This week, in a particularly ridiculous moment, a Boston doctor decided that she would not treat patients over 200 pounds. She suggested that they should, instead, be sent to treatment centers. Meanwhile, Harvard professors think Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” program doesn’t go far enough and people should be legally required to exercise (this sentiment was apparently followed up by enthusiastic applause. Some other governments have also been in favor of this).
These are not random people on the street who want to inform passing overweight women that they’re overweight (often by saying something sparkling like “you fat!”). They are not somewhat senile grandmothers in the grocery store who want to inform you that you don’t need all that food if you’re overweight. These are intelligent professionals. Yet, they seem about 3 martinis away from saying “you know, I just really hate fat people.”
We are a culture that seems, pretty in-arguably, to do everything possible to shame and deride anyone overweight. Which is funny, because 1/3 of us are obese (a whopping 42% of Americans are expected to be obese by 2030).
But why do we care? Okay, the doctor could be open to more malpractice lawsuits if she operates on unhealthy people. That kind of makes sense, though it does not make sense if your reason for becoming a doctor was “to serve possibly sick people” and not just “some people who seem in tip-top shape going in.” I suppose, an overweight population could cost us more in taxes on medicare, but we do choose to live here, and taxes – a portion of which will be used to support the other people who live here – go along with that.
I am not that concerned about those two things, and I think many other people are not daily concerned with them, either.
However, there is not a day of my life when I do not worry about my weight. I count out precisely 1,200 calories. I am convinced I am nowhere near skinny enough. I am convinced I will never be skinny enough. I just spent ten minutes debating whether or not to eat a piece of ice cream cake that was in the office. On one hand, it was my favorite flavor of ice cream cake, and you can’t just got into a store and buy ice cream cake anytime, so the opportunity doesn’t present itself more than once or twice a year. On the other hand, if my weight goes over a certain amount I feel a real and true fury at myself.
I thought about why I feel that fury for a second.
That fury has nothing to do with the fact that I am potentially making damaging decisions to my health. I could try to say it is by remarking that I “try to eat healthy.” I certainly say that, and when I say that I mean “No, I cannot have dinner, I am counting out precisely 1,200 calories each day.”
Because I do plenty of things that are not necessarily great for my body. I drink. I wear high heels. I drink a ton of caffeine (really, I could have an IV of Zero Calorie Monster plugged directly into my veins). I don’t get enough sleep. I am unlikely to change any of these things. No one ever points out to me that these things are unhealthy. Ever. You can guzzle four Zero Calorie Monsters at your desk and it’s seen as some kind of charming, Andy Warhol-ish eccentricity. God help me if I ate 4 donuts at my desk. People would stop by to ask if I was either 1) okay or 2) if I knew how many calories were in those. Here is a graphic to illustrate how that works (the Harvard guy had slides. This is my attempt at a slide).
Moreover, I have no romantic notions that, if I eat enough bran muffins, I will be so healthy that I will never die. I will die regardless. It will likely be unpleasant, but I am not overly troubled by this, so long as death continues to reside only on the most distant horizon.
No, the idea of gaining weight does not trouble me because I think it will shorten my life expectancy.
It does trouble me to think that I am damaging my short term, immediate prospects. I realize that the skinnier I am, the nicer people are to me. As long as I keep my weight under a certain amount, I know strangers will compliment me in the street. Every time I go into a dress shop salespeople will tell me that I have a good body. Doctors will not only serve me, they will praise me for being so fit. In exchange for these things, you accept that you will be a little bit hungry most of the time.
And these social benefits would be exist whether I ate the healthiest diet in the world or lived entirely off of one Snicker’s bar a day. It has nothing to do with health.
So, let’s please stop pretending that we are only criticizing overweight people because we want what is best for them. If this were true we’d also be telling everyone who said that they “were tired” that it was really important to get a good 8 hours of sleep. We’d do that instead of trying to one-up them by saying “you think you’re tired? I haven’t slept since May. Horrible hallucinations have begun to set in but I’m here, right!? I’m here! Am I… here?”
So. Let us say, for argument’s sake, that we do not discriminate, and make fun of, and deride the overweight because we are concerned with people being their healthiest selves at all times.
Perhaps one reason we are so quick to deride anyone overweight is because we know it could be us.
There aren’t many groups that are massively discriminated against that we could suddenly, unexpectedly find ourselves a part of. You will not wake up in the morning and find you have a different skin color. Regardless of what they say at the RNC, you will not wake up to find that you have a different sexual orientation. But anyone can get fat. Just look at Jessica Simpson. (I feel, too, that the number of magazine articles about stars who have put on maybe 5 pounds, appeals to us precisely because this is something we are all afraid of).
Perhaps we think that if we shout loudly enough about how we would never put dressing on our salad, or loudly inquire as to whether other people know how many calories are in their cheeseburger this will never happen to us. But at the same time we know, we always know, that it can happen to anyone.
And the more people discriminate against the obese, the more terrifying that prospect seems. And the more people want to shout that the obesity epidemic is sweeping America and everyone should eat kale, only kale, precisely to indicate that they, themselves, are not a part of that epidemic. No, sir, it can never happen to them!
But, of course, it can. There are plenty of reasons for weight gain that have nothing to do with people being awful and undisciplined. The onset of menopause. Childbirth. The natural aging process. I remember once reading some piece that began “do you know why the 90210 cast is so skinny?” and feeling strongly tempted to reply “because they are teenagers.”
And really, what’s the benefit to constantly reminding people they have to be skinny all the time? Yes, they would live longer if everyone were in optimal health. But I bet a lot of people would trade off a few years to live without people constantly reminding them that they needed to be sent to a treatment center for existing in their body. And perhaps, if we all sort of let this go for… a year, say, if we existed without any public shaming of the obese for a year… maybe we’d stop encouraging people to try the kind of crazy yo-yo diets that only cause people to gain more weight.
Maybe that would be effective. Or maybe not. Hell, lets try it either way.
Incidentally, I ate the ice cream cake. I put a piece in a cup and mashed it all up together so the ice cream and cake and frosting were perfectly mixed. I ate it and it tasted as good as skinny feels.