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If you’re a fatty, chances are you’ve heard this question, or a variation of it, before. If you’ve committed to saying no to fat talk, prepare yourself to face this question a whole lot more. When criticising self-confident fatties that refuse to apologise for their bodies, health is usually the first argument used.
In this post, I’ll be unpacking the idea that fat = IMMINENT DEATH. My responses to “Aren’t you worried about your health?” primarily fall into four broad categories:
1. Fat is not a barrier to health
2. Health is not a virtue
3. We all deserve bodily autonomy
4. Stop being a jerk.
1. Fat is not a barrier to health
Despite the supposed “common knowledge” that fat is bad for us, having a fat body is not a health problem in and of itself except in the most extreme of cases. The relationship between fat and health is far more complex than the reductive “calories in, calories out” theory allows. It is possible for someone to be fat and healthy, just as it is possible for someone to be thin and unhealthy. Not only that, having adipose tissue has been associated with some health benefits, such as protection against infections, cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis and high blood pressure (yes, really!).
Even if turning a fat person thin did have undeniable health benefits (numerous studies have shown that it doesn’t), many fat people would need to lose huge amounts of weight to reach the so-called “healthy” range that is expected. I would be required to drop a third of my body weight. I know many people that would need to shrink to less than half of themselves.
Any efforts to achieve this would be of little use because, for the vast majority of us, dieting doesn’t work. Only a tiny percentage of people who diet maintain their weight loss for five years or more; almost all dieters regain the weight lost within a couple of years. Not one study has shown that diets produce long-term weight loss for any but a tiny percentage of dieters. Not one. Despite the common refrain that this is the result of a lack of willpower, research has also shown that even when a diet is maintained, participants still regain weight.
The tragedy of this is that repeated efforts to lose weight could actually damage our health. Studies have shown that weight cycling (where one loses and regains weight repeatedly) and stress from experiencing fat stigma is far more detrimental than being jiggly; so much so that they may be the cause of a number of health problems associated with obesity, such as diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.
You cannot determine a person’s health just by looking at them. I am not saying that poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle do not impact health. They do. What I am saying is that those behaviours impact health in people of all sizes.
What is far more beneficial to our health is a “health at every size”, or HAES, approach. This method recognises that wellbeing, rather than weight, is the key. HAES involves:
• Accepting your body: Appreciate and forgive yourself. It’s much easier to take care of your wellbeing when you think about yourself positively.
• Trust yourself: Eat when you are hungry and stop when you are full. Eat the food your body wants. Your body is invested in keeping you alive, so trust that your hunger cues will not result in you eating the world’s supply of cake.
• Find joy in movement: I know better than most than exercise can feel like a massive chore, so find something you enjoy doing. I despise gyms, so you won’t ever find me on a treadmill. However, I have fallen in love with my weekly dance classes (Brazillian samba, for those of you playing at home). Try new ways of moving – go for a hike, take a kickboxing class, or join a hockey team – until you find one that suits you.
• Stop fat talk: Treating your body, and the bodies of others, with kindness is such a load off mentally. Recognise the value in diversity.
Health does not exist neatly between size 8 to 14. It does not fit in a single section of the body mass index. It does not lie within two points on your scale. It exists as a set of behaviours that enhance our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. Try to eat well, exercise regularly, don’t smoke and limit your stress.
On the other hand, you could dismiss that altogether.
2. Health is not a virtue
While these behaviours may be useful, physical health is not the moral imperative it is made out to be. We live in an age where health is held to such high esteem that anyone who engages in unhealthy behaviour is seen as “bad”. That person, with their evil, doughnut-eating ways, becomes a scapegoat for all of society’s moral failings.
It’s crap. Eating a balanced diet and exercising regularly makes a person healthier, but it does not make them better. That’s because health is not a virtue. The behaviours associated with health are not always physically possible, and not always desired.
3. We all deserve body autonomy.
Fat people are almost infantilised when it comes to health; as if our size renders us incapable of making informed decisions about ourselves. Everyone seems to be an expert on our bodies – our families, our friends, strangers on the street, anonymous commenters on the internet. Everyone except us.
As a fat acceptance advocate, one of the main things I argue for is that we all deserve body autonomy. That means that I get to make decisions pertaining to my body and you get to make decisions pertaining to yours. For example, as much as I’d like to never see a Southern Cross tattoo again, ultimately it’s none of my damn business what someone inks on their skin. Just as your food intake, your levels of exercise and how you choose to clothe your body shouldn’t matter to anyone but you. You do not owe anyone your health. Similarly, no one owes their health to you. We make the decisions that are right for us, whether that means jogging after work or ice cream for lunch. 4. Stop being a jerk There are plenty of risk factors when it comes to health. People in relationships have longer life spans and recover from illness better than their single peers. Our friends in Iceland are likely to outlive us. So are those who regularly attend religious services. And yet there is no call for a “singles tax”, there are no government-funded programs espousing the benefits of moving to Iceland and we are not sneered at if we don’t believe in god. We target "unhealthy" behaviours that are already stigmatised. When someone implies that your health is failing because of your weight, they are being a jerk and they need to stop that. They are saying that you’re confidence is confronting to them because you are not fitting the idea of the self-loathing fatty they have in their head. They are trying to police your body, your choices and your body image. It is so rude and they need to step off. They may genuinely believe they are saying it out of concern, but shame does not make people thin. (If it did, we would all be size sixes by now.) In our society, living a happy life as a fat person is an act of rebellion. Never underestimate the huge middle finger you are giving to the world when you make peace with your body. Further reading:
The Fat Nutritionist
Just So We’re Clear… Some Fat Facts at Body Love Wellness
Don’t You Realize Fat is Unhealthy? at Shapely Prose
Frances Lockie is a 24-year-old public servant from Sydney who spends her spare time trying to take over the internet. She blogs at Corpulent; normalises the fat female body at Hey Fat Chick!; and runs the All Bodies Directory, which collates body positive health care providers in Australia and New Zealand.
4. Stop being a jerk
There are plenty of risk factors when it comes to health. People in relationships have longer life spans and recover from illness better than their single peers. Our friends in Iceland are likely to outlive us. So are those who regularly attend religious services. And yet there is no call for a “singles tax”, there are no government-funded programs espousing the benefits of moving to Iceland and we are not sneered at if we don’t believe in god. We target "unhealthy" behaviours that are already stigmatised.
When someone implies that your health is failing because of your weight, they are being a jerk and they need to stop that. They are saying that you’re confidence is confronting to them because you are not fitting the idea of the self-loathing fatty they have in their head. They are trying to police your body, your choices and your body image. It is so rude and they need to step off. They may genuinely believe they are saying it out of concern, but shame does not make people thin. (If it did, we would all be size sixes by now.)
In our society, living a happy life as a fat person is an act of rebellion. Never underestimate the huge middle finger you are giving to the world when you make peace with your body.
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