We talk a lot here about how mental health is just as important as physical health. This is often in the service of pointing out that even if losing weight were in and of itself a healthy goal — and there’s plenty of evidence that things aren’t that simple, and that in fact the pursuit of weight loss can be physically harmful — you would also have to take into account the violence that dieting can perpetrate on your emotional well-being.
What we don’t often discuss is how deeply intertwined mental and physical health can be. This week there’s a fascinating article in New Scientist that delves pretty deeply into that connection. We all know about the placebo effect — that you can see benefits from a treatment you’re not really getting, as long as you think you are. And if you’ve ever looked at the results of clinical drug trials and seen how many control subjects experience side effects from a medication they’re not taking, you know something about its shadow partner the “nocebo effect,” where the same nonexistent treatments cause harm. But the power of somatization is even stronger than that. Apparently it’s so strong, at least in some people, that just being convinced that you’re about to die can actually kill you.
Fat people are unceasingly told that the size of their bodies will kill them — if not personally by their doctors, families, and acquaintances, then collectively by the media or by strangers. Trolls like to tick off all the diseases your fat ass is going to get; one commenter at Powell’s actually implied that people would get heart disease just from reading the book. There’s a constant cultural susurrus about diabetes, heart attacks, health care costs, living to see one’s children grow up. Even leaving aside the fact that this inescapable refrain can make people fear exercise or stop getting medical care, it tells us we’re already doomed. And look what that can do.
Think about it. Being convinced you’re sick can kill. Being convinced you’re well can cure. If indeed fat folks are iller, can we really be surprised?