• Why the controversy? (World Obesity Federation)Source: World Obesity Federation
Common sense dictates that you can't catch obesity simply by standing next to a larger person, writes Helen Razer. So why is the topic of obesity such a source of discomfort and anger for so many non-obese people?
Helen Razer

18 Sep 2017 - 4:01 PM  UPDATED 19 Sep 2017 - 4:40 PM

When a particular show aired for the first time on SBS, it was described in many headlines as “controversial”. While it’s true that The Obesity Myth explored some surprising preliminary medical research, it’s also true that surprising medical research is pursued, and reported, often. Honestly, I can’t recall a week that has passed in the last decade where I have not been interested to learn of some emerging tendency in medical science. Like many human people, I am intrigued by both the mystery of the body and the ongoing attempts by science to unlock it.

Science is a dynamic pursuit always in the business of improving itself. (Hm. Wish I could be more like science.)  It doesn’t stay still and when it attempts to build on its past movement with new research, we don’t get to say, “Science. It just can’t make up its mind!” Of course science can’t make up its mind. That’s the whole point of it, and has been for some four centuries. Science will always move and will, therefore, always be “controversial” to that small group of people who believe that things in the world stand still.

But, there is, in Western societies of the present, an additional layer of controversy that comes with any discussion on obesity. The notion that obesity is the result only of “bad character” and a lack of self-discipline is very widely held. Any challenge to that popular belief, whether it comes from hard medical science or the theories of psychology, is easily dismissed as “controversial”, or, as letting the obese “off-the-hook” for what many strangely regard as their crime of selfishly taking up too much darn space.

Science will always move and will, therefore, always be “controversial” to that small group of people who believe that things in the world stand still.

So, obesity remains frustratingly “controversial”.  Even those very rational-seeming people who might otherwise believe that scientific inquiry is vital—they might be supportive of climate science, for example—can suspend their reason when it comes to fat. To be obese in the present is to be, to some others, an offence. I’m hardly the first person to note that our slightly larger citizens are often thought of as almost identical to smokers: self-destructive burdens on healthcare resources and bad examples that will cause others to passively ingest calories, or something. I never really understood loathing for fat.

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Leaving aside that Australian smokers pay an enormous bill in advance of their predicted health problems—in the opinion of some, they are penalised more harshly than the tobacco companies who provide a product universally seen as addictive—it’s an imperfect analogy. I mean, for a start, one does not become passively obese or in any way physically inconvenienced by simply standing next to a larger person. If, for example, you blame the larger person standing next to you on public transport for your discomfort, you are outsourcing your blame irresponsibly. Your discomfort is guaranteed in peak hour in any case. You could enter a carriage full of people with the bodies of elite marathon runners at peak hour, and you’d still have an uncomfortable ride. Your argument is with public infrastructure that routinely fails to keep pace with population growth. Your problem is that you have the habit of blaming individuals for collective political decisions.

Soft-headed prejudice is not useful. Hard-headed inquiry is useful. But, the former, not the latter, has long been more influential in “explaining” obesity. This book by one of the world’s very few obesity historians, Sander L Gilman, traces how the loathing for fat has grown in Western societies. And it shows how many more scientific attempts, including that shown on SBS in a finale this week, to investigate the matter are so easily dismissed in favour of simple bigotry.

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You can catch up on the previous episodes through SBS On Demand and see how some Australian scientists have investigated the genetic causes of obesity. It’s fascinating, but—again, this is what science does—it’s one part of a complex story. Previous generations of scientists and social scientists have observed the link between poverty and obesity. It was during the Great Depression that psychoanalyst Hildre Bruch, one of the many Jewish intellectuals to flee Nazi Germany to the USA, observed that children from the most impoverished families were gaining, not losing, weight. It was just a few years ago that former banker Raj Patel offered the finding that many of the world’s most impoverished people were gaining weight due to high-calorie foods being, by a very long shot, the most affordable. Workers who are both time- and cash-poor turn, because they must, to the high GI “option”. They have no other choice.

Then, as Burch also observed in her early work on obesity, there are powerful emotional factors which powerfully influence overweight. The link between experiences of abuse and obesity is well-documented by researchers, and powerfully evoked at the emotional level recently by Roxane Gay in her memoir.

Workers who are both time- and cash-poor turn, because they must, to the high GI “option”. They have no other choice.

Although Gay’s account is an intimate self-portrait, it goes, in my view, beyond the self. She manages to bring together the individual experience of overweight and the social experience of it. She straight out says there are two forces that touch her body: first, the factors that made her fat—a term she and many fat activists prefer—and then, the very wide refusal of others to concede that fat is not just a “choice”.

The Obesity Myth may be “controversial” in that its findings do not tally with the many proposed explanations, medical and social, for obesity. It certainly doesn’t tally with the bigotry that Gay and others have described. Neither of these may tally with the insightful writing of Dr Karen Hitchcock, who presents yet another medical view on the matter.

But. What it does tally with is our great tradition of asking good questions about being human from a sound basis. Science and philosophy are the best tools we have to understand a problem, or even work out if there is a problem. (It’s my personal view that the view of an obesity “epidemic” is overstated as a problem, and in a way that actually prevents those who would prefer to lose a few kilograms from so doing.)

Science cannot answer everything. Reason alone does not solve all our problems. But, these pursuits can present a challenge to our unreasonable problem of bigotry. Which is the least “controversial” pursuit I can imagine.

If you or someone you know needs support contact Lifeline 13 11 14, or talk to a medical professional or someone you trust.

Watch The Obesity Myth on SBS on Monday 18 September at 7:30pm on SBS and streaming on SBS On Demand.

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