemic nature of obesity, and a few of its socio-economic feedback loops.

As part of the systemic explorations of athleticism on this blog, it’s time to begin addressing the topic of obesity. Let me begin by stating that obesity is not, as many believe, a reflection of someone’s character, or caused (and maintained) by a lack of willpower. It is largely a systemic issue, meaning that in our current socioeconomic structure, there are a multitude of processes that contribute to the creation and proliferation of obesity in particular populations.

In fact, the evidence that obesity is systemic begins with the fact that it is much rarer in affluent (white) populations than it is in minorities, the disenfranchised, and the oppressed. If it was an issue of willpower, then we’d see no such social, ethnic, and economic disparity between populations.

As with all systems, society and the body both work in terms of feedback loops—processes that link with other processes in order to achieve a particular function. A typical example of a feedback loop is a thermostat: when the temperature in the room rises, the air conditioning kicks in. Once the temperature drops, the thermostat shuts down, allowing the temperature to rise again. One process (the rising temperature) “feeds back” into the other process (the thermostat/air conditioning), creating a loop.

thermo 1

In order to diminish the expression of obesity in a population, the relevant feedback loops have to be understood. One such loop is created by the following factors. The high prices of unprocessed foods often make them prohibitively expensive to the poorest populations, who often have to work longer hours in order to make ends meet. With no time for visiting family, let alone constant, rigorous physical activity, people develop metabolic problems and gain weight. However, because obesity is perceived to be a product of laziness or poor character, the person often loses social capital. With this loss of social capital, the person loses job opportunities to slimmer, fitter individuals of “better character,” solidifying their poverty and destroying any possibility of change.

ob loop 1

There are other biological factors to be taken into account: because stress itself often leads to weight gain, the lack of free time for most working adults can also contribute to the expression of obesity. Social stresses, such as the pressure to exercise or diet, created by well-meaning yet ignorant people that are sure that all these people have to do is “go work out,” can not only destroy motivation but also directly increase someone’s weight gain.

ob loop 2

Try getting out of that system. And it’s only part of the story.

Of course, none of this means that conceivably, obesity cannot be caused by a loss of willpower or poverty or character. But what the systemic analysis does is illustrate that overwhelmingly, the most powerful contributors to the obesity epidemic are not inside the person (whether they be genetic or psychological). They are outside, in the socioeconomic system, or created by outside forces inside the person.

The last thing we should do to someone struggling with obesity—or someone who isn’t struggling and just wants us to get the hell off their back because they’re okay with themselves, or someone who in fact isn’t obese (or otherwise unhealthy) and just looks fat to our untrained eye—is suggest them to change or expect them to change.

Perhaps the biggest social contributor to obesity is ignorance of systemic factors, and of systems in general. And it isn’t the ignorance of those who suffer from obesity, but the ignorance of those who don’t. For example, even though obesity is characterized by an increase in body fat, body fat alone does not signal obesity. This is a condition in which the person’s metabolism is working against itself, putting on too much fat to maintain health and mobility. Unless those conditions are met, body fat is just body fat.

Unless we know that this “added” body fat is impinging on someone’s health to a certain degree, we can’t know that they are obese. Most of the time, people who look chubby are completely healthy. However, to those of us who have associated fat with obesity—and to those others who use a lack of body fat to gain social capital—this is a disagreeable state.

But some differences really are only cosmetic. Ignorant, yet well-intentioned comments or suggestions will do a majority of people very little good. Often, all they really do is entrench our own ignorance (since we leave the interaction so smugly sure of our knowledge) and distance ourselves socially from the person we commented on.

Casting attention on a feature that is socially disadvantageous (but not disadvantageous in terms of health) shines a light on how we don’t have that “problem,” whether we want to or not. Our social capital increases, whether we see this or not, and that benefits us, whether we understand that or not. Those actions only solidify the argument that because obesity creates body fat, body fat is obesity, and therefore fat is bad.

Unsolicited advice has systemic repercussions. By itself, even if it’s accurate—or rather, especially if it’s accurate—unoslicited advice can worsen the problem.

Something we could do is help remove the systemic factors contributing to obesity, including the social pressures to be thin. This is not to say that obesity is okay.  Obesity is a metabolic disorder whose effects seriously encroach on people’s quality of life, particularly towards their senior years. We’ll never get around this fact. But just trying to help isn’t enough. The ignorance that leads to “helpful” comments and suggestions really only exacerbates the problem. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Only in the case of obesity, it’s usually us paving the road, and it usually leads to somebody else’s hell.