Gaslighting fat people

(Well, not just fat people. Pretty much everyone who is not effortlessly thin, and maybe even those who are.)

Plenty of people seem to think that every fat person is fat because of some sort of emotional trauma. That we’re eating to “stuff down feelings”. Or that every fat person must really have a binge eating disorder.

Then there are the people who think, “If you think you’re hungry, really you’re probably thirsty/tired/sad (related to the ‘stuff down feelings’ meme). I came across the most ridiculous example (habit #5) of this yesterday:

Nerurkar said she is surprised at how many of her patients don’t drink much water during the day, adding that people don’t often recognize thirst. “Often when we’re craving something sweet or salty, we’re really thirsty instead,” she said.

Really? That’s funny, because when I’m thirsty, sweet and salty things seem kind of unappealing because sweet and salty things make me thirsty. Except for things that also contain a lot of water, like watermelon or grapes or lemonade or lightly sweetened iced tea (because heavily sweetened iced tea just keeps me thirsty, plus I didn’t grow up drinking it so it tastes weird to me).

(Also: “Put a mint leaf… into your H20”? Why would you do that when you could have (iced) mint tea?)

I guess I could see, for someone who’s used to getting most of their water from sweetened beverages, a craving for something sweet to drink being an early signal of thirst. ‘A craving for salty things=thirst’ just seems really out there, though.

I’ve decided that these things are gaslighting. I feel like there must be more examples of gaslighting related to fat people, eating, and/or weight control. Anyone have more? There’s also a much-less-widespread one–the notion that any fat person who says they’re happy at their current size and don’t want to lose weight must be lying, either deliberately or in a “lying to themselves” way. (See comment #11 here.) This one isn’t as widespread in popular culture, though, because fat acceptance/fat liberation still isn’t all that visible in popular culture.

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13 Responses to Gaslighting fat people

  1. Pingback: Saturday Links, 7/6/13 | Tutus And Tiny Hats

  2. The Real Cie says:

    Reblogged this on The Cheese Whines and commented:
    Also there is an implication that someone who DOES have a problem with binge eating with or without purging is a terrible, horrible, awful person worse than any axe murderer. I used to believe the hype that I was binge eating in order to make myself unattractive because I was raped. Perhaps I did compensate for some of my negative emotions by eating. Not everyone does this.
    Maybe the thing we need to stop as a society is this. Stop looking for scapegoats. Everyone has their problems. If you can’t be compassionate, at least shut the fuck up.

  3. wendyrg says:

    The issue of the fat person as necessarily having something “wrong” with them–in other words, if you’re fat, there’s got to be a problem–has been driving me crazy for quite some time now.

    I’m sorry, but I’ve always been fat. Of course, my experience is personal (n=1), but I can’t help feeling that there are lots of people like me around:
    -born to a fat mother;
    -raised in a home where “health food” was the norm while all around me kids were eating Marshmallow Fluff on Wonder Bread;
    -rarely had sweets at home, dessert was usually fruit; mother didn’t bake;
    -only ate whole wheat bread, no fried foods, rarely ate in restaurants;
    -did not own car; walked or took public transit; rode a bike as a child and teenager;
    -no eating disorder, though I felt extremely deprived as a child because our home was not filled with junk food (lol).

    And yet I’ve always been fat. Hmm. Maybe the fatness is just part of who I am, like my green eyes, short stature and gift for learning languages (my mom spoke three, my dad spoke eight).

    Oh, but that just can’t be. All fat people MADE themselves that way. Right?

  4. bodycrimes says:

    The big one would be that fat people only eat junk food. This one is bizarre and leads people to think weird things about food. I was at dinner at a friend’s place not so long ago and I waved away the third potato she was trying to serve me. Because I didn’t want another potato, not for any other reason. She said to me: “it can’t hurt you! It’s good, home cooked food. It won’t make you fat”.

    Which assumes that (a) food preferences are about whether you’ll get fat or not and (b) only fast food has actual calories in it. All other types of food are magic.

    • Yeah, the magical thinking where food made at home always gets a little health halo, and industrial food is always worse simply because it’s industrial, is a little silly. That’s one thing that I did like about “How Junk Food Can End Obesity”–it challenged that idea.

  5. DebraSY says:

    I think the most horrible gaslighting happens with regard to weight regain. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people say “Well, I know what to do. I lost the weight. I just am not doing it. It’s my own fault I’m gaining it back.” How did they get convinced of that?!

    I say, “Gee, has anyone ever told you that homeostasis is real and yours is set at your highest established weight? Your body is fighting to return you to it. Has anyone told you that as a weight-reduced person your ghrelin is chronically elevated, your leptin chronically suppressed and dozens of other hormones are out of whack and impelling you to refeed? Has anyone told you that compared to someone not weight reduced at your weight, you have to eat 20% less EVERY DAY and exercise roughly an hour a day more than they do just to maintain?”

    Another gaslight concept: Eat This, Not That. Generally, it’s a call to replace one lesser calorie high-carb junk food for another that you presumably eat nearly every day, and you will, over the course of the year, lose weight permanently. For example, “Replace this 400-calorie latte with this 200-calorie glazed donut and you’ll lose 20 pounds forever!” Bullsh*t. You may lose a little weight for a little while, but people who are weight reduced, even if they were latte drinkers once upon a time, are eating a scrupulously clean diet that doesn’t include regular donuts — not even weekly, certainly not DAILY. Yeesh. The reason this is a gaslight concept is that it erroneously assumes that people are mechanical creatures subject only to thermodynamic laws. This is wrong and crazy-making. We are biological creatures that adjust and compensate our energy intake and expenditure in complex ways. The donut is going to trigger the insulin key to open the cells to fat storage just as effectively as the stinking latte. The total calories, then, can come from any source, and if you are at all weight reduced your body will double down its efforts to stockpile them. If you are at your natural weight, it may release them . . . or not. Some people release/expend energy, while others steadily gain weight throughout their lives. Biology is a bugger.

    • Yes. Another thing about “Eat This Not That” or “Cut out 1 soda/latte/etc a day and lose X lbs!” is that for those who aren’t counting calories and holding all their other food constant, at least some of those calories will be replaced by something else.

      While homeostasis doesn’t technically violate thermodynamics, assuming that “magazine math” will work is sort of like assuming that a running human is actually a rolling sphere (insert physics joke here)… It makes the math easier but also makes the math inaccurate.

  6. Jenny says:

    Hi! I’m completely new to your blog and the idea of Fat Acceptance in general. I was recently watching an episode of the Biggest Loser (for the first and last time, I swear) and wondered what fat people actually thought about the show. So I googled it and quite a few links about Fat Acceptance came up. I’d never properly thought about the problems facing fat people before, but after reading several posts from different blogs I’m beginning to. I’d really like to find out more about the whole idea of HAES and stuff.

    If anything I write comes across as insulting, I’m really sorry. I don’t mean to be offensive and honestly want to learn. I’m not overweight (fat? which word should I use?) myself and I suppose I have judged people who are fat – not in a loud, public way, but in a vague ‘I’m glad I’m not them and they should try eating less’ kind of a way. Which, yes, is wrong.

    I completely agree that fat people shouldn’t be subjected to harsh comments or bad medical care etc. People are people. But about the buying two plane seats thing… well, I’ve always thought that was fair enough. I mean, airlines would lose a lot of money if they had to buy whole new planes that fit fewer passengers. That in turn would probably lead to plane tickets becoming more expensive for everyone, which I don’t think would be fair. If someone takes up two seats, then they should pay for two seats. Otherwise it would almost be like thin people were being discriminated against. If my reasoning is faulty or I’m missing something, please tell me.

    On the topic of diets, I’ve always thought they were a load of rubbish. On the other hand, I think it would be great if everyone stopped eating sugar and fast foot. People wouldn’t be thinner (though maybe in some cases weight loss would occur, I don’t know), but they’d be healthier. That’s just my opinion though – I haven’t read up on the subject, so I admit I could be completely wrong.

    Of course, adults are entitled to make their own choices in regards to their bodies. If you want to eat fast food, or exercise loads, or get a tattoo or whatever, that’s fine by me. When it comes to children though… I have to say that when I see parents feeding sugar to their already fat children, then yes, I judge them. Admittedly the fact that the children are fat is more of a side-effect. Really I frown on any parents feeding their 2 year olds unhealthy food, but when the children are fat I feel I have more reason to think it’s not a one-time thing. A lot of young children (fat and thin) end up malnourished because they’re eating the wrong foods and I think it’s the government and society’s duty to do something about it.

    From my admittedly quick and superficial reading of a few Fat Acceptance blogs, I’ve got the impression that intentional weight loss is frowned upon, which I don’t quite understand. If someone likes being fat, that’s great, but some fat people are very unhappy with their weight. Yes, society is largely to blame, but that doesn’t help solve the problem since society isn’t going to change any time soon. Telling people they shouldn’t care what people think or that they should love their bodies is also not very helpful IMO. Someone can be in therapy for years and still have low self-esteem. So why is weight loss not an option? Yes, it doesn’t work for a lot of people, but surely just the fact that it works for some makes it worth a try?

    And if people are truly miserable about being fat then weight loss surgery might be a good idea. The example of people who are transsexual just popped into my head. Telling a someone who feels trapped in the wrong body, “Oh, all you have to do is love yourself,” isn’t at all helpful. In some cases extreme surgery is the only thing that can make a real difference.

    Also one thing I’ve wondered is what the Fat Acceptance movement thinks is the reason behind the rise in obesity over the past few centuries. If you claim it isn’t too much food or lack of exercise, then why are there more fat people today (proportionally speaking) than there were 100 years ago? I truly want to know. I don’t think things are as simple as ‘calories in, calories out’, but I do think that some calories are better for us than others. I’ve always thought that the rise in obesity can mainly be put down to our modern diets (lots of sugar and white flour etc). Has there been research done that points in another direction?

    After all that babble what I really want to say is that reading blogs like yours has made me think about the prejudices facing fat people. I’m not sure I agree with all your points (I for one have often thought I’m hungry when really I turned out to be thirsty!), but I would like to find out more. I’m in the first stages of examining my beliefs and I don’t know where I’ll end up, but hopefully I’ll be more accepting of all people in the future.

    Jenny

    • DebraSY says:

      Wow, Jenny, that’s a lot of questions for one little blog. (One might think you’re a troll.) I’ll let Closetpuritan handle them for the most part, but I’ll take one: “Has there been research done that points in another direction?” Answer: Yes. Back when I was blogging, I did a series on various causes of obesity that started with this: http://justmaintaining.com/2010/11/10/let%e2%80%99s-play-fat-roulette-where-will-you-place-your-chip/

      I think that for most people, there is more than one cause of obesity, but modern diet is definitely not the only reason or the most compelling. I called out bovine growth hormone in my blog post, but today I would lean now toward birth control effluent in our drinking water or epigenetic causes.

      You’re welcome to nose around and comment on the blog all you want, by the way, even though it’s defunct. I get alerts and respond.

    • Welcome, Jenny!
      overweight (fat? which word should I use?)
      “Fat”. Because overweight implies “too fat”. (Or if you’re talking strictly about BMI ranges, you could say “I’m not in the ‘overweight’ range” or “I’m in the ‘normal’ BMI range” or “My BMI is <25". I kind of like the last one, because it reminds us of what these labels actually mean, and it doesn't label some weights as "normal" and some as "abnormal".)

      Also one thing I’ve wondered is what the Fat Acceptance movement thinks is the reason behind the rise in obesity over the past few centuries. If you claim it isn’t too much food or lack of exercise, then why are there more fat people today (proportionally speaking) than there were 100 years ago?

      That is a good question! I’m not sure, myself, that it isn’t because of food (either total caloric intake, or composition of food)/exercise. Here’s the thing, though (and I’ve been meaning to do a post about this): if you look at other traits that are due to a combination of genes and environment, such as intelligence or height, if you look within a fairly homogenous environment, all the variation will be due to genetic differences. But that doesn’t negate the effect that environment can have on the trait, and the environmental effect doesn’t negate the genetic effect. Being short because you had poor nutrition as a child is bad, but being short because of your genes is usually healthier than being tall. [“Usually” because there are some genetic reasons for being short that do negatively affect your health.] So a food and work environment that results in more calories in/fewer calories out is not inconsistent with the idea that most of the reason that an individual within that environment is fat or thin is genetic. (Also note that genes can affect things like hunger and energy and lead you to eat more or exercise less, in addition to things like gaining more weight for a given combination of food/exercise.)
      Anyway, DebraSY, for one, had a few posts tackling that question. There are a lot of different possibilities, and most of them have been mentioned, at least as contributing factors, originally by the mainstream media rather than originating in Fat Acceptance.
      One problem with the idea that it’s solely or mostly people consuming more calories and exercising less is that other animals, including lab animals whose diet and environment are tightly controlled, are also getting fatter. This article talks about the animals gaining weight and lists some of the factors particular to modern life, but not directly related to calorie intake or exercise habits, that may influence people’s (and animals’) weight. It’s pretty comprehensive.
      It’s also important to keep the increase in BMI in perspective. (FA in general usually focuses more on this than on what people think may be causing the increase in BMI.) I keep coming back to this NYT article featuring Dr. Jeffrey Friedman:

      In 1991, 23 percent of Americans fell into the obese category; now 31 percent do, a more than 30 percent increase. But the average weight of the population has increased by just 7 to 10 pounds since 1991.

      Dr. Friedman gave an analogy: ”Imagine the average I.Q. was 100 and that 5 percent of the population had an I.Q. of 140 or greater and were considered to be geniuses. Now let’s say that education improves and the average I.Q. increases to 107 and 10 percent of the population has an I.Q. of above 140.

      ”You could present the data in two ways,” he said. ”You could say that the average I.Q. is up seven points or you could say that because of improved education the number of geniuses has doubled.”

      It’s certainly a significant change at the population level–it’s an indicator of something–but it’s not as big as many people think.

      But about the buying two plane seats thing… well, I’ve always thought that was fair enough. I mean, airlines would lose a lot of money if they had to buy whole new planes that fit fewer passengers. That in turn would probably lead to plane tickets becoming more expensive for everyone, which I don’t think would be fair. If someone takes up two seats, then they should pay for two seats. Otherwise it would almost be like thin people were being discriminated against. If my reasoning is faulty or I’m missing something, please tell me.
      Well, part of it is that they mostly seem to charge more based on size in the case of fat, but not in the case of other reasons someone is big, or encroaching on your space–people can have big beefy athlete shoulders, and can recline their seats onto people’s knees, with impunity. They do charge a bit more for extra legroom, but not a whole seat’s more. Part of it is whether you look at it as “a ticket should buy you a physical space”–a seat–or “a ticket should buy you passage”. And part of it is that airplanes should be making seats that fit people, and if people are larger nowadays, they should make seats larger nowadays, instead of making them even smaller. Or make a few larger seats. “More expensive for everyone” would be fair in the sense that everyone pays equally.

      From my admittedly quick and superficial reading of a few Fat Acceptance blogs, I’ve got the impression that intentional weight loss is frowned upon, which I don’t quite understand. If someone likes being fat, that’s great, but some fat people are very unhappy with their weight. Yes, society is largely to blame, but that doesn’t help solve the problem since society isn’t going to change any time soon. Telling people they shouldn’t care what people think or that they should love their bodies is also not very helpful IMO. Someone can be in therapy for years and still have low self-esteem. So why is weight loss not an option? Yes, it doesn’t work for a lot of people, but surely just the fact that it works for some makes it worth a try?

      Well, for one thing, most people in fat acceptance have given it a try, often multiple times. For another, Fat Acceptance is called Fat Acceptance for a reason. The thing that ties Fat Acceptance spaces together is that it is a space for people who are accepting being fat. Yes, some people who are interested in dieting are also interested in advocating for respect and rights for fat people… but the other thing is, if we allowed diet talk in FA spaces, it would quickly suck up all the oxygen and become a distraction. Not to mention that some people find diet talk not merely tedious to wade through, but actively hurtful. As far as FA people’s actual position on dieting (rather than diet talk), some people do actively frown upon it, others simply take a “none of my business and I don’t want to hear about it” position. Since I think that for most people dieting does more harm than good, you could say that I do frown on it–kind of like the parents feeding their kids sugar who you frown on–but I also recognize it’s none of my business–again, kind of like the parents feeding their kids sugar. On that topic, yeah, I’m not crazy about parents giving their kids an unbalanced diet (not that I would normally be able to know that that’s what they’re doing from seeing one meal or snack), but then there’s a lot of things that parents do that would bother me if I let myself dwell on it.

      And if people are truly miserable about being fat then weight loss surgery might be a good idea. The example of people who are transsexual just popped into my head. Telling a someone who feels trapped in the wrong body, “Oh, all you have to do is love yourself,” isn’t at all helpful. In some cases extreme surgery is the only thing that can make a real difference.

      If weight loss surgery was more effective, I might agree with you. As it is, even with weight loss surgery the regain rate is pretty high (though not quite as high as non-surgical weight loss) and the side effects and complications can be pretty terrible.

    • I guess Debra and I cross-posted about her blog entry–that’s how good & comprehensive it is, I guess!

      Also, one thing that we can rule out, at least as the major player, is anything that affects the US but not other developed countries, because pretty much all developed countries are experiencing an increase in obesity rates. For example, the increased consumption of high-fructose corn syrup–it could be why the US has a particularly high rate of BMI>30, but it can’t explain the worldwide increase in BMI, because it’s not consumed much outside the US. For example, soda in Mexico is usually sweetened with cane sugar, but the percentage of the population in Mexico with BMI >30 is similar to in the US.

      Debra, Re: Trolls: Possible, but I figure someone’s gotta do the 101.

      • Jenny says:

        I’m not a troll. I just want to learn more. Thanks for the links, it’s all fascinating stuff.

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