I’m reading Michael Warner’s “The Trouble With Normal,” about homosexuality and…well…the trouble with the idea of “normal.” I had to share this passage…which was so relevant to the relationship of fat to the “normal”:
As [19th Century] doctors began using…statistical methods [to determine the statistical norm], they usually thought they were discovering natural laws…normal came to mean right, proper, healthy. What most people are, the new wisdom went, is what people should be….
He points out how these “norms” are invariably dependent on just who is chosen as “normative” (e.g. White Europeans? People in which environment? Which age group? Which era?), and something that should be fairly obvious, health itself is impossible without variety and variability in the population in order to allow for change and adaptability. “Health requires variation. Not a pregiven norm.”
…From the late nineteenth century onward, people had to work very hard to resist this medical fallacy, which was rooted in the confusion between statistical regularities and natural laws. The lesson in this struggle should have been one of skepticism toward all norms of health that express social norms, preferences for certain ways of living, or tastes of the majority.
This so resonates with “the trouble with normal weight.” Fat-phobia is not just about a taste for certain body-shapes. It’s also about a taste for a certain way of living. And the fear that people who don’t have the right body shape, aren’t living the right way. It’s almost impossible to listen to discussions about the “obesity epidemic” without hearing it morph into a detailed dissection of what it means to live “right”, and the need to “educate” or otherwise coerce the fat (especially the poor and minorities) to change their imagined “poor lifestyle” into something more presentable.
And of course, the most aggressive and ill-considered fallacy on which most people premise their pronouncements about weight, is, of course, that everyone is “meant” to be a single weight – that variations from the “normal” aren’t about natural human variability – they’re “abnormal,” and therefore “unhealthy” and therefore “disease.”
And since those same people also tend to believe that fat isn’t heritable and is purely a reflection of “lifestyle,” then the distance from which you travel from the “normal” is a reflection of your distance, not only from “health” but from “good behavior.”
By the way, I’m not discounting any correlations of fat with health effects. Every human variation has its own “risks” – as a woman I know I’m at risk for breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and osteoporosis. Men have other risks. Short people have certain risks, and tall people others. Straight men have different risks from gay men who have different risks from lesbians. Every ethnicity has its own risks too. And as I enter middle age I find myself confronting an array of risks I didn’t have when I was young. Am I now officially “unhealthy?”
And just as importantly, whatever health correlations there are for weight vary immensely depending on who you’re talking about, their age, their gender, their ethnicity, their illnesses, and any number of other variables.
So that in general the label of “unhealth” to fat is so vastly overgeneralized, oversimplified and hyperbolically stated that it serves little value in improving health. It only serves to rationalize hate and discrimination, to foster panic-driven (and not evidence-driven) public policy, and to undergird the (il)logic of a universal prescription for weight loss without consideration for benefits, dangers, (in)efficacy….or simple humility in the face of how much is not yet known.
How does the idea of fat as simple “unhealth” jibe with two studies this week that showed that the fat have a lower risk of suicide, and that fat people with heart disease fare better than others? They make it jibe by calling it “The Obesity Paradox.” Yes, it must be a paradox because we’ve already labelled fat as unhealthy.
But why are we so quick to impose the label of “unhealth” on any and all variations from “normal weight?” For the most part it’s simply because we’re always quick to assume that anything straying from the statistical average -“the normal” – is by definition deviance and disease.