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On being large

body stereotypes

Source: About Face

Whilst I find the term ‘privilege’ very problematic, I also think it is a necessary starting place for dialogue to understand systemic and structural inequalities and power dynamics that are often not obvious and simply taken for granted. I am privileged in all sorts of ways, I’m a white, straight male from a middle class family, it’s almost like winning the sociology lottery.

One privilege I am not entitled to is so called ‘thin privilege‘ because I am large, the medical term is obese. Now, do I think that living in a country with enough wealth that allows me to overeat all sorts of calorie dense  and nutritionally empty foods qualifies as a kind of oppression? No, and the term ‘thin privilege’ is problematic in the way that it suggests equivalency with gender and race issues and ignores the quick assumptions and stereotypes that also accompanies being thin.

If all you’ve got to complain about is how you’re treated as an overweight person, then I suggest that your perspective be wide enough to understand the relative importance of your issues in relationship with other people who struggle to be free from oppression. Of course, human psychology being what it is, people tend to be terrible judges and evaluating their own happiness and misery regardless of the inner lives of other people.

That said, there is a shared experience to being large in a culture that shames and vilifies overweight and obese people that is simply counterproductive to promoting health and having compassion.

Science has documented clear, consistent evidence that overweight people face discrimination in employment, education, and health care.

There is a simple formula to weight gain and weight loss, calories in must be less than calories used. If we were the perfect rational agents or members of homo economicus that traditional economic theories suggest, this would be a formula everyone followed. The health risks and associated costs of obesity make it irrational for any agent to choose it as a lifestyle choice. This thinking still pervades much of the dialogue around being large, if you’re obese you mustn’t be rational, you must be too stupid or too lazy to act in your own best self-interest.

Rational agents don’t have mental health problems, they don’t suffer from depression or addiction, they make choices freely and are completely responsible for those choices and thus entirely deserve the outcomes of those choices.

Do all obese people suffer from depression or a form of addiction that complicates their ability to choose healthier alternatives? No, that would of course be overstating the case, there are certainly some people who enjoy eating to the point of becoming large and could choose a different lifestyle if they wanted to. Speak to some people who have struggled there entire lives to lose weight, who have gone on countless diets, logged numerous hours exercising and combated genetic predispositions, mental health problems and individual body compositions and the picture of someone who is too lazy or ignorant to change appears as an insulting caricature.

I do understand the readiness to this kind of prescription. For people who have never been obese, they have often never encountered such difficulties. They eat in regular portions only when they’re hungry, they don’t use food to medicate emotional problems and have little difficulty exercising and watching there weight react accordingly, what could be easier than that? This same hypothetical person finds it hard to understand why the depressed woman doesn’t simply get out of bed and engage in social activities or why the alcoholic or cigarette smoker doesn’t just quit, not to mention the problem gambler, the drug addict, the anorexic, the obsessive compulsive etc.

Now in the absence of information about someone’s personal circumstances, the decent thing to do is start from a place of compassion and not assume that large person scoffing down junk food at McDonalds or complaining of stomach pains at the ER should be scorned and shamed because they are ignorant or lazy. To assume this as a characteristic of all such people is simply a prejudice and one that gets packaged in a discourse that endorses fat shaming as a manifestation of true concern for the health and well-being of large people.

If I can diet and exercise easily enough, the hypothetical person thinks, then why can’t this 600 pound “mountain of flesh.”
This is the attitude of Dr. Edward Thompson who doesn’t treat his patient as a person as much as he is a a grotesque object of horror to be transferred to someone else as quickly as possible.

The patient lies trapped in his own body, like a prisoner in an enormous, fleshy castle. And though he must feel wounded by the ER personnel’s remarks, he seems to find succor in knowing that there’s no comment so cutting that it can’t be soothed by the balm of 8,000 calories per day.

I wonder what balms Dr. Thompson uses to alleviate the pains he experiences in life? If he is fortunate they will be easily hidden and thus not become fused to his sense of personal and public identity the way large people have to repeatedly be judged on appearances alone.

If this comment by Thompson is accurate, then he doesn’t quite fit the judgmental bill of our hypothetical person. Instead that mantel is passed on to the editor of the Washington Post who decided to edit the story in such a way to appear as callous and cruel as it currently does. It says something of our culture that fat-shaming is clickbait whereas compassion and understanding is for footnotes.

It’s simple to judge, quick to blame and hardest of all to understand. If you truly have a concern about the health of someone in your life, then you’ll attempt the latter.

You’ll also hopefully know that there is a difference between being healthy and being a certain body weight.

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