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Why Talk of the Obesity Epidemic and Calorie Counts is Actively Harmful

[trigger warning for eating disorders, suicidal thoughts]

I had a very painful experience yesterday that I’d like to share.  I thought about doing this privately, but I decided that it was worth talking about in public because my readers mostly come for a mix of queer issues, feminist, and human rights law, and you may not be aware of the insidious harms of body shaming and talk about the “obesity epidemic.”  There is a slim chance that the person I’m telling this story about could read this article.  I hope that if she does, she’ll understand that it’s not about her, and I’m not saying that I hate her as a person or that she’s a bad person.  I don’t want to shame an individual here.  I want to point out the context of her words, that we live in a society where vitriol like this is acceptable.  For that reason I’m not saying who she is or how we met, just that she’s someone I know in a professional capacity.

So here’s what happened:

We got into a discussion about the “obesity epidemic,” where I was arguing that a lot of the public health messages about obesity harm more than they help, and that children shouldn’t be shamed into diet and exercise.  Her position was very different, so I decided to disclose my personal history of eating disorders (probably EDNOS, I don’t really know how to categorize it yet) in hopes that my perspective might be one she hadn’t considered.  It didn’t really do much good in the abstract, but eventually we got around to talking about the calorie signs that many big cities now require to be displayed in restaurants.
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Why You Should Read Between the Lines of Scientific/Journalistic “Studies” on Fatness

I’ve been in a bit of a mood about the latest “research” regarding obesity and being overweight. Cara does a good summary of the issues regarding the first study in question, which focuses on overweight women who think they’re normal.  Because, of course, we all know overweight isn’t normal.  And how dare you think you’re something you’re not.  How dare you be bold enough to have a healthy, positive, loving view of your body in this woman-hating society.  There’s something wrong with you.

The other study (which I can’t find the article on anymore, would someone link in the comments?) is an analysis of I think 19 different studies that finds an increased risk of death for people who are only slightly overweight.  The study was done on white people only, and the indicator used was BMI, which we all know is pretty problematic.  But what bothers me the most is the way it’s reported.  Yet another “oh my God, you’re going to DIE if you’re fat!” article designed to evoke fear in the populous.  Because plenty of people, of course, are “just a little overweight.”  But you know what?  Stepping out onto the street increases your risk of death.  You might be hit by a bus.  And while I’m skeptical of the study design, even putting that aside, the framing of the message is harmful to those who will read it and think “oh shit, I’m a little overweight, I might die sooner.”  I’m guessing your reaction to that is less likely to be “hey, I should change my diet or exercise more!” and more likely to be, well, depression. Which can kill you.

So let’s stop striking the fear into the hearts of fat people and instead think about holistic health, which includes love and respect for your body, respect for how other people view their bodies, and not scaring the shit out of those who dare not to apply the tried and true formula of diet and exercise (or those who can’t).