This article is written by Erec Smith, assistant professor of English and director of Ursinus College’s Center for Writing. He is a co-editor and contributor to the forthcoming book, The Making of Barack Obama: The Politics of Persuasion. His recent essay, “Making Room for Fat Studies in Writing Center Theory and Practice,” can be read in the journal Praxis: A Writing Center Journal. His interests lie in writing pedagogy and rhetorics of diversity.
In the Fall of 2012, Ursinus Magazine took on the very timely topic of childhood obesity. The magazine’s cover story, “Keep Moving: Ursinus Alumni and Faculty Work to Bring Attention to Childhood Obesity” presented the noble goal of creating healthier lifestyles for America’s youth.
Correlating children’s appearances with their probable lifestyles, the article equated size with health. However, it did not take into consideration movements that counter the more moralistic and aesthetic implications of initiatives like Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” Campaign or those movements that expose research on weight/health correlations as inconclusive, at best. There is even an academic field, Fat Studies, which explores these issues. In this piece, I want to draw attention to the other side of the obesity epidemic to let people know that there is, indeed, another side. I hope you will explore this side for yourself and come to your own conclusions.
Fat Studies is an interdisciplinary field of scholarship dedicated to the critique of the information and common beliefs about fat and fat people. This field is growing rapidly and seems as important from an activist’s perspective as it is from a scholar’s. Organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) combine scholarship and activism to support fat people in all aspects of their lives, from living healthily to dealing with an anti-fat society. Scholarly texts like the Fat Studies journal and The Fat Studies Reader are working to promote awareness and solidify the place of fat studies in academia. Books like Paul Campos’ The Obesity Epidemic, Peter Stearns’ Fat History, and Amy Farrell’s Fat Shame are just a few of the texts that discuss the nature and rhetoric of fat stigmatization and the connection to other modes of discrimination.
I am sure that many people involved in the “Keep Moving” article do not condone the mistreatment of fat people, but they may still insist that a certain amount of weight is simply unhealthy. However, there are health care professionals who insist certain weight and health correlations do not have the strict cause and effect relationship we are told to believe. What’s more, there is little clarity about the definition of “fat.” Both professionals and laypeople rarely provide a clear definition of a healthy weight and the Body Mass Index used to determine who is and who is not fat has been questioned, if not completely debunked, by medical professionals.
In Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight, nutritionist and physiologist Linda Bacon concludes that there is no real proof that losing weight automatically prolongs life. She writes “While it is clear that research indicates a short-term improvement in health risk factors with weight loss, no randomized clinical studies have observed the long-term effects of weight loss.” Bacon even finds fallacious cause and effect relationships between weight and conditions like type-2 diabetes. (High levels of insulin may be a cause of weight gain, not its effect.) Bacon concludes that a Health at Every Size (HAES) approach is best, citing research that classifies fat people as fit based on performance in standard fitness tests. In collaboration with The Association of Size Diversity and Health, Bacon has created a HAES fact sheet, available online at https://www.sizediversityandhealth.org/content.asp?id=161.
The hot topic at the moment among “fat activists,” as it is in the “Keep Moving” article, is the issue of childhood obesity. The First Lady’s “Let’s Move” campaign, along with the fact that children are now featured on the television show The Biggest Loser, has put fat children in the spotlight. I see no definite stigmatization from Ursinus Magazine’s authors and contributors. However, I still think it imperative for us all to be careful about how we word our preferment of childhood health. The article features children of all sizes and encourages fitness for all. This is good. However, the focus on childhood obesity, seen in the article’s full title as well as the cover of the magazine, suggests that only the kids deemed overweight are the problem, while kids of a “healthy weight” need not worry so much. From a HAES point of view, fitness, itself, is the goal. Losing weight is a possible byproduct of this, but not a definite marker. In fact, a child who isn’t considered fat can still be out of shape due to an unhealthy lifestyle. As activist Marilyn Wann says in the preface to The Fat Studies Reader, “The only thing that anyone can diagnose, with any certainty, by looking at a fat person, is their own level of stereotype and prejudice toward fat people.”
Let me reiterate that my main purpose is to inform people that alternative approaches to what is called “the obesity epidemic” exist and are thriving. I am no scientist or medical professional. My goal is to see that all sides of this issue are voiced. Please look into Fat Studies, fat activism and HAES on your own and come to your own conclusions.