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Judging Fat People

Be honest: What's your first reaction when you encounter an obese person? I'm guessing it's not sympathy.

Don't think the fat person doesn't notice. According to The STOP Obesity Alliance, a nonprofit organization headquartered at George Washington University, the stigma associated with being overweight or obese is enormous and has broad implications. According to Morgan Downey, the Alliance's policy director, society's disdain for overweight people often contributes to their feeling defeated, to a sense of "nihilism" that makes them just want to give up any efforts to lose weight.

We're not inclined to like fat folks. Just look at the flap that erupts every time a celebrity gains weight. A study released in 2007 suggests that there's a biological basis for our revulsion: The theory holds that our subconscious mind sees fat as akin to disease, something we inherently fear may be contagious.

I've been thinking about these things extra hard after writing this week's "Eat, Drink and Be Healthy" column about Kate Kane, a young woman with a genetic disorder that causes excessive hunger. Left to her own devices, Kane would eat anything that's not nailed down -- and probably pry the nails out so she could get to the rest -- and would be obese. (Kane, who once weighed more than 300 pounds, now lives in a group home where her food intake is restricted and is of normal weight.) Scientists are studying her particular condition and the endless hunger it entails in hopes of better understanding the potential genetic causes of obesity in the general public.

Learning about Kate Kane's condition reminded me that, among all the people who put on weight from eating too much and exercising too little, there may be some who simply cannot help it.

There may be no overcoming our initial, knee-jerk judgment, which, according to that 2007 study, is perhaps hard-wired in our brains. But at least we can work on what comes next. As one whose weight has fluctuated over the years, I know that being overweight can stem from all kinds of circumstances, from emotional stress to the simple fact of being relegated to sitting at a desk all day. I know I feel crummy when I'm heavier than I should be, and I can tell when other people notice my weight, too. It would be nice if we could all cut each other a break.

Here's this week's poll....

... and the results of last week's about fighting the post-grad 15. Of just 270 people voting (come on, people, get in the game!), 30 percent said they'd developed healthful diet and exercise habits only as adults, after leaving college; 20 percent admitted they'd stuck with their college-era bad habits for too long after leaving school. A lucky 24 percent said they'd eaten healthfully during college and continued to do so afterward -- just the opposite experience to what 19 percent reported, which was that they did well in college but lacked time to pursue healthful behaviors once they left school.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  June 23, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Nutrition and Fitness , Obesity  
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NY Times talks about this today as well:

What always bothers me about this discussion is the qualifiers -- it's not "just" about willpower, it's not "always" about willpower. Which implies that, for many people, it IS just about willpower. If they could just put down the Cheetos and get off the couch, they wouldn't have this problem.

Well, you know what? Fat people have a ton of willpower. You know how much willpower it takes to lose 20, 30, 40 lbs? You are hungry all. the. time. 24-7. And the best part is that it doesn't stop once you've lost the weight -- to stay "thin" (a/k/a "normal"), you have to live with being at least a little hungry on a regular basis forever and ever and ever.

I've successfully lost good chunks of weight twice. The first (after baby 1), I journaled all my food, limited myself to 1800 calories a day, and exercised hard 5-6 times a week. I lost 20 lbs, but a year later, I was still hungry all the time just trying to keep it off. Ultimately, I quit.

The second time (now) I'm doing Atkins/South Beach -- lots of lean protein, dairy, and fiber, no breads or pastas. I've found it's the best way to stave off those blood sugar swings that leave me shaking and inhaling anything I can get my hands on.

But the willpower involved is still huge. Every day, I still hear that little voice that says "boy, some [fill in blank] would sure taste good right now" -- not just at mealtimes, but in-between as well -- probably 15 times a day I have to consciously decide NOT to eat, or think of a healthier alternative.

Here's the kicker: I'm not obese. I'm talking about the effort that goes into reducing my BMI from @ 27 to @ 25 (27 lbs in 10 mos). So if it's this hard for someone who's fairly close to a "normal, healthy" weight, I can only imagine how hard it is for someone who is much heavier.

Posted by: laura33 | June 23, 2009 10:23 AM | Report abuse

It's human nature to be judgmental of other people. Since nobody's perfect, we'll never entirely get rid of the obesity stigma. However, I still think it's important that we try to reduce it. Increasing awareness through articles on people like Kate are a great way of helping to improve society one thought at a time... by putting a name and a face with a real life struggle (although I don't have the same condition she has we can ALL relate to lifelong challenges), it brings the human element of obesity into the limelight.

Because deep down, those who struggle with obesity are people, too.

Do I pity those who struggle with obesity? No, "pity" probably isn't a very descriptive word. I don't feel bad for them, just as they shouldn't feel bad for themselves. But I can empathize. And I've offered support and advice for friends who were trying to dig deep and find the kind of will power laura33 posted about.

Please don't take this the wrong way. I'm not claiming to be perfect. My first reaction in many cases when I see an obese person is to be kind of grossed out, as with the rest of society. But I'm actively trying to fight this reaction in myself -- and more importantly, after I react this way, I try to always remind myself not to jump to any pre-conceived notions. Just as I do my best not to jump to any pre-conceived notions based on skin color, gender or disability.

Kate, thank you for being vulnerable with the general public by openly sharing your struggles so we can learn from your experiences. And Jennifer, thank you for taking the time to cover it.

Posted by: briskijm | June 23, 2009 11:10 AM | Report abuse

There is more than one correct answer.
Yes, it is difficult to lose weight, or change any entrenched behavior. However, for most people it can be accomplished by changing eating habits and increasing exercise. The problem most of us have is maintaining the behaviors we have changed. Eating is a rewarding behavior. We may be evolutionarily programmed to eat as hunger was a more present danger in the past. Those who have to face the weight battle do have my sympathy, but there is hope.

Posted by: roitzsch | June 23, 2009 11:55 AM | Report abuse

Having struggled with my weight my entire adult life, I certainly don't have ready explanations or answers, but I feel a recent observation and experience is worth sharing.

At 48 years of age, I have discovered that a good part of this battle has been my perception of food as an "enemy" rather than a source of nourishment. Every drop of pleasure in eating has been gone for years and years. I eat to comfort myself. I eat when emotional pain feels too large to manage. Those two things I know for certain.

Diets do not work for me. I've tried Atkins, Weight Watchers, Nutrisystem, counting calories, diet journaling and a multitude of other programs, over the course of many years. They work for a short while and then the whole thing derails and I gain back what I lost and more.

Something else does work. I guess I'm older and hopefully wiser, but I'm truly cherishing my life, finding the good in each day and telling myself almost on the hour, "I don't have food issues."

It is like a switch has been turned and fifteen pounds have melted away in the last couple of months with this method of actually enjoying the taste of food, enjoying the moments of my life, and not putting so much effort into recording, thinking and obsessing about the next bite that will enter my mouth.

My body is being nourished, as well as my soul. I am not in "diet" mode. I will never be in diet mode again. I do not feel deprived. I feel alive and engaged.

I find myself exploring the fresh produce in farmers markets and implementing nutrition tips in my daily routine. I find myself taking long walks where I enjoy the fresh air and sights along the way, without a thought to how many steps I'm taking or how many calories I'm burning. The walk is for the joy of being out in the fresh air and feeling my body move. I love a big bowl of oatmeal sprinkled with raisins or dried blueberries for breakfast. I love a dish of fresh raspberries that I share with a friend on my afternoon break. I'm finding food I love and it is so very, very satisfying.

The reward is better health, a fitter body, and a much, much happier outlook at work, at home and at play. I'm still overweight, but I feel tremendous positive change taking place.

I still feel the occasional sting of others reactions to me, however, I also realize that this is my life and I must find my own fulfillment and happiness, aside from what anyone else may think or do.

Posted by: sherri_ah | June 23, 2009 12:31 PM | Report abuse

The author's point that it seems to be hardwired (dislike for fat people) doesn't fly when you look at this crossculturally. In some societies obese women have been highly valued for their perceived attractiveness. We need to look at how we are conditioned to despise our bodies, and all the imperfections that come with normal bodies (e.g., cellulite). Just take a look at all the images pushed at us in the media and you can see the roots of much of our loathing. Perhaps we also want to feel morally superior, that we have somehow "controlled" our bodies better...

Posted by: ember1 | June 23, 2009 1:05 PM | Report abuse

I was just talking with my mom about this. She's 64 and has struggled with weight on and off for most of her life. Going back to work from being a SAHM for 15 years tipped her towards the heavier side of the scale. She's now down to a size 12/14 from a high of a size 20 and she told me that she can only eat one meal a day (no snacks) or she gains weight and that she seems unable to lose anymore no matter how active she is.

I think we all judge but it is just not easy.

Posted by: jenrellis | June 23, 2009 1:33 PM | Report abuse

I haven't had anything better to do than watch those shows about REALLY overweight people on Discovery Health Channel.

I now think that there are fat people who need to watch the fries and move around a bit more, and there are fat people who have entrenched issues such that they will probably never be quite normal. I mean what kind of a person is so content to eat and depend on others that they balloon up to a size where they don't even fit through the door of the room where they live?

Those people have my sympathy. Something is way wrong with the world/system they're living in and it's not apparent to me what it is.

Other so-called fat people may just need to watch their diets more closely, or maybe their appearance isn't that important to them. It's not for me to judge.

Posted by: RedBird27 | June 23, 2009 1:42 PM | Report abuse

Bringing a patient with Prader-Willi into this coversations is just silly. Of course I'm sympathetic to her and her family. She has a terrible genetic disease. People with Prader-Willi can also be profoundly retarted and will eat their own feces. It's not the same thing as being genetically "normal" and obese. At all.

It never even occurred to me to feel sympathy toward fat people. I don't know them or their plights (or lack thereof). Now if someone were yelling insults at them or something, I'd feel sympathy. But if they are just going about their business, why would I assume they need sympathy?

Posted by: atb2 | June 23, 2009 2:21 PM | Report abuse

As the child of an obese parent, this question hits really close to home. Watching my parent deal with negative attitudes from close friends and total strangers has shown me just how destructive these judgments can be to a person's psyche and self-esteem. Which can complicate their efforts to lose weight.
At the same time, I hear people say that we should just accept obese persons as they are. While I love my obese parent and know they are a good person who should not be judged only by their looks, I also want people to understand that it is more than that.
When I see an obese person, I tend to relate to them like alcoholics. Yes, there may be a disease or a genetic factor that causes this addiction. Yes, it is unfair that others don't have to work to fight this temptation. But whether or not it is their fault, it is a health problem they need to deal with.
I also know that the people who care about that person are hurting because of it, and I want the person to work to fix it. Watching a parent go through an array of health problems before age 50 that most people only see in their 65+ year old grandparents, kills me. And I know that my parent will not be able to have a long, healthy retirement if they continue to be obese. So even if it not their fault, even if it is hard, I still want them to fix it.
So, I guess what I want to say is that sympathy may be necessary for obese persons. But that doesn't automatically mean acceptance is the answer.

Posted by: onegirl | June 23, 2009 2:56 PM | Report abuse

As someone who has gained and lost hundreds of pounds in my life and still battles obesity, it still blows me away the entitlement everyone seems to feel when it comes to sharing their opinions on my size. Total strangers have questioned my choices in restaurants, sales clerks have told me that I should be shopping elsewhere. Family and friends advise on latest diet trends. Obese people know more than anyone what everyone thinks of them. Our culture screams it loud and clear. When I have been successful in weightloss it has been because of an aliance of emotion and knowledge. Sometimes it has been because of the judgment that I have actually found the motivation. Other times it has been the very reason I have comforted myself with unhealthy things that get me here. I am not wanting pity from those who judge, but some compassion from society could help so much. Healthier options in restaurants and fast foods are a good start. So is further research on the physical and genetic components for some people. I once saw a psychology experiment in which an audience witnessed a fat person sit in a chair that broke. The audience laughed, of course. Another audience composed of similar demograhics was shown a "normal" sized person sit on the same chair that broke. The audience gasped and wondered if the person was injured. No laughs.
Whether or not we are hard-wired for this is a very good discussion. It could help some of us being judged to not take it as personally and shake the shame.

Posted by: teasey | June 24, 2009 12:00 AM | Report abuse

Prejudice against those who are overweight is an unfortunate social phenomenon that says a great deal about modern American culture. It wasn’t that long ago (100 years) that weight was a sign of success.

It was a relief today to find a news story on a study showing that extra pounds protect people from an early death (“A few extra pounds can add years to your life,” Reuters). Reports on that story were outnumbered by stories on childhood obesity and pancreatic cancer.

No one has a financial interest in telling the public that being overweight is not unhealthy. The weight-loss industry, pharmaceutical industry, and researchers with grants to study the obesity “epidemic” are understandably not objective on this subject.

What’s unhealthy is eating junk food and not exercising. Unfortunately junk food and lack of exercise lead to both disease and overweight. To draw the conclusion that being overweight is the cause of disease is highly unscientific.

For an intelligent refutation of the misinformation the public has received about obesity, I recommend:

Rethinking Thin by Gina Kolata
Fat Politics by J. Eric Oliver
The Obesity Myth by Paul Campos (now titled The Diet Myth)
The End of Overeating by David Kessler

A little harder to find, but well worth reading, is an essay by historian Peter N. Stearns called “Fat in America,” in Cultures of the Abdomen.
“Guilt trips really do not work effectively. Making people feel personally deficient as they face weight problems does not motivate remediation very widely, and often leads to compounding behaviors. … Contemporary pressures toward excess weight need to be seen as social, and not just or even primarily as individual issues.”

This is one of many subjects of interest to me at my blog,

For disclosures’s sake – not that it should matter – my BMI is 21.

Posted by: TheHealthCulture | June 24, 2009 1:05 AM | Report abuse

I agree with the post by thehealthculture.

Americans could stand to get off the weight/fat loss kick and get into healthy lifestyle. That does not mean being obsessive about health either, that is a whole other disorder.

We are creating our own eating disorders with this fat fear/phobia and body bashing and obsessive quest for a slimmer body.

Read Health at Every Size by Linda Bacon. Phd. for a common sence approach to weight.

Also read It's Not About Food by Laurelee Roark and Carol Emery Normandy if you want to learn about how to get off the diet/binge weight obsession cycle.

Posted by: blondiesorganichair | June 24, 2009 9:04 PM | Report abuse

Trying a new hobby may divert your addiction to food.

Or changing eating different style food such as trying Chinese food or mediterranean food.
Here they are.

Posted by: nabing99 | June 24, 2009 11:39 PM | Report abuse

What I have to say may be a surprise to some, but here it is: Right now I weigh quite a bit and my employer knows I have health issues related to the obesity. It is making it very hard for me to do parts of my job because I have had Osteoarthritis in both my knees for at least 15 years or more and suffer quite a bit and often it is very difficult to walk very far at all. The Arthritis has gotten worse and I recently found out a couple months ago my right foot is now deformed by it. I have tried very hard on my own to lose weight and have several times, but for the past 22 years I haven't been able to lose it no matter what I do. Now, I am being counseled through my doctor's office for the weight loss surgeries, but this will take at least 6 months to even get a surgeon. I am 49 years old and cannot have knee replacement surgery (which is desparately needed now) until I turn 65 years old. In the meantime, my employer continues to harass me about why I can't do everything a skinner person can do, or why I can't just get up and do things. I have given them letter after letter from my doctor, but now they have to repeat all the tests with their doctors because apparently they can't look at me and see that my doctor told them the truth about my weight. Would one of them that is more normal sized be put through all I am going through to try to keep my job if they were diagnosed with Diabetes, High Blood Pressure, Asthma, or the Osteoarthritis like I have been? Of course not because they are considered normal weight, so it is different for them to have a medical issue and still be accepted. It is sad that society doesn't accept a person that is obese, or for an employer to not accept a person who is obese. If I were showing up drunk on the job, doing any kind of illegal drugs, cursing, fighting with people, or just even dishonest I could understand, but I am none of those. Just another fat or obese person who at one time loved her job and just wants to be accepted the way I am, but to be encouraged in my weightloss pursuit instead of constantly harassed by my supervisors and everyone else above them.

Posted by: midnight102699 | June 25, 2009 11:58 PM | Report abuse

I am very overweight. Averaged on the past 40 years, I have gained 3 pounds/year. The amount of excess food that I needed to eat to gain that weight is about 25 calories/day.

I actually gained much of that weight at 10 pounds/year. The amount of excess food that I ate to gain that weight is less than 100 calories/day. So, one extra soda a day and I gain 120 pounds over time.

Conversely, I went on and stayed on a diet for over a year. I weighed and counted everything I ate. A 500 calorie deficit/day is supposed to result in one pound lost a week. Of course, the 500 cal. deficit means giving up one of three meals.

But, in spite of staying on the diet, living a very active life style, and exercising, it took me a year to lose 25 pounds, my weight plateaued for 16 weeks--as I followed the diet, and I had to eat under 1,000 calories to lose the final 10 pounds.

The only consequence was that I raised my set-point and made it inevitable that I would regain weight.

Fat people are NOT eating far more nor exercising far less that others. I have tremendous will power--I would have slapped someone by now otherwise.

Posted by: vcreek2002 | June 26, 2009 12:46 AM | Report abuse

I try to feel sympathy for how difficult it is to lose weight and maintain that weight loss, but I've never struggled much with weight myself. (body image, that's another story...) But I tend to associate being excessively overweight with 3 different factors:

-Excess- and sprawl- the fact is Americans do have a luxurious, lazy lifestyle where we use cars instead of our own feet to move around, and eat excessive amounts of empty, processed calories more than fresh food. Too many calories, too much driving instead of walking, suburban-style living instead of living in walkable communities. This is the category where is the easiest to say, come on, change your lifestyle, exercise more! But I know it's not that easy or simple for many people. This is just what comes to mind, sometimes.

-Poverty- the flip side of excess, when processed food seem easier and more affordable than fresh food that may be more expensive per calorie. Poor people tend to have nutritionally poorer diets than middle-class or rich people, and higher obesity levels. Nutritional education, especially in poor communities, would help alleviate some of the obesity associated with this factor.

-Disease- this one has been covered. People who are on certain medications or have health problems that prevent them from exercising, eating a normal diet, or processing foods normally tend to gain weight, as well. Sometimes, overweight, otherwise healthy-looking people have underlying health problems that are not immediately visible, which leads to unwarranted discrimination.

Excess, poverty, and disease make me sad. Sadness is my most basic reaction to fat people. I don't like seeing fat people because they remind me of those things. I guess I feel pity, more than anything else, combined with curiosity as to what their story is, as well of a twinge of anger, but not at them personally (unless I know their story). I don't dislike or feel repelled by fat people, I just feel sadness. I do prefer not to sit next to them on the subway or an airplane, practically speaking, as a personal space issue. But (call me a bleeding heart liberal if you must), obesity and being overweight are as much societal problems as they are individual problems.

Posted by: gracedc | June 29, 2009 5:28 PM | Report abuse

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