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.

Update: BTW, in this post, I don’t talk about the way that people’s physiology can vary tremendously, so that two people can eat exactly the same food, and yet end up different sizes. That’s not because I don’t understand, and agree with (!) that point – it’s just not the focus of this post. Even without the Professor and the Blogger saying silly things about choice and willpower, differences in physiology mean it is simply wrong to blame large people for being large.

* – 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.


19 responses to “Hating on teh fatties

  1. I don’t think it’s society’s ‘fault’, exactly, that people are getting fatter, but Birkbeck brings the crashing axe of positivism to the problem (as he always has) – simple obvious solutions must be right. The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in between – no-one actually wants to be fat, and yet, apparently, some people find it more difficult to lose weight than others. That’s the problem, not the simple fact that some people eat more than they need. Ask the question why!

  2. Very interesting analysis, Deborah (as usual).
    I think it’s also a factor that people’s metabolisms are very variable so that, as M-H noted, some people find it more difficult to lose weight than others. To give a simple example, I seem to be designed to be short and round and my partner designed to be long and thin, even though I eat less and better than he does, and I do a ton more exercise. What is that if not genetic predisposition at work?

  3. What is that if not genetic predisposition at work?

    That’s all very well, but it’s only a predisposition. It still doesn’t explain why this generation in the West is fatter than all previous generations. So either somehow we’ve collectively become more weak-willed, or the environment has changed. I’m with Marion Nestle, who in Food Politics explains in great detail just how that environment was allowed to change (in some ways by staying the same – namely, insisting that the message to ‘eat more’ that made sense at the end of WWII be promoted way past it stopped making sense).

    Go after the food companies and their advertising, I say.

  4. The “self-control” argument against fatties has a fatal flaw. Many skinny people have very little self-control on food – they eat exactly what they want, but in their case, it happens to be not very much. And this eat-what-you-want diet is often quite unhealthy.

    But nobody ever criticizes skinnies for their lack of self-control. So I agree with Deborah, it’s about hitting on teh fatties, not about self control.

  5. Re self-control and eating, as WELL as the stereotypes:

    – there are skinny people who eat enormous amounts and don’t exercise very much

    – there are skinny people who eat a whole lot of junk food

    and every other combination you can think of …


    – there are fat people who eat “well” and exercise “well” (and who – GASP! – stay fat!)

    AND studies (real ones) have actually shown (again and again and again) that what has a REAL impact on health is NOT weight (which ends up being pretty much irrelevant, and, all else being equal, it’s actually healthier to be “overweight” than “underweight” – oh, and BMI is a load of BS) but lifestyle – what you eat, how much you exercise, and so on.

    I highly recommend checking out some of the Fat Acceptance blogs. Shapely Prose ( kateharding.net ) is a good place to start and http://kateharding.net/but-dont-you-realize-fat-is-unhealthy/ is a good first page to look at over there. The link at the bottom of the page about why BMI is BS isn’t working, so instead, take a look at this:
    and for a couple more links, this:

  6. This also ignores research that says skinny people can still have fat packed around their vital organs and be quite unhealthy, more unhealthy than someone larger who eats better and does more exercise.

  7. As someone who’s fought the battle of the bulge all her life — sometimes successfully, but since 40 less and less so — and who has in middle age suffered a series of what I think of as biochemical defeats (giving up smoking, menopause, the necessity for a prophylactic drug for vicious migraine whose main, and universal, side effect is weight gain and which I cannot afford to stop taking)*, and who in any case has genetic predispositions on both sides, I speak from experience when I say that Deborah’s mention of gender is at the bottom of this. The hating on teh fatties comes, overwhelmingly, from men who want to punish women who offend them by failing to fit their fantasies of what a woman is supposed to be like.

    *These are not “excuses”, these are reasons. This insistence on moralising fattitude is like something from the Spanish Inquisition.

  8. Deborah, I find it very interesting that you can blog so lovingly about food, and yet have a ‘take it or leave it’ attitude to food. Lucky you!
    It’s also refreshing and unusual to find a ‘skinny’ not occupying the moral high ground.

  9. @Mindy, what on earth is that gravatar you have there?And I agree with what you said. I was a fatty on the inside (bad fat that could lead to burdening the public health system). Now I am beginning to become a fatty on the outside (tummy) I don’t feel comfortable, but its mainly good fat.

    Obesity, in some people, is not dissimilar to alcoholism IMO. And what I know about that is that vilification is an inappropriate treatment. Nurturing understanding is the better choice. The same could be said about anorexia.

  10. Yes, well, it took me many years to learn it, and I think I only learned it through living with someone who reacts to food in completely the opposite way. ‘Though I began to realise that this alleged “choice” was not as simple as it seemed when I worked out that my standard stress reaction is to stop eating, whereas other people eat more when they are stressed. And in all honesty, I should point out that I have very little self-control when it comes to wine! (NB: I can, and do, stop drinking well before I get drunk, though I certainly wouldn’t want to drive a car.)

    I do still have some issues with weight reactions. I get very grumpy about not being able to buy clothes for my skinny daughters. I can buy “easy-fit” jeans, with adjustable waist bands, but I have to rope them in for miles, so my girls look like clowns. They’re sized to fit big / fat children, but no skinny kids. I think that although the alleged obesity epidemic is overrated, children’s clothing manufacturers have not yet worked out that children no longer vary only in terms of height. These days, they vary quite significantly in girth too, and both those who are much skinnier than average, and those who are much bigger than average, miss out.

  11. Love the banana cake tale. I’m a cake whisperer too; my partner is more like you, Deborah, and never notices food until she gets grumpy from hypoglycaemia. So when I’m home with the kids, I eat all day, feeding myself whenever they eat, having a cuppa and a bikkie whenver I have a spare moment. L home with the kids gets to the end of the day and says, “I forgot to eat”. FORGOT TO EAT?

  12. @ Steve, it was half a piece of toast, that my tiny daughter had bitten three little pieces out of using her total of 4 darling little teeth. It’s probably time for a change now that she’s three.

  13. L home with the kids gets to the end of the day and says, “I forgot to eat.”

    Yes, well, um… people in this house have been known to say that too. As has my mother.

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  15. Thank you for posting this attempt to de-demonize fat people, however you seem to conflate “fat people” with “non stop binge eaters.” Not all fat people binge eat, just as not all skinny people ignore food. Some people eat too much, some people eat too little. There isn’t always a correlation between amount eaten and weight gained.

    I’m very fat, but I’m also one of those “forget to eat” people. This is especially bad as I now take oral insulin for PCOS (since starting it, I’ve lost a bunch of weight without changing my diet or activity level, btw) and MUST eat regularly or I could become ill or pass out… very dangerous with an infant to take care of.

    The whole “fat people eat constantly” is a negative stereotype that reinforces that fat people are weak willed gluttons who just can’t say no. It heaps moral judgments upon them and gives weight to the argument that if they’d just shut their mouths they’d lose weight, because losing weight is simple and obvious but they are just too greedy/lazy to do so.

    It’s also a stereotype that is INTENSELY ingrained in society.

    But! Thank you for calling this guy out on his fat hatred, his Holocaust/concentration camp madness, AND the sexism of the article.

  16. Thanks for making that point, Bridgid. I don’t think I’m conflating fat people and binge-eaters. I agree, absolutely, that people’s physiology can vary tremendously, so that one person can eat exactly the same amount of food as another person, yet end up much skinnier / much fatter. Our bodies can process food in very different ways, even if there aren’t any other health issues. It’s just that in this post, I wanted to focus on some ideas about willpower, not on physiology. However, I might add an update to the post to that effect.

  17. I personally find notions of “self-control” and “willpower” incredibly troubling. Some dieting ads that have really gotten on my goat lately are the Wrigley’s one, the Special K one, and the Weight Watchers one. All of these ads play the “willpower” card, and say that if we just buy their product, “Hunger” ( being the “self”-destructive, perverse Frankenstein that it is), can be eliminated so it can’t, I dunno, corrupt our incredibly pure, moral Puritan thought processes. What goes hand in hand with the promotion of willpower is the depiction of “Hunger” as something that needs to be separated from the body,that can be excised from our rational, always potentially thin beings if we just have the “self”-discipline to do so. We celebrate the fragmentation of the fat body, the disavowing of something (Hunger) that we need to keep us alive (I am not suggesting being hungry is the only reason we eat of course-it is one of an array of reasons). In the Wrigley’s ads Hunger is separate from the body- it’s represented through the animated food characters that follow the protagonists around. In the Weight Watchers ads Hunger is also separate from the body- it is symbolized by the cute (and hence benevolent *cough*) little monster that follows the woman around.

    The result of people like Birkbeck explaining “fatness” through the implied lack of “self”-motivation and “willpower” is that dieting companies (and chewing gum companies, and Kellogs-which I would argue are dieting companies too) make TONNNNNEEESSS of money out of saying “fat” people can just MAGICALLY develop “will power” overnight (it is supposed this is a worthy aim) if they consume their products. Because we all know that “fat” people really don’t have the right to feel Hungry, to eat, to feel satiated, to listen to cakes that whisper and call out to them in the night, to experience the sensual, “self”-corrupting pleasures of food. And these food companies make SO much money out of the public’s fetish with disciplining fat bodies and teaching “fatties” that willpower (which goes hand in hand with the regime of disembodying “Hunger”) is one of the necessary and crucial characteristics of any worthy human being.

    “Professor Birkbeck and his cheer leading squad don’t seem to understand is that food affects people differently”. Yup. And people can’t quite seem to understand that “fatness” is ah, actually quite complex, and not just a substance in the body that can be medically quantified and understood. And I think the fact that we can’t understand it (e.g. some “skinny” people eat loads and don’t put on weight, some “fat” people diet forever and can’t lose the weight) is what scares some people beyond belief

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  19. Interesting article by Marc Ambinder on the parallels between the fight against obesity and the fight against tobacco.

    He gets to the point in the last paragraph:

    Apply that lesson to the debate over obesity. The same cognitive frames apply; lawmakers, supported by the food and agribusiness industries, see obesity as a personal issue, one where willpower and individual choices matter. Science sees obesity as a complex epiphenomenon. Our health care system has few incentives to fight obesity; health insurance have few incentives, right now, at least, to proactively cover preventative interventions, like paying for personal trainers and nutritionists for the slightly overweight. The food industry lobby is huge and powerful; the anti-obesity lobby is correspondingly weak and not terribly sophisticated. Many health economists and scientists believe that action is needed now, but if the tobacco model repeats itself, it may be a while before something — whatever that something is, because there is no consensus — gets done.