(updated to, hopefully, find and fix all my typos 25/02/10)
I pretty much never buy newspapers anymore, but thanks to a charity fundraiser, we did get a subscription to the National Post. Normally, I find the NP pretty reliable. Like most papers, they tend to lean one way more than the other politically, but they tend to be informative about both sides of an issue.
Today (or should I say, yesterday, since I'm writing this past midnight), they weren't.
The section, Media Planet, was focused on obesity. Titled, "The Heavy Truth; Your guide to what obesity is, how one gets there, and the way to get out," made it pretty clear which side they weighed in on (no pun intended), but in case there was any doubt, the full page graphic cleared up any doubts. A light coloured profile of a fat body, made up of a mosaic of cookies, is surrounded by the browns of chocolate bon bons. Because, of course, we all know that us fatties are fat because we stuff our faces with sweets all the time.
Actually, when my daughter first held the section out to me, my first thought was that I was looking at a full page weight loss ad, as this graphic seemed to be part of the weight loss clinic blurb across the bottom of the page. In fact, in flipping through the section, it was difficult to tell the difference between the articles and the ads. Every article was framed with ads for clinics, diets, bariatric surgery, and weight loss supplements. The entire back page of the section is taken up by one ad. The most obvious thing a reader gets from this is that, if they want to lose weight, they need to spend lots of money on these things. The articles pretty much told us that we were doomed if we didn't lose weight.
There were actually a couple of fairly balanced articles. The very first one, Obesity: Lifestyle Chance or Lifestyle Choice, was one of them. Sorta. It espoused some of the usual myths, but pointed out that fat people don't "choose" to be fat. Later on, there's Obesity: Should we blame nature or nurture. That one finished with the simple answer of, it's both. Obesity and Eating Disorders, at least, starts off by saying that obesity is NOT an eating disorder, but it still goes on the assumption that if we just eat "right," our bodies will change to our "natural, healthy weight." Which is just doublespeak for "thin," since everything else about the section tells us that a larger body shape cannot be natural, nor healthy.
Many of the articles were little more than promotions for specific weight loss diets, clinics, surgeries, supplements, and so on. They were all filled with the usual assumptions. Fit and healthy = being thin. Eating right = reducing calories to lose weight - otherwise known as Dieting, even if they don't use that word to describe their regimen. Feeling happy about our bodies, or just in general, can only be achieved through weight loss. Weight gain, of course, is only ever caused by bad eating, even in those articles that acknowledged other causes of weight gain.
The irritating thing is the continual claims that being fat, all on its own, is the cause of a myriad of health problems. It's that whole correlation/causation issue, all over again.
Now, being fat is indeed associated with higher risks for things like heart disease, diabetes, etc. An associated higher risk, however, doesn't automatically mean that 1) a person will actually come down with whatever health problem is named and 2) that the increase of weight actually causes said health problem. It could just as easily be a warning symptom.
Let's take a look at the difference between the increased risk and the actual cause of a problem.
When I get behind the wheel of my van and drive away, my risk of getting into a motor vehicle accident increases substantially from just staying home.
The fact that my risk of getting into a motor vehicle accident has increased doesn't mean that I will get into one. It just means the chances are greater. Some people never get into an accident their entire driving lifetime. Others will get into many.
Now, let's say I do get into an accident. What are the possible causes?
Well, some of them could be completely outside my control, like an unknown mechanical failure in my vehicle, or weather. Another thing I have little to no control over is what other drivers do. Perhaps a driver is texting or drunk while driving. Or a driver might blow a red light because she decided to tie her shoelace (that is actually what a driver was doing when she ran a red and T-boned a friend of mine). Or an unobservant driver talking on a cell phone might make a left turn without checking to see if the lane was clear (which is what killed a friend of my husband's). For this sort of thing, the only thing I can do to reduce my risk is to make sure I am as observant and aware as possible; hopefully I will spot an impending accident and manage to avoid it.
Of course, I could be completely irresponsible as a driver. Maybe I'm the one not paying attention to the light, talking on the cell phone, driving erratically, etc. This sort of behavior would increase my risk of an accident even more. It still doesn't mean that I will get into one. Just that my risk has increased.
The thing is, if I get into a motor vehicle accident, the action that increased my risk (namely, getting into a vehicle and driving) isn't the actual cause of any accident I get into. Even if my own irresponsible behavior increased the risk factor and actually caused an accident, it would be a specific action, not just me getting behind the wheel, that caused the accident.
Telling people who are fat that they can decrease their risk of various health problems if they just lose the weight is like telling people they can reduce the risk of a motor vehicle accident by never leaving home, since even being a pedestrian means an increased risk of motor vehicle accident. After all, I could get hit by a truck while using a crosswalk, too.
We can reduce our health risks by doing some things. Just as we can practice defensive driving, we can improve our health in a variety of ways. That might involve dietary changes (as opposed to going on a weight loss diet). We can increase exercise as much as we're able to. We can make changes in our lives to reduce stress. If we have a family history of certain health problems, we can be aware of what signs to watch out for, in hopes of catching a problem before it becomes dangerous. These actions may or may not prevent certain health problems from happening. They may or may not result in weight loss. The numbers on our scales are not necessarily a reflection of our actual health, nor are we failures if the numbers refuse to go down, even while our health indices improve.
Being thin isn't a guarantee for good health. It just means a slightly reduced risk for some things. It's actually an increased risk for others. Despite the scary claims that being fat causes all sorts of problems, being thin doesn't magically remove that risk. We can still drop dead of a heart attack. We can still get cancer. We can still get depressed.
Perhaps most important, being thin doesn't guarantee us happiness, nor does it define our worth as human beings. The purveyors of weight loss solutions would have us believe otherwise, so that we'll spend lots and lots of money on their products or services. As an added bonus, when they don't work (which is 95% of the time), it's never their fault. It's always ours, for not trying hard enough. Or giving them enough money.