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Middle Ground in Telling Stories About Fatness?

Ira Glass and This American Life get a B+ for telling stories about fatness on this popular public radio program. In an episode called “Tell Me I’m Fat,” Glass presents a pretty complete picture of the pervasive bias against people living in big bodies.

Roughly half of the episode revolves around Lindy West and her experience “coming out as fat” to her friends and family. Her wit, honesty, and experiences are both compelling and entertaining. West tells an especially engaging story about offensive essays on obesity published by a friend – who was also her boss – in the weekly newspaper where she worked at the time. She eventually responded with a “scorched earth essay” that said, in part:

You don’t know anything about my health. You do happen to be the boss of me, but you are not the doctor of me. You have no idea what I eat, how much I exercise, what my blood pressure is, or whether or not I’m going to get diabetes. Not that any of that matters, because it is entirely none of your business.

Elna Baker builds upon West’s narrative with her own story about how losing more than 100 pounds – and living at that lower weight – has profoundly affected her life. She laments the unearned privileges she gained and the uncertainty she feels about important relationships, including her marriage. She goes on to describe her difficulty sleeping:

Really, I am awake because I am on speed. And I am on speed, because I need to stay thin. I need to stay thin so I can get what I want. I know how this sounds. I know exactly how messed up it is.

Her “speed” is phentermine that she buys without a prescription in Mexico or online.

Roxanne Gay and Daniel Engber complete the program. Gay explains that the impact of fatness is very different for black women with extreme obesity. Engber tells the story of Oral Roberts University suspending students for being fat on the 1970s.

Kudos to This American Life for a compelling exploration of appalling bias and discrimination that people face when they live in a large body. Unfortunately, the program presents a very limited – and misleading – worldview. In that view, medical care for obesity is “messed up” and defined by taking “little colored tablets…Skittles…similar to amphetamines…speed.”

In that world, “obesity” is a trigger word, not to be used except “ironically, within quotes, or accompanied by a political analysis.” Obesity research is an object of scorn in that realm.

Such a limited worldview is just another flavor of intolerance. We’ve had enough of intolerance.

Click here to listen to “Tell Me I’m Fat” on This American Life or read the transcript.

Open To Close, photograph © Tom Wachtel / flickr

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June 30, 2016

4 Responses to “Middle Ground in Telling Stories About Fatness?”

  1. June 30, 2016 at 11:37 am, Allen Browne said:

    Good post – I just listened to the podcast.

    But I don’t know if it”s good because it hurt so much, inspired so much, discouraged so much , or encouraged so much.


    • July 01, 2016 at 4:27 am, Ted said:

      Thanks, Allen. I agree.

  2. July 01, 2016 at 3:30 am, Moose said:

    Obesity *treatment* IS messed up, outside of the field of bariatrics. Too much emphasis is placed on weight loss over general health and health care. Metabolically fit but fat people are pushed to diet for weight loss even when they eat in a healthy manner and exercise regularly.

    Worse, studies show that a disturbing percentage of doctors see fat people as lazy and non-compliant. They admit to treating their fat patients with disdain and feel that treating them is a waste of time.

    I can tell you tales that would make your hair stand on end, but this rant will go on far too long as it is. 🙁

    Obesity *research* by actual obesity experts is generally a good thing, but has some major faults. A big issue as I see it, after 20+ years of reading obesity research (I am admitted not a scientist, doctor, or expert, but I’m not without resources), is that people not directly involved in obesity-related fields tend to let their personal bias affect their outcomes.

    Lastly, I’d also like to note that “speed up the metabolism” has been a fad for decades. in the 1950s, doctors recommended smoking cigarettes for weight loss. We only (relatively) recently know that it increases metabolism, which is why people tend to gain when they quit (and not, as previously believed, because they start overeating in place of smoking).

    In the 1960s it was medication meant to treat hypothyroidism. My understanding is that L-Thyroxine is a poor means of speeding the metabolism, but desiccated thyroid may do so and not without side-effects.

    In the 1970s, the doctors would prescribe actual speed for weight loss. Same reason, increasing metabolism. Of course, stopping it caused gain, and of course, there were other, fatal problems as well.

    By the early 90s it was Fen-Phen.

    Today the thing for weight loss is less about metabolism and more about surgery. I am looking forward to 20 years from now to see what they say about it.

    • July 01, 2016 at 4:26 am, Ted said:

      Thanks for sharing your views. Moose. A growing number of good professionals offer good care for people living with obesity. For just about any condition you might name, but particularly something as complex as obesity, you will find professionals who don’t deliver a good standard of care. A good provider does not “push people to diet for weight loss even when they eat in a healthy manner and exercise regularly.” It’s that simple.