Fat in the News

In my last post, I delved into my personal body image issues quite deeply. The pressures I faced urging me to be thinner all the time seemed to come from my family and friends. However, this is too simplistic an approach. Obviously, the impetus to be thin has to come from somewhere. In fact, we have an entire cultural dialogue surrounding the perceived need to be thin, sexy and consumable at all times. We have constructed a world in which thin is healthy, beautiful and the only worthwhile state to be in. Every advertisement screams this at us every day of our lives in North America and anyone can see this societal obsession manifested upon opening a newspaper or magazine. And that’s just what I did. The following articles are just a few of the most recent badly written and misunderstood interpretations on fat that I have found in the Canadian media within the past week or so.

1.       Birth Weight and Obesity: Or How it’s Mommy’s Fault that You are Fat (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/health/extra-pregnancy-pounds-can-hurt-your-baby-study-shows/article1661877/)

Society believes that it owns all women who are pregnant and relishes the opportunity to lay blame for humanity’s ills on mothers’ backs. Society also hates fat. Put these two things together and you get this lovely study and its associated media coverage!

Now, not only should women be worried about the exact nutritional benefits of what they are eating, the potential dangers of every single food available to them, whether or not they are getting enough sleep, what types of medication they can take, how much exercise they can partake in, what types of exercise are safe, whether or not they should work, if they should get rid of their pets, how stressed they can allow themselves to get before danger occurs, and whatever else it is pregnant women have to put up with today. Now they also have to be utterly focused on maintaining a healthy weight or they will DOOM THEIR CHILD FOREVER! Being fat when pregnant “can hurt your baby”, at least, according to this article. If that’s not guilt-laden language, I don’t know what is. Instead of focusing on the overall health of the mother, both physical and emotional, we must pressure her to be a yummy pregnant mummy for the good of her soon-to-be child.

This type of attitude is what contributes to the ever increasing amount of pressure that mothers face during an already often stressful period of their lives. Has she gained enough weight or too much? If a mother doesn’t fall within a very small continuum of perfect weight, it will be her fault that her child is obese, diabetic, asthmatic, and every other health complication that could potentially occur in the child’s entire life span.

Dr. Ludwig, one of the researchers, had this to say:

“[Pregnancy] may provide a unique window of opportunity to intervene, and a relatively brief intervention that could have lifetime implications for the offspring.”

So, it is totally okay to intrude upon a woman’s life because she is pregnant. Besides, this intrusion is only temporary, right? Obviously, this means that she’s only truly important when carrying a child. I am totally behind the idea that mothers-to-be should have a full range of educational opportunities available to them concerning how to have a healthy pregnancy. They should also have societal support in obtaining what they need to take care of themselves and their pregnancies. However, all studies like this seem to lead to is pressure, control and guilt. Trust women. We’re not stupid. We just need the world to stop working against us, denying us the information and resources that we need to have to succeed.

2.       Waist Size and DEATH (http://www.cbc.ca/health/story/2010/08/09/obesity-waistline-mortality.html)


Today it was announced that we all have a new measure of healthiness to be concerned with: the size of our waists. Along with our BMI, standard weight, cholesterol counts, glycemic indexing and calorie counting, we need to be hyper-aware of yet another number. Our personal ability to determine our individual healthiness is no longer acceptable. We need to quantify things as much as possible and damned be all those that deviate from the standard. We all need to be slim, trim and moderately waisted with no belly fat, lest we fall down dead of diabetes, heart disease and complete organ failure, all at the same time.

Furthermore, this particular trick of measuring the waist to determine health is not new. In fact, there was an article on it a few months back. And a few months before that. And a few months before that. This is not front page news, CBC. I highly doubt a story such as this was posted because the editorial team believed in the need to encourage “healthy lifestyles”. Not with the title “Belly bulge deadly even for normal weight”.

What angers me most about reports such as this is that they are nothing more than scare tactics. Instead of using positive imagery and suggestions to promote healthy populations, we focus on guilt and fear. If your waist is not under a specific measurement, you are unhealthy, regardless of your body shape or individual health. Even if your waist is the “right” size, you might still be bulging. What exactly is a bulge? Is the natural human condition an entirely flat abdomen with a six pack? Regardless of how you look or feel, somehow, something is wrong with you and you are not fulfilling your duty as a healthy person and therefore good citizen. Nothing else about you matters. Just keep that waist below 31.5 inches.

3.       Girls, Puberty and Obesity (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/health/obesity-linked-to-more-girls-hitting-puberty-as-young-as-7-study-shows/article1667505/)

This article is a perfect example as to why I utterly hate it when the newspapers of today attempt to report on scientific studies. I think it should be mandatory that reporters are given lessons on how to interpret academic reports. The title of this Globe and Mail article is “Obesity linked to more girls hitting puberty as young as 7, study shows”. Go look up the abstract for this piece. Can you find the word obesity, because I certainly can’t? The study’s research question was centered on whether or not children were physically maturing faster today than they were a few decades previous. The researchers answered that question. It was yes. This study in and of itself was quite complicated. A study to determine why this change has occurred is not simply a little addition. It necessitates an entirely new methodology. One of the authors of the study did admit that they saw a correlation with obesity and maturity but, let us repeat the mantra that every single person in the world needs to learn and learn well: CORRELATION DOES NOT EQUAL CAUSATION.

For example, every day at 3:00PM, Mickey turns on her favourite television show. Every day at 3:00 PM a train goes by her house. Does the turning on of the television cause the train to go by, or does the train cause the television show to come on? I can test this easily. I get Mickey to watch her show on satellite at 6:00 PM. No train goes by. Obviously, the train and the television have nothing to do with one another. Other variables explain their existence at those times. They themselves are unrelated, even though they coincidentally seem to be at 3:00PM.

So, does obesity cause rapid maturity? We have no idea. We don’t understand why people are consistently getting heavier nor do we entirely comprehend the process by which humans go through puberty. What are the effects of the environment on the two? Is there an intervening variable? An antecedent one? Maybe a conditional? Okay, now I’m just pretending that I remember something from my introductions to statistics class.

However, with only an introductory statistics course, I am able to understand that when a researcher says that there might be a connection between two things and that certain preliminary results might point to causation, I should not, therefore, write about how a link WAS established and then base an entire news article on said misunderstood fact.

However, I am but a mere blogger not held to the highest journalistic integrity standards, right? (Snarksnarksnark) (Apologies to all the really awesome journalists still out there. Please keep being awesome and brilliant and showing your colleagues how news and opinion pieces are done).

Also, the photo which accompanies this article is, in the nicest words possible, a load of crap. The headless fatty trope has gotten old. I understand that sometimes news agencies will chop the heads off of their photographic subjects in order to preserve confidentiality and privacy, but most of the time I see the practice as a form of othering. These individuals are no longer people; they are merely bodies (and big fat ones at that). The photo on the Globe’s article is meant to repulse us and make us anxious about fat and fat people. We are meant to pity, despise and reject. However, would we do that if the heads of these people had been left on and we saw three women/girls smiling and enjoying themselves? What kind of spin would that give the article, three fat women smiling and being active?

4.       The Obese Star on a Diet (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/technology/science/scientists-discover-heaviest-star-known-to-man/article1647063/)

I have been hanging onto this article for a while, wondering how I should approach its critique. To be honest, when I first read this piece, I slumped back in my chair in shock. An “obese star” which has “slimmed down”? You have got to be kidding me. One should never have to resort to, in a scientific article, the use of diet talk to describe astronomical phenomena. What editor would have approved this for print in a major national paper? To fully experience the horrendousness of this article, here is a selection of delightful quotes:

“Unlike humans, these stars are born heavy and lose weight as they age”

“R136a1 is already middle-aged and has undergone an intense weight loss program.”

“…the greedy giants tear through their energy reserves far faster than their smaller counterparts.”

“…the obese star – twice as heavy as any previously discovered – has already slimmed down considerably over its lifetime.”

Dear reporter and scientists involved in this terribly written expose on fat stars. Stars are not people. Stars do not, as far as we know, have emotions or feelings. They are incapable of being greedy or planning weight loss strategies because they are burning balls of elements. Elements do not think they are fat. Elements do not think. Stop anthropomorphizing the entire world around you and projecting your insecurities onto things that have no brain. It is bad enough when I have to read drivel about humans and their weight, but I would really like to avoid being subjected to such tripe when I am just trying to keep up with astronomy.

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