Zuzu sent me a link to the latest Schott’s Vocab post at the NYT, this one examining the phrase “fat gap.” Ben Schott points out that the phrase “has also been used to describe disproportionately high obesity rates among the poor, and the differing levels of obesity in different ethnic groups in Washington D.C.,” but here, he’s talking about how it’s used it in yet another article about yet another survey showing obese people are too stupid to know we’re obese. Says the Telegraph: “They are suffering from a new phenomenon dubbed ‘the fat gap’ which has blurred public perception of what is a healthy weight.”
Schott also quotes BBC health reporter Clare Murphy on the matter:
The findings appear to be fresh evidence of a phenomenon that health professionals have long suspected: as those around us get fatter, our perceptions of our own size change accordingly.
No, our perceptions of our own size are not the problem here; our perceptions of the size that constitutes clinical obesity is, and there are some damned good reasons for that. Murphy even touches on one of them — “pictures of children too fat to toddle or the adults so large they need to be hoisted from his house have transformed obesity into a freak show” — but still doesn’t quite connect all the dots.
Let’s review. As Fillyjonk said earlier this month:
This so-called epidemic is not made up of theoretical fucking people who are just as fat as you can possibly imagine. It’s made up of people you see every day AND WHO YOU PROBABLY THINK ARE “NOT FAT.”
It is also, of course, made up of the very fat people held up as “freaks,” and plenty of people in between, but the fact remains that in the U.K., as with the U.S., the majority of obese people have a BMI between 30 and 35. Which means that if they don’t know they’re clinically obese, it’s probably because they’ve never calculated their BMI, they look nothing like the media’s image of obesity, and they’ve constantly got people telling them they’re not even fucking fat.
That’s a sore spot for me, as you know, and I’ve been getting it more than usual lately. Jezebel commenters, journalists, anyone new I mention my work to — “Wait, I don’t get it. You don’t look fat to me!” My sister J’s first comment on the Chatelaine spread: “Guaranteed to garner plenty of ‘you’re not even fat’ comments!” And the sad thing is, I’d already had the same thought. I am thisclose to making myself a skintight “This is what obesity looks like” T-shirt.
And it’s not even like I’m borderline obese. My BMI is about 35, based on my best guess of what I weigh right now (low 190s). So in fact, the only border I am on is that of obese class 2. I am, in fact, more obese than most obese people in this country. So is Fillyjonk. So is Joy Nash (at the high end of class 1, being 1 lb. heavier and 1 inch taller than class 2 FJ). So is Coco. So is Slay Belle. So is Shannon. Are you getting the picture?
I say this, as always, not to make fatter fats feel like freaks (of whom we are quite fond anyway), but to clarify why a reasonable person might be confused about the clinical definition of obesity, and just who makes up this epidemic we’re constantly hearing about. The reporters telling us that of 2000 people surveyed, 25% were obese but only 7% knew it, really seem to believe that’s because fatties are looking around at other fatties and going, “Well, gosh, I don’t look that bad, so I must not really be fat.” They don’t ever consider that people who are class 1 obese — once again, most obese people — almost certainly realize they’re some value of “fat” but might not realize they’re over the “obese” threshold because the visual definition of “obese” they’re usually offered by THE SAME GODDAMNED MEDIA OUTLETS refers only to a tiny percentage of the population.
Oh, Murphy sort of acknowledges that, but here’s how:
The focus on the extreme in television documentaries about the very large but also in the pictures that are chosen to illustrate articles about obesity have also been held up as another potential culprit.
“If you see people with BMI of over 50, say, and you have a BMI of 40 then you may well think you aren’t too bad,” says Dr Krystyna Matyka of the University of Warwick Medical School.
OK, first, I’d just like to point out that the illustration for this very article is a close-up of belly rolls and the caption “Apparently we do not know what’s normal anymore.” Second, without knowing for sure how the stats broke down, I can almost guarantee you that the problem is not people with a BMI over 40 failing to recognize that they’re obese; it’s THE MAJORITY OF OBESE PEOPLE, WHO ARE MUCH THINNER THAN THAT.
So instead of actually teaching anyone what “obese” more commonly looks like, studies and articles like this merely reinforce the stereotype that fat people are not only ignorant but delusional. Instead of imagining people who look like Angelos or Ginny being unaware that they’re on the threshold of clinical obesity, or people like Cassie and Delilah not realizing they’ve already crossed it, the average reader imagines the headless, dehumanized, extremely fat person in the picture standing in front of a mirror, making finger guns and going, “How you doin’, slim?” Which serves the purpose of amping up discrimination against “ignorant” fat people quite well, but doesn’t actually do a goddamned thing to help the majority of obese people recognize that they qualify as such, which is supposed to be the point here, isn’t it?
Problem is, actually talking about people with a BMI just over 30 not realizing they’re officially obese, when most people wouldn’t realize it about them, either, would make it really hard to advance the thesis that fat people are idiots who lie to themselves! It’s much easier to stay vague about exactly who, among obese folks, doesn’t know it, and then “support” your thesis with lines like this:
Over half of those deemed morbidly obese believed they ate a healthy diet, while more than a third of the overweight said they had never tried to shed the pounds.
It’s not possible, of course, that over half of those deemed morbidly obese actually are eating a healthy diet. Calories in, calories out, people! Clearly, more than 50% of really fat people just DON’T KNOW THAT ALL THOSE DOUGHNUTS ARE BAD FOR THEM. Never mind that we have no idea who they are, what they’re eating, how much they exercise, or what sort of medical problems they have. Never mind that most fat people eat about the same amount as most thin people. As always, the important thing is to insist that the fattest fatties obviously know squat about nutrition and/or routinely lie to themselves about what goes in their mouths. And how about all those overweight people who have never even tried dieting — how crazy is that? I mean, just because they might look like Jessica or Kate or Meg and Jeffrey, just because they might not have been “overweight” at all before the threshold was lowered from 27 to 25, WHERE DO THOSE FATASSES GET OFF NOT EVEN DIETING?
Oh hey, speaking of which, did I mention that this is all based on an internet poll done by market research firm YouGov for a company called Slimming World? Murphy, to her credit, does mention that. But it doesn’t stop her from ending the article with this quote from Dr. Susan Jebb of the Human Nutrition Research Laboratory of the Medical Research Council:
Everybody knows obesity is a problem for the nation, but they don’t accept it’s a problem for them – as this latest survey shows. We need to give people the confidence to recognise that it is problem, and that it’s one they can do something about.
We can totally do something about it! Like go to Slimming World! If only we have the confidence to recognize how problematic our fat is. And of course we totally won’t gain it back within five years or fuck up our health along the way!
Now, back to that line about the morbidly obese delusionally believing they don’t eat poorly, and the overweight having the gall not to diet at all. You’ll note that there’s no mention whatsoever of the people most likely to misjudge themselves as non-obese, i.e. — sing it with me now — the majority of obese people. Do you see the bait and switch there? The story is ostensibly about obese people not even realizing how dangerously fat we are, but the examples given are of A) some obese people who surely do know they’re obese saying they eat healthfully, which is probably fucking true, and B) clinically overweight people choosing not to diet, which is probably because they’re not fucking fat (and/or they’re bright enough to realize diets don’t work).
This story says absolutely nothing about the majority of obese people, specifically. Meanwhile, 7% of those surveyed did, in fact, properly categorize themselves as obese — which happens to be a bit higher than the total percentage of morbidly obese people, suggesting that that group does, in fact, know bloody well that they qualify as obese (as do some people with a BMI lower than 40). So why are we talking about delusional death fats again? There’s also no mention of how the other obese folks categorized themselves, but I’m gonna go ahead and guess that most, if not all of them, would have gone with “overweight,” because fat people know we’re fucking fat, even if we don’t all know exactly where the BMI cut-offs are.
That just doesn’t sound nearly as good as “Apparently we do not know what’s normal anymore.”