So, Al’s got this friend who reads the blog but doesn’t comment, because when he did comment here, I tended to yell at him a lot. I like him, and he’s ridiculously smart, but he’s one of those guys who enjoys arguing for the sake of it — or, more specifically, for the sake of reinforcing that he is ridiculously smart, whereas other people are not.
Since I am also ridiculously smart, I often find these arguments entertaining — except when they start off with a
ludicrous nitpick “logical flaw” this dude and his towering intellect have spotted in someone else’s argument.* Particularly if, you know, it’s my argument. Then I just get tired and irritated, because he sounds like a goddamned troll, regardless of how good his personal and professional references are. Hence aforementioned yelling.
Last week, I was especially tired and irritated to begin with, because of actual trolls showing up here in greater numbers than ever before. So naturally, that’s exactly when Al’s friend decides to send me a lengthy screed on the subject of DEAR KATE, HERE’S WHY YOU’RE WRONG, with regard to my most recent post discussing that wackiest of concepts: we don’t know how to make fat people permanently thin.
The way to make fat people permanently thin is for those fat people to incorporate lifestyle changes such that they can take in fewer calories than their bodies need, such that they burn fat until they’ve lost weight to whatever the fuck ‘thin’ equates to, and then continue to maintain a diet and exercise regimen to maintain that weight, hopefully without making themselves so miserable that they freak out and kill themselves from the stress.
What this means, in practical terms, is that ANYONE CAN BECOME THIN and ANYONE CAN STAY THIN, it’s simply a matter of how miserable they’re willing to make themselves in the course of doing so… Let’s not confuse ‘impossible’ and ‘unrealistic’. It may be unrealistic for everyone to be thin, but it’s not impossible, it’s just a matter of suffering.
Do you see what I mean about both the ludicrous nitpicking and the resemblance to a troll? I don’t categorize him as an actual troll (even though he’d probably like it if I did) because, if you look closely, he’s not wrong — since what he’s arguing is that fat people could become thin if they would only take in “fewer calories than their bodies need.”
Indeed, malnutrition often makes people thin, though it sometimes causes bloated stomachs.
Furthermore, he even acknowledges that the only way to maintain the lower weight is to voluntarily subject yourself to continued malnutrition and extreme suffering, of the sort that can cause mental health problems up to and including suicide.
So yeah, I guess I usually leave out the “literally starve yourself until you’re suicidal” option when I’m discussing the effectiveness of different weight loss strategies. My bad.
Which is pretty much what I said to him in response. That and, until you find more than a handful of people willing to undergo malnutrition and extreme mental distress for a period longer than, oh, I don’t know, five years? Then my point that the vast majority of fat people cannot become permanently thin is entirely unaffected by this argument.
Now, believe it or not, all that’s just a preamble to today’s real point. What I’ve left out so far is the most obviously ill-considered point he made in the first e-mail and reiterated in a second:
How do I know this? It comes from my own experience as an active-duty army infantry soldier. See, I’ve noticed something: in groups of people that get up at 5 every morning and, before doing anything else, run four to six miles, and then do a workday that’s fairly strenuous, you notice that people in this lifestyle correlate very strongly to ‘people who are not fat’, despite the fact that many of them (myself included) eat like fucking pigs.
Setting aside the fact that correlation doesn’t equal causation (clearly, in this case) — and the fact that there are plenty of fat civilian manual laborers who may not run several miles in the morning but certainly have physically strenuous workdays (to say nothing of, uh, fat fitness instructors) — let’s just take half a second to think about another correlation, which I kind of can’t believe someone as smart as him failed to factor in.
That would be the correlation between joining the army and not being fat in the first place.
The U.S. military disqualifies any applicant who doesn’t meet the Army Weight Control Program standards — and anyone who comes to exceed those standards while enlisted and remains intractably fat despite being subjected to extra draconian weight loss measures? Is kicked out.
Age Group: 17–20
Male (% body fat): %20
Female (% body fat): %30
Age Group: 21–27
Male (% body fat): %22
Female (% body fat): %32
Age Group: 28–39
Male (% body fat): %24
Female (% body fat): %34
Age Group: 40 & Older
Male (% body fat): %26
Female (% body fat): %36
Those are the absolute maximums. However, they note,
all personnel are encouraged to achieve the more stringent Department of Defense (DOD)-wide goal, which is 18 percent body fat for males and 26 percent body fat for females.
And yet, I’m supposed to believe lifestyle is the reason why you don’t find many fat people in the army? They don’t let fat people in, and they kick out anyone who gets too fat, yet it’s exercise that’s responsible for the lack of fat people in this sample?
The sad part is, this guy is hardly the first person to make this argument to me — he’s just, so far, the smartest. We are so fucking conditioned to believe that diet and exercise are the keys to permanent thinness — and that anyone who’s fat must be slacking in one or both of those areas — people really think, “Look at the military!” is a trump card in these discussions, when there is no evidence whatsofuckingever that the most ferocious drill sergeant alive could make a group of fat people thin (let alone permanently thin), since there are no truly fat people in the friggin’ military.
Hey, I just thought of something! There aren’t many fat fashion models, either! They must have really healthy diet and exercise regimens, just like soldiers! And hey, what about cancer patients? They sure know how to get thin! YOU FATTIES JUST AREN’T TRYING HARD ENOUGH. (Though evidently, we’re all gonna get cancer because of teh fat, so maybe that’s the answer to the obesity crisis, right there.)
Anyway. I thought about that conversation immediately when I saw the infuriating news item du jour: former Surgeon General Dr. Richard Carmona is squawking about how THE OBESITY EPIDEMIC BOOGA BOOGA BOOGA is a fucking threat to national security, because we soon won’t have enough thin people available to make up a strong military.
So, yeah, there are a zillion different directions I could go with that one, but I’m gonna focus on just one: what Dr. Richard Carmona really means is that there aren’t enough poor, thin people who have no better option than to join the military during wartime.
Carmona cited as the main causes of childhood obesity the increase in low-income, single-parent homes; the elimination of physical education in public schools; and the lack of access to gyms and nutritious food among the poor.
Calling obesity “the terror within,” Carmona said that prevention is critical to combating it.
The terror within, y’all. And oddly enough, today, the terror within is caused by poverty, not laziness and gluttony and a lack of personal responsibility. Hmmmm.
You know, in a sick way, it’s kind of refreshing to hear a former surgeon general talk up social “causes” of fatness, instead of just calories in, calories out — he even mentions that “the poor need better access to nutritious foods and fitness facilities,” though of course that comes after his saying they need to be edumucated about “what foods are healthy and unhealthy.” (HOW does anyone still believe people are ignorant on that matter? Can these assholes SERIOUSLY think most poor people just don’t know that an apple might be better for you than a Big Mac?) It’s like… you mean, poverty might have… health effects? For real??
Don’t get me wrong — I’m still highly skeptical of his reasoning, and the reasoning of most people who go on about how lack of access to fresh produce and gyms causes teh fat among teh poor, because these discussions rarely take into account at least three significant points:
- Poor people are a lot more likely to go through cycles of eating too few calories followed by bingeing — which, when it’s known as “dieting,” instead of “only being able to afford enough food sometimes” — has indeed been shown to make people fatter in the long run;
- Plenty of poor people are getting at least the recommended amount of daily exercise at their jobs, but show up as “sedentary” in surveys that ask about how much people work out in their leisure time — i.e., the kind of time that someone working 2 or 3 physically demanding jobs probably doesn’t have;
- In this country, African-Americans and Latinos are disproportionately poor, and they also happen to be genetically predisposed to having higher weights than white people.
If you aren’t thinking about those three factors when you think about poverty and fatness — not to mention rigorously asking yourself what else you might be forgetting — you can fuck right off, as far as I’m concerned. But having said that, of course I’m all for making nutritious food and safe exercise opportunities more available to poor people — not to mention, oh, the time to cook fresh foods and exercise (outside of work) that comes with making a living wage while working a reasonable number of hours.
I don’t think for a second that these things would magically make poor people thinner, but I’m absolutely all for them.
So the whole problem with Carmona’s comments** is the context: obesity among the poor is a problem because we can’t find enough thin but well-muscled people willing to go off to the Middle East to die.
Well, shit, from where I’m sitting, all we need is a change in recruiting strategy to head off this looming national security threat! Private high schools still have gym classes, Dr. Carmona — often a variety of excellent sports programs, too! The children of the upper classes are, on average, thinner than the poor. White people are, on average, thinner than brown people. Fresh fruits and vegetables are available in all the best neighborhoods, and are really quite affordable for households with two incomes from professional jobs — ditto state-of-the-art gyms. So if eating fresh produce and working out make everyone thin, and all we need are enough thin people to join up? The solution to this crisis is obvious: get rich, white people to enlist in the military!
How fucking perverse is it that the correlation between poverty and fatness is only considered in terms of social inequality when the country starts running low on cannon fodder?
And given that we are rather low on new recruits, and so many believe the military lifestyle is a proven cure for fatness, why not just let fatties into the army and whip ‘em into shape? What’s up with those body fat standards in the first place? Exercise makes fat people thin! Sure, the fatties would have to spend a bit longer in training, but politically, it’s still a winner! No need for a draft, AND the government would be forcing poor people to lose weight by controlling their every move! WHAT’S NOT TO LOVE?
No, seriously — for the type of people who think this way about both fat and the poor, what’s not to love? Why haven’t they started actively recruiting fat people? Get ‘em running, control their food intake, and after a while, they’ll be thin but muscular killing machines just like all the rest! It’s just a matter of calories in, calories out, y’all — everybody knows that! Who’s better equipped than the American military to redress that obvious thermodynamic imbalance among the fatassed poor? It’s the perfect solution to a whole host of problems!
Except for the part where it wouldn’t work — and neither would anything else Carmona proposes — because we don’t actually know how to make fat people permanently thin.
*In a subsequent conversation, the quasi-troll in question described this as “my pedantic wangle-fucked nitpickery.” This is why I like him.
**Okay, actually, that’s not the whole problem with Carmona’s comments, since he also trots out the “We’re seeing Type 2 diabetes in children because of the obesity crisis!” argument. As many people have pointed out around here before, actually, we’re seeing Type 2 diabetes in children now because we’re testing for it, which is a recent development.
When I got my first car, I started noticing other Toyota Corollas everywhere I went. That doesn’t mean there was a sudden increase in the number of Corollas on the road; it means I was suddenly looking for them, when I never had before. When a woman gets pregnant and starts noticing other preggos everywhere she goes, that doesn’t mean there’s a fucking fertility epidemic. And when you start testing children for something you never tested them for before, and you find out some of them have it? That doesn’t mean there’s an increase in the number of children who have it — especially with something like Type 2 diabetes, which we know often goes undiagnosed for years. It just means you’ve noticed something you never noticed before. Since we don’t have any fucking long-term data on the actual incidence of Type 2 in children, because nobody used to test children for it, it is impossible to say whether there’s been an increase, a decrease, or no change.