Obesity: not a ‘self image’ problem

By Greg Stevens on October 15th, 2013

My recent article, You eat too much, elicited strong emotional reactions from many readers. The letters and comments still flooding in that express outrage and anger at the article follow two main themes I think are worth addressing.

The first is what I will call “special cases”. What about people who are on medication that cause weight gain? What about people who are injured in an accident? What about people who binge-eat in their sleep and don’t even realize it? Does it really make sense to blame them them for being overweight?

The people who point out these special circumstances are doubtless very well-intentioned. But I think the reflexive tendency to focus on these anecdotal stories is unhelpful.

Look at the numbers for a moment. Over 35 per cent of Americans are obese. Do you really believe that all, or even most, of these individuals fall into these “special case” scenarios? Are they all sleep-eating, or on special medications that cause weight gain? Is it not more likely that even when you factor out people with such “special circumstances”, there are still a large number of people left over who simply have bad habits?

I understand that the people who focus on special cases mean well, because they are trying to introduce nuance into the conversation. They are trying to say: “Don’t paint with a broad brush!”

But by chronically focusing on special case exceptions, rather than personal responsibility, these stories become the excuses that every obese person can latch on to. Every person then imagines him or herself as a “special case” and declares: “Why even bother? It’s out of my control!”

For most people, that is simply not the case.

The second theme is “I struggle with being pudgy”. Many people shared their own stories about growing up as pudgy kids, and always trying to eat right and exercise, and yet nothing seemed to help. These were sincere and emotional stories from people who have battled their entire lives to “lose that last 10-20 pounds”.

They were offended by statements in my article such as: “If you want to make a change, put down the ice cream scoop and pick up a gym membership. It really is that simple.” They wrote to tell me from their own experience: they know it isn’t “that simple”.

I completely understand the frustration that many people feel, battling their entire lives to get into better shape, and often never seeing the results that they want. Many people I know – perhaps most people I know – have lived their entire lives with the quiet desperation of not being completely satisfied with their physical self-image.

But let’s be clear: that is not what this article is about.

The article “You eat too much” is about obesity. Obesity is not “feeling a little fat”. It is not the pudgy little girl who can’t seem to lose that last 10 pounds. It is not the person who works out every day, and counts calories, and still just can’t fit into those 32-inch waist jeans.

There is a huge difference, both psychologically and literally, between someone who “can’t lose that last 10 pounds” and someone who is obese.

When talking about chronic dissatisfaction, seeing yourself as “slightly overweight”, then all of the complexities of issues like self-acceptance and cultural standards of beauty become very important. But that’s not the case with obesity.Obesity is not about self-image, and it is not about whether one can be both “round and sexy”.

It’s about being dangerously, medically overweight.

Perhaps this issue is so sensitive that no amount of clarity would be “clear enough” to prevent this misunderstanding. If that is the case, then that is part of the problem with our culture.

But if we allow people to conflate obesity with “being a little overweight”, then we will never be able to have a serious conversation that addresses obesity for what it is: a serious medical issue that requires changes in behaviour before and above all else.

NOW READ: You eat too much