L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

being the maunderings of an Englishman on the Côte d'Azur

06 May 2009 Blog Home : May 2009 : Permalink

Fat Acceptance and Thin Privilege

This week's britblog round up has a link to a post about "thin privilege" (and another one about the "evil poor" which you would do well to read and cogitate on). However this post is about the discrimination the fat people of the world face. I am sympathetic to the idea that fat people face discrimination that they shouldn't and I'm certainly of the opinion that the scum bags who want to limit health care for the fat are wrong. But I'm not buying the whole deal. Take this extract from a linked post which captures where I'm conflicted nicely:

So, what is fat phobia, and what is thin privilege? For a start, the 'thin' in 'thin privilege' does not mean "size zero". It means "of 'normal' weight". Some examples: If you can walk into Top Shop, Miss Selfridge or any other high street fashion shop and know their size range includes your clothing size, you have thin privilege. If you can book a flight without fear that other passengers will hope like hell they're not seated next to you or worse, that you will be refused entry to the flight because of your size, you have thin privilege. If you can happily travel by car or bus or train and know that the seat will be built to accommodate your arse, you have thin privilege. If you can visit your doctor without being constantly berated about losing weight and having every physical malady you suffer attributed to your size and nothing else, you have thin privilege.

Fat phobia is thin privilege in action. Fat phobia is the media's insistence on sensationalising the 'obesity epidemic' and consistently and continuously painting fat people as lazy, unhealthy slobs. Fat phobia is in the general public's pervasive and misguided belief that fat automatically means unhealthy (I'll come back to that later). Fat phobia is in the refusal of clothing manufacturers to accommodate fat people when designing clothes, meaning that the majority of us end up spending twice as much in our 'specialty shops' as a thin person would on the high street. Fat phobia is in the medical professionals too lazy and indoctrinated to do their jobs, instead sending us away every single time with the instruction that if we lose weight, we will magically no longer be depressed/have CFS/have a broken leg (I'm kidding, sort of, but it really is that bad). Fat phobia is this society, which operates on a fat=bad belief and systematically beats down anybody who dares to disagree.

Here's my take. Despite all the moaning about "naturally fat" etc. very few males and almost no females are at a normal weight if they weigh over about 120kg (260 lbs / 18.5 stone), and in fact for the majority of humankind a weight above 100kg is excessive. So, as a general rule, if you weigh more than 120kg and are not over 2m tall then you ought to lose some weight. Likewise if your waist is over 1.5m (60 inches) and you aren't pregnant then you ought to lose some weight. No fat does not automatically mean unhealthy but if you are over these thresholds you are almost certainly not just fat but unhealthily fat. So yes after a certain level fat is bad. Now it is true that not everybody who is massively fat suffers to the same extent and it is also true that rapid weight loss can trigger problems as can being too thin but the 'indoctrination' that fat is bad is in fact based on some pretty solid evidence.

However there is a fair point that it is stupid for clothing manufacturers to ignore the fat. Given that the western world ( and indeed significant chunks of the developing world) are getting fatter it is totally stupid for clothing makers to not create clothes that fit and look as good as possible on the overweight. But to some extent they are, dresses of a particular nominal size are getting larger. Trousers on the rack have lots of 40"-50" waists and fewer 30"-40" ones and so on. The problem is that their mindset remains on the skinny side. Look at the mannequins in the shop windows, look at the models on the cat walks - all are skinny if not emaciated. It seems to me a clothing chain would do well to buy some 5 foot 6 high mannequins with 45 inch waists and make sure their clothes looked good on them.

On the other hand the whine about seating is exactly that, a whine. I agree Ryanair are total scum who try and fit too many people in their planes, but on the other hand their tickets are sufficiently cheap that you can probably afford to buy 2 tickets for a ridiculously low price. And as my mother pointed out once, seeing as they charge for luggage that is overweight they ought to charge for people that are too. When you think about it, it isn't fair that a 60kg person with 30kg of luggage has to pay more than a 100kg person with 10kg of luggage.

It is certainly true that the fashion freaks and healthcare "professionals" tend to have an overly thin view of the world. Long term a few extra pounds of fat does little harm and really we can't all spend the time and effort monitoring nutrition and excerise so as to avoid putting on weight. A little bit of understanding and tolerance instead of strident preaching would go a long way. And maybe a bit of marketing thought. A bit less of the bossiness and "it's good for you" and a bit more of the  sympathy and willingness to understand how someone became overwieght would help. Furthermore the BMI scale is a misleading piece of scaremongery. For example, many sporty people end up apparently overweight or obese on the scale because it doesn't take musculature into account. If the scale is such that a Rugby forward is counted as obese then it is basicly worthless except as a bit of scaremongery. A good health scale would take into account stamina, muscle and so on.

I'm conflicted about medical professionals. On the one hand it makes no sense for them to refuse treatment to fat people in general, on the other hand it makes no sense for them to treat the symptoms when the underlying cause is clearly too much fat. It is absolutely certain that losing weight is not a panacea, and that The problem is that doctors (and other people) need to work with the possible not the ideal. Losing a few pounds sustainably is way way better than losing a lot of pounds only to see them put back on again. Unfortunately sustained weight loss is difficult - very difficult.

The problem here is that in the currently affluent developed world it is a lot easier to pile on the pounds than it is to take them off. The reason is the historical change in the cost of food and the nature of daily life. Throughout most of history people have spent a minimum of 20%, and frequently closer to 50%, of their income on food. They also have rarely had much income left once they have met the requirements of food, clothing and housing (and frequently have been unable to buy more food even if they had the money to pay for it) so their calorie intake has been regulated. This is not the case today. Food typically consumes 10%-15% of a poor household's budget and that amount drops down fast as soon as the household has one person on a full time non-minimum wage job. Furthermore food is sufficiently abundant and cheap that it is easy to spend a little more on some more. Hence these days there is little calorie intake regulation.

Contrariwise we no longer perform as much phyical activity. Manual labour jobs are comparatively scarce, people walk and bicycle less and less to travel to work or to go shopping, and so on. Furthermore, not only do we do less exercise to survive, our leisure pursuits are less energetic as well thanks to the TV, the Internet, computer games and so on. All this means that whereas many people fifty years ago found it easy to burn a few thousand calories a day, these days our sedentary lifestyle means that the only way to do this is by deliberate exercise. In other words we have to make the conscious choice to get out and exercise as part of our leisure time. For a whole bunch of reasons/excuses people don't do this and this is a problem. It seems to me that many many oversize people would benefit from being prescribed a "Wii fit" and getting in the habit of spending 20 minutes a day using it to do aerobics.

One of the nice things about the French "healthy living" campaign is that it combines both diet and exercise, as can be seen by the name "Mangerbouger.fr" (manger = to eat, bouger = to move). And that would be my solution. If you're overweight you'll exercise. If you can't exercise because you are too overweight then you probably can't work so you can get despatched somewhere where they can get you to lose weight and exercise without straining things any more. And so on. And if you can in fact do lots of exercise and are still plump then good for you.