Fat Agnostics and the New Consensus

There’s another (fairly heavily promoted) article out about how hard it is to maintain radical weight loss. The author is Shannon Chamberlain (who is ambivalent about Fat Acceptance and describes herself as a Fat Agnostic). It’s more of a personal story than Tara Parker-Pope’s The Fat Trap (which it references), but it shows a similar attitude toward radical weight loss maintenance. Except it’s a little more critical of the assumption that this is the healthy choice, at least for the author:

And, naturally, I’m starting to get solicited for weight-loss advice, but I refuse to provide it. Nothing about the way that I’ve lost weight was in the short term safe or healthy, if you define health as the pursuit of overall system happiness. Bariatric surgery was about the safest thing I’ve ever done for myself, in the sense that it was medically supervised and I got a special 24-hour-advice nurse number to call—and it involved five hours of getting cut open to have my intestines rerouted.

More than anything else, the article emphasizes how little we know about what makes some people fat and what allows some people to lose weight and keep it off, a message that I can definitely agree with. And I was glad that Chamberlain acknowledged that weight loss maintainers are often used basically as a club to beat still-fat people with:

In a perverse way, people like me make it harder for every fat person out there. If Formerly Fat X can do it, why can’t my morbidly obese sister-in-law?

This despite the fact that every shred of evidence available to medical science indicates that it’s nearly impossible to take off large amounts of weight and keep it off. That was largely the point of Tara Parker-Pope’s New York Times Magazine article from earlier this year, from which the main takeaway was that even a more than typically well-informed healthy eater and marathoner like Parker-Pope is 60 pounds overweight.

The fact of the matter is: I don’t know anything about weight loss. Neither does anyone else. What is emerging from the best research is that the old nutritional mantra—burn fewer calories than you consume—is correct in the thermodynamic sense but useless on the individual level. You and I don’t have a clear idea of how many calories we’re actually burning up. Gary Taubes tells us that some calories count more than others. Michael Pollan says mostly vegetables. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg thinks that putting our soda in two cups instead of one is the magic ticket. The federal government is so swollen with corn-industry money that I can’t even look at the food pyramid—old or new—without laughing. Absent these precise measurements or solutions, how can you look at someone who is obese and hold them personally responsible for each pound? Or personally virtuous for each pound lost?

This article seems to be part of a trend towards a newly emerging consensus that maintaining radical weight loss is not practical for most people. Which I see as good and bad–good that people are getting a more accurate picture of how this stuff works and are maybe a little less likely to see fat as evidence of a character flaw or psychological problem, but bad because it makes them even more determined in the childhood obesity crusade. The problem is, the only evidence they seem to have that obesity is easier to prevent than to reverse is that they now know that it’s really hard to reverse obesity and, well, something has to be done. They hope it’s true, so they’re gonna go ahead and assume it’s true.

What little evidence there is seems to point the other way. BMI has a large genetic component. People who gain weight (as adults) on purpose have a hard time maintaining the weight gain (CTRL+F for “Ethan Sims”). Adopted children have BMIs more similar to their biological parents than their adopted parents. And MeMe Roth and Debra SY have similar weight-maintenance regimes despite one having never been fat (but with a family history of high BMIs) and one being a radical weight loss maintainer. There is evidence that you can shape their bendy little brains, but not much that you can deliberately change their bodies.

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9 Responses to Fat Agnostics and the New Consensus

  1. Carol Gwenn says:

    “And naturally, I’m starting to get solicited for weight loss advice…”
    Oh, yeah! Know the feeling. Several years back my weight dropped by 80 pounds following a hysterectomy. Why? No one knows. Did I WANT to lose the weight? No. Can I gain it back? No to that as well…and yet…people who knew me in my REAL body (and knew how happy & healthy I was whilst living in it) persist in asking, “How did you lose all that WEIGHT?” Never mind that since the weight came off my health has gone down the slippery slope. Why the weight has stayed off is a total mystery, while friends who’ve gone on really punishing diets have done nothing but cycle, unable to sustain the loss & constantly berating themselves for their “failure”.

    It’s time people started paying more attention to articles like the ones you’ve cited & realizing the SO simple truth: each body is different in many ways. We need to care for them, celebrate them, fix things when they break, and understand that there’s only so much about them we can control; size simply is NOT one of those things.

  2. BetsyBluesy says:

    I was really bothered when I first read Chamberlain’s article, and it took me a while to figure out what irked me so much (other than her claims to somehow be doing it for her health despite how unhealthy it is, or something?)…but I think this is the main thing:

    Chamberlain’s article (and other recent pieces) want to present this kind of weight loss/maintenance as “not practical” or incredibly difficult, requiring extreme sacrifices. Which is true, as far as it goes. The problem is that these difficult sacrifices (impossible for many), even if you can manage to make them, are still NOT GUARANTEED TO WORK,.

    I’m afraid this kind of article still contributes to the “fatties could lose weight if they REALLY wanted” to attitude. But you can absolutely stop losing weight (and even gain it) on a very low calorie diet and high exercise plan. You can try as hard as it is possible to try at this game and still fail.

    Sure, maybe some people will say, “weight loss is harder than I thought, so maybe I’ll be more accepting of fatties/myself”

    I think a lot more people, though, will read it and say, “See, I told you those fatties really are lazy. They could do it if they would only TRY HARDER.”

    (It also bothered me the way she talked about getting more harassment at a size 12 then at 350lbs. If that’s her experience, I don’t doubt her, but her generalizing implications were that 350lb people get harassed less all around because they are somehow “invisible,” which is certainly not my lived or observed experience.)

    • BetsyBluesy–good points. The “more harassment at size 12″ kinda bugged me, too, but I wasn’t quite sure how to address it. Partly because I can’t speak much from my personal experience on that. I haven’t experienced overt weight harassment from strangers myself for whatever reason. And I’ve also never been as big as she was. My only experiences are as size 12 (but only in high school), size 14, and size 16. As far as general attention from men, there doesn’t seem to be much of a pattern, honestly.

      And yes, I think that there will always be people who think that, no matter how hard it is, if it’s possible to lose weight, that should be every single person’s #1 priority. It’s not even possible for everyone. And if people like that learn that, and it means less fat-hate out there, great. On the other hand, though, I think someone who will only “allow” us to be fat if it’s flat-out impossible rather than impractical is really not a reasonable person.

  3. G says:

    I wound up reading some of Chamberlain’s blog and spending time mulling it all over and having a lot of feels about it.

    Maybe it’s from years of looking for a magic weigh-loss bullet– and here’s this woman who did it. Even if she stands there and says “DON’T DO WHAT I DID IT’S BAD” we still see someone who ‘succeeded’, right? She put weight loss ahead of her health, and it worked.

    A part of me loves reading the maintainer blogs like DebraSY’s and Chamberlain’s. (An unhappy part.) It’s another stick to beat myself up with. “See these people? Weight loss is really hard, but if you had enough self-control you could do it.” No matter how much they qualify it with “This is miserable, don’t do it” I still wind up admiring/envying them.

    See? Lots of feels.

    • I guess this is where my never-exactly-dieting past helps out, or maybe my contrarian and fatalistic tendencies. Sometimes I feel resentful reading stuff like that*, and sometimes I just feel like, “Ha ha, SUCKERS! I just ate some pie!” Nothing personal, if any of you guys are reading. :) But I actually feel lucky in some ways that I’m not driven to do that stuff.

      I guess part of me also feels like, “Wow, I could never be motivated enough to do that.” But somehow I don’t end up ruminating on that too much. Maybe the fatalism again? Maybe the tendency to see pursuit of appearance-related goals as frivolous? (Which probably comes from both Puritanical and misogynist memes… but does that necessarily mean they’re wrong?)

      I don’t suppose it would help if I said, “Stop beating yourself up”? Maybe it would help to look at it this way: if you don’t have the “self-control” to live like that, it means that it’s not worth it to you. In the end, you are making a choice not to do it. And if it’s the choice you’re making, then it’s probably the best choice for you. It’s no more unreasonable than liking ponies, but realizing that you don’t really want a pony because it’s not worth having to buy a house in the country and muck out the stalls and commit to riding it every day. (I think I stole that analogy from a commenter at Alas, A Blog.) I’m not very good at helping with this kind of thing, and I’m not sure if you want help anyway…

      *Maybe that means I’m envious? It doesn’t feel like it… I think it feels more like, “No, you’re trying to leave the group! We’re not good enough for you?!” And then I remember how crappy people can get treated.

      • G says:

        Yeah, I know it’s mostly irrational! I’m getting better at avoiding these trains of thought but it’s still a rough go some days.

        I like your pony analogy. :)

  4. Michelle says:

    Hey, I was reading a book today and it made me think of you. It’s by Michael Gard, who co-authored an earlier book about the obesity epidemic with Jan Wright. His new book is called The End of the Obesity Epidemic, and he has some good (and some biting) criticisims of both fat acceptance and obesity science. Really interesting stuff. It’s priced like a textbook, but my library has it.

  5. Pingback: Is Fat Acceptance Skepticism or Denialism? Contrasting FA, FL, and HAES with Climate Change Denialism | closetpuritan

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