From the Archives: Everyone’s an expert, and nobody’s right

As we’re facing a bit of a blogging slow-down here at Shapely Prose, we thought we’d occasionally repost some pieces that you might have missed the first time around or that might warrant a second look. If you’ve got suggestions for posts you’d like to see again, add them to comments here.

This post was originally written by Fillyjonk and posted on December 6, 2007.

In this week’s column, Dan Savage revealed that his infamous recent advice to a man who was turned off by his wife’s fat was totally not his fault, dude. It turns out he was throwing a passive-aggressive little hissy about readers criticizing his advice to a gay man in the same situation:

Readers—mostly female readers—were outraged: Before breaking up, before cheating, before drinking heavily, couldn’t SAS try being honest? Why didn’t I tell SAS to tell his boyfriend that the weight was a turnoff and that SAS was seriously thinking about ending the relationship if the boyfriend didn’t lose those extra pounds?… The advice you read in this space for HARD—all about being honest and open (including those now-infamous conversation starters like, “You have gotten fat and unattractive and my sex drive is nil, so can we do something about it before I bail on you?”)—was written by my female readers. All I did was change the pronouns from male to female.

Oh gosh, how fiendishly clever! You really showed us, Dan! You proved that sometimes people have opinions that contradict with other people’s opinions! For his next act, by the way, Dan goes on to quote various responses to his ghostwritten column, which — good lord! — also contradict one another. Wow, I’m really convinced: from now on I’ll read columns written by people who get paid to give advice, not columns collaged together from the opinions of a thousand amateurs. It turns out that a thousand amateurs don’t always agree.

Needless to say, I’m rolling my eyes so hard that I can see my dinner. But this column, smug as it is, is on balance a boon. Dan Savage gets a break from the intolerable drudgery of writing one freakin’ column a week by conscripting a bunch of schmos without their knowledge or consent. And I get to write about something I’ve been meaning to mention: the “everyone’s an expert” phenomenon of fat.

Foolish as it may be, I tend to read every blog that links here, at least every one that WordPress tells me about. Many posts are touching personal stories about discovering and coming to terms with fat acceptance. Some are sharp feminists directing other sharp feminists our way. Several are critical, either from an understandable “I’m not ready to let go of the FoBT” perspective or from a nonsensical “I can’t read sentences” one. But almost all of them have this in common: If they have any comments at all, they will have at least one comment saying “I just don’t think it’s okay to be fat, and here’s why.” These commenters go on to talk about their weight loss experience, or the surefire diet they know will work this time, or some dude they knew who lost 200 pounds eating Subway, or the terror of carbs or the horror of fats or the menace of corn syrup or the, I don’t know, delicate ennui of riboflavin. They cite ignorant parents, sedentary children, irresponsible school officials, some lady they saw buying chips at Giant Eagle, the generation gap, the degradation of society. They expound, from their presumably flawlessly skinny pulpits, on how simple the whole thing really is.

And of course, the same thing happens incessantly on this blog, though we usually spare you. Here’s a brand-new douchehound, straight out of the box, still with that new-douchehound smell:

There’s a backlash against being thin, but the reality is more people are overweight than underweight. Being overweight in the US is a much wider spread problem (no pun intended). Instead of finding ways to justify it, people should be taking better care of themselves. Everywhere I go in public I am shocked at how many overweight people there are, especially children, who seem to be getting fatter & fatter. It IS a REAL problem.

Seriously, could this be a lot snottier? Here’s what YOU SHOULD DO. Here’s what EVERYONE’S CHILDREN are like. Here’s what THE REALITY is. Here’s how YOU SHOULD take care of yourself. Here’s MY FEELINGS on the subject. It IS a REAL problem. I KNOW WHAT IS BEST FOR EVERYBODY.

Of course, it’s easy to be an expert when you don’t know shit about dick. It helps enormously if NOBODY knows shit about dick — if you’re talking about what some guy you’ve never met should say to his boyfriend you’ve never met, just for example, or when you’re spewing facts and figures about something as complex and individual as human metabolism. I mean, who’s going to contradict you? Unless a fellow reader can conclusively prove that they’re the One True Nutrition Scientist and have been hiding out on top of a pillar until everyone comes off it about the calories in-calories out thing, then it’s pretty much just your word against everyone else’s. And everyone else totally knew someone, or totally tried this one thing, or totally read about it in Reader’s Digest. Everyone is pretty damn sure they know something you don’t.

What is it about, this conviction that eating food and occasionally reading nutritional information qualifies you to lecture about human physiology? I use gravity, and I could even tell you some figures and formulas about it, but I don’t pretend to be an expert on physics. I can do basic numerical calculations, but that doesn’t mean I have a valid position on Fermat’s Last Theorem. So why would participating in nutrition and exercise, or even reading a Cosmo article about them, possibly justify me in spouting off my views on such multivalent issues as food, fat, and fitness — issues on which even real experts don’t agree? It puts a whole new spin on “I’m entitled to my opinion” — people truly do feel that expertise on size, health, and nutritional and exercise habits is a veritable birthright.

I do think that some of it is the misogyny that’s so closely wrapped up with fat hatred. (Even fat hatred against men. That’s why fat men are often feminized when they’re attacked — you’re soft, you’ve got breasts, you can’t see your penis.) Women’s bodies are public property, subject to consensus views, so why wouldn’t fat bodies be the same? There’s a dehumanization aspect to both — it’s not a person, it’s a REAL PROBLEM. A public problem. Which, of course, it’s everybody’s right and moral duty to penetrate (symbolically, natch) and solve.

I can come up with other explanations based on the usual components of bigotry, mostly fear. It makes sense that people might collect information and opinions as talismans against the fear of fat or the fear of mortality. Talk loud enough at death, after all, and it’ll leave you alone — that’s what the folklore says. But as Dan Savage’s column demonstrates, it’s not just nutrition and exercise and health — people also have opinions on how you should talk to fat people, how you should behave in relationships with fat people, how you should broach the subject of fat with fat people. Maybe each of those people is right about some fat person, somewhere. But we’re actually not a monolithic group, united by our waistlines. Believe it or not, honesty might be the right approach for Dan’s first correspondent’s boyfriend, but exactly the wrong one for the second writer’s wife. Not every fat person should eat the same thing — we have different metabolisms, different bodies with different abilities and different needs for exercise and different food tolerances and different nutritional requirements. We don’t all wear the same size or shape of clothes; we don’t all look good in black, or bad in horizontal stripes. And not every fat person needs the same thing from his or her friends, family, and loved ones. We don’t even all need the same things from strangers.

I don’t know exactly what people find so intoxicating about the smug superciliousness that comes from having an opinion on What We Should Do About Fat. But I know what really bothers me about it: the essentialism. I can look with pity on false bravado, people playing at being experts because they need to cultivate a sense of superiority. But when people tell you that they know how you should eat or how you should act or how you should discipline your children, or what you can wear and how much space you deserve, it’s genuinely ignorant and simplistic, just as much as when they serve up unbidden platitudes how you should talk to your wife. And it’s just as likely to be self-contradictory, stupid, and wrong — because people are intensely complicated, both psychologically and physiologically. They’ve got traumas and allergies and fetishes and hot buttons and genetic predispositions and gut microflora and defense mechanisms and antibodies all their own. Even House can’t figure out a medical mystery in under an hour, and you think you can tell me how to eat, work out, dress, and live, sight un-fucking-seen?

That’s the problem with snap judgments of an entire group of people: Chances are good that you’ll never ever be right, at least not for very long, no matter how much authority you speak with. It doesn’t matter how smugly you announce that fat people just need to ____, or being fat is bad because ____. You’ll be wrong as often as you’ll be right, if not much, much more — because there are no essential qualities that go along with fatness.

Maybe it’s comforting for people to have a simple answer for complicated problems, but in my opinion it’s a recipe for looking like an idiot. Does a glib answer have any value when it’s basically guaranteed to be wrong? If people were willing to educate themselves (or even just keep in mind that tricky principle about fat people being people first and foremost, merely a subset of an unutterably complex group), they might even achieve a kind of expertise. You’ll notice that the more someone really knows about a subject, the less likely she is to be able to give an “elevator pitch” — ask a scientist about the principle she’s studying, or a literary scholar about her favorite book, and you’re likely to encounter an awkward moment where she explains that it’s a bit complicated. Shit, ask a physicist about gravity and you’ll get the same. The people who can tell you what to eat, do, say, or wear in a single unequivocal livejournal comment are betraying their own ignorance. But what’s more admirable, really — a nuanced sense of the genuine complexity of human psychology and physiology and the wealth of research thereon, combined with a sense of discernment and perspective? Or the ability to reduce the world to a simplistic caricature where you look like the winner?

33 thoughts on “From the Archives: Everyone’s an expert, and nobody’s right

  1. Ah! This is great! I am glad you reposted it.

    I think the analogy about asking a scientist about their area of expertise is especially apt. And one I could actually use on my fellow physics classmates when they ask me “So what is feminism?” I can just respond with, “First, tell me what gravity is.”

    WooT!

  2. Yay, repost! And one of my favorite SM-authored posts, too!

    I’ve gotten similar snap judgments from some people once they’ve found out that I have a chronic illness–some just LOVE telling me about their best friend’s cousin’s nephew’s mechanic or whoever totally has the same condition as I do! And they tried some questionable remedy that’s not FDA-approved, and it *totally worked*, so I should try it too! OMG!

    Additionally, woe is the fat or chronically ill person who tries to stand up for herself or himself; after all, as some of the amateur experts on fat/chronic illness are quick to remind us, they are just trying to help us because we, sadly, are apparently incapable of helping our fat/sick selves, or being (gasp!) *okay* with our fat or sick selves.

  3. LOL, I can’t read. I meant “FJ-authored posts.” This is what my brain does when it is running on 4 hours of sleep.

  4. I loved this post to death the first time I read it, and I think I love it even more now. Can I maybe have it printed up in fliers and stapled to every phone pole in the city?

  5. Love this lots and lots, but when I went back to look at the comments to the original post, the link is incorrect, going back to a post from Kate about blogging under her real name.

    Possibly will come up with more meaningful comments, but I’m a bit brain-dead at the moment, sorry.

  6. AMEN.

    I am personally fed up with the attitude that the whole wide world (but especially country x, where x is defined as “the place the speaker is living”) is going straight to pot. It’s just all downhill, and surely the Apocalypse is right around the corner, because of the horrible younger generation/ the political party or idea I don’t agree with/ the religion I don’t understand or don’t like/ everyone’s so fat and unhealtheeeee. Or, my favorite little scapegoat, “the degradation of morals and family values.”

    You wanna know who said the same goddamn thing? FUCKING PLATO. You wanna know who else? PRACTICALLY EVERYONE WITH A MOUTH SINCE HIM.

    Because that’s the thing! The world is in a constant state of evolution and change. So by definition of mankind and the world we create for ourselves (in response to, among other things, the changing environments around us), the world is ALWAYS deteriorating!!! What the naysayers conveniently have ignored since Plato is that conversely, it is also by definition in constant IMPROVEMENT, as well!!!! SHOCKERS.

    The next US prez will not bring the free world to a crashing, burning halt, no matter who it is. Fat people will not destroy the economy. The younger generation will not kill and eat the elder with their bad and terrible manners. None of this self-righteous hand-wringing and fear-mongering is happening the way they say it is, and it never will. Because people who call themselves “realists” are almost ALWAYS cynics who are so blind to their own pessimism that they imagine it is some kind of unquestionable, completely objective reality.

    It is only when we say “that’s just the way things are” (in essence, give up and absolve ourselves of any responsibility to change with the changing Universe) that things stop improving. The only limits that exist are those we assign.

    In other words, GODDAMMIT, I REALLY NEED THESE ASSHOLES WHO ARE BLAMING FAT FOR THE WORLD’S ILLS TO REALIZE THAT A) THE WORLD AIN’T HALF AS ILL AS THEY SAY IT IS AND B) IF IT’S GETTING THERE THEY NEED TO BE LOOKING IN THE MIRROR BEFORE THEY POINT FINGERS ANYWHERE ELSE.

    … and I could go on to explain how my studies in religion and my interest in folklore, sociology, and the very issue above have led me to believe that the concept of the Devil or similar figures is merely a construct designed to give those who believe an acceptable Othered scapegoat to direct fear, hate, and blame toward, the same sort of thinking that led to the garden-variety Fattty Fatty Two-By-Four in fact, but that would just be blathering on my part, and has dick to do with anything we’re talking about… I’ve just been thinking about this stuff a lot lately… I guess I should write a post in the blog but I’ve buried myself preparing for JET and OSU apps… yeah okay now I guess I’m really off on a tangent and should hush. for now.

  7. SugarLeigh, that comment just blew my mind. In a good way. Thanks for that.

    ((I’d actually add to the discussion in some way, but I am le tired. Maybe tomorrow.))

  8. I agree with Lexy. This column kicks nine kinds of ass, but would be totally worth reading even if it only said “The delicate ennui of riboflavin.” That is a brilliant line. Just completely fucking brilliant.

  9. Yay! You re-posted my suggested thread – it’s every bit as good as I remember! And I agree that “the delicate ennui of riboflavin” is a genius line.

    SugarLeigh – great comment. I think I remember reading that research (can’t remember by whom) has shown that the so-called “Golden Age” from which society has supposedly declined into moral chaos is nearly always 30 years before the present day and is fluid – so as time moves forward, it moves forward. So in the 80s, it was the 50s – in the Noughties, it would be the 70s.

  10. Love it. I’m glad to see it reposted!! :D I think it is a large part of human nature when scared to try and explain the world around us in the simplest terms possible. Fat = Bad. Calories=Fixes Fat. Gravity=Keeps feet on ground. When really it IS a lot more complex, but people don’t want to HEAR that everything in life doesn’t really break down into simple equations like calories in=calories out.

    Oh and Annaham I get so freaked out when people offer unsolicited advice to anyone with ANY sickness (chronic or even just a simple cold). Some of the whacked out suggestions I hear thrown around make me so worried and wonder how in hell it is that people can just read something in a Reader’s Digest and take it for gospel!

    Anyways. Thanks again for reposting! :)

  11. Even House can’t figure out a medical mystery in under an hour, and you think you can tell me how to eat, work out, dress, and live, sight un-fucking-seen?

    With permission, I’m going to say this to every single person that has anything to say to me about those delicate, personal topics. Easily the best comeback of the decade.

  12. If people would not give a rat’s ass about how much other people weigh, we would be a little better off in this world. Whenever someone comments in articles about being angry over seeing fat people in public, I want to tell them it’s none of their concern. The size of peoples’ bodies isn’t preventing them from living their lives or ruining theirs. Sure, that means less people for them to get a hard-on for, but then again, humans aren’t meant to be sexual objects for others’ viewing pleasure.

    If the only reason that fat makes people uptight or hostile is because they can’t get any sexual gratification out of it, then they need to get an alignment on their reality brakes and mind their own damn business, or move to Neptune where the only big things on that planet are icy rocks and gas clouds.

  13. Jazzy, you are very welcome. ^_^

    TheGirlFromMars, that’s really interesting! Pfft, to think the 80’s thought they should be more like the 50’s. The 80’s were perfect, because that’s when I was born. ;) Heehee! Also, Pat Freakin’ Benatar. YEAH. XD

    In other news, I want “the delicate ennui of riboflavin” on a tee shirt. In fact, I think I’m printing it to put on my wall. I do that with quotes I like.

    It’s going to go right next to the quote from the book Amazing Gracie that the author credits to the dog the book is named for: You are complete. You lack nothing. You have everything you need. You are good. (she’s a deaf dog “talking” to a deaf little boy, that particular scene made me cry, quite honestly… what a lovely reminder that we are fine and whole and worthy exactly as we are).

  14. I really like this site; read it on a regular basis. I’m 5’6″ and about 190lbs and I am just not ready (and probably will never be ready) to let go of that fantasy of being thinner. It consumes me and I hate it, but I don’t know how to get around it. Kudos to you for doing it, though.

  15. OMG, I forgot how brilliant this post is! I want to print it and pin it to my door, now that I have an office door to pin things to!

  16. “they need to get an alignment on their reality brakes ”

    I love this phrase! :)

    That 30 year perspective thing is pretty interesting. Though I really can’t imagine the 70s being heralded as the Golden Era…maybe that’s just because all growing up I was told that the GE was the 50s when moms stayed home to cook for their kids and fathers worked the job for the money and food was wholesome and all that bologna (would anyone believe I just had to sing the stupid oscar meyer song to spell that?)

    But hmmm maybe that’s why bell-bottoms are making their come-back.

  17. SugarLeigh: You have NO IDEA how often I say “Do you know who else said that? It’s in writing.” – waits for “No, who?” – “Plato! it’s not a new problem!”

    Mind you, me and a gang of middle-aged (well, 30+) delinquents are going out to gather in groups of three or more on street corners soon. We might wear hoodies. We’re hoping to be dispersed.

  18. Fyi, my very interesting (not so much) comment is stuck in moderation, because I hadn’t logged out of WordPress. Oops!

  19. The riboflavin phrase is great but I’m going to get more mileage out of “don’t know shit about dick”.

  20. or some dude they knew who lost 200 pounds eating Subway,

    I certainly hope nobody here has had the misfortune of having the example of Subway Jared thrown in their face. I read about Jared’s diet, and it is pretty clear that he starved himself. His breakfast on his crash diet was coffee (in other words, a skipped meal), a six-inch turkey sub from Subway with no mayo or oil for lunch (not a lot of food at all, especially for somebody who has skipped breakfast), and a one-foot Subway veggie-sub (again no mayo or oil) for dinner. If that’s not a crash diet, then what, pray tell, is a crash diet?

    Jared has probably been able to keep the weight off because being “Subway Jared” has become a pretty big deal psychologically to him. (In other words, he just keeps starving himself.)

  21. Dan Savage has tremendous personal body issues and phobia about becoming “fat” himself. Like, so toxic that he talks and “jokes” in a totally unfunny way about it in casual conversations with people he hardly knows (I’ve seen it firsthand).

    I am sorry for his issues, but I think it’s crazy that he doesn’t have the self-awareness to understand that he’s not someone who can write objectively or compassionately about other people’s body concerns, considering his deep, deep neuroses in this area.

    Jared has probably been able to keep the weight off because being “Subway Jared” has become a pretty big deal psychologically to him. (In other words, he just keeps starving himself.)

    Also, it’s his job, and as part of his job being a professional thinnish guy he exercises for 2+ hours each day, often with a personal trainer.

  22. Great article! I had never been subjected to hatred about my weight in my lifetime the way I get it daily on the internet and I’ve gotten pretty good at fighting back on the stereotypes but I’m keeping this post as a bookmark for ammo.

    The 30 year perspective thing is also quite interesting. I never thought about it being in 30 year increments but I definitely see lots of examples in daily life – including comments on blogs – of people that are reminiscing fondly about the “good old days” when the reality is they were not any better. These people would have us be ignorant and think that was better than being informed.

  23. Re: the 70s being the golden era, I actually have seen that happening. For one, often when people talk about how “thin” everyone “used” to be, they pull out the 70s as a reference point. And I can’t tell you how much I hear about music being perfect in the 70s – because that was the classic rock era – even though while the 70s were going on people were busy whining that disco was killing music. A lot of nostalgia, too, comes out about how back in the 70s kids used to be able to wander and play in the streets without being supervised all the time, and so forth.

    Though, the “golden era” is rapidly becoming the 80s, as people born in those years (myself included) get older and start going on about how good it was and how the toys were better and the cartoons were better and the clothes and MTV and video games and and and!!

    What’s interesting about the “30 years” thing is that it’s a length of time such that people in their late 30s-early 50s (which seems to be the age group with the most power at any given time) will remember the fun stuff from that decade but probably won’t remember as much of the turmoil and political bullshit and so on (because they would have been elementary age-college age at the time). So when I reminisce about the 90s I’m thinking of, say, Salute Your Shorts and Bubble Tape, and forgetting, say, Desert Storm. When my mom reminisces about the 70s she’s thinking of her high school boyfriends and her Peter Frampton records, not Vietnam or Watergate* or the gas crisis or other things which, at the time, signalled the DOWNFALL OF SOCIETY OMFG. (And which someone 10 years older than her would remember more clearly.)

    *And now I totally have “Bicycle Race” stuck in my head.

  24. I guess it is now coming round to the 80s, on the 30-year cycle, as we’re 8 years into the Noughties!

    There’s a lot of 80s fashion around at the moment, but I’ve also seen a lot more nostalgia about the fact that there was a “real difference” between political parties back then, and a weird tendency to think fondly of Margaret Thatcher because “at least she believed in something”, even from those who hated her when she was in power (I’m a Brit, in case you hadn’t guessed!).

    I wish I could find the news article I read about the nostalgia gap – I’ve been doing some googling and it isn’t showing up (difficult search terms to refine down), but I’m sure I remember reading it!

  25. delicate ennui of riboflavin

    Chokes, then shouts: band name!

    Glad you reposted this one. And not just because somehow I had forgotten the above, which I believe has choked me before.

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