Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Hating on teh fatties

Cross posted

Professor John Birkbeck has surfaced in New Zealand newspapers again, telling fat people that it's all their own fault that they are fat. The New Zealand Herald devoted not just one article to him, but two - one a fairly standard profile of a retiring academic: The truth is - size matters, and another seizing the opportunity to berate fat people: Expert - it's your fault if you're a fatty. Some choice tidbits from the articles:

"While acknowledging that some may have a genetic propensity to obesity, he said: "You can't get over-fat without eating more calories than you expend."

Birkbeck even cited concentration camps to illustrate his point.

"You do not see fat people in concentration camps. Why? Because they get hardly anything to eat and they have to do a lot of work."

"In a dictatorship, you say 'everybody that comes back in a year's time with a Body Mass Index (BMI) of more than 30 will be shot' - and you'll find hardly anyone has a BMI over 30.

"But you can't do that in society, so what we have to do is find a way to cajole and coerce. And I don't think they've done enough of that."

"I think where we can make things uncomfortable for the seriously fat, we should do so with a clear conscience."

Umm.... wow. Let's put this into one sentence. We can rid society of the evil of obesity by putting people in concentration camps and starving them or by killing them if they don't lose weight.

(The NZ Herald links it to women, of course. Take a look at the photos they use to illustrate their articles.)

Leaving aside the ghastly offensiveness of using Holocaust victims to make an unrelated point, that's an awful lot of fat hatred going on there.

Then one of the most-read political bloggers in NZ* chimes in:

I find it outrageous to have Leigh Sturgess [Obesity Action Coalition director] saying it is society’s fault - rather than my own. Bullshit - it is nothing to do with society or the environment - and everything to do with personal choices.

Of course, it's okay for him to say this, because he's a fatty too (self-described, in the post).

Right.... it's everything to do with choice, and absolutely nothing to do with environment. Funny that. I would have thought that Professor Birkbeck's analogies and arguments work exactly the other way, to show that the environment is critical in determining how much food people eat. And of course, unless you are Thomas Hobbes, a coerced choice is no choice at all.

Aside from that, what Professor Birkbeck and his cheer leading squad don't seem to understand is that food affects people differently. I'm a skinny - I can take food or leave it, and if there's a cake on the table, well, whatever. I don't desire it, and often enough, it doesn't really even impinge on my awareness. This is not due to any moral virtue (or lack of it!) - I was just born that way.

Other people tell a different story. A cake on the table commands their whole attention:

Recently I was sitting at a friend's house with a group of mates when someone put a plate of banana cake on the table. For me, being in the presence of a cake is as attention-grabbing as being in the presence of a thermo-nuclear device. I am a cake whisperer – they cry out to me in the night from the darkness of the pantry – and within seconds I had assessed the relative merits of every slice of that banana cake. Yet my friend genuinely seemed unaware it was there: she continued wittering away about whatever it was that we had been discussing, seemingly oblivious to my glazed expression.
Linley Boniface - Listening to the cake whisperer

Add to that the knowledge that willpower doesn't come cheap. Psychologist Dr Cordelia Fine researches and writes about willpower. One of her key findings - if you devote your willpower, your mental and emotional energy to one task, then it is simply not available for another task. So if you are frantic at work, stressed and worried by finances and issues at home, struggling just to keep your head above water, then the last thing you have the resources to do is exercise willpower to resist that piece of cake that is whispering so temptingly to you.

As this and many similar studies show, if you draw on your reserves to achieve one unappealing goal - going for a jog, say - your moral muscle will be ineffective when you then call on it to help you switch off the television and start essay-writing.

Or in the case of Dr Fine's father, an academic philosopher:

Fortunately, there is also an attractive quick-fix approach to the problem of limited willpower. This is to use your moral muscle only very sparingly. My father, a professional philosopher, has a job that involves thinking very hard about very difficult things. This, of course, is an activity that consumes mental resources at a terrific rate.

The secret of his success as an academic, I am now convinced, is to ensure that none of his precious brainpower is wasted on other, less important matters. He feels the urge to sample a delicious luxury chocolate? He pops one in his mouth. Pulling on yesterday's shirt less trouble than finding a clean one? Over his head the stale garment goes. Rather fancies sitting in a comfy armchair instead of taking a brisk jog around the park? Comfy armchair it is. Thanks to its five-star treatment, my father's willpower - rested and restored whenever possible - can take on the search for wisdom with the strength of 10 men.
(PDF - 105kb)

The take home message from all this? When it comes to what you eat, or don't eat, your mileage may vary, considerably, depending on how you react to food. On top of this, you simply may not have the available mental and emotional capacity to resist that lovely, chocolately, creamy, oh so gooely rich piece of cake. Contra Professor Birkbeck, and contra the "fat people choose to be fat" crowd, it's not just a matter of making a simple choice not to eat.

* - DPF's readership is about the size of a small NZ town newpaper's circulation, and he tops the (somewhat dubious but nevertheless fun) monthly rankings of NZ political blogs.


Anonymous said...

Err, DPFs blog has far more readers than such papers in the provincial centres such as Tauranga, Nelson or Dunedin.

And being a fattie is a choice. We need more Government direction and support for everybody to have the opportunity to get fit and learn about consumption, in order to save the planet. The Greens have good policies on consumption so I hope they lead the way on convincing National to support more money going to health and fitness.

stargazer said...

there was an excellent interview on radio nz yesterday (afternoons, 15.12), with marianne kirby. she and kate harding recently wrote a book on this issue that makes a lot more sense than the good professor does.

Daniel said...

Blame the fatties is a favourite pastime in Aus these days. Finally a group it's acceptable to discriminate against and make jokes about.

The big problem with these articles and the industry and politics related to them is that Obesity used to be a symptom of opulence in our modern world it's most often a symptom of poverty.

Starving yourself does not allow you to be thin AND healthy. Accusing fat people of just eating too much is incompatible with arguments about health system costs.
Bodyweight is a quality of diet and an exercise thing.
Our society is increasingly time poor, bad food is actually much cheaper than good food, and our work is often sedentary.

Also, there is a nasty feedback loop with depression. It slows the metabolism making it easier to gain weight and harder to lose it. And the being fat makes depression more likely or worse.

It is something people can change for themselves but it's time consuming, costly, and is NOT a matter of just eating less.
Telling fat people to lose weight is like telling depressed people to cheer up. It's not as easy as it sounds.

ms poinsettia said...

The other issue is the cost of food. You can know everything about calories and fat content but if you've a family to feed and are really struggling to make ends meet and high-fat, high salt, high-calorie, high sugar food is cheaper than the good stuff and quite possibly more filling, then you may have little choice but to eat a diet heavy in calories and low in nutritional benefit. I'm not talking chips instead of fruit so much as white bread, tinned spaghetti etc.

A Nonny Moose said...

As per usual in the fat debate, a whole lot of ass-umptions and sterile generalizations.

Saying flat out "Being fat is a choice" doesn't take into account any other environmental factors. When you're time deficient it is easy to make bad choices.

If they wanted to solve part of the problem, perhaps they should get off the blame treadmill and into reconstructing society so WE'RE not on the wage-slave treadmill. But then, that's just WAY too hard.

A Nonny Moose said...

Ms Poinsettia: It bugs me greatly that a 2 litre bottle of milk is 2 to 3 times the price of a 2.25 litre bottle of Coke. It's the same with bread - a (good)loaf is 2 to 3 times the price of a packet of chips.

Psycho Milt said...

I didn't find Birkbeck's comments in the linked article any more bizarre than the state of denial exhibited by Maree Burns of Eating Disorders Education Network, or the flat-out-wrong view attributed to Leigh Sturgiss of Obesity Action Coalition that "...the condition should be blamed on environment rather than the individual."

katy said...

A Nonny Moose: I also think it is a problem that bread and milk aren't all that healthyand yet we consume such quantities of them.. Not wishing to sound like the food police, especially cause I love a flat white and a bagel. But the places in the world with the best nutrition do without dairy and wheat.

Anonymous said...

Agree with Katy about the wheat. After feeling exhausted each night and unable to shake a chest infection which lingered for months(I work full time plus two small children who don't sleep that much), I went gluten free a year ago. I now have much more energy (can work at night!) and no more chest infections and have had no cold or flu since. Only problem is that it is a bit of a nightmare at cocktail parties and other functions, flying etc when food is provided - it is hard to find anything I can eat, also very allergic to fish - staple at coktail parties. (End up drinking too much wine...) But, just have to be prepared and take your own food along and/or not rely on having "lunch" or "dinner" when I attend functions. Not brave enough to forgo dairy products though.

Chris said...

Other people tell a different story. A cake on the table commands their whole attentionIt's not just that, or the environment: some people's metabolisms will hang on like grim death to every calorie. (See this study, in which some participants regained weight while eating fewer calories than they had while losing weight in the initial stages of their diets. Discussed here, too.)

On the other hand, as an anecdatapoint, I am a cake whisperer from way back, but I'm relatively thin and my weight hasn't changed more than a few kilos up or down since I reached adulthood. People differ physiologically as well as psychologically in their reaction to food, and it's likely to be largely genetically determined.

M-H said...

Anonymous @ 1, tying weight loss and gain with saving the planet is just plain wrong. The issues are not connected. It reinforces stereotypes about fat people being 'greedy'. And being fit isn't directly related to weight either. Thin people can be very unfit, and so-called fat people can be perfectly fit. People will gain or lose different amounts of weight on the same food - metabolism, underlying conditions, long-term drug regimes - all of these affect people's weight and have to be taken into account.

Maia said...

I'm finding this post and comment thread very frustrating.

I don't find the argument "fat people can't help being fat" particularly helpful. It feels very conditional. Unless explicitly rebutted it accepts the idea: "if it was their faults then it'd be OK to judge people" (and this post also seemed to take the calories in calories out nonsense for granted - rather than just granting it for arguments sake, which I can see the use of doing).

And then predictably the comments thread becomes a discussion of what is and isn't 'healthy' and, with the latest anonymous, how we'd all be feeling so much better if we restricted our diet (but not to gain weight, just coincidentally to cut down on carbohydrates one of the food groups that isn't very popular at the moment).

Maybe I'll repost some of my earlier writing about bodies and food and health from my blog over to the hand mirror, because the discussion here seems to be conceding an awful lot of ground.

Deborah said...

Oh! I took the physiology for granted i.e. that people's bodies work in different ways, and that a diet that results in one person being skinny will result in another person being big. I don't grant the "calories in - calories out" idea at all. It's simply not the focus of this post.

Hugh said...

Maia, I've just gone and had a quick look at your journal and, providing I've understood you correctly (and maybe I haven't) I just wanted to say I heartily agree.

It seems to me that most of this moral panic about food is chiefly an attempt by the middle class to try and elevate an element of their own lifestyle to a moral imperative, and to refuse to discuss any systemic reasons why everybody doesn't eat like them by instead talking about the need for 'education'.

Anonymous said...

It's actually quite cheap to eat well and healthy. Our parents taught us, they learned from their grandparents and so on.

Whats confusing is how people seem to make excuses for bad nutrition because there are equally cheap unhealthy options out there. That's lazy thinking.

Deborah said...

Nonsense, anon in the early hours of the morning. Just take a look at some of the comments upthread about the cost of say, milk compared to coca-cola.

It's worth reading this article that appeared in the Washington Post: The high cost of poverty.

A Nonny Moose said...

Anonymous at 2:54: It may be cheap in money, but it certainly isn't cheap on time. I certainly don't have the luxury of 2-3 hours a day to prepare meals (from packing a lunch to cooking the nightly meal).

And there is certainly something to be said for the responsibility of food courts/food bars, catering to the lunch crowd. For example, I work in an industrial park, and within a 5 minute walking distance there is 1) a lunch bakery with pies and cakes 2) a cafe with pies and cakes 3) a hot food bar with deep fried takeaways and stodgy pasta 4) a sandwich bar, including pies and cakes.

If I want anything remotely healthy, I have to get in my car to drive into town (defeating the purpose of a little exercise), or to a mall court I know supplies reasonably healthy choices. Within a 5 minute drive I have 1) an asian foodcourt (with good healthy choices) 2) central town variety, but organic foods/salad bars have inadequate parking/bad location 3) a McDonalds, Burger King and KFC - all with drive through 4) a plethora of coffee shops, with pies and cakes.

It's a free market, but what can you do with limited healthy choice like that?

Maia said...

Sorry for going a bit grrrr Deborah. I was unduly influenced by the nature of the comment thread.

I think it's interesting how hegemonic ideas about food and bodies are, because arguing against one part of the 'obesity epidemic mentality' it's really easy to reinforce other assumptions (I know I've done it).

Deborah said...

No worries, Maia. I should probably have made it clear in the post that I was deliberately not talking about the physiology issues. I think we're probably pretty much in agreement about body size issues. I recall reading your posts on Capitalism is Bad, and thinking they were great.

Anonymous said...

I just thought the article was an interesting inversion of the usual logic on these things: The conservative basher arguing FOR cultural factors and his opponent arguing for individual choice; i.e

Birbeck says; make it socially unacceptable to be fat. Sturgiss says; educate people about choices, de-stigmatise fatness, then leave the choice up to them.

I can see both sides: I lived in the eastern suburbs of sydney with the skinny-or-die set, watching the yummy-mummy/pregorexics jog past in their skin tight lycra. There is no doubt in my mind that many of my friends felt a very strong pressure to be thin at all costs. On the other hand, my own mother is suffering terrible effects of obesity and the social ignominy of being morbidly obese. Neither situation is fun.

In both cases, social issues play a large part in the miseries of body shape, but I'm SO incredibly nervous about people who are interested in social engineering as a form of "management", especially to contain costs in the health sector. The whole thing makes my skin crawl.

This is one case where I'd prefer the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff - after all, persecution is persecution.

Anonymous said...

Anon, I agree with you. I desperately want to get pregnant but am unable to conceive. The public health system will not support me with the surgery and medication I need to address this unless I reduce my BMI. This is full on and scary because I don't know how I can lose the weight I need to. I have always been healthy and have never been given a hard time for my weight so this really shocked me and I don't know what to do. I really wish there had been more pressure on me to lose this weight when I was younger, apologist arguments for being overweight make me feel sick when I consider my own situation.