A few days ago, The Daily Beast published a piece by columnist Emma Woolf titled ‘If You’re Fat You’ve Only Got Yourself to Blame’. In it, Woolf laments what she calls “blame culture,” the apparently widespread problem of fat people blaming the “food police” for their weight. She points out that she has known since she was a child that vegetables are more healthy than candy, and compares obesity to cigarette addiction and alcoholism, conditions which are impossible to achieve without the participation of the sufferer.
It is reasonable to be irritated by the current designation of certain bad behaviors as addictions, and therefore diseases, as though gambling or shopping too much were like cancers, their victims struck down out of the blue and powerless against the spread of the illness. And it is reasonable to be, like Woolf, irritated by the suggestion that, by pointing out that diet and exercise are potent weapons against obesity, we are terrorizing the overweight, who then have no choice but to eat more toxic food.
And she certainly does manage to pick some aggravating quotes: “The louder the food police shout, the more they scare us into scoffing doughnuts…” Certainly, whoever said that is so righteously helpless, he should probably stop talking and close his mouth, lest more food fly into it. However, Woolf’s point of view, which is so tempting, leaves her reader with a vague feeling of distaste.
First, over-eating, or eating unhealthily, is not perfectly analogous to cigarette or alcohol addiction. There is no ‘healthy’ cigarette consumption — every time you light up, you are doing something which is, medically speaking, stupid. Likewise, it is possible to never consume a drop of alcohol and live a perfectly healthy life.
Not so food. The person who wants to lose weight cannot go cold turkey, suffer through withdrawal, and stay clean. They must eat, and every meal requires them to indulge exactly enough and no more.
Food has always been complicated for people, and so it has always been morally freighted. One need look no further than any foundational religious text to see this: what, where, when, and how we eat has always been a matter of public concern. In the United States and Great Britain, where Woolf lives, the religiousity of the oversight has diminished, but the moral urgency with which we police each other has not.
And, maybe, it is our business what you weigh. Obesity-related healthcare costs are substantial, and are, in the modern social welfare state, to some extent borne by all. But if keeping people healthy is truly our concern, instead of merely feeding our indignation, then we need to ask what works and what does not.
When advocating personal responsibility, one walks a fine line between helping and harassing; when discussing other people’s weight, if you can’t say something helpful, don’t say anything at all. Woolf’s piece is smug and distinctly unhelpful. She advocates, essentially, having healthy parents and an internal locus of control, while offering not a lot of meaningful advice about acquiring either.
There is mounting evidence that weight-loss programs that incorporate social support are more effective. Group support has long been a part of addiction treatment, in programs like Alcoholics Anonymous. These programs offer participants a network of allies, people who have suffered similarly and who can, while advocating personal responsibility, offer perspective during setbacks. These programs work, when they work, in large part because they reduce the isolation of the participants, and because isolation and depression almost always exacerbate their conditions.
Woolf offers the exact opposite kind of attention — she is on the job to tell fat people how alone they are in their struggle: will-power is their only weapon in their battle with food, and they are losing.
Is telling the overweight, “Eat less” constructive, or is it cruel? Surely, the overweight are aware of the link between junk food and weight gain. Woolf chooses to read their protestations as literal — “When people fat-shame me, it forces the cheeseburgers into my mouth”. And she picks quotations that support that view, and so constructs an outrageous straw-man. It is unlikely that most people mean it that way. Rather, it is meant more as an expression of frustration at the social pressures which make an already difficult condition more so. Woolf’s piece had the quality of someone who walks up to a smoker and tells them, “You know, those things will kill you”. It is safe to assume, in 2014, that they know.
If someone is obese, one of two things are probably true: either they are unhappy about it, in which case additional scolding is unnecessary, or they are happy, in which case, perhaps they should be left to enjoy their happiness. If their weight costs us all slightly more in our insurance premiums, does that give us the moral right to shame them and then claim that we are helping them? Even if we have that right, do we really want to exercise it?
Maybe the fat are costly, but maybe so are we. They may eat too many Twinkies, but maybe we smoke, maybe we drink too much. Maybe we ride a motorcycle. Maybe we have unprotected sex. Maybe we tan. The Twinkie-eaters don’t get to decide for us, nor we for them. Even as we pay our premiums, we reserve the right to hurt ourselves as we will, each according to his own.
And if some percentage of the overweight decide not to take responsibility for their part in their condition, does that then give us the right to turn up the heat on all the rest? Does that give us the right to turn up the heat at all? As in all things, there will be those who do not want to be helped – why have we given ourselves the task fixing those who do not feel that they are broken?
“Eat less.” “Eat better.” Sure, okay, yes, do that. But would it have cost Woolf anything, besides page-views, to say, “Eat better, and good luck — I know it’s hard.” Or to understand that weight-loss is a long, arduous road, full of deprivations and setbacks, and that it is lonely enough without the self-righteous thin telling you that you are the way you are because you’re a weak slob. It would be more compassionate for Woolf, while she beats her personal-responsibility drum, to acknowledge from her own experience as a recovered anoretic how complicated and painful our relationship with food can be. Despite their outward difference, the anorexic and the obese are emotional kin: they both allow food too much power. To eat too little invites less derision than to eat too much, but the truth is that there is a narrow middle ground of food consumption that is physiologically healthy, and anoretics have fallen wide of it just as much as the obese. Ironically, Woolf is in a position to offer the kind of understanding that we know helps people struggling with their weight, but she chooses not to.
I would not reference Woolf’s own struggle if she had not herself; our feelings about the person we see in the mirror, and about what we read on the scale, should be private. It is always tempting to be moralistic about other people’s struggles, but, in this case, it is not useful. What is useful, however, is subjective. After all, each person has a personal battle towards health, and a personal definition of what health means. Maybe then the most useful thing is to cheer on people as they search for their own personal version of healthy, rather than telling them what they, no doubt, have heard for years.