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.
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.