According to the CDC, obesity is one of the world’s most dangerous health conditions. As COVID-19 ravages the world, fat people are more likely to contract the virus and are also more likely to end up in the ICU. Weight and obesity-related ailments and diseases is second only to smoking as the most preventable cause of death in the US. This might be because, over the years, the use of tobacco has been reducing while in contrast, obesity has been on a steady increase.
Even without this advice from health organizations, individually, we recognize the dangers of obesity. Perhaps, it has something to do with the time when our ancestors had to run from animal predators, fat has signalled a higher susceptibility to danger. While those days have passed, the dangers of being overweight still endure. Experts have reiterated time and time again that the metabolic changes tied to excess weight reduce our immune system’s ability to fight off diseases. What’s more, various other physical factors that sometimes occur with obesity, like reduced lung capacity and sleep apnea, if anything further complicate the matter.
So, how is that knowing all these, it has become almost taboo to talk about weight in our society? In today’s discourses, often held in the hallowed halls of twitter, and other social media platforms, there are few issues as incendiary as the conversation on weight. From the use of the adjective “fat” and pictures of weight loss products down to health advice geared towards weight management, all weight related issues today have become potential landmines.
Personally, I think a lot of this is in part due to the issue of weight loss and obesity being primarily in conversations about physical appearances and by extension, fashion. So, you see that people who are fat but remain “conventionally attractive” are often not seen as fat. The press and the fashion industry gives them names such as “plus-size”, “thick” and “curvy”. The problem often arises when fat people are characterised as not being physically attractive.
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Now, it can be said that when people tell fat people to “lose some weight”, they really do not have their good health in mind. What they really mean is “you don’t look the way I think you should”. This is fatphobia, at least as I understand it to be. Fatphobia exists because bluntly put, some human beings are mean and bullies exist. They are especially mean to fat people and this is most unfair. Fat people face a lot of bullying and harassment and it is in response to fatphobia that this cultural pushback began. This pushback has also been in a sense, an effort to protect the mental health of fat people particularly as this group are more likely to suffer from depression.
The twist however, is that in recent times, even doctors have been accused of fatphobia when they point out the real dangers of carrying excessive body weight. It has gotten so bad that even a personal choice to lose weight is now termed ‘being fatphobic’. For context, back in 2019, pictures of music celebrity Adele surfaced showing that she had lost a huge amount of weight. As you might expect, these photos snowballed into a whirlwind of emotions for so many people. While some people cheered her on and found her fitness journey inspiring, an impressive number of internet users attempted to cancel Adele for being ‘fatphobic’.
What this means is that the fight against fatphobia has become yet another issue of extremism. It has become about our control and ego. So, when an internet user accuses Adele of being fatphobic, what they are really saying is “how dare you decide to to go against our message of self-love. Does it mean we are not good enough?” As if loving oneself enough to commit to being healthier isn’t the ultimate proof of self-love.
To be clear, it is important that we stop fat-shaming. Nobody should have to suffer ridicule and harassment over their weight or looks. At the same time though, it will be a sign of our collective delusion as a society if we fail to address health issue that it is. Those two things are not mutually exclusive. It is our responsibility as a society to have difficult conversations. It is our responsibility as a society to uphold the dignity of all members while also urging them to get healthier. It is important that we do not hand an obesity pandemic to the next generation. And it is near impossible to do that if they grow up believing that being overweight is fine as long as no one fat-shames you.
The reality is that obesity and all its attendant problems is a private issue as well as an issue adversely affecting our society. Like tobacco, obesity causes or is closely linked with a large number of health conditions such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, sleep apnea, infertility, and as many as 11 types of cancers, including leukemia, breast and colon cancer. These effects are worse for the poor and for us to solve this problem, we simply have to make more people aware so as to reduce the number facing the medical risks of obesity.
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The good news is that the horrors of being overweight can be prevented. The tough truth is that fat-shaming and fatphobia will not solve this problem any more than our silence on the subject, good vibes and affirmations of self-love without doing more. It is not just for us to accept ourselves the way we are, we also need to love ourselves deep enough to want to live longer, fuller and healthier. We cannot positively affirm ourselves out of heart diseases or the wave of chronic diseases with long term serious health consequences associated with obesity. We have to collectively find solutions as a society. This will include everything from making the right government policies, encouraging healthy eating and exercise down to a focus on increased personal responsibility.
However, we cannot do all these if we bury our heads in the sand. We can’t go on pretending that people who talk about fat and weight with dread are only out to get us. We can either throw a collective tantrum and refuse to act because the people who talk about our weight do so for the wrong reasons. Or we can get up and act because even though they may be assholes, the fact still remains, obesity is a danger to our health.
To provide you with a little more context here, I’d like to share a personal story. Within the last few years, I went from being the skinny tall (I am over 6ft tall) kid to gaining weight at a rate most people would consider alarming. At some time in the last year, I weighed over 220 pounds. The emotional effects of the pandemic alongside its attendant restrictions on movement contributed in no small measure to this. I began to lack a boost of confidence that lifts the mental and physical weight off and my allergic reactions got worse.
My loved ones shared their concerns with my weight gain as best as they could but I also got fat-shamed by strangers and long-time acquaintances. I learned that what drives our behavior is not necessarily logic but our habits. We are emotional beings with the ability to rationalize, not rational beings with emotions. I could either choose to focus on counter-attacking my fat-shamers or I could devote my energy to figuring out for myself what habits to tweak to feel healthier in my own skin.
I have now dropped to about 180 pounds. Only a few more left to go!
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Cover image by Julia Larson.