“Facts” and Obesity as a Construction

Hello everyone! Something has been next level riling me up recently. Following the Lush Instagram debacle I have been all over the place in my head. Now, for those of you who didn’t see this first hand or read anything about it later on and have just clicked on that link, you might not see any immediate problem with the content. Lush is promoting a screening of the film What The Health.  And here are all my problems with this.

The material they’re using to promote it are several [poorly chosen] stats. The stats are in a kind of confusing order. The first and last are US specific, one of them uses the World Health Organisation (so, that’s an international stat .. right, ya might think?), and the other three don’t have any kind of location info. And this is from Lush UK. Now, the stats go in this order: cancer, weight, food, lifestyle, cardiovascular disease, fatty arteries. Given the order, I went through it and went oh cancer, then weight wight weight weight weight. This is what is commonly thought about weight. And I say ‘commonly’ based on what I see on the internet, how people (including friends and family) talk, the way policy is head, the way the media and TV and magazines and eHealth and apps all play with and use the concept of weight: weight is your choice. You – yes, you, only you, an individual – are in control of this. Weight becomes symbolic of who you are. Your body is your physical manifestation, an artifact that you have the power to alter and construct in order to reflect your values, your successes, your failures, your goals. The choices that you make are reflected by your body.

“Choice” comes with baggage. You have good choices and you have bad choices; ones that effect you and only you, and ones that can effect others. Some choices are hard, some are easy, and some are meant to be easy but aren’t at all. Now, there are a couple fun concepts about how members of a society have the responsibility to be healthy (and to be healthy in order to be productive, a la capitalism) – health governance, biosociality, and so on. Good health is important, it’s the best, it’s what you are meant to aim for. It is your responsibility, as a member of a functioning society, to be in control of your body and health. This is peak neoliberalism, and what we are currently experiencing with the way health is managed and promoted by our NHS. When everything boils down to the words “lifestyle” and “choice” it screams YOU, INDIVIDUAL. If I do things that are known to be bad for me – smoke, drink, do drugs, run onto motorways – this is my own fault, and the repercussions are my own fault yet paid for by society as a whole. Most obviously when stats like “obesity costs the NHS X million a year” or whatever. So, why do we seem to care so, so much more when it’s obesity?

 

I find it distressing to see the number of ‘concerned’ comments on bodypos or fat acceptance posts. It screams how little people actually understand about ‘health’ and what health actually means. Health isn’t visual. My health is different from your health – I wear my health differently. Someone’s crooked or discolored teeth doesn’t mean cavities. Conflation of what someone LOOKS like and their internal, biological well-being is dumb as fuck. Mental health is one of my favourite examples. You do not know anything about the inside of someone else’s head, you just don’t. When someone obese sits next to me in the library my right to talk to them about their weight is zero percent, this goes for literally anything and is straight up common sense, but when it comes to weight it seems like all normal barriers of etiquette are shot, and everyone fancies themselves a doctor.

Doctors. This is my biggest hoo-ha. The comments on the Lush post, leaving out the ones which are just truly, truly abhorrent, circle around “but Lush is just sharing the facts!” – let’s remember that these ‘facts’ weren’t even contextualised, but anyway. First thing: health reporting has so many limitations. Statistics about health vary. When it comes to making films and promoting shit, you guessed it, the best (i.e. the worst) stats fly. This is basic sensationalism. Science and medicine are not free from sensationalism. They are not free from cultural bias, they are not free from social parameters. They are not free of fat phobia, or misogyny. Classic examples include how there is the smallest pool of research imaginable on vaginal infections, on vaginal orgasms, on male birth control, and on anything that would be actually really useful to me as vagina having person. Conception is a great example, go read Emily Martin’s ‘The Sperm and the Egg’. Science was so convinced that eggs, just like women ought to be, were passive and dress-wearing, that it took until the ’90s for them to actually have a look-see and realise that wow the egg actually doesn’t just sit there in its “vestments” waiting for a heroic diddy sperm to come to it. Science operates within the confines that we operate in. And this goes for obesity and research on obesity.

It is so, so much easier for a government that has a failing health system to go “whoa! not our fault, it’s you! take responsibility for your own actions!” than it is to recognise the concept of obeseogenic environments and recognise their own responsibility in constructing spaces that actually deter people from making the choices that, ironically, they want you to make. Obesity, as a concept and as a ‘health risk’, has so, so many associated schools of thought, and they are here:

School of Thought 1School of Thought 2

There is a growing body of literature that says “obesity really isn’t that bad, we need to chill out”. There’s fun evidence (we all seem to love evidence but heck do we like to choose what we read and regurgitate) that says that painting obesity as a crisis by using stats is wrong just by definition, as rates have been increasing for 60 years so that rate we’re at now is in fact just totally normal. And, speaking of normal, when a significant portion of the world is apparently obese .. isn’t that normal? Really not a radical statement. You wanna use statistics to make points, use ’em. By 2050 apparently 60% of adult men and 50% of adult women are going to be obese – that is a majority. Also, stuff we don’t talk about enough: if you’re overweight in middle to later life you actually have BETTER health outcomes. Your weight protects you. Being overweight has better health outcomes in general than being underweight. Ta-da. Using science here, guys, just like y’all like to.

Also, more literature (from the social sciences typically) really looks at the media (in terms of print, like magazines and newspapers writing misinformation but also portraying overweight and obese people horribly) and televised and fictional media accounts (books and shows and films, and also some really nasty documentaries). There’s one of my new favourite concepts: moral panic. It’s where everyone gets super riled up about a possible epidemic or crisis, when this proposed crisis is in fact really just not a thing. The ‘moral’ part of it comes from society and culture – and we are so, so obviously living in a fatphobic world. One of the biggest examples I can think of to demonstrate that this ‘weight is your responsibility’ argument comes from UK government policy. No where does it talk about what the DISTRIBUTION of obesity across the country looks like. It’s totally unequal! It’s most prevalent amongst those in the poorest parts of the UK and in manual labour (for both men and women). When are we going to talk about class and its associations with obesity? A solid double whammy for those already so trigger happy with the judgements.

Anyway. I’m mad, and I’m upset, too. Seeing the comments on the Lush post just drove home how much people really pick up from ‘science’ – that every Daily Mail headline that tries to associate bum size with blood pressure (hello! correlation is not causation! #neverforget) has somehow so greatly resonated with them that they feel obliged to spew it on via aggressive concern trolling. Brief conclusion: science isn’t the be all or end or. “Facts” and medicine and science are socially and culturally informed. What people weigh is literally none of your business. The choices people make for themselves are literally none of your business. Done.

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