Food Fight! Why We Love To Hate Fat People

American cultural icons, apple pie, baseball, ...
Starch! Sugar! Fat! Carbs! Image via Wikipedia

Why do fat people make us insane?

I was struck by this recent, powerful post by fellow True/Slanter Ethan Epstein:

Imagine a television show on a major American network in which AIDS victims were paraded in front of the cameras and hectored by ultra-conservative evangelical ministers. The ministers inform the victims that they are being punished for their “decadence” and “hedonism.” Or perhaps a different program – one centered on people dying an agonizing death from lung cancer. They’d have cameras shoved in their faces as anti-smoking campaigners told them that if they wanted sympathy, well, tough. After all, they should never have smoked in the first place! Or, best of all, how about a show concerned with fat people. A chef from a foreign country would come stateside and lecture the citizens of America’s “most obese city” about how their unhealthy eating habits are going to consign them and their children to an early grave. This infantalizing message would be accompanied by lots and lots of camera shots lingering on the fatties’ rolls of flesh.

This week, kicking and screaming like a three-year-old who really needed a nap, I went to see a dietitian who put me on a severely restricted diet, on doctor’s orders. I don’t look obsese to most people. Curvy, yes. Definitely a candidate to shed some weight. I’ve gone into surgery more eagerly.

As Jamie Oliver is learning with his ABC television show, getting anyone to change what they eat — size, portions, taste, fat, salt, sugar — is a task far more complex than it appears. Set aside his show and the drama of battling school bureaucrats. Our emotional relationship to food and drink is like some tenacious desert plant, its wiry, tough roots buried deep in our psyches.

We eat what we eat, whether sipping, swallowing or gulping, for many many reasons, some unconscious.

Here’s what happened today at lunch. I ordered a small Caesar salad with grilled no-sauce chicken and a Diet Coke. I’m allowed, for that meal, two cups of salad and 2 tablespoons of oil and vinegar and 6 ounces of lean protein. No starches. I brought (hidden beside me, I ate alone) a measuring cup and set of measuring spoons. Waiters stared. I didn’t care.

The small salad, in our local Greek restaurant, was four cups of lettuce. It also had croutons that looked fried. A huge plate of fresh pita bread — I love warm pita! — dropped onto the table. A thick dish of creamy sauce. I had both taken away.

Were I my usual weary, distracted self, reading a newspaper or magazine or deep in conversation with a friend, I could easily have eaten both, inhaling a delicious 500 extra calories, all while eating “healthy” food. In only one meal.

My diet, for now, is about 1700 calories a day. Sounds like a lot to me. Hah! Hunger is now a constant companion. It’s like a little dog gnawing on my ankles, day and night. I’d like to drop-kick it across the room, (not a dog, the discomfort), and have two more weeks to go.

Millions of people today would be desperately thrilled to have access to half these calories.

We need to acknowledge to ourselves — our kids, our doctors, our mirrors, our fridges and grocery carts — that food is not simply fuel. We cling to it, and savor it and gobble it and gorge on it, for many reasons:

Culture: For many people, certain foods mean “home”, whether the fat-marbled smoked meat sandwiches Montreal is famous for; the creamy hummus of the Middle East; the flaky delight of a burek or baklava or croissant. It brings us, with every bite, closer to our country or culture of origin, in a nation of immigrants, no small thing.

Family: Feeding your family is the most primal act we commit, from the moment the baby latches onto the breast to deathbed purees.

Love: There are few easier, quicker, more affordable ways to show your love for someone than to cook them a meal, whether chicken soup or a birthday cake. “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach,” women are told. And it is.

Memory: For my friend Dalina, it’s her Nana’s spaghetti sauce. For others, their mother’s pie or uncle’s barbecue. For my partner, who grew up in the Southwest, his late Mom’s posole. My Dad always adds fresh apple to his salads so when I do it I think of him. (I also do it when I sip a great glass of Scotch.)

Pleasure: In a time of terrible financial difficulty for millions of Americans, food and drink remain, for the fortunate, a ready and cheap source of refuge and comfort. If the fridge or cupboards are full, so, too will be our belly, if not our gas tank or bank account. The salty crunch of a fresh potato chip or the creamy smoothness of a rice pudding — bad for you!!! –– carry tremendous allure when everything else is simply too damn expensive right now.

For low-income families, “right now” can be a lifetime.

Yes, I know and I agree — everyone needs to make wise(r) choices, eat small(er) portions, stop choosing to consume fried crap crammed with chemicals and color and sugar and salt. Have you tried to buy a loaf of commercially made bread with no added sugar or high fructose corn syrup? Good luck!

The United States — unlike France, Germany, Canada, Japan — was founded by Puritans. People not, perhaps, wild about the sensual pleasures of the flesh. Consider this in the finger-wagging culture that mistakenly and punitively conflates the size of your ass with the value of your soul.

I am now doing physical therapy for my arthritic hip at an upscale health club. The parking lot, at 9:00 a.m, is so packed I can hardly find a space, jammed with Range Rovers and Mercedes and BMWs as dozens of lean, ropy women head inside for yoga or a class or a workout. They are not, clearly, distracted from their goals by a long commute or a job. It’s a lot easier to be skinny and nauseated by fatties when you’ve got hours to burn off every calorie that goes into your mouth.

The cheap easy rush — sort of an addictive sugar high, really — of loathing fat people needs to be moderated by compassion.

Some fat people have no money. Some work three jobs and have little time to find and cook fresh foods with the lowest calories. Their local stores or bodegas may not stock the right foods and drinks. They work weird hours and/or it may be dark, cold or too dangerous in their neighborhood before or after work to even go out for a healthy, vigorous walk. A gym or health club can cost a shocking amount; our small, crowded, worn suburban Y charges more than $80/month for a family membership. That’s not cheap.

And who will watch your kids?

Too many people are forced to gulp (!) meals at their desks, shoveling food into their faces as fast as possible to avoid looking slack or weak — someone who can be fired. Many are constrained by physical pain or injury — I haven’t been able to exercise since January. To the ignorant and judgmental observer, I’m PiggyGirl  — clearly someone with zero awareness of how she eats, obviously overweight from (not), snarfing Twinkies and double cheeseburgers.

When some of us can’t even cross a room without agony, and 46 million Americans suffer from some form of athritis, (only aggravated by obesity), it’s time for the skinnies to lay down their self-righteous whips.

The next time you feel like sneering at a fat person, whether their flesh is jammed up against yours on a bus or airplane, or on TV or at the gym, ask yourself why.

18 thoughts on “Food Fight! Why We Love To Hate Fat People

  1. geekysarah

    Ugh, I feel you pain, and best of wishes on your new endeavor. I’ve recently put myself on a diet because I’m starting to get into the “pudgy” range on the BMI chart. Unfortunately, my favorite foods are breads, pastas…mmm rice.

    My least favorite part of the whole thing is that it makes it really, really hard to eat on campus. Apparently, they believe I should be eating for two, even with salads. Now, I’m 5′ nothing, and my fiance and I have been griping about the lack of control of portions when we go out. I can’t finish many value meals at fast food places because they’re too big, and I certainly can’t finish the portions at the restaurants. However, I now have a collection of cheap plastic toys from the kids meals that my cat enjoys batting across the kitchen 🙂

  2. Caitlin Kelly

    I have to admit it’s really interesting to remove the easy choices and sloooooow way down. When you only have X number of almonds, you nibble them like a squirrel.

    What I am finding fascinating, and surprising, is that I am not even eating all the food I am supposed to. It even looks like too much, which is weird. This tells me that by totally removing the pasta/rice/bread thing (and boy do I love all three of these) you have to focus very carefully on seasoning and eat slowly and very consciously. That’s just not how many Americans eat; fast food places are designed to make you gulp and run.

    I took the second half of my lunch salad home and ate it for dinner. One friend (I am considering this) bought a small scale and weighed his food, even in restaurants. (I think you can do this unobtrusively.) Embarrassment be damned, if it’s a matter of health.

    You have struck me in your comments as a confident young woman. I bet you’ll find a way to work this out.

  3. larryb33c

    You pretty much nailed it. Let’s not forget that weight prejudice works nicely as a proxy for classism.
    Yes, puritanism is alive and well. You only need to venture over to any the NYTimes’ Well section and check out the comments on any obesity related post. People will take the obese to task while extolling (and describing in depth) their virtuous dietary habits and exercise regimes. Can you say “bore”? Of course, these are not prejudices of the simple minded– no their concern is with rising health costs and the strain on our system caused by the obese. never mind that BMI is pretty much pseudo science.
    Biggest Loser– the thing I find most reprehensible about this show (and really– there is so much to choose from) is the insistence of the trainers (who most definitely are not mental health professionals unless you consider “life coach” a valid credential) to get to the contestants’ root psychological causes for their obesity. As you know, fat = mentally ill.
    Anyway, thanks for the post.

  4. john

    There is an excellent book I would recommend to you about eating in general called Syndrome X by Challen, Berkson, and Smith. It is centered around insulin resistance, which leads to a number of undesirable conditions in human beings. With so many diets out there its easy to get on and off the wagon and fail to develop any principals you can use, which is why I recommend it to anyone interested in eating. The first 6 or so chapters talk about how we evolved and what our diet has been historically and then shows how this has changed and what the effects are. It develops principals for eating that you’ll see being employed in your new diet I am sure. I really can’t recommend it more highly than to say it’s the one book I always return to when I forget my own eating principals. . .

  5. scottchaffee

    There are two clearly observable problems with the way Americans view food. First, is the way we seek to medicate ourselves by eating. Comfort food? Caffiene and sugar in the morning? The second is identifying ourselves with what we eat. That goes for the anorexic gym fanatic and the obese. I really like C.S. Lewis’ take on gluttony via the “Screwtape Letters”. Fixation on food is gluttony. Same for adherents of strict diets, same for non stop eaters. It’s food! Energy for the days labor. If it wasn’t available in such abundance, we would finally understand.

  6. Caitlin Kelly

    larry, it’s all about “self-discipline” — i.e. virtuousness. Not exactly. I’d say it’s a lot more about self-awareness, mindfulness and REALLY understanding (and who does?) how our bodies actually use and process food. I knew, sort of, that carrots have sugar – but not that much? I can’t have green peas for two weeks….Green vegetable, right?

    As for mental illness, I agree; equating receiving emotional comfort from food (and who does not in some way? Good food can make you happy) is pretty basic for everyone, even the skinny girls eating nothing but salads. They get to feel REALLY self-righteous and isn’t that *their* food-derived emotional comfort? I’d say so.

    And don’t even try to understand the shell-game of “low fat” foods at the grocery store. Only after I saw a nutritionist did I get how much sugar was in my “low fat” yogurt; now I eat only 0% greek yogurt.

    john, thanks…As always, helpful stuff!

  7. Caitlin Kelly

    scott, I agree. “Self-medication” is a fair comment, for some people.

    In response — not arguing that point — I look at the larger culture where Americans “enjoy” the least amount of vacation time in the world, 15 million work in retail (my book), for crap wages doing thankless, dull jobs that lead nowhere for many of them, where many lose hours of precious life/time to long, costly commutes. Food and drink, without doubt, often proxy for *preferred* missed pleasures, whether an extra cuddle with your kids or dog or partner (no time) or a gorgeous new…whatever….you just can’t afford or the loss of the job you loved and the colleagues you miss.

    Many of our emotional losses and time tradeoffs simply cannot be assuaged, as the “system” forces us into daily choices. Grabbing a creamy cappucino and (oh help me!) a donut, is a quick, cheap way to be happy for a while in your car or on the subway or at your desk where they won’t allow you to leave for a healthy meal eaten slowly in the sunshine.

    I don’t think it’s just gluttony (which exists); it’s also conveiving of and finding ways to add much greater, affordable, accessible pleasures to our every single day — that we are not stuffing into our faces. For me, it can be an hour sitting in the sun reading a book. But, oh, am I ever missing bread right now! 🙂

    1. scottchaffee

      Caitlin, thanks for your response. That’s the rub. We have to stop thinking we deserve food as a substitute for love, vacation,etc.; and we have to stop seeing it as a remedy for sadness, bratty kids, or a world that doesn’t get us. It’s food! Energy for the days labor. Doesn’t sound romantic? Only humans could take a fairly gross but necessary bodily function and turn it into an obsession. Not to mention the environmental carnage and social inequity caused by this obsession. We aren’t going to find the meaning of life in food, no matter how many donuts we eat.

  8. Caitlin Kelly

    Here’s where I will diverge from your perspective — and it’s really a profound difference of opinion.

    “Energy for the days labor. Doesn’t sound romantic? Only humans could take a fairly gross but necessary bodily function and turn it into an obsession.”

    I see food very, very differently. I think trying to strip away all emotion from food (and drink) consumption is a fool’s errand. I think every morsel that passes our lips, (if “only” gratitude we even have some food and drink) has emotional weight, just as it contains calories. It doesn’t, to continue the metaphor have to be HEAVILY freighted with emotion. But to call it “fairly gross” suggests to me (?) some disgust or discomfort with an attachment to/enjoyment of food as food, as opposed to food as fuel for the day’s labor.

    How about “fuel”– (a word I find a little scary; we are not merely metabolic machines) — for the day’s active **leisure**? A long walk or bike ride or run or softball game? Surely we do not eat only to enable us to work?

    I’ll suggest a few ways I, and others, see this differently:

    1) there is enormous sensual pleasure **in and of itself** to be had in a a delicious meal or glass of wine or succulent fresh peach or piece of cheese — not proessed junk! I am a sensualist and get great joy (as many people do) from the experience of selecting preparing, serving and eating very good food (not costly, fresh and well-made) and drink.

    This is normal in many other countries and cultures — not the U.S.; France and Italy come to mind.

    2) there is, for many people, the meaning of life in food as a form of nurture and self-nurture. Abused to excess, unhealthy. But we all need to eat and drink — and why deny how lovely it can be? I have seen my dinner guests and my partner beaming with sheer delight at the meals I’ve made for them. That is joyful for me and for them.

    Moderation, especially of pleasures so relatively easily accessible, my original point. Now there’s the rub.

  9. There are too many excellent points in this post for me to capture, but suffice to say your analysis that we don’t eat simply to refuel our bodies, but to meet a range of intangible needs, is dead on accurate. And it is much, much harder to control weight than those who don’t struggle with the problem realize. It seems we all need easy targets to criticize and sneer at, and overweight people are, unfortunately, among the favorites in our society. Great post.

  10. inmyhumbleopinion

    For me the issue has been twofold: (1) a complete change in my routine from going to work everyday and barely sitting down as I ran from meeting to meeting vs. being a relatively sedentary student who is either sitting in class for three hours at a time, or sitting at the computer at home doing homework; and (2) having teenagers and a husband who consume anything and everything and are still skinny as rails. Needless to say, there’s a lot of food in the house I can’t metabolize the way they can, and yet, I really hate the idea of making separate meals for myself. I may have to get over that because I know I’d cause a rebellion in my own house if I banned rice and pasta from the collective table.

    You’ve given me new resolve to get my butt to the gym and put the cookies under lock and key!

  11. Caitlin Kelly

    David, thanks.

    My frustration at being told what to eat and in what quantities, even for two weeks – let alone the rest of my life (she wailed) – unleashed emotions going back to years of boarding school where every day of the week had the same meal, were told what table to sit at, etc…Issues of freedom and control over food likely underlie many of our decisions, healthy or not. It was embarrassing and instructive to realize some of the emotion beneath some of my choices.

    imho, I hear this from friends as well; one, a man my age, told me today he’s lost 13 lbs in five weeks — but his wife keeps buying junk food for the kids so it’s in the house and he has to avoid temptation. It’s been challenging watching my sweetie drink wine and eat bread.

    I have to admit, it’s a lot easier to simply ban all starches and sugars (not even fruit) and know exactly what is “safe” than to negotiate the minefields of portion control and goodies like pasta, rice, cookies…My friend raved about Weight Watchers’ online system and “points” making it much easier to track his intake.

  12. reba

    I have to travel for work, and eating dinner is often the most enjoyable part of a boring and lonely existence while away from my family (and the company pays for it!). One way I’ve learned to cope is to order a salad and an appetizer instead of a meal–portion sizes are a bit better and I still can get some yumminess. If I order a full size dinner I ask them to pack half to go and only bring half to the table. I would definitely sit and read and eat it all– no problem.

    Food is an important part of my social life, as well. I think it’s a girl thing. When I get together with my girlfriends, it’s always for breakfast or lunch– long meals with food involved. Maybe we should get together for a walk instead…

    I’d love to figure out how to make food for sustenance only.

  13. Caitlin Kelly

    It’s remarkable, and worth thinking about, how much pleasure and comfort many of us get from a good meal — and from eating in company (literally, “eating bread together”) and lovely surroundings.

    I am not at all in favor of making food something like diesel — fuel or sustenance only. I’d rather die younger and happier having truly enjoyed delicious meals than eat lettuce for the rest of my life.

    The irony is that when I have visited Paris, walking 4 to 6 hours every single day — eating all the “wrong” fattening things like ice cream and croissants and drinking lots of wine and very good food — I always come home thinner. I hate the sedentary, drive-everywhere life so many of us lead. It doesn’t help.

    I watched Parisians closely. When they buy an ice-cream and it is “small” it is one very small scoop, maybe 8 ounces. It is not, as in the U.S., three very large scoops, surely 3X the fat and calories.

    1. larryb33c

      I totally agree. Food is one of the great pleasures in life. I do not believe in looking it as just fuel. And, I would contend that in the U.S. we don’t seem to care about food like people do in other cultures. I mean, we have foodies– but I have worked around enough immigrants of various nationalities to see that food matters more elsewhere– the desire to cook and eat a good meal is not concentrated to a few classes of society (obviously, I am overgeneralizing about the U.S., but you get my drift I hope).
      I love to bake (cooking dinner– not so much). I do love sweets, but there is a lot more that I love about baking too. It would suck if I could not do it any more.

  14. Caitlin Kelly

    One of the many challenges of my current (ugh) diet is how limited the choices are; I hate a pile of cooked vegetables but love making soup, so instead of (ugh) drinking clear broth (hello, nursing home) and cooked veggies (ditto) I plan to combine them and make soup. I love baking and simply won’t give up all these culinary pleasures. The meeting with the dietitian was ugly and largely because there was not one minute devoted to asking how I feel about food or the role it plays in my life. You cannot simply medicalize nutrition and leach out all pleasure even when trying to be(come) healthy.

  15. Thank God someone gets it. I’m not overweight because I stuff my face with twinkies and cheesecake (I WISH!) all day. I’m getting older, the old metabolism is slowing down, and I’ve slammed butt first into the hard lesson that I can’t eat like a teenager all day and still only weigh a buck o’five soaking wet. It’s taking a lot of willpower, but I think I’m finally “getting it” myself and putting myself on a healthier road.

  16. Caitlin Kelly

    I agree with willpower. But after only 4 days of this wretched diet (10 more to go) I want to throw salad and vegetables out the window. It is really really boring. I would rip my arm off for a piece of sourdough bread. I can’t see feeling this deprived for the rest of my life.

    The useful exercise is looking very very hard at portion sizes and the astonishing amount of high fructose corn syrup EVERYWHERE. Yesterday in a college cafteria I picked up “light” salad dressing, only 20 calories…bloody hfcsyrup was it’s third ingredient! I really don’t feel like carrying oil and vinegar in my purse but in some places it appears necessary.

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