Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Body shaming is bad when it's about the overweight but okay when about the thin?

How's this for a news/opinion outlet engaging in some shaming of thin/skinny people?Slate just ran an article with the headline "Skinny People Make Overweight People Unhappy, New Study Finds."

The study itself was titled “Obesity (Sometimes) Matters: The Importance of Context in the Relationship between Obesity and Life Satisfaction,” which is a neutral - and accurate - description of the causal mechanism at work. The closest part of the study's press release that I could find that might arguably support Slate's headline was this paragraph:
Where obesity is more common, there is less difference among obese, severely obese, and non-obese individuals’ life satisfaction, but where obesity is less common, the difference in life satisfaction between the obese (including the severely obese) and non-obese is greater,” said Pendergast. “In that light, obesity in and of itself, does not appear to be the main reason obese individuals tend to be less satisfied with their lives than their non-obese peers. Instead, it appears to be society’s response to or stigmatization of those that are different from what is seen as ‘normal’ that drives this relationship.”
(emphasis added). "Society," of course, does not equal "skinny people." Indeed, the study's press release contains some odd passive language along these lines:
“Think about the advertising we see on television or in magazines — we are bombarded by images of thin women, and we are told that is the ideal,” said Pendergast....
So it's unclear if the causal mechanism is that overweight people are conditioned - not specifically by thin people, but by society as a whole - to believe that being thin is good and being overweight is bad, or that thin people are actively mocking overweight people, or some combination of the two. But that's not the biggest problem with the article, which gets worse as it goes even more deeply into, I guess, thin-shaming:
To translate this finding into layperson-speak: The fat cells are not releasing George Saunders-esque depression chemicals into your bloodstream. If you are both heavyset and heavyhearted, it is more likely due to your neighbors being jerks (possibly because their blood sugar is low from living off celery like baleful rabbits). Or it is due to you comparing yourself to the Joneses and feeling inadequate.
"Your neighbors being jerks (because their blood sugar is low from living off celery like baleful rabbits)"? Where does that come from? Certainly not the study referenced in the article. But more to the point, what's with the idea that it's okay to mock skinny people as eating like rodents? Some people, it turns out, have trouble gaining weight (just as some people, try as they might, have trouble losing weight).

I realize that weight management is a complex matter; indeed, there are a number of good blogs by medical professional devoted to it. (See here and here.) The reasons that some people get overweight may not be well-understood, and even if the conventional view of calories in/calories out works for some people (including a stunning example here), not everyone has the time, work/family flexibility, or physical capacity to engage in the amount of exercise it may take, combined with dietary attention, to lose significant amounts of weight.

But, as I understand it, one of the central messages of the movement against shaming the overweight or obese is that no one should judge anyone's physical size, eating choices, exercise choices, etc. because (1) it's no one else's business but that person's; and (2) no one else is likely to know all the relevant information about that person's physical or personal circumstances. Why then should Slate mock the thin by assuming that they are that way because they starve themselves, and, even if that were true, judging that eating choice?

Sure, some thin people have eating disorders and need medical help. But they don't deserve to be mocked as celery-eating baleful rabbits any more than obese people who need medical help because of health complications due to obesity deserve to be mocked. And just as there are overweight people who are metabolically healthy, there are thin people who eat more than celery and other rabbit food and who are healthy.

I should end this by noting that overweight or obese people most likely are subject to far worse discrimination, shaming, etc. than thin people are, and I'm certainly not suggesting any kind of equivalence there. But just because there's no equivalence doesn't mean that a little bit of body-shaming of the thin should therefore be okay.

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