Obesity isn't THE problem, but often is A problem

I occasionally check in with writer/dancer/advocate Ragen Chastain, who blogs at danceswithfat.com, even though we have some basic differences. A recent post  headlined, "Why Weight Loss Is Not The Solution," followed up on another entry, "Obesity Is Not The Problem," and both notions fit right into a theme I've been wanting to develop for a while.

I agree with Chastain: Obesity is not THE problem, and as she logically extends, then weight loss isn't THE solution. Obesity is neither a disease nor a diagnosis. But I do think, in the vast majority of cases, that obesity is A problem, and that those few for whom it isn't a problem are exceptions. 

I experience Chastain to be picking apart pieces of arguments that people use to assert that obesity is a sign of ill health, as if knocking down enough of them will undercut the central premise that most obese people are more likely to suffer physical limitations and breakdowns than non-obese people, all other factors being equal.

For example, she writes that "People are told all the time that the way to get a job, get a partner, be happy is to lose weight. Once again, I know unemployed, single, miserable thin people so right there I already know that my problems will probably all be waiting for me at the bottom of the BMI range." It is my strong experience that she is correct, that losing weight will not do those things. But that doesn't mean that losing weight won't be a factor in bringing about those aims, and that some things about life will feel better when I carry less weight, whether I achieve those aims or not.

Further in her essay, she writes that " ... the cure for social stigma is not weight loss. Instead of all fat people losing weight, all people who have a bias against fat people could pull their heads out of their asses and it would have the same effect." Again, I agree with one point, but still don't lose sight of the obvious: Yes, there is social stigma toward obese people, and people who demonize or mock obese people are neither admirable nor helpful. But social stigma does not put a greater physical stress upon one's heart and lungs, or increase risk of diabetes, or produce the joint and foot pain that often come with carrying gross extra weight.  

If we insist that we should focus on health as the central issue, then let's do that: What other people think of my body size is not a factor in my health profile, so I don't need anyone to change their views for me to get healthier. 

For me, Chastain reaches the apogee of her skewed logic when she writes, later in the second essay of the series, that "the bottom line is that we need to remove weight from the health conversation." She so bitterly complains that "people" mistakenly, cruelly, put all the focus on obesity, and her solution is to insist that we put none of it on there instead. My reaction is, "how about we eschew both extremes?"

If she wants to say that other people who aren't fit should also be the focus of more health attention, I'll agree. If she wants to say that there are people who are neither underweight nor overweight who nevertheless have unhealthy lifestyles and should get more health attention, I agree. Obesity in not the only health ill in the land. But just because people are unfair, or because other people are just as unhealthy, it still doesn't remove the all-too-apparent connection between obesity and health complications.

As many readers know by now, I come from a top weight of 365. During my 300-pound-plus years, I was more active than many obese people. Not a dancer, certainly, but I went to the gym, played basketball on Sundays with my brother and our friends, and liked to chase Frisbees with friends. I did sometimes shy away from opportunities to socialize because I knew physical activity would be involved, but I consider myself to have been more active than the stereotypical obese person. 

What I can share with certainty is that my obesity was absolutely, unquestionably a drag on my physical health. If I was assigned to a shift of the composing room floor, I was more likely than others to need or want to sit down. If I was with friends and had to run for the train, I would arrive last and be bathed in sweat. If I had to climb stairs, I'd have to pause and I'd still be winded at the top. I needed longer to recover from these small stresses than non-obese people I was with.

For once, I was in the mainstream, at least in the sense that I wasn't the only fat person experiencing things like this. This is what comes, usually, with being fat. If someone fat is also very active, and limber, great — that is better than not being those things. But active, limber, fat people will almost always run into physical (not societal, not stylistic) limitations before active, limber slender people do. 

It is folly, at minimum, to say that just because an active, limber, fat person can have a better pulse, or lipid profile, than an unfit-but-still-non-obese person, that obesity is not generally a health-promoting condition. Far more often than not, it is a health-limiting condition, even if that's not true for every person on earth.

The improvements in my health, compared to when I was 365, are so broad that I could write a book, but included among them are many physical improvements. Having more than two decades each of fatness and fitness, I definitely prefer the latter. And I think I'd been in the mainstream on that one, too.

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