Who could be against “Healthy Children of All Sizes?” Part I


Me.

Alright, I’m exaggerating somewhat. I’m not at all against healthy children of all sizes.

But I’m *totally* against Healthy Children of All Sizes as mantra against the Strong4Life campaign.

Much has been written about Strong4Life and the stigmatization it heaps on fat children. I didn’t want to add anything at first, because everyone else was all over it and they said everything I would have said if I were to say anything. Now I have decided to add my two cents.

Fat Acceptance Says…

I have heard people say that fat acceptance supports Healthy Children of All Sizes. No, fat acceptance does not support it. Prominent voices in FA support it. A large faction of FA activists do.

But I’m fat acceptance too. And I don’t support it or Let’s Move or any other lifestyle program.

Cutting to the Chase

I can hardly read a post that covers the issue without running into groveling pronouncements aimed at our detractors that OF COURSE we want more wellness for young people. OF COURSE we want to teach parents and children about healthy eating and exercise and provide opportunities to engage in good behavior. We just don’t want to leave the thin kids out. ALL children should be healthy, and the government should make sure of that.

Why?

Of course, it’s laudable to want people to have opportunities to live healthy, happy lives. There’s nothing wrong with having a passion for dance, growing your own vegetables, or including people of all sizes and abilities into these activities. Health promotion in various forms is a passion of many of our bloggers, and you should do what your passion is. Someone’s listening and wants to hear about it.

What I’m asking is: Why is that the first thing that comes out of our mouths when we get confronted? We want to reassure them that we’re really not that different from them, that we may differ on what size is socially acceptable, but we can ALL agree that it shouldn’t be socially acceptable to be unhealthy!

What we should be saying is, “Suck it. You’re not my doctor and you’re not my child’s parent.” Period. Full stop. End of story.

That does not mean that you stop promoting the idea that fat can be healthy or that thin can be unhealthy. It does not mean not giving out lifestyle advice. It just means that it should be tangential, an afterthought, to the central message: Suck it.

For some people, though, the health message is the central message. “Let’s work together to make everyone healthy,” is just as meddlesome and potentially destructive as “Let’s work together to make everyone thin.”

The message that should come first, the message that should be most prominent throughout our posts, the message that we need to DRIVE HOME more than any other is the hands-off message.

The Problem with “Public Health”

Healthism is the mother of fat hatred (and of other forms of prejudice). The idea that people bring ill health on themselves through various misdeeds is as old as the tale of the Forbidden Fruit in Genesis. Over the centuries, the physical characteristics of poor, minorities, and other marginalized groups were made to be synonymous with ill health. After all, if they had been “good,” God would not have put them in the lower classes. Like all good citizens, the healthy and privileged want to stand out from the diseased and underprivileged.

Fast forward, and for a while now, that marker of ill health is fat. Why it is fat could be a post in and of itself. Suffice it to say that there are plenty of possible explanations for this, and there is probably more than one. It might even be all of them. The point is, now it’s all about teh fatz as a marker of illness and premature death.

We now know that people are born with certain physical characteristics or the genetic propensity to develop them later in life. We know (although most of the world doesn’t) that fat is largely genetic and so are conditions like diabetes, hypertension, and high cholesterol. These so-called lifestyle diseases are also strongly linked to chronic negative stress, such as the kind caused by lower social status.*

You can’t be against fat hatred on one hand and actively promote the mother of fat hatred on the other. It just doesn’t work like that.

If we know that fat and these conditions are genetic, then what sense does it make to devote billions of dollars, resources, time and passion to fix diet and lifestyle? What other causes of ill health, what other treatments, aren’t being investigated while we nanny marginalized adults? Many of whom aren’t just poor and/or fat but members of other minority groups? Do you really think that poor fat people who are elderly, disabled, racial or sexual minorities, or otherwise stigmatized won’t feel pathologized?

If we know that fat and its associated diseases are causes or at least influenced by stress, then the solution to that problem is to raise the status of marginalized peoples. The first step towards this goal is to challenge the stigma that leads to their discrimination. It’s not to reinforce those prejudices in order to target them for government intervention.

It’s not healthism! We’re not shaming anyone for their health! We are fun, friendly, and inclusive!

That’s exactly what it is. People will claim that they don’t want to force anyone to do anything. They just want to provide options, in a stress-free, stigma-free environment. They don’t blame the people themselves, either. They blame our society.

So what?

I’m forced to pay taxes for it. As a poor person with limited economic/geographic mobility, I’m forced to stay in a neighborhood that has been reconstructed, without my consent, to serve an agenda I oppose. I’m forced to hear messages that reinforce prejudices against me: that my place is under the watchful eye of government and upper-class benefactors, that my fat and my health are social scourges and that they are caused by my slovenly eating and lifestyle.

Besides, in this culture, what makes you think this program would stay voluntary? If my health, regardless of my size, is socially undesirable and costing everyone money, and the government has the power oppress me, they will take it. Lending our blessing to government health programs, no matter how inclusive, relaxed, or voluntary, just opens the door for this to happen.

As for stress-free and stigma-free, there is no such environment when that environment exists because of, and reinforces, prejudice. An environment that reinforces diet and lifestyle as primary deterrents of health and downplays stress, low social status, and genetics is discriminatory, no matter how nice it seems. Kinder, gentler bias is still bias.

Don’t get me started on “It’s SOCIETY’S fault!” How much better is it, really, to be painted as a helpless victim of society as opposed to a deliberate drain on society?  In the latter scenario, I have some agency while the former image is truly beyond pitiful. Paint me evil any day.

Are marginalized people, especially poor people, trapped by their circumstances in a lot of ways? Absolutely, but they still have agency. The way to capitalize on that agency is to stand in solidarity with them, not to nanny them or treat them solely as charity cases.

But So Many Poor People Support the Cause!

I’m sure most of us know poor people that blame their their fat or their illnesses on their lifestyles or their neighborhoods. They totally support government lifestyle programs. Again, so what? Most fat people blame their health problems on their fat and totally support weight loss efforts and obesity cures. All that tells me is that these people have internalized prejudices against themselves.

Are all poor lifestyle activists prejudiced against themselves? No. Poor people can be foodies and vegans. Poor people have political opinions and lifestyle preferences just like other people. However, I suspect that many of these people perhaps have internalized these prejudices. In any case, the fact that some poor people support government lifestyle programs does not mean that they are right to support them or that all people agree.

Now what?

We need to re-center the message behind our opposition to Strong4Life. We need to move away from reasoning with healthists and move towards aggressive anti-interventionism. If we choose to reason with healthists, we will lose. They will never take us seriously, and as long as we prioritize what they value in our own advocacy, we are enabling fat/health stigmatization.

People who want to promote alternative ways of living well should continue to write about their lives and their advice on their blogs, in letters to the editor, and elsewhere. They should volunteer to make changes as private citizens. When you teach private dance lessons to children of all sizes and abilities, you are acting as a private citizen. When you and your neighbors get together to grow an organic garden, you’re acting as private citizens. You have the right to do this, and you might even do some good. But stop demanding the government do it for you at my expense.

So concludes yet another of Joanna’s famous rants about healthism. I know I said in an earlier post that I would unleash my bloody saw on anyone that raised my anti-healthist hackles, but I’m retiring the saw for now. Let the pyrotechnics begin.:)

*I can supply other sources on request. They are also readily available on Google. 

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6 comments

  1. wriggles · February 9, 2012

    You’ve raised some interesting points here.

    One of the first of numerous tedious rows I’ve gotten into was when I had the nerve to suggest fat healthists probably had more in common with thin healthists than they did with fat non-healthists, who probably had more in common with non-fat, non healthists too.

    It still think that’s essentially true, though I should add, I recognized even then that because healthism is about creating health through performing acts of “healthfulness”, those who performed them whilst being fat often had the confidence to refute the false pathologization of fatness because of their performance.

    So what can you say?

    Healthism is an increasingly dominant cult of the modern age, that’s unlikely to be any less so for fat people, especially as we tend not to wish to rock the boat.

  2. lamona · February 9, 2012

    I have to say I haven’t considered the problem under that light. I don’t really know what to say, but from now on I’ll be careful not to enter the healthist bingo either…

  3. Allison · February 9, 2012

    Nice work on this post. In my opinion, this tendency to demand that government “do something” about public health (insert any problem here) stems from a state-centered or “statist” view of the world.

    To the statist, for whatever problem exists, the government (more specifically the power behind it known as the state) is responsible for fixing it. For them the state is a father figure or even a god-like force from which authority and plenty naturally flows. They react with anger or fear to suggestions that the state should not be involved in various spheres of life–such as education or health care–because they believe that if the state doesn’t provide the service, no one will. (Whereas the more libertarian-minded believe that voluntary action not only brings about the things that people want but does a better job than force.)

    Governments love the statist philosophy, of course, because it affords them more and more power and control as people demand that they deal with x or y. One group will tolerate other intrusive policies if they get what they want and this is repeated over and over.

    Many people want to use the state to effect a public good, and sometimes that has worked. However, there have been consequences, and not only in depriving others of property and freedom that always happens as a result of redistributing wealth and regulating behavior. More state power leads to more state power and a government that interferes in every aspect of our lives. The worst consequence for the US is that our state no longer recognizes the rule of law and uses its power to torture, kill, steal, and imprison without due process.

    Some would say that the “nanny state” that interferes with our health, education, and food choices is not related to the “warfare state” that is responsible for the evils described above. However, both of these take their money from the same pot and both require a federal government that violates the supreme law of the land (powers not explicitly granted to the feds belong to the people and to the states, and there aren’t many explicit powers). When the law is consistently violated for “the public good,” it can certainly be ignored for “national security.”

    Anyway, I just wanted to make that connection with what you were saying, and affirm my belief that the best way to accomplish something is NOT to lobby the government, but to organize voluntarily with others to DO SOMETHING yourself, just like Stand4Life campaigners have done.campaignnow

    I find the overwhelming predominance of the statist philsophy in this country (the US) to be a disturbing trend.

    • Alexie · February 9, 2012

      It’s one thing to argue that the government is on the wrong track with the ‘obesity epidemic’. But to dismiss all government health actions on that basis flies in the face of evidence. Consider the public health campaigns that virtually wiped out polio, tuberculosis and measles. That mean that parents today don’t worry about their kids dying from pertussis. If you were a libertarian in the 1950s, you would have got pretty unhappy about being made to have a chest screen or a vaccine, and yet today, polio and tuberculosis are no longer diseases that threaten kids in the first world. How, exactly, have these actions ‘deprived’ people of property? Big Tobacco have certainly been deprived of easy profits thanks to public health campaigns, but the falling rates of lung cancer in men – and, no doubt, in women in the near future – are surely worth the price. So whose rights do you want to protect, exactly?

      And to whom, exactly, is the government an all wise-all powerful father figure? That’s a straw argument. ‘The government’ is just us, a collective group that allows us to join with other citizens to do the things that need to be done. Personally, I don’t have the money to pay for armed guards or my own private roads, or to educate the doctors who I may need one day. Whereas through my tax I can add a bit into the pot and help pay for the services that I will use, like the police, the road workers and the medical system.

      You can argue about the appropriate role of government, and that’s a legitimate thing to do. However, conflating the word ‘government’ with a perpetual warmongering state is a false argument. There are many governments in the world that don’t wage war on others who, nevertheless, work for the common good of their own citizens (Scandinavia, middle Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Canada). Imperfectly, and often mistakenly. But they’re not war machines and it’s absurd to suggest otherwise.

  4. JFR · February 13, 2012

    I am in complete agreement with you. Fat people deserve to be treated well because they are human beings whether or not they are healthy. HAES is fine until it becomes a moral imperative. Fat acceptance should not be conditional on health.

  5. KellyK · February 14, 2012

    I agree with a lot of this. Healthism is wrong and a violation of personal boundaries, whether you separate it from fat hatred or not. And as JFR says so well, “Fat people deserve to be treated well because they are human beings whether or not they are healthy.”

    But I think you can be in favor of *opportunities* for people to improve their health without being in favor of force or shame or stigma to go along with that. You can try to make sure everyone has access to fruits and vegetables without stigmatizing the people who will still choose to eat at McDonalds. You can try to make sure school gym classes actually provide physical education instead of shame and bullying and a pat on the back for the kids who are already athletic.

    I haven’t seen any of the I STAND posters arguing or implying that it’s socially unacceptable to be unhealthy, though I agree that when you get into talking about public health there is a fine line.

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