negative nelly

Katherine and Aunt B are atwitter at their discovered agreement (like discovered mate, but different) on the topic of obesity. In my role as the resident negative nelly, I feel it’s my duty to provide somewhat of a reality check. First, my rough approximation/paraphrasal of the various individual points I perceive being made, some of which I think are being conflated to dangerous ends:

  • Obesity is not a personality, or the basis for judging someone. (I agree.)
  • Unsolicited rants/advice about how to lose weight delivered to a fat person are superfluous, presumptuous, rude, and annoying (I agree.)
  • Recidivism rates for obesity are extremely high, meaning the likelihood of losing weight and keep it off is minimal (I agree.)
  • … therefore, we should not bother. (I disagree, naturally, though I will concede that I have inferred this point, perhaps incorrectly?)
  • And besides, the obesity epidemic is a myth (I disagree.)
  • And you can be fat and healthy, anyway. (I agree, but with strenuous qualifications.)
  • Society as a whole should therefore have no vested interest in the obesity rate of its populace, since it’s bigotry, akin to racism. (I disagree.)

So, here’s the thing. Obesity is different from race in one objective manner: Obesity is not healthy. Obesity has measurable, detrimental effects on quality of life. I’ve gone round on this one over yonder somewhere in the archives of Tiny Cat Pants with someone, and I don’t intend to re-hash that debate. But suffice it to say: if you believe obesity is not an indicator of poor health, we’ll just have to agree to disagree. Yes, it’s possible to be obese, and live a long, healthy, active life. It’s also possible to carry HIV, but not AIDS, and live a long, healthy, active life. It doesn’t make either situation probable, and neither does it absolve obesity/HIV from fault/causality as being a generally Bad Thing.

If we take it as a given that obesity is not healthy, there are two primary reasons that obesity is then a Bad Thing for society: 1) people, in general, prefer to put off death as long as possible, and 2) this process is complicated by obesity. These complications materialize as real, tangible costs. “Costs”, of course, are not an objectively bad thing.

The real “cost” now is one of opportunity. Naturally, health care is a problem in this country, namely because it’s very expensive. And obesity is a part of this problem – something like 10% of our national healthcare costs are attributable to obesity-related complications (somewhere around that of the costs of smoking-related complications, incidentally). This cost represents a lost opportunity – obesity-related complications are preventable. Had they been prevented, we could be spending our healthcare dollars on health complications that aren’t preventable yet, and quality of life, in general, would be slightly higher. Costs are merely one factor in economics, and yes, eventually, it’s plausible that balanced markets could emerge that absorb these costs, resulting in a nation of obese people that manage their diabetes and live to be, say, 50, 60, or hey, the sky’s the limit, really.

However, I would lay down another assertion here that the majority of the people in this country – obese or otherwise – don’t look fondly on that prospect. Why? Because being obese is generally not pleasant. Diabetes is not fun, even if you manage it rather well. Yes, it’s possible to be happy and obese. Yes, it’s possible, if not probable, to be healthy and obese. It’s easy to explain away the fact that most Americans want to lose weight by blaming the voracious and pitiless appetite of the Diet Industry. That’s a necessary part of the picture, but it’s not sufficient. People want to lose weight because being fat sucks – not because of body image issues, or bigotry (which exist, and can and should be corrected), but because of verifiable, objective detriments to health and costs borne by society.

So where am I going with all this? What bothers me is a sense of defeatism: e.g. “It’s hard, if not impossible to lose weight and keep it off, so there’s no point in trying, or advocating it as a good thing.” Losing weight is certainly hard, but the reasons that it’s hard are structural and societal. Therefore, they are also mutable.

What also bothers me is the straw-man of an implicit assumption that there’s an element of coercion being advocated. E.g. “I can be fat if I want to, stop trying to make me do things I have already tried.” Certainly some consumer-protection advocates are over-zealous (*cough*nader*cough*), but by and large what is usually being advocated is education along with a strategic dismantling of structural forces that contribute to obesity (hint: existing government policy has as much responsibility to bear for the obesity problems in the lower class as lack of policy does). No one is trying to make you do anything, really.

So, in conclusion: if you are happy and healthy being obese, fine. Yes, it’s really shitty that people judge other people because of their body image. But that doesn’t mean being fat isn’t unpleasant and that most people don’t want to be fat as a result. If you’ve given up and accepted your state of being – healthy or otherwise – that’s fine. But you can’t criticize the desire to correct what is rightfully being called an epidemic just because you are obese and healthy (or accepting). You are a single data point, sorry.