An additional, key takeaway from the recent article I posted about, which examines the morality assigned to certain body types & disorders, was that the media, and society at large, don’t believe that overweight/obese people can have eating disorders. This is due, in large part, to it being ingrained in our culture, via the “pulling ones self up from one’s bootstraps” mentality and other factors, that being fat is a CHOICE, and that with WILLPOWER any fat person can, you know, NOT be fat.
Let’s talk about what is being called binge eating disorder, also known as food addiction. Binging disorder is essentially like bulimia but without purging — an individual is compelled, beyond reasons many can understand, to binge on massive quantities of food. Unlike bulimics, they don’t purge that food (vomit or take laxatives). Here is the Mayo Clinic definition of binge eating disorder:
Binge-eating disorder is a serious eating disorder in which you frequently consume unusually large amounts of food. Almost everyone overeats on occasion, such as having seconds or thirds of a holiday meal. But for some people, overeating crosses the line to binge-eating disorder and it becomes a regular occurrence, shrouded in secrecy.
When you have binge-eating disorder, you may be deeply embarrassed about gorging and vow to stop. But you feel such a compulsion that you can’t resist the urges and continue binge eating.
Although binge-eating disorder is the most common of all eating disorders, it’s still not considered a distinct psychiatric condition. But if you have binge-eating disorder symptoms, treatment can help you.
How sad is that? It’s one of the MOST COMMON eating disorders (hello “obesity epidemic”), yet is not considered a distinct psychiatric condition, like anorexia nervosa.
I would reckon that binge eating disorder sounds familiar to a lot of you. It does to me. While I don’t see myself as a comic picture of a woman sitting on the couch shoveling ice cream, chips and candy into her mouth, I know I have an inappropriate relationship with food, and eat for the wrong reasons. I definitely eat when I’m full and/or not hungry — two of the many symptoms. And I can PUT AWAY massive quantities of food in a relatively short period, for no reason. The only difference between me and the “average” obese American is that I’ve been binging on “healthy” things for the last ten years. This is why we can’t assign moral values to food — it’s not about WHAT you are eating. It’s WHY and HOW. Any unhealthy relationship with food is concerning — not just those who eat “bad” foods.
In the Saguy/Gruys study, finding articles that talked about binge eating disorder was difficult, and in fact articles from the main analysis time frame didn’t exist. Two articles from 2007-on were found, but even those refused to believe that obese/overweight people could have a legitimate disorder, like an anorexic or bulimic.
This, I find, is ridiculous. These eating/food/body disorders are all related, but I believe they manifest in people differently. We always read stories of the high-flying, popular, pretty (middle class white) girl who suffers from anorexia — how could she she is so successful and has it all? Cue (very accurate) discussion of how the individual is so desperate for control over the one thing they have complete autonomy over — their body. I think it’s the same in people with binging disorder — I know it is for me. I was that high-flying (middle class white) girl who had all my shit together — but instead of seeking to control my body by restricting food and striving for a super idealized body type, I rebelled against it — food and eating (and binging) was the one area of my life where I could LOSE control without it having what I saw as “real” consequences (ie: grades wouldn’t drop, etc.). I also think some part of me wanted to rebel against body standards — to my own detriment. (does that give me more feminist street cred, or is it just kind of sad?)
People need to break away from the idea that fat people are to blame for their problems. Do individuals make choices? OF COURSE. But you know what? Someone who is anorexic or bulimic makes a choice not to eat, or to eat and then purge. We examine WHY they make those choices. And we recognize that there are complex, underlying reasons for these compulsions, generally beyond individual control and most often times requiring professional, long term help. Yet we deny this same reasoning and help for the chronically overweight/obese – who quite likely have an eating disorder equally as insidious. The difference is that society heralds thinness, but reviles fat. And the chronic fat hate and negative, critical talk that obese individuals face make their disorder worse, never better. (shaming never works!)
This is why I advocate dropping food guilt. It’s why I don’t believe in the SHEER WILLPOWER diet. It’s why I embrace body positivity and community support. There are dozens of complex factors at play with weight struggles and food addiction. Everyone is already telling you you don’t have “real” problem, and that you just have to be stronger, better, faster, thinner. STOP saying that shit to yourself — someone needs to stand up for fat people with real, clinically diagnosable problems. I’m afraid, at this juncture, that it needs to be YOU (and me).
What do you think? Do you think you have a problem with food addiction and/or binge eating disorder?
This post originally was posted on All The Weigh on June 16, 2011. I am reposting it here for posterity If this is new to you, please comment! But also do read the original discussion in the comments on ATW — there’s some good stuff there!
When Kenlie asked me to write a guest post on one of my favorite topics — fat hate in society and the strong influence of media — I was honored and excited. Then I tried to write. Needless to say, this enormous, weighty (ha!) issue ballooned into a post of monstrous proportions. So, I shall preface the following by saying: I edited it down. A lot. I hope to expand on many of the topics I’ve merely touched on in future posts, and through discussion.
For many of you, especially if you’ve lived any portion of your life overweight, that society hates and discriminates against fat people may be horribly obvious and my statements redundant. However, I find that sometimes stating what seems blatantly obvious can set off light-bulbs for others, and yourself. It’s especially important to second-guess the media and how it portrays reality — is something so because the media reflects reality, or because it SHAPES how we perceive and create the world around us?
No one likes to talk about discrimination against fat people
We’re a progressive society, constantly making strides against disgusting and demoralizing practices such as racism and homophobia. Minority and underrepresented groups, including but certainly not limited to blacks, Hispanics, Asians and LGBTQ, are becoming increasingly (and rightfully) visible on TV, in film, in music, media and advertising.
Yet hatred continues to be spewed against fat people, in the most extreme incarnation (see: Internet comments). And, more subversively, poking fun at fat people (see: token fat character); making assertions about their bodies, eating, health and fitness habits (fatsplaining, “fat as a lifestyle choice”); and, simply, not including them AT ALL in media, rage in society and culture. Fat people are simultaneously invisible and derided for possessing a number of negative characteristics, thrust upon them by virtue of how they look on the outside.
Fat hate — so bad, we even hate ourselves
The hate that is lobbied against fat people is staggering, pervasive and subversive. It’s so omni-present in media and society that most people don’t notice it, or if they do, they explain it away. Like misogyny which is also so entrenched in society that women themselves don’t realize it most of the time, people tend to have a laundry list of excuses and reasons for why it’s “not that bad” or “you’re just whining” or “you’re too sensitive” when you call them out on fat hate. Fat hate is so pervasive, fat people hate fat people.
No, really. If you are now or have ever been fat, overweight, obese — whatever you want to call it — have a nice, honest think about your past interactions with other fat people. Do you see another fat person — usually one who is bigger than you are — and smugly think to yourself “well, I’d never let myself get that bad!” or “Ugh, they clearly don’t exercise or try to eat right. Put down the cheeseburger.” Or, the slightly more innocuous but just as damning “how did *she* get such a hot guy — she’s fatter than I am!”
Many of these Schadenfreude-esque thoughts are somewhat natural — everyone does it, to almost everyone else — but many people take it beyond the “fleeting, dark thoughts” territory. If a fat person speaks out about discrimination, you certainly do see other large people call that person out for being a whiner, or making waves. Fat people are just as likely to guilt and fat shame as thin people — they do it on The Biggest Loser!
It’s often the fat person who reinforces the fat = bad; thin = good trope, because all our lives, this is what we are taught. One of the best places for this in popular culture? Shows like The Biggest Loser do a lot of good, but next time you watch a season, look at the adjectives the contestants use at the beginning vs. the end, and the clips editors choose to use. I’m not saying obese people can’t be miserable, but the subtle language of weight loss makeover programs is beginning/fat = bad, bad, bad, MISERABLE, unhappy, alone, bad, bad, bad which slowly transitions to thin = I AM SO PRETTY AND HAPPY AND NOTHING IN MY LIFE COULD EVER BE BAD AGAIN.
This just isn’t true! It’s not that you can’t want to be thinner and healthier. But equating being thin with happiness is dangerous. You will have good and happy moments in your life when you are fat, and you will have good and happy moments in your life when you’re thin. Same can be said for misery and feeling rotten.
Why do we think this about ourselves and our lives?
Blame the media! (no, really, let’s blame the media)
This is because we are taught, through every minutiae of our interaction with each other, through media — TV, film, music, advertisements, magazines, newscasts, etc. — that fat is Ugly. Fat is Bad. Fat is Stupid. Fat is Lazy. Thin (and sexy) = GOOD, LOVELY, AWESOME, BETTER. Most of the time, fat people are invisible. We don’t see people like us in magazines (Plus Size models = size ten. SIZE TEN), or on TV, or in movies. There aren’t fat newscasters (even the friendly, rotund weather man Al Roker is now a Skinny Thing), fat book heroines are few and far between (though better than TV) and, generally, TV and film are a barren wasteland of fat people. We are sent a message every day by the absence of larger people in these positive, informative, fantasy and “beautiful” roles.
Women, especially, rarely see representations of themselves. Teen comedies & dramas feature waif-thin beautiful people having Beautiful People Problems like juggling three boyfriends and finding the perfect dress for Prom. The intrepid, neurotic romantic heroines of rom coms are invariably a size 6 (whittled down the requisite size zero, nowadays), and even when they are meant to be “overweight,” they do it Bridget Jones style and have a size 2 actress “balloon up” to, what?, an eight? There being exceptions to every rule, I concede recent glimmers of hope: Drop Dead Diva & Huge (oh list, you are a short one. And also half cancelled).
In cases where we do see visible fat people, they only come in two “sizes”: trying to lose weight/makeover project and Negative Horrible Foil/Unloveable Sidekick. How many times have you seen the plump, dumpy sidekick crack jokes and end up alone? Invariably, either way, Token Fat Character eats. All the time. Whereas most characters on TV and in movies NEVER EAT (as in, actually chew food)… or use the bathroom (ever notice that?), we always see fat characters chowing down. On Glee, token fat girl Lauren DEMANDS A BRIBE of Cadbury Creme Eggs to join Glee Club. Fellow curvaceous character Mercedes was given an entire plot line about eating cafeteria tater tots. I mean… come on!
Probably the only positive plus size character I can think of from the last 27 years I’ve been on earth is Tracy Turnblad from Hairspray.
Fat girls = 1;Thin People: ELEVENTY-BILLION.
In the one arena where arguably Americans get to see overweight women in highly visible roles — daytime talk show hosts — we get a) Oprah (on a perpetual diet cycle) b) Ricki Lake (couldn’t get work post-Hairspray/fat; starved herself to get her show) c) Star Jones (evil wench who got gastric bypass) d) Rosie O’Donnell (ridiculed in pop-culture for being fat/unattractive when she came out as a lesbian). Yes, we all love Oprah (and her positive contributions to fat issues I think are notable), but she’s Oprah. Daytime TV’s Goddess can be any damn size she wants. Everyone else? Get skinny, then maybe you’ll get work.
I mean, REALLY?
In the end, the message that not only fat people, but thin people get is: fat people are invisible/bad, and only thin, beautiful people deserve happiness/love/positive attention. It trickles down and is pervasive (and equally tied to disturbing trends of misogyny in society), and leads to the real problem: the Othering of fat people, and the rise of flat-out hatred of them.
People are horrible; aka: the Internet kills the filter of basic human decency
Generally, you see the same key phrases over and over again: “fat is a choice,” (aka: Fat As A Lifestyle Choice) “eat less, exercise more,” “I don’t want a fat person to infringe on MY space/life/whatever”.
It’s amazing how little empathy people have for overweight & obese people. They don’t hesitate to dehumanize, denigrate and attack fat people, usually with comments that draw the most outrageous conclusions about fat people in general as well as specific larger individuals (usually in response to commenters and/or public figures who appear to be or confess to be large). These things include, but are certainly not limited to: that you are unhealthy, lazy, ugly, miserable, stupid, entitled (no, really!), dirty, sexless, alone and undeserving of love. Many people will flat out say these things.
Then there are the “concern trolls.” These are people who Don’t Like Fat People, but they translate this into acceptable terms, ie: Fat Is Unhealthy. Then they fatsplain to you/fat people how being fat should make you feel, how it’s essential you Get Healthy and Stop Being Fat. Because they care about you, they do!
People we love can also communicate the message that fat = bad, though generally they do not hate fat people, or you, and will unconsciously say things that hurt you. My favorite is “you’re not fat, you’re beautiful!” Translation (on your end): you’re not fat! Fat is BAD, and you are NICE and I LIKE you… so let’s talk about how BEAUTIFUL you are (to me). I didn’t realize what an insidious phrase this was until recently. I do it too! We need to divorce the ideas that being fat = bad. But it’s a deeply ingrained thought within society (see; media).
Let’s get academic for a moment
Beyond the anecdotal evidence of people being hateful on the Internet, numerous studies have been done on the attitudes people hold towards the obese. One study found that children not only ascribed patently negative attributes to fat people (and positive ones to thin people), but that their views were reflective of their parents (who also participated in the study). An indicative pull-quote:
“Specifically, research shows that children are reluctant to play with overweight peers and are more likely to assign negative adjectives such as lonely, lazy, sad, stupid, ugly, and dirty to an overweight child than to an average weight or lean child.”
We pick up these attitudes young, and hold them for life.
More gems to illustrate a wide-spread trend of discrimination and hatred held against fat people:
Where does all this leave us? Well, the current trend is Let’s Beat Everyone Over The Head With Obesity As A Health Epidemic and OMGSHITTONS of fat reality shows. Instead of approaching the core issue of people hating fat people, the cycle of negativity, issues of food/eating portrayal in advertising, and Healthy At Any Size, we are trying to SHAME fat people into being less fat. Oi vey. But that’s another topic for another (LONG) post.
So thank you for having me, and sorry for the essay! I would love to hear everyone’s thoughts — what has your personal experience been, with the media and with other people’s attitudes and expectations?
Lord knows why I keep watching this show. Oh, wait, it’s because I passionately believe in kids, nutrition, shitty school lunches and obesity in America. But the show continues to try my patience. This week, I only got six minutes in before I experienced my first moment of RAGE and ran over here to start a blog post.
It started off so well. Jamie goes to a convention of CA lunch reps, who basically call him out on all the reasons they don’t want to work with him (shock tactics, he’s full of himself as a star, ratings). One admin elaborates in a direct-to-camera interview: he doesn’t want Jamie to demonize people like him. Ok. But then he says:
“We dont want to hear anymore that it’s because of us that Americans are fat. No, they are fat because they decided to be fat. Including me.” (this man is large).
COMMENCE RAGE. (also: file this under Even Fat People Believe in FALC)
I know I’m a broken record, but NO. Nobody chooses to be fat, but just to play along a bit, ok. Let’s say American adults “make choices.” Ok. But children. CHILDREN DO NOT AND CANNOT CHOOSE TO BE FAT. They eat what is given to them and learn lifelong food habits, behaviors and attitudes based on what they observe around them. This includes what their parents show them, as well as what the media and advertising sell them. So if kids can’t CHOOSE to be fat, and it’s adults GIVING THEM BAD CHOICES… and those adults were also given BAD CHOICES as children… feedback loop, ipso facto: NO ONE CHOOSES TO BE FAT. Yes, Jamie’s a didactic, dramatic chef with a myopic view of the American obesity crisis, but you, people preparing school lunches, are not absolved of blame. And you don’t get to BLAME FAT PEOPLE FOR BEING FAT. No.
I just… this makes me so tired. No one wants to feel like it’s their fault for getting kids fat. But come on. People serving lunch to children at school… you have to know you’re doing some bad work. Would you eat this food? It’s gross. (and if you do, you’re probably also overweight and unhealthy) In fairness: schools have been lead astray by a lax FDA. There are larger forces at work.
So I’m ready to have Jamie Oliver go away. I’m not sure how much more of this I can take. Getting angry at Jamie’s Food Revolution is giving me ulcers 😛
It’s a common misconception that overweight & obese individuals choose to be fat. This is an absurd notion that belittles & damages fat people, often trotted out by individuals during “discussions” of fat in our society and culture. Interestingly, the same people often offset their bigotry by “excusing” those who are overweight for medical reasons. Ah, my favorite fatsplaining topics: fat for medical reasons vs. fat as a “lifestyle choice.”
Both well-meaning people and asshat trolls trot out these ideas. Let me translate for you:
Fat for Medical Reason = fat, but “not to blame” so I won’t be an asshole (once you’ve explained yourself to me). However, if I think your “medical reason” is Not Good Enough, I will treat you like shit. (see “Fat as a Lifestyle Choice”)
Fat as a “Lifestyle Choice” = You CHOOSE to be fat, you Fatty McFatterson, I think you are GROSS, this is YOUR FAULT, and you are a lazy, gluttonous, icky person. I am going to shout unhelpful “tips” and generally treat you like shit so you will be motivated to change!
“Correction” for FALC (Fat as a Lifestyle Choice) involves fat shaming, further fatsplaining, dirty looks, body snarking and “helpful” diet tips.
It’s amazing how people fail to see, or even consider, the myriad reasons why an individual might make poor lifestyle choices when it comes to food, health and exercise. We give consideration (and compassion) to drug addicts, alcoholics, anorexics, cheaters, compulsive liars, even sociopaths — people who make bad choices or have a skewed view of themselves/response to pressure/stress, and we carefully consider (as we should) WHY someone might make these choices (bad childhood, violence in media, sex in media, brain chemistry, yada yada). Not so with fat people. It’s simply assumed we’re lazy, stupid and enjoy being overweight/obese.
Ingrained behavioral patterns and messed up emotional associations with food that come from growing up with the media’s f*cked up body standards are not a “lifestyle choice.” Being afraid of or ashamed to exercise in public because kids used to ridicule you in gym class is not a “lifestyle choice.” Self-medicating with food because you were sexually abused, or neglected, or told as a child that you were fat and worthless is not a “lifestyle choice.” Binge eating (or not eating) as a means of maintaining control/reacting to stress is not a “lifestyle choice.” I could go on.
These issues aren’t just ones that overweight people have — anyone who has disordered eating habits & body perception knows how bizarre and often times difficult to pinpoint/root in a cause some of these behaviors are. That people believe others are making active, conscious “choices” to keep themselves fat is beyond galling. Sure, you may make the in-the-moment “choice” to eat a Big Mac or binge on chips or not exercise, but there are complex, underlying reasons for making these poor choices. Each individual needs to puzzle out their own reasons and develop their own methods for dealing with it. Some people need more help/tools than others, especially those who are so brow-beaten by the way people treat them that it’s easier to be miserable/eat themselves to death than to rework themselves from the inside out.
One cannot abdicate personal responsibility, but regardless, when someone talks about “lifestyle choices,” it’s still fat shaming. It’s important to remove the judgment, and support people in working on their personal issues, on their own terms.
Being fat is not a “choice.” But treating people with compassion and understanding is.