Read ’em: Elsewhere in beauty standards

Check out the Women of Color and Beauty Carnival on the yennenga LJ community. This looks like an awesome carnival, and I’m really excited to read all the linked posts. You’ll recognize Julia’s excellent post at Fatshionista, which we’ve been discussing around here; some of her posts on LJ are linked as well. Via Racialicious (which, seriously, is such an outstanding blog. If you’re not reading it regularly, bookmark it right now!).

I’m not following the Olympics this year for a lot of reasons, but if you are you should check out these two excellent posts on SP fave Hoyden About Town. Lauredhel writes about the unbelievable difference between the uniforms of male and female athletes in the same sports (example below). Meanwhile, Tigtog posts about the heartbreaking news that two little girls were exploited in the opening ceremonies for the sake of a beauty ideal: one sang behind the scenes, while in front of the audience a “cuter” girl either lip-synched or sang without knowing her mike wasn’t on. The girls are 10 and 9 years old, respectively. (In the US, of course, they’d be part of the “starter market.”)

The Duh Truck Rides Again

Okay, every Shapeling and their grandma has sent me a version of this news, so I’d better get on it. (Thanks, everybody, and sorry I’m slow!) 

A new study suggests that a surprising number of overweight people — about half — have normal blood pressure and cholesterol levels, while an equally startling number of trim people suffer from some of the ills associated with obesity.

The first national estimate of its kind bolsters the argument that you can be hefty but still healthy, or at least healthier than has been believed.

The results also show that stereotypes about body size can be misleading, and that even “less voluptuous” people can have risk factors commonly associated with obesity, said study author MaryFran Sowers, a University of Michigan obesity researcher.


Of course, as others have noted, it’s only fucking “surprising” if you’ve ignored all the previous research saying the same thing, and continued to buy into those misleading stereotypes. Also, I left out the first line of the AP article there, which is: “You can look great in a swimsuit and still be a heart attack waiting to happen. And you can also be overweight and otherwise healthy.” Hey, thanks for leading with a reminder that even if fat people can be healthy, we still can’t look great in swimsuits*, Lindsay Tanner! 

The L.A. Times is even better. Not only does Shari Roan focus on the “visceral fat is what will kill you” angle instead of the “Fat does not equal unhealthy” one, she phrases it thusly: “You can be normal weight** and be just as bad off as old tubby next door.”

Charming. Do they seriously not teach journalists today that phrases like “old tubby” (see also “ballooning,” “packing on the pounds,” “X pounds of blubber/lard,” etc.) and commentary on folks’ bikini-readiness have no fucking place in science reporting? Or that “colorful” language like that might just suggest you have a deeply ingrained bias against fat people, and therefore are probably not the person to report objectively on studies about our health?  

Anyway. Roan’s phrasing also leaves out the pertinent point that “old tubby next door” has a greater than 50% chance of not being badly off at all, according to this research. What it actually shows is that you can be normal weight and far less healthy than old tubby. You can be normal weight and just as badly off as your normal weight neighbor. You can be old tubby herself and be better — or worse — off than another old tubby across the street. You can be any weight and healthy, or any weight and sick. You can’t tell how healthy someone is just by looking. That’s the fucking point.

Here are the actual studies being discussed, and here’s a rundown of the findings that contains somewhat less editorialization. 

From the latter link, in one study, 

Dr. Wildman and colleagues looked at a cross-sectional sample of 5,440 participants in NHANES, and stratified them according to BMI and cardiometabolic abnormalities, including elevated blood pressure; triglycerides, fasting plasma glucose, C-reactive protein, and homeostasis model assessment of insulin resistance value, as well as low levels of high-density lipoprotein cholesterol.

“Metabolically normal” = one or none of the things on that list, and “metabolically abnormal” equals anything above that. Here’s who was metabolically abnormal: 23.5% of normal weight adults, just under 50% of overweight adults, and just under 70% of obese adults.

The other study looked at “the pathophysiological mechanisms of type 2 diabetes” and found that 24% of obese patients were not insulin resistant and — contrary to researchers’ expectations — “the insulin sensitivity and the intima-media thickness [of the common carotid artery] of the insulin-sensitive obese group were similar [to] those of the normal BMI participants”. Or, as study leader Dr. Nobert Stefan says, “a metabolically benign obesity that is not accompanied by insulin resistance and early atherosclerosis exists in humans.” 


So yes, there is still a correlation between higher weights and metabolic abnormality. But as we’ve been saying all along, this does not apply to all fat people or let thin people off the hook — which is why there’s so much pants-shitting going on in the media over this. 

Also — brace yourself — you’re more likely to be “metabolically abnormal” if you’re older and sedentary. NO WAY!

They also did find a correlation, yet again, between waist circumference and metabolic iffiness — presumably because a higher waist circumference can be an indication of higher levels of visceral fat, which appears to be the baddie. (Thin people can have high levels of visceral fat, too.)

Now, every time I talk about waist circumference/visceral fat, I hear from apple-shaped folks who are quite understandably pissed off that the OBESITY CRISIS BOOGA BOOGA BOOGA heat is just shifting over to them. So let me make two points I’ve made many times before, because they’re well worth repeating.

1) My favorite fun fact ever: Sumo wrestlers tend to have low levels of visceral fat. And it’s usually sedentary thin people who have high levels of it. The evidence suggests that exercise is protective against visceral fat, even if it doesn’t make you thin — so if you’re able to exercise, there is something you “can do about it,” which doesn’t involve starving yourself or getting a tummy tuck. 

2) Risk factors are just that — risk factors, not death sentences — and we’re all stuck with risk factors for diseases that we can’t do anything about. Family history is the most obvious example — you have no control over whether your parents and grandparents had diabetes, cancer, heart disease, whatever, which is why nobody suggests you have an obligation to “do something” about those risk factors. If you’re lucky enough to get old, you’ll be at increased risk for practically everything — but nobody suggests killing yourself on your fiftieth birthday to avoid that risk factor. Likewise, if you are predisposed to be fat and/or carry weight around your middle, that’s just another risk factor you’re stuck with. For many of us, making a substantial, permanent change to our weights is just as impossible as going back in time and choosing different parents. 

And for many of us, as this research shows, being fat will not lead to poor health anyway. And as always, you can’t tell who’s most at risk by looking. Hell, I’m more hourglass-shaped than apple-shaped (though I am officially obese and my waist circumference exceeds the recommendation for women), but given my pesky family history of diabetes, I’m still probably more likely to end up in the insulin-resistant category than the “metabolically benign” one someday. It sucks, but it is what it is. 

Fat does not equal unhealthy. Thin does not equal healthy. Exercise is beneficial if you can do it and are so inclined, regardless of whether you lose weight. Getting old makes you more likely to get sick, but it’s better than the alternative. Risk factors are not death sentences. Being sick is not a personal failure.

That’s the big fucking news here. But we already knew all that, didn’t we?

*For those who missed it, that’s Fillyjonk rockin’ the swimsuit.

**I have not put “normal weight” in irony quotes throughout, because it would seriously clutter up this post, but please imagine they’re there.

Quick hit: Olympic-level bodies

Via Broadsheet, check out this NYT slideshow of several Olympian athletes. As Catherine Price of Broadsheet says, “it’s nice to see proof that being strong takes all kinds.” This version is almost like an Olympic addendum to the BMI slideshow, though we’ll have to do the calculating ourselves. I love the picture of Cheryl Haworth, a weight lifter who happens to weigh 300 pounds. I also dig this quote from track star Shawn Crawford:

When I lift, my chest and arms develop quickly and are easy to get stronger and bigger. I have really small lower legs — and no matter what I do, they get stronger, but not bigger.

Next time you feel inclined to beating yourself up because some exercise you do that makes you feel happy and energized didn’t also skinnify your thighs or what have you, remember that quote. Even one of the fastest dudes in the world can’t change the shape of his legs through Olympic training. Bodies come in all shapes and sizes, even the strongest ones.

Those lazy kids and their hours of exercise

This morning’s paper had a wire story about a study showing that kids get less exercise as they get older. Obviously it’s full of the nonsense you’ve come to expect; the headline I read talked about “lazy” kids, the article says that teenagers are “sluggish.” There’s no mention made of the piles of work and responsibilities that are heaped on American teens, which tend to curtail activity (at least until some genius riding the lucrative wave of the OMG Child Obesity Epidemic invents a way to study for the SATs while pounding a treadmill). The study looked at whether kids were achieving government-recommended levels of activity, which means an hour a day every day — an incredibly demanding schedule for someone with an adult-sized workload.

And naturally, the problems with the article don’t stop there. While the decline in gym class quantity is blamed, nobody talks about gym class quality — specifically, that particular quality gym class has of making you hate exercise forever (or at least until you discover HAES and realize that exercise isn’t punishment). Computers and video games are villainized even though the study compares younger children with older children, not children today and children a few decades ago. And it’s not too bad in the AP treatment, but other reports I read committed the standard fallacy that crops up in every article like this: focusing on childhood obesity as the consequence of the findings (and pushing anti-obesity programs as the solution), as though there’s no benefit in having active kids if those kids aren’t also thin.

That’s all standard fare. It’s amazing we manage to keep the blog running when this is what people come out with; I rarely read an OMG Obesity article anymore that doesn’t read just like some other article we already ranted about. But here’s the part that boggled me:

CHICAGO (AP) — One of the largest studies of its kind shows just how sluggish American children become once they hit the teen years: While 90 percent of 9-year-olds get a couple of hours of exercise most days, fewer than 3 percent of 15-year-olds do.

HOLD THE FUCKING PHONE. 90 percent of 9-year-olds get a couple of hours of exercise a day? What about all the fat children, the ones who everyone knows are so clearly a crisis? The ones who are emblematic of our decaying societal morals? The ones who are going to die younger than their parents? What about those criminally sedentary face-stuffing disease-courting youngsters we keep hearing about? What about the young victims of the Killer Sofa?

Apparently they’ve been out running around and playing with the other kids all this time.

On Problems to Be Solved

So, the headline of this AP article is okay: “Europe plans free fruit, veggies for school kids.” Nothing wrong with that — in fact, I think it’s a swell idea. But you do know what’s coming next, right?

An estimated 22 million children in the 27-nation bloc of nearly 500 million people are overweight because of bad eating habits.

Right. So I guess the writer personally observed 22 million children to determine that their fatness is the result of “bad eating habits” — and indeed, that they’re actually fat, as opposed to just growing children whose BMI ranking could change substantially in two weeks’ time? ‘Cause otherwise, that sentence is ludicrous. Even a stone fatphobe with a modicum of journalistic integrity would write “… in part because of bad eating habits” — if nothing else, what about the ZOMG SEDENTARY VIDEO GAMES NEVER OUTSIDE factor? — or just end the sentence at “overweight” and allow people to draw their own conclusions. (Which, unfortunately, they totally would.) But no, 22 million children just have bad eating habits, period. True facts!

And it gets better. (The article’s like 200 words long, and still, it gets better.)

“You only have to walk down any high street in Europe to see the extent of the problems we face with overweight kids,” EU Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel said.

Problems you can see just walking down the street? Like what? Roving bands of tubby little thugs demanding protection money from local businesses? Pillaging and plundering? Bursting out into elaborate musical numbers on busy streets? What are these great societal problems that are obvious to any pedestrian?

Oh, right. The very existence of fat kids is a problem.

Fuck you, Mariann Fischer Boel. Children’s bodies are not a problem for the government to solve.

And that’s inevitably my problem with programs like this, and the way they’re sold to us. I am 100% in favor of free fruits and veggies (though I’m not naive enough to think those won’t be traded for sweets by fat and thin kids alike, I should add). Free fruits and veggies for everyone! Local, organic produce for all my friends! While you’re at it, bring back gym class and train future phys ed instructors to focus on encouraging the joy of movement instead of forcing everyone to move their bodies in exactly the same way, regardless of any pain (physical and/or emotional) it causes! Subsidize exercise facilities until they’re affordable for everyone! Create more bike paths! Clean up local bodies of water so everyone can swim for free! Build cities on the scale of human bodies instead of cars, and keep the streets safe enough for everyone to walk around! Ban high fructose corn syrup! Keep fast food and soda and junk food corporations out of the schools! Raise the minimum wage and shorten working hours so people have more time to cook and be active! KNOCK YOURSELVES RIGHT THE FUCK OUT creating an environment that makes it easier for everyone to eat a variety of fresh foods and get plenty of exercise!

But don’t tell me that’s going to make everyone thin — and really, really don’t tell me that making people thinner should be the main point of such a plan. It fucking infuriates me that with all of the many, many excellent reasons to do all the things I’ve just suggested, the only potential outcome that can muster the political will to enact any of it is weight loss. Fuck having a cleaner, safer, more fun environment that might lend itself to people generally feeling more energetic and vibrant (which might also lead to more productivity, for all the hardcore capitalists out there) — unless we can get rid of the fatties, it’s wasted money.

Lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables is a problem to be solved. A polluted environment is a problem to be solved. Corporations weaseling their way into schools are a problem to be solved. Unsafe cities are a problem to be solved. Car-dependency is a problem to be solved. The need for many people to work every waking hour just to get by is a problem to be solved. The widespread belief that exercise is primarily a punishment for fatness or a talisman against it, not something enjoyable that generally makes people feel better, is a problem to be solved.

Human bodies are not a fucking problem to be solved.

Guest Blogger Ellie: Trying Tai Chi

Remember how back in January, I said I was going to try a bunch of exercise classes and report back here? And how, after five months, I’ve only written up belly dancing and Pilates? (Still haven’t gotten around to writing up water aerobics, but who better than an otter to tell you about that?)

But then, do you remember how I also encouraged people to send in guest posts about their exercise experiments? Shapeling Ellie remembered that part, and she sent us this awesome post about starting tai chi, which I totally want to do now. Thank you, Ellie!

As an aside, dammit, I really need to move next door to this place, because it has absolutely everything I want to try, but I frequently get hung up on the “getting there is kind of a pain in the ass” factor. (And sadly, it’s really only kind of a pain in the ass, not even a huge one.) I’m still doing Pilates around the corner, some yoga at home, walking all over the place now that it’s spring, and one of these days I’m going to get around to joining Ottermatic for Squeaky Voiced Teen’s water aerobics class on a regular basis. But if a gym like that were around the corner? I’d be taking a class every day. Why the hell does getting to the gym always seem so much more daunting than actually working out?

Ahem, anyway, please enjoy Ellie’s take on tai chi. –Kate

After several people in the great Shapely Prose exercise discussion mentioned tai chi, I was inspired to check out an open house at the local Taoist Tai Chi society. I just finished up my first beginner’s level class, and I could not be more pleased to have tried it!

What it is: Taoist Tai Chi, a version of the “gentle martial art” that focuses on health and body awareness rather than fighting or meditation. The Taoist Tai Chi society is a really cool all-volunteer organization that promotes good works and cultural exchange, and I highly recommend them if you have a branch in your town. Other forms and organizations will be different.

What I needed: Just a comfortable outfit (jeans are fine) and a sturdy pair of shoes (or not – I did most of it barefoot).

How it works: The set is a series of 108 moves (not all unique) that you learn in a beginner’s class, which takes about three months. Then you can move to a continuing-level class, which works on different aspects of the set; you can also repeat the beginner’s class, or just continue doing tai chi at home.

Because of the cumulative nature of learning the set, you learn a few moves to get a sense of how Taoist Tai Chi works. Unless you absolutely can’t stand your first class, I’d recommend you stick it out for three or four more before you decide one way or the other.

My class met for an hour, two evenings a week. We started by doing the set as far as we knew it, and the instructor took questions. After a quick tea and water break, we learned the new moves of the day (usually one or two) and finished by going through the set once more.

Cost: Low. One of the goals of the Taoist Tai Chi Society is to make it available to everyone, so it’s cheap ($30 a month for 1-4 classes/week, less for students) and they will go all the way down to $0 if you can’t afford it.

Workout level: Low to Medium. The main benefits are to flexibility and balance, and mostly will give you a good relaxing stretch. The cardio component is comparable to a long walk – more fit people won’t be strained, but more out of shape people (like me) will get a moderate workout. There isn’t much of a day-after effect – no soreness or stiffness.

Fat friendliness: Very high. There are only a couple moves where a Rack of Doom, or large thighs like mine, get in the way, and a minor adjustment clears that up. We had people of all sizes in our class. Weight loss and calorie burn were never, ever mentioned. Health and body awareness were the main focus. I felt very welcome.

Contraindications (physical): There are a few moves that involve bending over, slow kicking, or twisting the foot around, so if those things are hard, you would want to proceed with caution. However, our instructor constantly tells us to “do what you can, don’t do it until it hurts” so the troublesome moves would be easily adjusted or even skipped.

Contraindications (mental): If you have a lot of trouble learning an action by watching it done, it might be hard for you to catch on. Our instructor will answer questions, but most of it is learn-by-seeing. You don’t need a great memory (just great peripheral vision, as my instructor would say) but it might be too frustrating if you find it hard to follow along with somebody else’s movements.

Final note: I found the whole thing really beneficial, mentally as well as physically. I enjoyed always having at least two hours a week to count on being totally calm, and I met some fantastic people in the class. I highly recommend checking it out.