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Anti-Obesity Is Not the New Homophobia

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Obese man, early 20th century

Obese man, early 20th century

Twenty years ago I joined my high school's football team and over the next four years became intimately acquainted with pasta - the delicious flavor and al dente texture, the margherita and alfredo sauces that could drown it, and the marvelous butter and garlic soaked breads that could accompany it. I owed the joys of these team-bonding dinners to one of the coaches of my team. What I was too meatball-addled to realize then was that like a pig for Christmas dinner, we were being fattened up - not for the December dinner table, but for the football field.

All this because my high school football team had a size problem. Our affluent little town - full of band geeks, video game nerds and lean soccer stars, couldn’t find but a few mountains to hold the line of scrimmage (and those few were bused in from the city). Most of our players were smaller than our opponents - some who produced players who'd later play for Notre Dame. Though it took years of parental indoctrination, I was finally convinced - my coaches had decided to solve the team's size problem by fattening us up with all-you-can-eat pasta dinners.

Ever since then, it's been my size problem. I've done battle with the self-esteem and social issues obesity presents. I've had surgery on a disc that ruptured simply because I bent to pick up my jacket from the floor, and every backache since has me worried that I'll end up under the knife again. Last year, I was diagnosed with sleep apnea. Then there are the risks I have yet to experience: diabetes, stroke, and coronary artery disease, to name a few. I don't blame my coaches for this - I doubt they knew any better.

But when Salon publishes an article asserting that anti-obesity is the new homophobia, and that we fat people are really just victims of "moral and aesthetic disapproval", it isn't just misguided, it’s dangerous. The article attempts to create equivalence between the treatment of the overweight and the homosexual by the big bad medical establishment:

“Homosexuality” and “obesity” are both diseases invented around the turn of the previous century. Prior to that time, being sexually attracted to someone of the same gender or having a larger than average body were, to the extent they were thought of as social problems, considered moral rather than medical issues: That is, they were seen as manifestations of morally problematic appetites, rather than disease states.

The same medical establishment that pathologized same-sex sexual attraction and larger bodies also offered up cures for these newly discovered diseases. Those who deviated from social norms were assured that, with the help of medical science, homosexuals and the obese could become “normal,” that is, heterosexual and thin.

While it may be the case that obesity should not be seen as a disease, it is and should be seen as a disease-causing factor. A long-term study of men ages 40 to 65 with a BMI between 25 and 29 found they have 75% increase in risk of coronary heart disease, and overweight women a 50% increase. Furthermore, hypertension (which can lead to congestive heart failure), is three times more common in obese individuals. In 2006, another study found that in 2002-2003, nearly 60% of newly diagnosed diabetics were obese, and that in 1997, 18.3 of every 1000 obese people were diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, as compared to only 2 of every 1000 individuals of normal weight.

Despite these diabetes statistics, the article claims that attempts to “lessen the prevalence of diabetes by eliminating ‘obesity’ makes no more sense than trying to lessen the prevalence of HIV infection by eliminating ‘homosexuality’.” The fallacy in this argument is that while there is nothing intrinsic in the biology of gay people that predisposes them to HIV infection, insulin resistance is a well documented result of obesity that can lead to diabetes.

The article insists on one last comparison between obese and gay people:

Telling fat people they ought to be thin is about as helpful as telling gay people they should be straight. It took many decades for the medical establishment to recognize that its “cures” for “homosexuality” did far more damage than the imaginary disease to which they were addressed, and that the biggest favor it could do for gay people was to stop harassing them. Fat people are still waiting for the same favor.

Myself and the other obese people I know are aware of the gravity of our problem, and not because the medical establishment told us. We suffer the physical and societal consequences every day. What we need is a society that partners with us in our weight loss, not a society that supports our obesity. We know we are responsible for taking better care of our health, but the nation as a whole needs to accept that some of our societal values - when taken to extremes - have led to unchecked capitalism in the food industry that has contributed to the epidemic. Only then will we see constructive solutions on the national level, such as health insurance that creates serious incentives for losing weight the way we want to (how about reimbursement plans for martial arts, dance, and yoga classes and not just gym memberships?).

So my message to anyone who thinks they should bear a cross on my behalf - don't do me any favors. The last thing I need is someone telling me it's okay to be fat.

 

References:

1. Campos, P. (August 28, 2012). Anti-obesity: the new homophobia? In Salon. Retrieved August 30, 2012, from http://www.salon.com/2012/08/28/anti_obesity_the_new_homophobia

2. Center For Disease Control. (May 26, 2011). Obesity: Halting the Epidemic by Making Health Easier. In CDC. Retrieved August 30, 2012, from http://www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/resources/publications/aag/obesity.htm.

3. Circulation. 2003; 107: 1448-1453 doi: 10.1161/​01.CIR.0000060923.07573.F2

4. Circulation. 1997; 96: 3248-3250 doi: 10.1161/​01.CIR.96.9.3248

5. Geiss, L, et al. Changes in Incidence of Diabetes in U.S. Adults, 1997–2003 American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 1 May 2006 (volume 30 issue 5 Pages 371-377 DOI: 10.1016/j.amepre.2005.12.009)

Image: Ineuw at Wikimedia Commons.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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