The New York Times has a new opinion piece online: Heavy in School, Burdened for Life. It's based on a study of 10,000 people who graduated from Wisconsin high schools in 1957. So, the people studied here are part of the pre-baby boomer generation.
The article was written by the same sociologists - Christy Glass, Steven Haas and Eric N. Reither - who published the paper, The Skinny on Success: Body Mass, Gender and Occupational Standing Across the Life Course.
The study starts out with the following assumptions-
At least three distinct mechanisms may influence career trajectories over the life course:
- employment-based discrimination,
- educational attainment, and
- marriage market processes.
In the United States, body mass is strongly and inversely associated with socioeconomic status, particularly among women. To explain how elevated body mass might result in lower SES, recent scholarship has sought to document the labor market and marriage market penalties faced by heavy individuals and how these penalties vary considerably by gender.
- and it comes to the following conclusions.
From career entry to retirement, overweight men experienced no barriers to getting hired and promoted. But heavier women worked in jobs that had lower earnings and social status and required less education than their thinner female peers.
At first glance this difference might appear to reflect bias on the part of employers, and male supervisors in particular. After all, studies find that employers tend to view overweight workers as less capable, less hard-working and lacking in self-control.
But the real reason was that overweight women were less likely to earn college degrees — regardless of their ability, professional goals or socioeconomic status. In other words, it didn’t matter how talented or ambitious they were, or how well they had done in high school. Nor did it matter whether their parents were rich or poor, well educated or high school dropouts.
In the study, they give this explanation for fat women's lower than expected educational attainment:
...overweight adolescents may face greater social stigma and isolation from peers and educators and, as a result, feel marginalized from educational institutions.
It's encouraging that the researchers are approaching this topic from a social justice perspective. Their findings are interesting and useful. However, I think they've missed a few important points in their analysis.
The first glaring omission is the failure to acknowledge the role of race (which is correlated with obesity) in economic and educational status, and the impact that dealing with multiple forms of discrimination has on many fat people.
The second omission has to do with cause and effect. The limiting effect that parental size discrimination can have on young people's education is well known. There were studies in the nineties that indicated parents are less likely to pay university tuition if their daughters are fat (for example, this one). At least one more recent study suggests that young fat men are subject to parental discrimination, too. When parents who can afford to help with college refuse to do so, it can prevent young people from receiving financial aid, in many cases making it impossible for them to attend university. So, while the stigma and social isolation that fat kids are often subject to can have a negative effect on their attitude toward school, parental discrimination is probably an even more important problem. And of course, if you think that you're worthless until you become thin (as we're told repeatedly), then you're probably concentrating on trying to become thin rather than on your success at school or in your career.
I'm really happy to see this kind of research being done and being discussed. However, in this case, I can't help but think it would have benefitted the researchers to talk to some actual fat people about why their educations may have been cut short. In addition, in highlighting the role of education, it de-emphasizes the role of bias. However, bias is also a major factor in fat people's (particularly women's) careers.
Studies that illustrate size discrimination often come out of institutions that are adding to the stigmatization of fat people, and the studies are often cited in support of dangerous and draconian weight loss methods. This study was sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard Center for Society and Health, and both are notorious for their obesity is the devil / weight loss at any cost agenda. I'd like to see the discrimination against fat people presented not as a reason for weight loss, but as a call for social justice. How can we fight this?
A Portland Press Herald review, MECA students deftly open door to new horizons, describes it well:
The most impressive, ambitious and unusual work in the show is Rachel Herrick's "Museum for Obeast Conservation Studies." It's a one-room taxidermy-style installation not unlike the "Back to Nature" vignettes that have charmed generations at the Maine State Museum in Augusta.
Herrick has a professional hand. Everything in her "Obeast" piece is top-notch, from the phenomenal taxidermy-style, life-size Obeast on her grassy pedestal, to the wall images mapping the evolution of the Obeast from a walrus, to the glossy museum brochure and the slick informational kiosk complete with artifacts and videos. (The "museum's" terrific website is part of the work: obeasts.org.)
Because the Obeast is an obese young woman, I was mortified when I first saw the installation, because I could have been looking at one the most offensive works of art I had ever seen. I hadn't seen the name and did not know that the artist was a woman. I can't remember the last time my moral sensibilities had been so thoroughly challenged.
Through the photography and the videos, however, it became clear the Obeast is the artist herself -- an obese woman who looks exactly like her self-portraits in the "museum."
Allergic to self-pity, Herrick subtly relates that obese Americans have to deal with people who routinely confuse physical largess with diminished mental capacities. Part of the joke is that Herrick plays no heavy-handed card, and leaves bigots to twist in the wind of ignorance -- never the wiser despite her razor-sharp educational and informational professionalism.
With this work, artist Rachel Herrick seeks to
satirize the social stigma around fatness through the legitimizing tropes of science.
I've got to say, I found the website provocative even though I looked at it already knowing the intention.
Her gluttony and cakelust is her own undoing and she can no longer protest on behalf of cakefreedom. Twowholecakes is one thing, this gal "gobbles" ALL TEH CAKES. If only feminists had an allthecakes shout-out back then to turn this on its head.
Cross-posted from my personal blog.
We had some problems with the site two days ago, and the registration system is broken. All the registrations for the last two days were lost, and although there's a truncated registration form still appearing, new users can't be approved right now. Hopefully it will be fixed soon. Until then, new users won't be able to register at BFB. We're very sorry about any inconvenience this may cause.
Mandatory South Park disclaimer: Many people find South Park offensive and juvenile in a way that is disturbingly unfit for children. If you are lacking a rude, insensitive, irreverent and sexually precocious inner 12 year old, then you are quite possibly a better person than I am, and be warned!
Phew. So let's talk about South Park's "T.M.I." episode. You can find the full episode here if you live in North America and you can view an excerpt here if you live in the UK or Ireland. If you can't watch it (or can't stand to watch it), there's a summery of it and some good analysis here, at More of Me to Love. And obviously, it's available elsewhere for those who are not strictly legal in their on-line viewing.
Most people will be aware that TMI is short for "too much information," and in this episode, it refers to an arcane method for classifying penis size. Obviously, it's also one letter away from BMI. Fat character Cartman, through a misunderstanding, makes the information on the boys' penis length available to the whole school, and is also the one with the smallest measurement. However, it tuns out that scientists and the Surgeon General support classification by TMI, but are willing to redefine their very judgmental categories ('small, 'medium' and 'nice') when it turns out that telling men and boys that they have small penises gives them problems with anger management.
The idea of measuring BMI in school and making it public information and/or treating it as something appropriate to put on a "report card" is ripe for parody. Hopefully we'll see it ridiculed even more in the future, perhaps even without anti-fat digs being added in for balance.
Pearlsong Press, founded by psychologist Peggy Elam in 2000, is a publisher that specializes in books that challenge literary conventions on size, age and disability. Pearlsong's collection includes political fat acceptance works like Pattie Thomas's Taking Up Space and works of fiction with protagonists who aren't thin, young and media-approved.
Are you sick of being turned off to authors when their hateful attitude toward size is revealed? I've left books unfinished and never bought another by the same author when I've unexpectedly come across disgusting, fatphobic rhetoric in something I'm reading. A protagonist whose appearance I can relate to? I've never even expected to find that in a novel. It would be too much to hope for. Pearlsong aims to remedy that.
We won't guarantee that all our novels' heroes and heroines are Big and Beautiful like Pat Ballard's — but they won't be "fattist," either, unless that's clearly written as a character flaw...
And here's a recent webcast online featuring Peggy Elam and a few of the Pearlsong authors, discussing age and body diversity:
Audio files of other Pearlsong conversations can be found here, in their archive.
So, I own a couple of Pearlsong's nonfiction books but have never dipped into the fiction. Does anyone have any favorites they'd recommend?
How can anyone take this man's political views seriously when this is his mentality:
If I hosted a backyard barbecue and one of the men got drunk and went through that routine, I'd look at his wife with pity and never invite them over again. Glenn Beck did this (presumably) sober and on national television. Unbelievable.
Oh, and here's the PSA he's referring to:
The young, blond woman at the end of the ad who's only showing her shoulders and head is Meghan McCain, the daughter of ex-republican presidential candidate John McCain. Meghan first became well known during her father's presidential campaign, through her blog, McCainblogette.com. She's in her mid-twenties, has an art history degree from Columbia, and these days, is writing for the Daily Beast, where she has written a response. She is a republican. However, Beck and other social conservatives apparently dislike her support for gay rights, birth control, and sex education.
Meghan McCain responded:
"Clearly you have a problem with me, and possibly women in general, but the truth is, it’s 2011 and I heard your show on Fox was canceled," McCain wrote. "Isn’t that an indication that the era of the shock jock pundit is over?...There really is no need to make something like my participation in a skin cancer PSA into a sexist rant about my weight and physical appearance, because I’m going to let you in on a little secret, Glenn: you are the only one who looks bad in this scenario, and at the end of the day you have helped me generate publicity for my skin cancer PSA, a cause that I feel quite passionate about."
As a person who is known for his hot body, you must find it easy to judge the weight fluctuations of others, especially young women. If any of your daughters are ever faced with some kind of criticism of their physical appearance or weight, they should call me, because women's body image is another issue I feel passionate about, and have become accustomed to dealing with and speaking with young women about on my college tours."
Good response, Meghan!
Jezebel recently posted a link to a Science Daily article: Making the Move to Exercise for Overweight and Obese People, which - ironically, given the title - discusses a recent study indicating that many people who are classified as overweight and obese are (shock! surprise!) long-term regular exercisers.
Researchers surveyed the activities and intensions of 175 overweight and obese people who visited clinics run or owned by nurse practitioners in Spokane, Wash. Those individuals, who answered questions on several behavior tests, were 40 years old or older and had a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 25 or higher -- the range for overweight and obese.
The investigators found that 29 percent had been exercising for six months, 39 percent regularly exercised and 25 percent contemplated exercising. Only 12 percent had no desire or thoughts of getting active.
Since this study didn't use a representative sample (a relatively small number of women over 40 with 25+ BMIs who had visited one of a few clinics in Spokane, Washington?) and relied on self-reporting, I think it's safe to say that it's not a gold-standard piece of science. And, because of the study's limitations, it's not possible to make a meaningful comparison between the exercise habits of people in different BMI ranges.
However, it busts some myths and it does correspond to what we see here in the fatosphere: that many people who are quite heavy are also quite physically active, and that it doesn't make us thin. Even more shockingly, we don't necessarily stay active in hope of becoming thin.
We're active because we have interests and hobbies that involve movement. We're active because it makes us stronger and more capable. We're active because it gives us energy. We're active because it helps control depression. We're active because walking and biking are cheap, environmentally friendly forms of transport (yes, many fat people are greenies). We're active because of the social benefits. We're active because it can bring us closer to nature. We're active because types of exercise like yoga, tai chi and dance can be spiritual practices. We're active because we're competitive and enjoy playing sports. We're active because it feels good to connect with and revel in our bodies. Hell, we may even do it a little bit out of vanity. It makes out bodies firmer and more shapely and improves posture and ease of movement.
In other words, we're active for the same reasons that thin people are active.
One of the worst things that the diet-and-exercise juggernaut does to us is turn us against physical movement, making us think of it as punishment for being fat; almost a form of torture.
We deserve to have joyful movement in our lives! When disability, a lack of time, or a lack opportunity stands in the way, it's not something to feel guilty about. It's just a damn shame. Now, some of us have been scarred by obsessive exercise that's been tied to weight loss attempts and/or would just rather read in their spare time - and that's fine. Exercise isn't some kind of duty or requirement. However, there's no doubt in my mind that regular movement that we enjoy can help us to lead longer and better lives.
So... I'll end by linking to a kind of silly, kind of helpful, HAES-friendly CBS News slideshow, 12 fitness tips for fat folks.
After that long, serious post yesterday, I was looking forward to putting something more positive on the front page today. Specifically, I was going to link to Pattie Thomas's No Diet Day post on the Psychology Today blog. It's an uplifting story about how giving up dieting improved her life.
Unfortunately, Illinois State Representative Shane Cultra (R-Onarga) thinks it would be a good idea to take away the standard $2000 state child tax deduction for children who have been classified as "obese," and I feel like I should really let everyone know about that.
There's an article about it on stltoday.com, an on-line St. Louis paper: Illinois Lawmaker Says Raising Obese Kids Should Cost Parents at Tax Time
Let's take a look at this from a public policy perspective.
For those who aren't familiar with the US tax system, child tax deductions are normally offered to all parents as an incentive to raise children. They keep more money in families and help out a little with the extra expenses that are involved in being a parent. The child tax deduction tells parents,
"The work that you're doing raising your children is important to our state and our nation! Yay, you for taking it on. Good job. And here, we acknowledge that raising kids costs a lot and we'll help you out a bit. Your children are important, and we're happy to have these valuable new citizens!"
Representative Cultra doesn't want to send that message to parents with fat kids, though. He'd like to send them this message instead:
"You're either a bad parent or you have genetic traits that we don't want to see passed on. Either way, we wish that you hadn't had those kids. They're not the kind of people we want, and if you insist on having them, we're not going to support that in any way. Please don't reproduce. Oh, but since I'm a Republican I'd also like to make sure that you don't have access to birth control or abortion. So don't have sex. Thanks."
Also, "Is your child a high school dropout who regularly gets in trouble with the police? Here's your $2000 tax deduction! Is your kid an honor student and athlete with a large build? No money 4 U."
How does this measure up when you think about social equity?
Well, considering the fact that poor people and ethnic minorities are most likely to be "obese," it's pretty much a disaster. Differences in build are mostly heriditary, the parents of children who are classified as obese are most likely heavier than average themselves. They'll already be dealing with size discrimination that could result in a lower income, and there's a better than average chance that they're dealing with other types as bias as well.
It's a regressive tax and if a family is having trouble paying for healthy food and active hobbies as it is, then it's going to make that even worse. It's just more of the same: bailing out the bankers and insurance companies on the backs of poor people and minorities. Lovely.
Finally, what sort of impact would this likely have on individual families?
Obviously, Mr. Cultra thinks that it will result in more responsible parenting. However, it's hard to see how that would actually be promoted by this tax disincentive. Aside from the financial hit, which would make it harder to keep the children in healthy food and physical activity, it has the potential to turn parents against their children. Almost inevitably, I'm seeing conflicts over food; efforts to restrict and sneaking and bingeing happening in retaliation. But it could be worse than that. In some cases, unfortunately, physical abuse could result.
Seriously, could it be any stupider an idea?
If you live in Illinois, please let your governor and state representatives know what you think about this. Snail mail and e-mail contact information for the Illinois governor's office is here. Let's write him and ask him not to sign any bill that contains this provision into law.
Details and contact information for members of the Illinois House of Representatives are here and information for Illinois Senate members is here. The information is given by district, and if you live in Illinois, you can find out who your state representatives are by using these maps. Contacting your state representatives is always a good idea, because they're the people most likely to respond to your individual concerns.
Let's nip this one in the bud.
From The Huffington Post: Obesity Linked to Poor School Performance.
More recent information from the The BODY Project shows that obese youth have problems with reading and arithmetic, memory, attention, and decision-making. Imagine how learning, and consequently school performance, will be impaired if you are having trouble in these essential areas of brain functioning. And, by the way, the more overweight youth are the more they experience the medical consequences of obesity, and the greater the difficulties they have -- in all these areas of cognitive functioning.
This is from last year, before the study in question was published. Before I write a horrified rant, let's take a look at the source.
The article quoted above was written by Lloyd I. Sederer, a psychiatrist who is serving as the Medical Director of the New York State Office of Mental Health. The work that he's referring to in the article was published by Antonio Convit, M.D., a Professor of Psychiatry and Medicine at New York University. Judging from his publication record, Dr. Convit runs a research group that specializes in building disease models around the idea that obesity causes chronic inflammation, and that chronic inflammation causes all sorts of cognitive problems. One of his recent papers compared the cognitive functioning of obese teenagers with type II diabetes to the cognitive functioning of obese teenagers without type II diabetes, and found that the non-diabetic teenagers performed better. That's right. The study compared obese teenagers to obese teenagers. There were no non-obese teenagers involved. Just fat kids with diabetes and weight-matched healthy fat kids. The study was published in November of 2010. The two papers that have come out of Covit's research group since that time were on unrelated topics, so it appears that this is based on conjecture around Preliminary evidence for brain complications in obese adolescents with type 2 diabetes mellitus, published in the journal Diabetologia.
Dr. Sederer's article, particularly the quote above, does not make sense in light of the research. Additionally, exposing fat kids and their peers, parents and teachers to these ideas (ideas that are completely unsupported!) is socially destructive. In my opinion, this article should never have been written. It misrepresents the research, and what will people take away from it? Even educated and intelligent readers will think, "fat kids are stupid." It supports existing social biases and imbues them with scientific authority. This is so irresponsible that I'm at a loss for words. Cognitive impairment, indeed.
Dr. Sederer wrote another article for the Huffington Post after the paper was published: The Body Project: School Program Measures Obesity Right Along With Grades. If you look very, very carefully in this article, you can find statements that actually reflect the research, for example:
Students with high BMIs are selected for the project because they are most at risk for sugar, cholesterol and BP problems -- and thus for problems with reading and arithmetic, memory, attention, and decision-making, problems that can impair school performance.
This implies that the cognitive problems are actually related to medical conditions that are correlated with higher BMIs - not the high BMI itself. However, for the most part, the article continues to make generalizations about fat kids' cognitive abilities:
...there is another message that has not yet reached the Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, or other educators seeking to improve education in this country: that message is that being overweight or obese interferes with a young person's ability to learn at school....
...information from the The BODY Project shows that obese youth have problems with reading and arithmetic, memory, attention, and decision-making....
I'll try to be understanding and charitable. Apparently, Dr. Sederer is assuming that all these medical conditions are inevitable consequences of having a high BMI and that therefore, the cognitive problems associated with them are also the result of a high BMI.
However, only a small minority of fat kids have these conditions. For example, the best number I could find for the prevalence of type II diabetes among teenagers on the Centers for Disease Control website was 7.2 per 100,000 (0.0072%). And again, there is no data in evidence that compares the average cognitive abilities of fat and thin teenagers.
Here Comes the Rant
Is the good doctor really unaware of the social forces at work in fat kids' lives and of the potential for harm? That just doesn't seem possible; he's a mental health professional for chissakes. At school, fat kids are bullied, looked down upon, routinely underestimated, and generally treated like garbage. At home, they're more likely to come from poor families and high stress environments. They're also more likely to be members of racial and ethnic minorities. The deck is already stacked against them. Writing and publishing articles that are based on inappropriate generalizations but that appear to lend scientific legitimacy to the idea that fat kids are mentally damaged and putting your authority as the Medical Director of the New York State Office of Mental Health behind it - it's nothing short of evil.
We already tell fat kids that they're unattractive, physically incompetent and weak willed. By all means, let's knock down the only source of self esteem that they're left with. After all, how many fat kids have been bullied, excluded, and looked down upon but have been able to fall back on their intelligence and talent? That can't be allowed! We must make it clear that they are completely worthless unless they become thin.
And how will they become thin? Well, there's no dependable method, really. Sometimes kids are fat for a while and then grow out of it. "Eat less, move more" doesn't necessarily work long term, although certainly being physically active and eating a healthy diet is good for kids of all sizes. However, when when you make a big fuss about weight, kids become more likely to stay fat or develop an eating disorder. Weight loss surgery for teenagers is becoming a popular idea, thanks to Allergen. However, I strongly suspect that WLS is far riskier for teenagers than being fat. So, this article is reinforcing - in a potentially harmful way - the idea that fat kids are damaged and inferior, when there is no safe and dependable way to make them thin. It would be cruel and completely pointless even if the assumptions it's based on were true.
Let's take a step back in time, shall we? I've got a story to tell.
My dad and his sisters were fat kids in the New York City schools. They were from a stressful home environment; a poor immigrant family. They grew up in the 1930s to the 1960s. I'm sure that there are still many like them in American cities today.
The children in the picture in Fat Kids Targeted are my dad and his sister. Dad was relentlessly bullied. He concentrated on school, and he had teachers who acted as mentors. He attended Stuyvesant High School, the famous NYC magnet school, and then Columbia University. He finished off with a Ph.D. from UC Berkley. Both of his sisters also attended university. Dad was one of those fat kids who internalized the idea that they can't be physically competent. Good thing they forgot to tell him and his teachers that fat kids are dumb.
My dad and his sisters: these were very vulnerable kids. What would have happened to them if their teachers had focused on their weight? If these teachers had failed to support them academically because they assumed that fat kids couldn't be smart? What if they, as kids, had never been allowed to think of themselves as intelligent or had been told that losing weight, not learning, should be their number one priority? They'd probably be sweeping floors now, their potential lost to society. Instead they've led long and productive professional lives as fat people.
Not only is this possible, it's common. Most fat kids grow up to be productive members of society even if they stay fat. And, they are more likely than not going to be knowledge workers. Impairing their ability to achieve and advance academically by promoting negative stereotypes is incredibly irresponsible. I can see a fat underclass being created before my eyes. I guess that grinding racial and ethnic minorities under our heels hasn't been enough for us.
Deb Lemire is being featured in Persephone Magazine ("Daily Blog for Bookish, Clever Women"), in the Persephone Pioneers column.
Deb Lemire is a revolutionary, a woman dedicated to helping others feel as good about their bodies as she feels about hers. Through arts and theater, advocacy work and volunteering, Deb has built up a presence as a size activist, challenging the old norms and fears of “obesity” and promoting a health at every size progressive mentality. While it hasn’t always been easy, she has built up an empire based on her creative production company, Queen Bee Productions, as well as her advocacy work for the Association for Size Diversity & Health. The birth of her beautiful daughter in 1997 has inspired her to take steps to create a more accepting and open world to the different forms of beauty that exist and a space for women who feel neglected by a lack of representation of their bodies. Furthermore, she is taking steps to create a more accepting future for her daughter.
Devb founded Queen Bee Productions and is currently president of the ASDAH (Association for Size Diversity and Health), a Health at Any Size (HAES) advocacy organization made up of medical professionals, academics, and activists. Cheers, Deb!
So, Amy Farrell recently appeared on the Colbert Report. Who is Amy Farrell? She's a professor of American studies and Women's & Gender Studies at Dickinson College. From her bio:
Her research includes 20th century U.S. culture, U.S. women's history, body politics, and the history of fat stigma. She has. published a book on the history of Ms. magazine during the second wave of feminism, Yours in Sisterhood: Ms. Magazine and the Promise of Popular Feminism.
Oh, and the video doesn't work outside the US (sorry; I can't watch it either), but the fat studies intro is still well worth a read.
Today is International No Diet Day! I'd write a long post about it, but Kira Nerusskaya at Fat Girls Float (which is one of the best blog names I've ever seen) has already written the most information-packed, thoughtful, and good-linky post imaginable.
Here's what she's doing to celebrate:
I am taking a pic of everything I consume tomorrow.... a photo documentary, you might say and posting it on Twitter and Facebook.
There's also a beautiful post over at Fierce, Freethinking Fatties, Whak-a-Mole, where drdeah discusses the general ineffectiveness of dieting and other weight loss attempts and uses personal experience as a jumping off point to explore everything from the ultimate failure of liposuction to the mismarketing of intuitive eating as a weight loss method.
The diets not working approach is still alive and kicking in the field of nutrition, weight management and eating disorders. Books on the subject are bountiful (e.g. Judith Matz’ books, Beyond a Shadow of a Diet and The Diet Survivor’s Handbook that explain how restricted eating plans result in destructive, cyclical patterns of binge eating). Unlike Bob Schwartz, Matz cautions people NOT to use this intuitive eating or attuned eating approach as the “Intuitive Eating Diet.” She emphatically reminds a person that giving up dieting demands making a contract with their body that hunger is NOT an option and in turn the client has to accept the fact that this is NOT about losing weight.
If you're in San Francisco, you can build a YAY! Scale with Marilyn Wann: Change a bathroom scale, change a life: Event on May 6, as announced on About Face. Scales and other materials are provided, and the proceeds go to About Face's media education programs.
When – Friday, May 6, 2011 (International No Diet Day)
Time – 7pm – 9pm
Where – Chase Community Room at Chase Bank, 2112 15th St. (at intersection of 15th/Market/Sanchez St.), San Francisco
Tickets – Sliding scale of $20-$40.
Space is limited to 25 people, so buy tickets to reserve your spot today!
And me? I'm not sure how to celebrate. I've been not dieting for a long time. Any ideas?
Oh - and please feel free to add links to other blog posts in the comments, too.
Well, well, well. I woke up this morning to yet another dodgy anti-obesity story on BBC 4's Today. The print version, Being overweight 'linked to dementia', is available on the BBC website (complete with a photo of a guy whose BMI is probably 20 points beyond the "overweight" range, but whatever). However, the radio version I heard this morning is not available either in print or as streaming audio. Perhaps that's because the radio version implied that middle aged people with BMIs in the 25-30 range were at 70% increased risk for dementia. Not in the future, as the study in question indicates. Presently.
Now, upon hearing this, my first thought was "Who the hell has dementia in middle age, anyway? It must be a tiny number of people, similar to the tiny number of adolescents who have type II diabetes. They're prejudicing employers against all overweight and obese middle aged potential employees over a very small number of cases." But folks, it was actually worse than that. The study isn't about middle age people with dementia. It's entitled Midlife overweight and obesity increase late-life dementia risk: A population-based twin study. It's obvious from the title that the study is concerned with the association between being heavy earlier in life and dementia in old age. Dementia in middle age, as I suspected, is extremely rare.
Looking up the past work of the principal investigator, he's been concerned with the relationship between diabetes and dementia, which is fairly well documented. I suspect that the press release and the media coverage on this story are using "overweight" and "obese" as proxies for "diabetic" or at the very least not controlling for diabetes. I'll take a look at the study within the next few days and see if that's the case.
There was an article on Jezebel yesterday covering an interesting project by photographer Sarah Hughes. She's been photographing women in Canada, the US, Rio, and Sweden in two outfits: one in which they feel safe and one in which they feel sexy.
Here's a web site featuring the photos. and here's a PBS video on the project:
I think that one of her intentions is make a statement about how gender roles and actual physical safety in various places affect how women dress. But, there's also a lot of interesting stuff in there related to age and size.
One commentator on Jezebel confused 'safe' with 'powerful,' and I thought that was interesting. Maybe 'powerful' is good mode of dress to discuss, too, because of the complex ways that it's related to the other two.
This brings up a lot of interesting issues. A few that come to mind:
- What does 'safe' mean in the context of clothing? How do physical safety and psychological safety interact?
- What makes an outfit sexy? Does sexy mean unsafe, and if so, why? What are the implications of putting our sexuality on display in public or of having a 'sexy' style? Is looking sexy innately unsafe?
- How can clothing make us feel powerful? What does 'powerful' mean when it comes to presentation? Is being sexy/attractive powerful, or does reading as powerful make us safer?
What else might you try to achieve with your clothing choices? For example, is all of this secondary to self expression? How does it play out for men? How does local culture impact on these issues? How does a feminine presentation vs. a masculine or androgynous presentation read? For example, some of the women in Hughes' photos have interpreted 'safe' as androgynous and 'sexy' as feminine.
And of course, how does being larger than average affect our presentation? In the slideshows, many of the older and larger women express ambivalence about wearing something that might read as sexy. They talk about appropriateness "I don't have a nice body to show off..." but I know that there's more to it than that. If a large (or mature) woman wears something that's overtly sexy she's often going to meet with some resistance. 'Sexy' may be unsafe for us in more ways than it is for thinner women.
Ever since I first got involved in size acceptance, I've occasionally had people ask me why I considered myself fat. More problematically, I've had people ask me why I thought I had anything useful to say about fat acceptance, since I've never been bigger than a size 20.
Why do they ask? Well, I'm not all that heavy by some people's standards, I guess, and I don't think that "obese" is the first word that pops into people's heads when they look at me. Maybe it's partly because of HAES and big-but-proportional genes, but it's mostly because the majority of people don't have an accurate idea of what people with a 30+ BMI look like. I was heavier than average as a child and a lot heavier than average as a teenager, and as I've stayed roughly the same size over the years, I've gotten to an age and a point in history where I look larger than average, but not in any kind of an exceptional way. Nobody stares in wonder at the immense hugeness of a pleasant looking, middle class, middle aged woman who wears a 16W/UK20.
But here's the thing. I am way over on the heavy side of the US BMI bell curve; according to this calculator, I'm in the heaviest 15% for an American woman of my age and height. That's right. They say that 30% of Americans (...23% of Brits... 22% of Aussies) are obese, and I'm smack dab in the middle of the obese category by percentile. I'm not an average sized American woman. I'm an average obese American woman.
Obesity is defined by BMI. It isn't defined by 'Damn, she's big!' or 'look at the moobs on that guy!' and 'look at those people huff and puff walking up those stairs!' When they talk about 'the obese' in the news, they are talking about everyone with a BMI over 30, not just the ones who are exceptionally large, who are proportioned in a different way than smaller people, who have a low muscle percentage, or who are in poor physical condition. Hello, other large-side-of-average-looking people whose BMIs are over 30! I am not an exception, and neither are you. When they talk about 'the obese' they're talking about us.
And if they're going to go around constantly talking shit about the people they've put into the obese category by the use of BMI, then hell yes, obese people with BMIs between 30 and 40 - the vast majority of obese people - should be speaking out. And hell yes, our experiences are the legitimate experiences of obese people. They don't get to say that 30% of Americans are obese and then pat people who are smack dab in the middle of their "obese" BMI category on the head and say "Oh, you're fine. We weren't talking about you."
The medical studies are about us, so if the results don't make sense, we should take a closer look. We are the ones being charged higher insurance rates. We're the ones being blamed for everything from global warming to the collapse of the US health care system. We're the ones that the good, upstanding thin folk are being discouraged from befriending or even gazing upon, lest they become like us (newest piece of dog dirt from BBC radio, and I can't find a link for it). We're the ones who are being accused of abusing our children if they (shock! horror! surprise!) come out looking like us.
Do you have a BMI over 30, no chronic health problems, use less health care than average, and seldom get sick? They're still talking about you. Do you suspect that no one at work knows you're obese, think you look good for your size, and feel like you shouldn't rock the boat when you're asked to shoulder more than your share of the health insurance burden? You're definitely not an exception. Is your lifestyle average or healthier than average, yet your BMI is still in the obese category? Yeah, that's not unusual. Are you well educated and reasonably successful in your career, and sure that you're not one of those junk food eating, lazy, smelly fat people that are out there someplace - possibly at WalMart - and it's that type of obese person, not you, that they're talking about? No, you're wrong. It's you. Are you athletic, with a high muscle percentage? People with high muscle percentages aren't excluded from the medical studies and obesity is defined by BMI. You're one of us, too.
The moral panic doesn't work without a high percentage of the population being defined as obese, and the high percentage of the population that is obese is made up mostly of people with BMIs between 30 and 40 who, thanks to the use of headless fatties, don't register as obese, visually, to most people. But you know what? Rather than hiding behind the fact that most people can't tell we're obese, we should speak out. Because they're talking about us.
One more thing. The people who do register as obese visually; people with 40+ BMIs, people who do look quite fat because of how they're proportioned or for whatever reason? You can't judge their worth, their intelligence, or their strength by their size. You can't judge their health or habits by their size (and we have no business judging people on that basis, in any case). They don't deserve discrimination. They don't deserve social exclusion. They don't deserve to be laughed at. They don't deserve pity or a patronizing attitude. Size discrimination and the moral panic over obesity is impacting them harder than it impacts us, and we should do everything in our power to support them and not to add to the crap that they're already dealing with. In our groups of friends, in our jobs, and in our families, we should be the last people to judge, show prejudice, or discriminate against other fat people.
...and... I kind of want to post a picture of myself for the rad fatties project, but am not sure about putting it on the BFB main page. So here I am, if you want to see what I look like.
(if the more abstract stuff at the beginning doesn't hold your attention, then start it at 1:45)
I have a story to tell today.
As a preschooler, I had a long playing record with the Nutcracker on one side and Swan Lake on the other. I listened to it, dancing around like a ballerina, until it wore out. But, by the time my parents had decided I was old enough for dance lessons, I said 'no' because I'd already been bullied about my size and I was afraid that people would laugh at me if I wore a leotard.
So, I still liked to dance. I danced at school dances. I went out to clubs once in a while when I was older. I enjoyed dance exercise classes. But, I never took a "real" dance class until 1994, when I was 24. By that time, I'd discovered fat acceptance, recognized how sad it was that I'd refused dance lessons as a little kid out of self consciousness, and decided that I was damn well going to take a real dance class.
I took a class called "Modern Dance for Non-Dance Majors" at the University of Michigan School of Dance. It was a great class. There was a live pianist who provided the music, and it was taught by a group of dance majors. I was absolutely stunned when I saw that one of them was around my size. I'd expected to be the largest person in the class (I was), and I had never dreamed that a woman my size could be a dance major. I imagined what she must have gone through to get to that point, as someone who had obviously taken dance lessons all along but had probably not had the "right" body type, ever. Just like I hadn't. I never talked to her about the issue, but I had a lot of respect and admiration for her.
Her name was Alexandra Beller.
Over the years, I've occasionally Googled her, wondering how her career was progressing. She moved to New York and joined the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. In the year 2000, she was interviewed by Radiance Magazine. It's an excellent interview, and in it, Alexandra reveals her ambivalence about her size and about how it has affected her career as a dancer.
Of course there was discrimination:
at age thirteen, she auditioned for and was accepted into advanced classes at an eminent New York ballet school, where traditional balletic standards pervaded and prevailed all the way up to the front office. Alexandra recalls her first day. “I walked into the office, and the administrator said, ‘You’re not supposed to be here, this is not the right place for you.’ And I said, ‘But I auditioned and I got into this class.’ ‘Well, we’ll fix it, there’s obviously been some mistake, you’re not supposed to be here.’ And that was my introduction to the school.” Alexandra laughs ruefully. “I ended up with a teacher who was a little bit more ambivalent about the ‘rules,’ and so she wasn’t mean to me. But other teachers in the school were pretty cruel.”
Reviewers tend to fixate on her size:
Alexandra’s silence after she recites this review speaks volumes. On the one hand, this is one of her best reviews. On the other, the review reads deep meaning into Alexandra’s figure. Alexandra’s work has been written up by major dance magazines here and abroad, but the coverage almost invariably focuses on her weight, not her dance. “A part of me knows that it’s still a big deal. Because I’m the first woman of an . . .” here she pauses, searching for a discreet word, “atypical body type in a major modern dance company in this country. Of course I’m breaking down barriers, and I’m doing it with my own body. But sometimes it just kills me that these reviews have to talk about it. They always say something positive about my dancing, and they usually frame however they’re talking about my body in a generous light, too, but sometimes I just feel like, Can you just talk about my dancing? That’s really what I’m here for. I realize that I’ve taken on this other role because I have to, because it comes with the package. But I didn’t really sign up to be the poster girl.”
She's spent some time feeling disconnected from her body:
However strongly Alexandra may feel about her body, at least she’s in it, which is a significant shift from how she used to feel. “I tried for a very long time to separate my body from how I danced, and to say that I would dance how I danced no matter what my body looked like,” says Alexandra. “But it’s really ridiculous to say that. Nobody can say that. You dance how you dance because you’re in your body...
And, although she has worked steadily, she's been typecast:
Alexandra also finds shape a defining feature in Jones’s choreography. “He does see me in a certain way. I think he sees each of us in a certain way, to be fair,” says Alexandra. “He typecasts us, in terms of movement and in terms of characters. He’s sort of cast me as the femme fatale. He tends to think, Oh, that sexy music is coming on, let’s give that to Alex.
Alexandra accepts the casting, and considers the diverse look and feel of the ten dancers to be a strength of the company. But she admits to wanting more for herself. “I also would like to get the more athletic parts.”
And post-2000? She's now started her own company, Alexandra Beller Dances, and is both a dancer and choreographer. She also teaches modern dance. She's got some videos of her company's repertoire on her dance company's webpage and on YouTube.
She has an intermediate/advanced modern technique class starting tomorrow, April 16th 2011, at 1:00pm at Dance New Amsterdam, 280 Broadway New York, NY.
For performances, look for the calendar items in brown on the company's website.
I'm still a huge admirer of Alexandra: her focus and determination, her talent, and her intelligence. I hope that she influences the next generation of dancers and choreographers and helps to open up the dance world to people with diverse body types. But most of all, I love to watch her dance: graceful, expressive, agile, and full of energy and joy.
Ancel Keys, of the University of Minnesota, ran starvation studies on conscientious objectors during WWII in order to learn how people react to starvation and how best to help them recover from it. In my opinion, his work is the best and most unbiased examination of the effects of weight loss dieting ever undertaken.
Emily Deans, M.D., an evolutionary psychologist, has written an article for Psychology Today: Dieting Can Make You Lose Your Mind. It reviews Ancel Key's famous study in that light.
Here's how the study went down:
The young men lived in a dorm at the University of Minnesota, and in addition to their restricted diet, they were required to walk 22 miles a week. All their food was prepared in a dormitory kitchen, and once the starvation began, each man's calories were adjusted every Friday to meet a weight loss goal of 2.5 lbs (1.1 kg) per week. Their average daily calories during the semistarvation period was about 1600 calories a day (they ate approximately 3200 calories daily before the study).
And here's how the men reacted:
They described lethargy, irritability, anxiety that approached each time they were to learn how much they were allowed to eat the following week... They had dizziness, cold intolerance (requesting heavy blankets even in the middle of summer), muscle soreness, hair loss, reduced coordination, edema, and ringing in the ears. Some had to withdraw from their university classes because they did not have the capability to concentrate. Their sex drive disappeared. They became obsessed with food, eating with elaborate rituals (which eating disorder patients also do) and adding water to their plates to make the food last longer. Many collected cookbooks and recipes...
Does any of this sound familiar?
And oh, wow:
Two of the men suffered severe psychological stress - one became suicidal, and another cut off three of his fingers in an act of self-mutilation.
Governor Jan Brewer has been threatening to cut Medicaid ever since she got re-elected, but since there would be a huge backlash if that did happen, she's now threatening to charge fat people, smokers and the chronically ill on Medicaid a $50 fee. To avoid the fee, fat people would have to follow a doctor-supervised diet regimen. This proposal will target only childless people, so they don't only want to shame fat people, but fat people who chose to or can't physically have children. Way to go Governor Brewer!
What happens if this doctor's diet plan doesn't work and the patient is still fat? Also, how are they going to judge how fat someone has to be before they charge this fee? What about the number of fat people who have none of the diseases correlated with being fat, such as diabetes, heart problems and joint issues?
There's no way this plan could work and it shouldn't even have been considered. For a lot of poor people who have Medicaid as their only medical insurance, this is really going to put a lot of strain and stress on them. Once again, the fat population is shamed simply for their size by a dodo who thinks all fat people are unhealthy, dieting works, and weight loss will magically solve everything.
Story here, in the Wall Street Journal: Arizona Proposes Medicaid Fat Fee
Also covered on Fat Chicks Rule.