Inspired by this post by Brian at Red No. 3, I decided to write a description of myself as a “good fatty” and as a “bad fatty”.
“Good” closetpuritan recently ran in a 5k and did not come in last in her age group. She regularly does yoga, running, short hikes, and 30 min+ walks. She has gone on two major hikes this summer. The last time the doctor weighed her, she was below her peak weight. She regularly shops at her local farmer’s market, rarely makes meat the center of her meals, eats more whole grains, fruits, and veggies than most people around her, and usually cooks her own meals. She takes breaks from sitting to stand up and stretch.
“Bad” closetpuritan only goes running twice a week, even though most runners go more often. Maybe she’s not a “real” runner. She keeps meaning to do yoga more often. She currently has a cold and tendonitis in one thumb tendon, so is arguably “unhealthy”. She has gained a noticeable amount of weight in the past year. She eats more than 2000 calories a day. She eats sweets two or three times a day. She doesn’t get the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables. She ate at McDonald’s two days ago. She sits too long at her desk without taking a break to stand up or walk around.
Through the magic* of confirmation bias, people tend to give more weight to their observations of fat people doing unhealthy things and thin people doing healthy things, because that’s what they expect them to be doing. Even if fat and thin people were exactly equally likely to do any given healthy or unhealthy thing, most people would perceive the thin people’s behavior as healthier. And fat and thin people may not be equally likely to engage in a given behavior–not necessarily because of its effect on your weight, but because fat makes it more or less difficult for you to participate in certain behaviors.
We also apply this confirmation bias to ourselves. This, I think, contributes to the self-hatred of fatties and former fatties. (And there’s no hate like self-hate…) I read many comments that say, “Oh, I know why I’m fat. I eat junk food and don’t get enough exercise…” Some of them may really do that. Some of them may be exaggerating because of confirmation bias. And if they’re serial yo-yo dieters and they’ve only tried either junk food + no exercise or calorie counting + tons of exercise, they don’t know if they’d still be fat if they ate healthy foods and exercised moderately. Maybe they’d be the same size, or maybe they’d lose 2% of their body weight, or maybe they’d gain 2% of their body weight. But many assume that they’d be thin forever if they dieted down to thinnness and then had a “healthy lifestyle” for maintenance–but haven’t actually gotten to that point, either because they never started the diet, they always plateaued, or they were defeated by eat impulses before they got to the “maintenance” bit. Or they may just assume that a “healthy lifestyle” entails eating just a little bit “better” than whatever diet they plateaued with.
I’m not necessarily invested in the idea that the average fat person eats exactly as much as the average thin person–I think that eating to satisfy hunger is more sensible than looking at the objective amount, for most people, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a large part of the genetic effect on fat was from genes’ influence on appetite rather than on metabolism–but confirmation bias can lead a fat person to look at what their thin friend eats and think their friend eats much better than them, even if they eat exactly the same way.
*may not actually be magical