According to fat pride activist Marilyn Waan, the American medical establishment has lost its head over the nationwide "obesity epidemic," and its prejudice is claiming victims. In one case, Waan says, a doctor told a fat woman complaining of shooting lights in her vision that the problem must be her weight. Her next doctor discovered a brain tumor.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with healthcare consortium Kaiser Permanente have found a great new way to fight childhood obesity: the Amazing Food Detective. The computer game, released last week, features ten "case files" of unhealthy children—click on each prisoner-style mug shot and you proceed to help a fat child make a healthy choice. The solution to chubby 12-year-old Emily's dilemma is to install a security camera to catch and stop her eating at home (After all, "Those large portions were quite suspicious!"); little Cole has to learn that he can only eat raw carrots and bananas because, "Healthy snacks are the way to go!" And the game comes complete with a time-out after 20 minutes: "You should take a break and do something active, like 100 pushups!" Gee whiz-that sounds fun!
And medical professionals are on the same bandwagon. "Our doctors have the same superstitions that everyone else has," Waan says. "They act on them in ways that are not scientific." It's not difficult to find serious grievances from fat patients. On one recently started blog, First, Do No Harm, a woman with Cushing's Syndrome, a muscle-wasting disease that turns muscle to fat, says she was told that she just needed to go on a diet.
In response, fat people are mobilizing. The "fat pride" or "fat acceptance" movement might provoke the scorn of skinnies, but it is growing in number and makes a compelling case. Much of the organizing takes place online, where fat people shares stories of abuse, gripe about prejudicial scientific studies and debate the finer points of weight discrimination. Some groups, like one started by Waan often delve directly into activism, with members urging one another to write complaints about discriminatory food advertisements or boycott insensitive organizations. Other groups are simply about offering mutual support. SeaFATtle, a group started by activist Mary McGhee, began simply as a way for fat women to swim together without fear of catcalls.
Admittedly, agitating through a fat women's swimming club might not be the best way to attract serious attention. But the claims fat pride puts forward aren't so unreasonable: The movement holds that the nation's "public health crisis" isn't really about health at all. It's about bad science and intolerance.
Listen to any public health official and you'd think obesity was a scientific slam dunk, but studies on the exact causes and effects of weight gain are highly ambiguous. One study of 25,000 men by The Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research, for example, found that a fit fatso is actually healthier than a sedentary skinny: over an eight year period even those technically classified as "obese" (a BMI of over 30) were less likely to die from heart attacks, strokes and cancer than inactive people of normal weight. And many of the studies released as "proof" of America's impending death by gristle fail to take into account confounding variables, like yo-yo dieting, a sedentary lifestyle and fat distribution on the body.
But even if the science were sound, public officials and anti-fat crusaders still confuse bad health with moral depravity. Paul Campos, a law professor at Colorado University and author of The Obesity Myth, claims that this "moral panic" sticks because it finds an "ideological resonance." On the right it appeals to an ascetic attitude; on the left it taps into anxieties about capitalist over-consumption and manipulative force-feeding by corporations.
Unfortunately, the "obesity crisis" has real victims. At 500 pounds, Gary Sticklaufer was judged too fat to make a good adoptive father to his own cousin—despite having adopted and raised several other children without problems. His cousin was forcibly taken from his care. Meanwhile, fat women are regularly told by their doctors that to become pregnant would be irresponsible, despite a lack of medical evidence demonstrating a higher risk for overweight women. And in the UK it's now commonplace to raise concerns over fat children with a view to placing them in foster care. In short, cutting a slim figure is now a moral imperative for responsible parenting, and those who refuse the "cure" to this aesthetic "disease" are summarily punished.
The anti-obesity campaign is waging war against the very people it purports to help and, in doing so, undermines the very medical authorities it relies on to perpetuate the crisis. Fat people are tired of being patronized by politicians, mistreated by doctors and barraged by crises and "cures." Many, like Big Fat Blog writer Paul Macaleer have simply concluded that, "A lot of people don't like fat people." And hard as it may be to accept, many fat people don't want to be "helped" by quack dieticians, misguided doctors, and opportunist politicians. Most, in fact, just want to be left alone.
Juliet Samuel was reason's 2007 Burton Gray memorial intern.