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Fat shaming is not community service

October 12, 2015


All the public knows about obesity, is that less exercise and more food makes a person fat. But there is more to it. —AFP
All the public knows about obesity, is that less exercise and more food makes a person fat. But there is more to it. —AFP

Think of a time you were offered unsolicited advice on a subject that you have far more experience dealing with. Imagine it occurring repeatedly, with the pretend-expert expecting you to thank him for patronising you.

Frustrating, isn’t it?

Oversimplifying obesity

All that is really known about obesity by the general public, is that less exercise and more food makes a person fat.

Fat people are aware of this equation. Our failure to lose weight is taken as evidence of our ignorance of this golden formula, which thin people constantly remind us of, often to feel better about their own bodies and an imagined expertise in fitness.

If the fat person claims that he already knows the rule, the next assumption made is that he’s too lazy or undisciplined to act on this information. It is worth noting that most people who render this judgement have personally never made any serious effort in staying healthy themselves, apart from an occasional jog that’s motivated by leisure rather than real commitment to fitness.

Individuals born with metabolic silver-spoons in their mouths, snicker at people struggling with their weight problem, much like rich kids who roll their eyes at poor people struggling to pay their bills.

Try harder, loser!” holler the physiologically privileged from the top of the hill, while the obese people work twice as hard for half the reward.

One size does not fit all

The point above is lost on many who see seven billion humans as their own biological clones; assuming that any technique or ‘totka’ working for them, must also work for everyone else. This is especially true for those who have succeeded in losing significant weight.

The absurdity of that assumption is easily noted by physicians like myself, who wonder why the same drug, with dose carefully adjusted according to each patient’s weight and age, has varying degrees of effects on different patients; even outright failing to show any response in, say, 10 per cent of them.

See: F for fat: A documentary and a feature film examine what it means to be a large woman

The answer can be complicated. While the golden formula of weight gain as food intake minus exercise is theoretically true, it does not take into account many genetic, pathological, socioeconomic and pharmacological factors that either facilitate or impede weight gain. Idiosyncrasies matter tremendously.

We are not lazy

To begin with, there actually is such a thing as an “obesity gene”. A fault in the FTO gene – responsible for storing energy as fat rather than burning for heat – may explain many cases of early-onset and sustained obesity.

A wide range of pathological conditions from Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) to Cushing’s Disease, make it incredibly difficult to lose weight, or even keep it from increasing. A number of drugs, particularly psychiatric medicines, are known to affect BMI. Even the absence of certain gut microbes can affect satiety, hence cause weight gain.

Contrary to the public’s perception of obesity as a symbol of greed and decadence – used frequently in political caricatures to depict corrupt politicians and bureaucratic “fat cats” – obesity may paradoxically be a consequence of poverty and malnutrition.

Read on: The perceived criminality of obesity

In developed countries, healthy and organic food can be costly, while highly subsidised soft drinks and junk food can be surprisingly cheap. It also goes without saying that poor people cannot afford gym memberships, personal trainers, and weight-reduction surgeries.

The point is not that these factors render diet and exercise useless; but that they do make the process of losing weight significantly harder, often to a level where it demands superhuman determination and effort that only a small fraction of the obese people can ever muster.

Instead of acknowledging these difficulties, fat people are stereotyped as slothful, clumsy creatures without self-control. Such dehumanisation, studies reveal, worsens the problem by causing stress and sapping their confidence.

Fat people objecting to jokes perpetuating these stereotypes are further degraded as grumpy and humourless.

We know our bodies better than you

It is offensive when people haunted with these aforementioned problems, and possibly more, are smugly told to “eat less” or “join a gym”, as if they are too unintelligent to have considered or tried it already.

In fact, just about any variation of an unsolicited “Have you tried...?” question, likely has a resounding “Yes” waiting as an answer; not because obese people are all-knowing, but because they’ve had tons more experience dealing with weight problems than someone who lost six kilograms at some stage in life, and can not stop boasting about it.

It is condescension masquerading as concern; an act of self-gratification pretending to be assistance. Only in rare instances, where the advisor is truly close enough to a fat person to speak liberally about personal matters, that the suggestion may be deemed appropriate.

If not, then, it is nearly as ludicrous as telling an exhausted labourer to “work harder” because you can’t comprehend how he can’t be as wealthy as you, unless he’s lazy and fully committed to staying poor.

You wouldn’t shame a poorly-recovering stroke patient as a way of 'motivating' him to put more effort in his physiotherapy.

You wouldn’t laugh at a poor person to encourage him to pull himself out of poverty.

Why, then, would one insult those having a hard time losing weight, and pretend that it's community service?

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