You Don’t Have to Be Fat to Be Fat

I have such a love-hate relationship with this article about thin people who have a lot of internal fat wrapped around their vital organs and thus are at risk for numerous “obesity-related” illnesses.

First, the love:

  • The overall point of the article is that being thin doesn’t necessarily make you healthy! Yay!
  • It quotes Steven Blair, who’s an entirely sensible “obesity expert!” (Ahem, an entirely sensible obesity expert who’s been SAYING ALL THIS FOR YEARS. Not that I’m bitter.) Hooray!
  • It says in so many words, “Experts have long known that fat, active people can be healthier than their skinny, inactive counterparts.” Yippee!
  • It says that some fat people up to and including sumo wrestlers might very well be healthier than some thin people, because exercise burns visceral fat, and fat stored under the skin — you know, the disgusting, awful, “unhealthy” kind everyone complains about? — doesn’t mean shit! Whee!
  • Also… no, wait, that’s the end of the love.

Now on to the hate.

Why, oh why, do they have to frame this news as, “”Being thin doesn’t automatically mean you’re not fat” (a direct quote from one of the experts)? I mean, I realize it’s a clever hook, but it also completely misses the point and further reinforces the general belief that fat = unhealthy, when that’s exactly what findings like this partially disprove. The truth is, “Being thin doesn’t mean you’re healthy” — and the corollary is, “Being fat doesn’t mean you’re unhealthy.” Those truths are big fucking news to everyone who hasn’t obsessively followed all the obesity myth-debunking that’s been going on in recent years — i.e., practically everyone. But of course, you can’t just say them plainly. You must find a way to keep the whole concept of fat positioned as Public Enemy #1. I’m pretty sure they revoke both medical licenses and journalism degrees if you don’t.

And why do you suppose it takes finding out that some thin people are “fat on the inside” before a mainstream media article includes something like the following?

“Obesity is a risk factor, but it’s lower down on the totem pole of risk factors,” [Dr. Louis Teichholz] said, explaining that whether or not people smoke, their family histories and blood pressure and cholesterol rates are more important determinants than both external and internal fat.

And why the fuck, in an article about how thin people might very well be at risk for illnesses traditionally associated with fat people, do they need to include a line like, “Still, most experts believe that being of normal weight is an indicator of good health, and that BMI is a reliable measurement”? Do you see how much is going on in that one little sentence? Check it out:

  • You probably shouldn’t listen to these experts saying thin isn’t always healthy, because “most experts” still believe something else.
  • There is such a thing as a “normal” weight, and it’s one that makes you look thin.
  • “BMI is a reliable measurement.” Do “most experts” really believe that anymore? The article quotes one. And I’m sure most doctors still believe that. But man, even in articles about research concluding that fat is dangerous and unhealthy and will send you straight to hell, I’m still seeing plenty of experts admitting that BMI is horseshit. It says nothing about the fat-to-muscle ratio, nothing about where you carry your fat (on the outside, let alone the inside). It qualifies most professional athletes as “overweight” or “obese.” It claims you are at greater risk for disease if you are in the group (“overweight”) that study after study shows has a lower mortality rate than the “normal,” “healthy” range. When are we going to let BMI go, already?

Ready for another one?

According to Bell, people who are fat on the inside are essentially on the threshold of being obese. They eat too many fatty, sugary foods — and exercise too little to work it off — but they are not eating enough to actually be fat. Scientists believe we naturally accumulate fat around the belly first, but at some point, the body may start storing it elsewhere.

Let’s unpack!

  • Thin people with visceral fat are “on the threshold of being obese.” Um, no. They’re still thin. They’re just thin people with health risks.
  • But oh, now I get it. They’re on the threshold of obesity, because we all know obesity = eating too much crap and never exercising.
  • “But they are not eating enough to actually be fat.” No big surprise, if you consider the study that showed naturally thin people could eat 10,000 fucking calories a day and still have trouble gaining weight. But we’re not considering that study, are we? We’re still operating on the assumption that eating too much will make anyone fat, and eating less will make anyone thin. Which means the next logical step from “not eating enough to actually be fat” is, “So obviously — since we know thin people don’t overeat — even eating tiny quantities of junk food must carry grave health risks! Processed food is evil!* We all need to be eating nuts and berries! ESPECIALLY FATTIES!”
  • “Scientists believe we naturally accumulate fat around the belly first.” Really? Which scientists? And did those scientists factor in that women are human beings? ‘Cause I know a LOT of fat women, including the one in the mirror, who naturally accumulate fat around the thighs, ass, hips, and breasts way before the belly. (I also know fat women who do accumulate it primarily around the belly, but I would still say that anecdotally, I see way more men than women carrying most of their fat on the belly.) People accumulate fat in all different places, including — did you know this? — on the inside when they’re still thin. I read an article about that I could forward you, if I can remember where I found it… oh, wait, IT’S THE ONE YOU’RE WRITING.

Really, all ranting aside, I’m pretty happy about this article. It’s one more positive step toward dismantling the thin=healthy, fat=unhealthy paradigm. But even as we’re seeing more studies moving in that direction, the reporting on them still drives me batshit. The belief that visible fat must mean poor health is so fucking pervasive, most journalists cannot seem to write an article that straightforwardly says, “Researchers are questioning whether fat always indicates poor health and thinness always indicates better health.” They always have to include an unmistakable coda: “And I’ll believe it when I fucking see it.”

Fat people have been seeing it for years. Obesity experts like Steven Blair have been seeing it for years. Journalists like Paul Campos and Eric Oliver have been seeing it for years. We just don’t hear about it, because nobody wants to believe it.

Because, if fat isn’t necessarily unhealthy — not to mention if it’s primarily genetic and essentially unalterable — then we’ve all lost our one good, morally upright reason for hating fat people. And that means we have to confront all our negative feelings about fat people — the deep fear and disgust they engender — and ask where those feelings really come from.

And the only answer is: we don’t like how it looks.

Hey, ouch! That would make me shallow! No, no, no! I’m not shallow! I don’t hate people because of how they look! IT’S UNHEALTHY! UNHEEEEAAAALLLTHEEEEEEE!

So, yeah. I’m not expecting to see the reporting on this shit change any time soon. Bleh.

*Please note that I’m not at all convinced processed food is not evil. I’m just saying, if you start with the assumption that all thin people are eating smaller than average portions, you’re gonna end up barking up the wrong tree.

25 thoughts on “You Don’t Have to Be Fat to Be Fat

  1. I think there are any number of doctors and medical types conducting really interesting studies right now. But unless we can get some members of the media (and I mean, like, more than one or two), the studies are not going to mean anything in the face of larger cultural perception.

    Hell, Betamax was a better format but VHS had better marketing and was just easier. These studies are the Betamax and ingrained fat hatred is the VHS.

  2. I agree with you on BMI being a load of crap, in the weightlifting world we did away with that decades ago, we go by body fat percentage. meaning how much of your mass is fat vs muscle.
    And yes I’ve known for years that there are thin fat people, when we check are fat% at the gym some really thin people show up with higher bodyfat percentages than the chunky brotha’s.

    And thin does not always mean healthy but it helps with things accociated with being healthy like speed and agility, I was fast as a big guy but I became that much faster when I lost the weight do to the reduction in weight I was carrying around. It’s like when you race cars, you take out all things that ad extra weight and you get that much more speed out of it.

  3. There has long been a movement among the professionally anti-fat to expand fat hatred into “new markets”. A lot of the assault on fat children is actually directed towards “at risk” kids. Which in the real world means kids who thin, but not thin enough. These are the kids getting notes sent home with their report cards. This nonsense about targeting the “pre-obese” is just a way of speading the joys of fat hatred to a wider audience. It all ends up looking like some pro-ANA website to me with the obsession with not simply being thin but being superthin. I mean, what should these “thin fat people” really show us? We now know that fat people can be just as healthy as thin people. And now we learn that thin people can be just as “unhealthy” as fat people. Instead of asking whether weight is at all a meaningful measure of health, we’re just making more people feel ashamed over their weight. Pretty soon we’ll be targeting the “theoretically obese” for pre-interventions and trying to make this all sound like it makes sense.

  4. The Rotund: Hell yes. And I might just start describing myself as “Betamax.”

    Agent2010: Once again, your experience is not necessarily representative of the general population. Also, speed and agility are nice, but they’re not necessary for good health.

    BStu: Hell yes to you, too.

  5. Farkin’ A to all, Kate. I don’t believe for one minute that the fat-bashers give two flying bat buttocks about my health or anyone else’s health. If you care about someone’s health, you don’t keep telling them over and over again how bad they suck and how ugly they are, and wish diabetes on them when anyone with rudimentary stat-computing ability can see that less than 15% of the fattest members of the population will ever contract it (and nearly all of those have a family history of the disease or are elderly).

    Unfortunately, the nonstop Wurlitzer has leaked through to people who are genuinely concerned about health, and information that contradicts the fat=automatic poor health meme is something that has to be dug around for, not something that’s lying out there just waiting to be picked up like the antifat memesheepery. Therefore busy but concerned people don’t dig around for it. But you’re probably correct that many of those concerned people don’t dig around with it because they subliminally want to believe “ugly” equals “unhealthy.”

    Glenn Gaesser spelled it out. A certain amount of visceral fat is due to genes and gender and can’t be changed (and where is the male/female breakdown of visceral fat percentages in this story, hmmmm?). The rest of it you have some control over through diet, exercise and stress management. And how much fat is on the outside doesn’t have fuckall to do with how much fat is on the inside. Also, heaping yet more grief on people for not having Perfect Health Habits is only going to make the problem worse. Stress kills!

  6. kateharding Says:speed and agility are nice, but they’re not necessary for good health.

    I respond: You are right, I did not say they were necessary for good health, I said they were associated with good health, when you see those kids on skateboards defying gravidy, when you see those guys on wrestling flip off the top rope you think gee there healthy.
    Now since i used wrestling as an example yes there are fat wrestlers and they are good athletic performers, but they usually arent the ones doing the acrobatic tricks, they are usually the ones who just pick the other guy up and throw them.

  7. But why should anyone give a rat’s ass if you’re acrobatic or an opponent-chucker? It takes all kinds, dude.

  8. I’m not saying someone should give a ratts ass, I’m just saying thats the image in the hearts and minds of most of what being extremly healthy intails.

  9. Bstu, in a way that might be a good thing for size acceptance. When even skinny people start getting micromanaged for “weight issues,” then maybe we’ll see some real rebellion!

  10. Meowzer: Hard to say. I would think that there are two reasons to be pessimistic, though. First off, before the weight-loss industry started this latest effort, its not like thin people weren’t impact by fat phobia. Many were encouraged to see thinness as a precarious state to be maintained at all costs. Even size 6′s and 8′s would regularly be allowed to see their body as unworthy. I knew when I was a thin man, I hated my body.

    The second problem is one we’ve already seen in response to the first problem. A lot of “average” size women (and the thin women aren’t aren’t superthin) have actively rebelled against the cult of thinness, but they have also shown a continuing committment to their privlages. They may be defiant in their own cause, but retain the right of superiority over fat women. Indeed, I’ve seen a lot of fat people adopt this perspective too. Basically, they say “I love my body! Don’t tell me what body I should have! Oh, but you’re too fat. You really need to take care of yourself. I only say it because I care”. But maybe I’m being a cynic.

  11. “Hey, ouch! That would make me shallow! No, no, no! I’m not shallow! I don’t hate people because of how they look! IT’S UNHEALTHY! UNHEEEEAAAALLLTHEEEEEEE!”

    *shrieking with laughter*

    Professional anti-fat? Who the hell are these people? You mean like Fergie and Kirstie, who get endorsement contracts?

  12. “Bstu, in a way that might be a good thing for size acceptance. When even skinny people start getting micromanaged for “weight issues,” then maybe we’ll see some real rebellion!”

    It really is starting to feel like GATTACA, isn’t it?

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  14. Maybe this is off topic, but way back in time fat= rich/dissipated and thin= poor/ritgheous… do you think our culture’s emphasis on being thin might be the last vestiges of the Puritan’s belief system? Or is it more of a tie back to the aristocratic ideal of the thin or small breasted woman because she appeared to be more available for sex or younger and hence the fatter woman less available or matriarchal?

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  17. Kate, just FYI – your link at the top is now broken (404). The article is available at other places, but thought you might want to know.

  18. LOVE your posts on overcoming fat hatred. My Grandmother lived to the ripe old age of 93. Up until the last 3-4 years (when her brain started having mini-strokes) her health was EXCELLENT. She had a car accident at age 80, broke her right leg in two places and her left arm in 3, and was up and out living her busy, happy life within THREE months. HA!

    That flies in the face of all of our age-hating too – being old does not = being sickly/weak anymore than being fat = unhealthy.

    I was/am built just like my Grandmother, but thanks to several starvation diets (Weight Watchers in the early 1980′s, and so-called “Physicians” Weight Loss Centers in the late 80′s, I now weigh a stable 310.

    I can work the socks off of most thin people. Had a landscaper offer me a job on the spot when he’d delivered 15 cu. yds. of mulch to my house one morning, and when he stopped by 4 hours later it was all spread out nice and neatly in my gardens – using a wheelbarrow and a pitchfork, which meant it was all hand-work, no machines. He said he wished the crew of teenage boys & young men who worked for him could put in as much work in a full day as I did in about 4 hours.

    My blood pressure is great, cholesterol great, I’m flexible, strong (lifting 50lb bags of chicken feed and carrying them 200 yds up to the coop ain’t for sissies, sistah!) and healthy, despite weighing over 300lbs.

    Drives the doctors crazy…. when they see the Fat Lady come into the office they get all ready to trot out their obesity = bad health lectures, but my excellent health throws them for a major loop.

    And yes, in addition to the exercise I get, I eat lots of berries, nuts, whole grains, fish, fruit, fresh veggies (grown in my very own organic garden) and very little red meat.

    AND I eat chocolate. LOL

    Gotta go now – the garden awaits my attention!

    Hugs,
    Mary

    P.S. I do wish you would clean up your language a bit. I find that most professionals (with whom I would otherwise be able to share your posts) are less likely to take information seriously from someone who liberally uses the “F-word”.

  19. “P.S. I do wish you would clean up your language a bit. I find that most professionals (with whom I would otherwise be able to share your posts) are less likely to take information seriously from someone who liberally uses the “F-word”.

    Who cares what some sanctimonious “professionals” think, if they can’t get beyond the word “fuck” (let’s not mince words, shall we?) to the perfectly-spelled and grammatical discussion contained in this blog entry.

    Also, this is not a formal paper presented in a journal article – it is a blog entry that discusses some issues from a particular POV for a general audience, not just academics or “professionals” (in whatever industry they happen to be in, which you don’t happen to mention).

  20. “P.S. I do wish you would clean up your language a bit. I find that most professionals (with whom I would otherwise be able to share your posts) are less likely to take information seriously from someone who liberally uses the “F-word”.”

    This professional is a big fan of some well-placed obscenity, especially when dealing with the arseholes who fucking deserve it.

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