Tuesday, May 10, 2005

How Can You Tell?

I have read, all over Blogistan, a variety of posts about body size, weight, health, and diet. First, myriad people have pointed out that there is a certain amount (as in: a great deal) of cultural tyranny, that people who are perceived to be "too fat" (and that's in quotes for a reason) are treated poorly. People will offer rude remarks, salespeople will treat "fat" people differently, and the clothing choices for women who are larger than a size 14 are ugly and limited. None of these are trivial complaints. It's also the case that the culture provides highly idealized versions of the female (and, increasingly, male) body. The culture has always done that, even as the ideal body has changed over time; the major differences are (a) there is less room for deviation, i.e., there's little acknowledgement of the fact that people come in different shapes and sizes and (b) the ideal is punishingly difficult to attain without an eating disorder. I'm probably a bit less susceptible to the ideals, in part because I have less intersection with popular magazines and television shows and therefore have less exposure to those ideal bodies, in part because I'm older and don't give a shit, and in part because I've never been regarded as fat (or thin, for that matter). (I can provide more info about how the ideals have changed in the last hundred years, if anyone's interested.)

When I have ventured into the discussions around these posts--which I do rarely, because passions are, perhaps understandably, quite high, and I have a different dog in this hunt--I've suggested that health should take precedence over some idealized and unattainable body image. That is, eating a balanced diet (in my opinion: maximize fiber, vegetables, whole grains, and fruit; minimize fats, sugars, and animal products; and minimize or eliminate highly processed foods) and getting regular exercise (30-60 minutes/day, even if it's only a long walk) are healthy goals and are easier to manage than a particular dress size or even body weight. The response to that nearly always has been one of dismissal. No, no, I'm told, the "fat" person in question IS healthy, s/he DOES those things, and s/he STILL gets lots of bad remarks from people! And that may well be true: some, or even many or most, of the people who are writing about the way they are treated because of their body size may well be quite healthy and may well get daily exercise and eat a healthy diet, and it's worth reiterating that the remarks are never acceptable. But, damnit, not everyone who is perceived to be too large is doing those things, just as not everyone who is thin is doing those things. Yes, I understand that we revere thinness (or some people do; it squicks me out, and it squicks out every man I know), such that the unhealthy thin people will get less shit (or even be praised) for their appearance than will healthy fat people. Yes, I understand that 20 or 30 or 50 extra pounds isn't the end of the goddamned world and that opinions differ about which pounds are "extra." We can talk about the cultural perception of body size, or we can talk about the metabolic facts of the matter and about what constitutes "healthy lifestyle," but conflating the two (a) seems to be what happens and (b) seems to engender lots of arm-waving and finger-pointing.

I understand how it happens, too: we think that health is not just embodied but visible, i.e., that the visible body serves as a marker of the health of that body. Thus, the culture (and individuals within it) point fingers at people whose visible body appears to be outside the limits of what the culture regards as healthy. That, of course, is unacceptable--Miss Manners frowns on such drive-by commentary, and it really is remarkably rude. In addition, it's easy to be mistaken about the assumptions embedded in the thinking that results in the commentary. I can think of four or five people I know personally (a) who are larger than the culture regards as appropriate and (b) who eat better and get more exercise than any four or five random people on the street who aren't as large. I also know people who are larger than the culture regards as appropriate and who eat like shit and get no exercise; people who are regular-size, eat healthy, and exercise regularly; and people who are thin, eat like shit, and get no exercise, though admittedly that last category is the smallest (and not just bodily).

And then, as usual, we have Ann's thoughtful commentary. We also have kstyle's experience, where she adopted what SHE regarded as healthier habits, and stuck with them even when the weight didn't come off--for months!--and then . . . it did. Go Ann and kstyle! (I've never met them, so I have no clue what their bodies look like.)

I think, in sum, what troubles me most about the arm-waving/finger-pointing is that sometimes it seems that people are blaming the culture for the choices they make. Yes, there are many, many problems with how our culture sells us food and body images; yes, our families give us powerful messages about what's acceptable and what's not, long before we have the tools to distinguish healthy from unhealthy or the wherewithal to ignore the unhealthy messages; yes, food that has a lot of sugar and fat tastes extremely good; yes, it can be time-consuming to cook healthy meals and get regular exercise, and yes, fast food and sitting in the car are tempting alternatives. But here's the thing: If you eat more than you utilize each day, you're going to gain weight. If you eat a lot more, you're going to gain a lot of weight. Yes, metabolisms differ. No, everyone's body is not the same (and how boring would THAT be, thank you very much). Yes, some people would have to live on water and a saltine to become as thin as the culture suggests would be desireable. (I'd regard that diet as ridiculously unhealthy for anyone, mind you.)

And really, on some level, what difference does it make? It depends on how highly you value health. Not weight, not size, but health. If you value it but don't live it, it's not the culture's fault. If you don't value it, well, I personally think we'd all be better off if we did value it, and I think there are benefits that accrue to the people around us as well as ourselves (remember the cultural transmission part? we CAN try to challenge the offensive messages), but I can't make you value it, and I shouldn't try, except perhaps by the force of my arguments, if you're open to hearing them. And, most important, I can't tell whether you value it just by looking at you.

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