Tuesday, April 3, 2012

How to admire obese people? The Token Fat Girl

Yesterday, on a whim, I started searching the web for sites where obese people present themselves and how they deal with obesity. My expectation was:  I won't find much. Boy was I wrong. In fact I was so wrong, that I decided to discuss some of the outstanding people whose sites I have seen. Before I get to The Token Fat Girl, let me explain why I didn't expect to find what I found:
There is a stigma attached to being overweight. Interpersonal and work related discrimination against overweight people pervades our society [1]. Whether it's finding a sex partner or a salary, if you are female and have a BMI north of 30, your weight alone reduces your chances compared with a peer of normal weight. And don't think for a moment that my colleagues from the health and medical sciences are free from such bias. One in 4 nurses reports being repulsed by obese patients [2], and exercise science students show a strong bias against obese people, equating obesity with laziness [3]. The frequently used before-after portraits of successful weight reducers have been found to reinforce the belief that weight loss is a matter of volition, which in turn reinforces the stigmatization of the overweight [4]. This bias has become so pervasive in our society that even obese people themselves now endorse the fat=lazy equation [5]. Uncharacteristically for my otherwise more colloquial blog I include here the references to my statements. For one simple reason: To take the wind out of the sails of those who would otherwise eloquently try to summarily refute my statements.  
Now, what's my point? With this type of agony load, wouldn't we rightly expect the obese person to simply change her lifestyle if this change was really up to her free will - her volition - to make? Yes we would. The fact that most obese people really WANT to be slim but never seem to get there should, however, make us question the power of free will over our health behaviors, particularly the dietary and exercise behaviors. Let me illustrate that point a little more.
If the volition-behavior assumption was true, children would change their fattening behaviors once the agony load from being obese crosses a threshold at which they would be motivated to actively pursue weight loss. This agony load is indeed high for the obese child. In fact it has been found to be equal to that of child cancer patients receiving chemo therapy [6]. Yet the percentage of obese children and adolescents has more than tripled over the past 40 years.
So my question to the stigmatizers, to those who believe in the fat=lazy equation, is: if obesity was a result of behavior, and if health behavior is a matter of choice, then why do children and adults choose to be ostracized, stigmatized and victimized?
Obviously our health behaviors are driven by something more powerful than volition alone. I will address this issue in a separate blog entry.
What I want to highlight here is the extraordinary guts of people like The Token Fat Girl, who proudly present themselves and address their weight openly and publicly. Not only is her courage admirable, but so is the frankness with which she approaches her life. I quote from her site: " I've struggled with being overweight or obese my entire life and while I don't agree that I can be obese and healthy, I do believe that it shouldn't stop me from living a pretty decent life." Here is a girl with an admirable sense of reality. A girl with that attitude would certainly solve her weight issues if those were solvable by volition only. 
This issue is at the core of my work. I have a pretty clear model about what drives our health behaviors. That model was part of my dissertation work. I also believe that our strategy of helping people to train a 6th sense for their daily calorie balance is a promising alternative to diets and weight loss fads. I would love to enroll people like the Token Fat Girl into our chronic health project. So if you know somebody who fits this description, give them my contact.  
   


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