Have you ever you seen a terribly overweight person walking down the street and thought to yourself, “How could she let herself get that way? How disgusting. She has no self-control. What a glutton!”
If so, you’re not alone.
Prejudice against the obese is the last “acceptable” prejudice in America. The overweight are treated differently. They’re looked at differently. They’re stared at, sneered at, and discriminated against.
They even make less money.
Mark V. Roehling, an associate professor at the School of Labor and Industrial Relations at Michigan State, looked at decades of employment studies and concluded that there is “consistent evidence of weight discrimination”.
This kind of subtle bullying was front and center in the news recently, when Jennifer Livingston, a local television anchor on WKBT in Wisconsin who happens to be overweight, received the following e-mail from a viewer:
“Surely you don’t consider yourself a suitable example for this community’s young people, girls in particular. Obesity is one of the worst choices a person can make, and one of the most dangerous habits to maintain. I leave you this note hoping that you’ll reconsider your responsibility as a local public personality to present and promote a healthy lifestyle.”
Livingston, bless her heart, has probably been the brunt of more fat jokes than anyone has a right to endure, but this time she decided not to let it go. Her husband, also an anchor at WKBT, posted the incredibly stupid e-mail on his Facebook page prompting a huge outpouring of support for his wife. And Jennifer went on the air to answer the e mail, resulting in a four-minute YouTube video that has now been seen more than 2 million times.
“The truth is I am overweight”, said the happily married 37-year old mother of three. “You could call me fat and, yes, even obese, on a doctor’s chart. But to the person who wrote me that letter, do you think I don’t know that? That your cruel words are pointing out something that I don’t see?”
OK, there are a few issues here.
One is pure prejudice and bullying. That sucks, period. But the fact that it is directed at the overweight and obese leads us to point number two: Personal Responsibility.
The people who put down “fat” people or sneer at them with undisguised disgust, clearly believe that people choose to be fat, and that it is completely within their power to not be. If you told these haters that their prejudice against the obese was in the same class as prejudice against a race or religion, they would be appalled. They would say it’s not the same thing, because people don’t “choose” their race, but people choose to be obese (or at least, they could easily choose not to but don’t).
And that’s what we really need to talk about, folks.
Look, I’m a huge believer in personal responsibility. Remember, I’m an ex-addict who made some bad choices at one time in my life, and some much better ones later on. I get that we are responsible for our fates in many more ways than most of us like to admit to ourselves (because it’s so easy to blame stuff on things that are out of our control).
But here’s the thing…some things really are out of our control.
Example: I do everything I can to insure a safe trip when I get in my car. Put on my seat belt. Never drive intoxicated. Keep both hands on the wheel. Never text and drive. But I can’t stop some crazy drunken teenager whose texting from jumping the divider and knocking my car off the road. Sometimes, shit happens. Some things really are beyond our control. Not everything, mind you—but some things.
What does that have to do with obesity? Everything.
Think you know all about obesity?
We’re at the infancy of our knowledge about obesity, and we’re not all that brilliant about weight loss in general. I can tell you this: it’s not just about eating less. No one wakes up in the morning and says, hey, I think I’d like to be obese! I’ve talked to serious scientists who’ve been studying this stuff for twenty years, people who the media would consider A-list experts, and privately they’ll tell you that obesity is baffling and mysterious and that they’re just scratching the surface of the subject.
Sure there are endless idiotic platitudes—“just eat less and exercise more” comes to mind—but even neophytes in the field now know that it’s a lot more than that. Genetics, sure. But how about new research showing that what your grandmother ate influences your body weight?
How about the increasing research on hormone disrupters in the environment, hormone disrupters that are strong enough to make male frogs have female organs, and, wild guess here, just might have some impact on our bodies as well? Just sayin’.
How about the fact—well documented in David Kessler’s excellent book, “The End of Overeating”—that food industry scientists have painstakingly computed the exact amounts of salt, fat and sugar to layer food products with so that they will become as addictive and impossible to resist as cocaine is to a laboratory rat?
How about the fact that scientists are right now studying the effect of compounds in the environment known as obesogens, which, among other things, encourage the body to store fat and re-program cells to become fat cells?
Finally, how about the fact that the vast majority of people who are doing their honest best to lose weight and eat healthy are still following wildly out-of-date establishment recommendations for low-fat, high-carb diets, precisely the kind of diet we now know will make susceptible people even fatter?
The Zyprexa Scandal
And if you still think obesity is all about “self-control” consider this: There’s a group of drugs called atypical antipsychotics, powerful medicines used to treat disordered thinking in schizophrenics. One of these drugs, Zyprexa, was the subject of a scandal in 2006 when the New York Times discovered documents showing that the manufacturer, Eli Lilly, had information that they kept hidden from the public about the drug’s enormous potential to cause very severe side effects. One of which was ridiculous weight gain.
It seemed that the company’s own data, neatly hidden from public view till the Times story came out, showed that at least a third of patients on Zyprexa gained an average of 22 pounds or more a year. Some gained—are you ready for this?—as much as 100 pounds.
Were those patients just eating more calories?
If weight gain were all about calories, no medicine would be able to produce 100 pound weight gain!
Clearly, all kinds of things can influence the metabolic machinery in ways that are not fully known nor understood. There are probably dozens—if not hundreds– of factors we don’t know about that have a profound influence on why someone can’t seem to lose weight despite following every smart prescription about diet and exercise to the fullest.
But the tricky thing here is not to take this information and say, “See? It’s all up to the fates. There’s nothing I can do about it, might as well supersize those fries.”
Is it the cards? Or is it the player?
There’s a fine line between understanding that some things are in the cards you’re dealt and some are in the way you play them. As someone who’s written diet programs and spent most of my career telling people they can take charge of their health and waistline, I’d be the last person to believe there’s nothing anyone can do about their weight.
That said, it’s painfully obvious that there’s a zillion individual factors that influence outcome when it comes to weight, and they’re not all things you can easily do something about. Yet no matter what hand you’ve been dealt, no matter if you have “good” genes or bad, there’s always a range of possible outcomes. (Two children born blind—one grows up to sell pencils on the sidewalk, one grows up to be Stevie Wonder.)
So there’s always something you can do to make sure you have the best outcome possible given the factors you can’t do anything about.
Which brings me to the definition of “best possible outcome”.
Dude, Where’s My Six-Pack?
People, not everyone can have a six pack. And- gasp—not everyone wants to.
I’m sorry, I know there’s a multi-billion infomercial industry built on the promise that it can be otherwise, but there’s probably less than a hundredth of a percentage of people who are genetically and metabolically able to really have a visible six pack. You know it, and I know it, so let’s stop pretending otherwise. And the point here isn’t that you shouldn’t get in the best possible shape and the best possible health—it’s that everyone’s definition of a good body isn’t the same, nor should it be.
It’s perfectly possible to be overweight and fit.
And it’s also perfectly possible to be overweight and gorgeous.
A Personal Story
Let me end this rant with a personal story about the most stunning woman I ever saw (with the exception, of course, of my beautiful girlfriend Michelle).
It was the mid 1990’s and I was at the opening of a Broadway play in New York City. Just as the lights were coming down, I sensed—not saw, mind you, but sensed—a stir in the room. I looked around and saw one of the most gorgeous women I’d ever laid eyes on. Her sense of confidence, grace, power and sexuality was absolutely breathtaking.
I found out later that it was Emme, the first famous “plus-size” model.
And she ain’t no size two.
And now for the punchline..
October is National Bullying Prevention Awareness Month, an annual campaign started in 2006 by the non-profit PACER Center for the purpose of raising awareness about the dangers of bullying. The organization defines bullying as intentional behavior that “hurts or harms another person physically or emotionally” and in which the targets “have difficulty stopping the behavior directed at them and struggle to defend themselves”.
Maybe it’s time we give some thought to this when it comes to our attitudes about the overweight among us.
Maybe it’s even time we give some thought to this when it comes to our attitudes about ourselves.