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Friday, August 05, 2011


It perplexes, yet fascinates, me when I see how people will take information and turn it around to be something else entirely.

I've got the "share on facebook" button on my browser bar, which makes it easy for me to share various things I find online on my facebook.  Most of the time, there's little or no comments made on them, though I see quite a few people going on to share the links themselves.  The topics range from the trivial to the deep; from entertaining to data heavy.  If I think others might be interested, I share it.

In the last while, I shared three links that not only got a lot of comments, but the comments themselves were absolutely bizarre to me.  They put me straight into observation mode, wanting to figure out just how and why they went in the directions they did.

This was the first of the three.  More young children are alarming thin.  Here are a couple of key points in the article, but please follow the link and read the whole thing.

From 1999 to 2006, eating-disorder hospitalizations for children younger than 12 increased by 119 percent, according to the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

...doctors have seen more of their young patients misinterpreting messages intended to fight childhood obesity. A child's desire to eat healthier food, initially applauded by parents, can lead to dangerous and addictive behaviors.

 The article covers a lot about how very young children are seeing what their parents are doing (dieting, either for health or weight loss), absorbing the anti-obesity messages in their schools, and being affected by the "healthy eating" obsessions of our culture, and how this seems to be playing a large role in why so many very young children are developing anorexia nervosa.

So what was the response this story got?

Gee, that's terrible, but ZOMG TEH FATZ, kids these days are FAT and LAZY and STOOPID, and FAT PEOPLE are DISGUSTING and OUT OF CONTROL and oh, yeah, super skinny people are disgusting, too.

Yeah, I'm paraphrasing a bit.  Still, the gist it is that the point of the story - that we are seeing a massive increase in very young children being hospitalized because they're starving themselves, and that our dieting culture plays a significant role in that - was completely ignored as people ranted about how terrible it is to be fat, and there are just sooooo many more fat people, and if only parents modelled better behaviour for their kids, we wouldn't have an obesity epidemic, with a token mention that skinny people are gross, too.

Basically, everything that the article said was the problem was being repeated as a solution.

It blew my mind that sharing an article about the alarming rise of children being hospitalized for anorexia would bring out such incredible anti-fat ranting.

Some time later, I shared another link - this to a pdf paper called Morality and Health: News Media Constructions of Overweight and Eating Disorders.  Again, I recommend following the link and giving it a good read.  It's 20 pages, though, so you might want to save it for a thorough reading later.

I found this a fascinating examination on the differences of how the media portrays eating disorders that lead to extreme thinness vs eating disorders that lead to extreme fatness.  It also touches on the differences on how family, friends and our culture treat people with different eating disorders.  In the process, it touches on race, gender and economic status.  In a nutshell, people who are very thin and with anorexia and bulimia tend to be wealthier, female and white.  People with these eating disorders are viewed and portrayed as victims, and their treatment reflects this.  Fat people, however, tend to be poor, non-white and while eating disorders are still predominantly found in women, there tend to be more males involved.  For those with Binge Eating Disorder, there is a tendency to blame the victim for their condition, and to deny that their eating disorder really is a disorder, rather than a sign of how weak willed they are.  Their treatment, either medically or socially, is completely different.  In both cases, projections on the morality of the victim are also being made.

There is much more, of course, and once again, I encourage you to read the whole thing.

Now, this piece is a pretty straightforward examination of how the two extremes of eating disorders are portrayed by our media.  It makes no judgement on people who have eating disorders.  It makes no commentary on people's weights or diets or lifestyles.

Our news sample typically attributes anorexia and bulimia to a host of complex and interrelated factors, thus mitigating individual blame while representing anorexics and bulimics as victims. In contrast, it predominantly blames overweight exclusively on bad individual choices and emphasizes individual-level weight loss solutions. News reports emphasize medical intervention when it comes to anorexia and bulimia but not when discussing binge eating disorder, which they tend to deny the status of a real eating disorder and frame instead as ordinary overeating caused by lack of self-control and requiring greater personal discipline. After reviewing the quantitative patterns, we examine each case qualitatively.
So what happened in the comments?

I got a huge rant about how this was just the "intellectual elite" finding excuses for being fat and abdicating responsibility for being fat and TEHFATZ!!!OMG!!!!OBESITYFATZFATZFATFATZ!!!!!!

Yes, I mock.  Mockery is all it was worth.  In fact, I seriously wondered if the person even bothered to read the paper at all.  It was a nonsensical rant against fat that actually repeated many of the negative portrayals of fat people by the media.  Fat people are lazy.  Fat people are irresponsible.  Fat people are gluttons.  On top of that, the emotional derangement attached to the phrasing was rather extreme and included bizarre projections onto me and the body issues I must have, and my looking for reasons to excuse them.  This person was ANGRY.  Why an examination of how eating disorders are portrayed in the media would get this reaction escapes me.  Why the anger should be directed at me personally was also very curious.

Finally, we come to our third piece.  Living to see 100 is just luck, not lifestyle

Academics studied almost 500 people between 95 and 109 and compared them with over 3,000 others born during the same period.

They found those who lived extremely long lives ate just as badly, drank and smoked just as much, took just as little exercise and were just as likely to be overweight as their long-gone friends. 
 Basically, these old timers lived lifestyles no different than their peers who died earlier.  Yet they still concluded:

"Although this study demonstrates that centenarians can be obese, smoke and avoid exercise, those lifestyle habits are not good choices for most of us who do not have a family history of longevity.
"We should watch our weight, avoid smoking and be sure to exercise, since these activities have been shown to have great health benefits for the general population, including a longer lifespan." 
 In other words, even though there was absolutely no physical evidence for it, they still recommended people should go on diets, etc. if they wanted to live longer.

I actually found this bit even more interesting.

When it came to the centenarians' views about why they had lived so long, the group identified good genes as the main reason, followed by diet and physical exercise. 

 So even though these long lived people recognized that genetics played the main part of why they've lived so long, and even though they themselves have had lifetimes of smoking and drinking, eating "bad" foods and a lack of exercise, they still believed that having a "healthy" lifestyle is a big part of why they've lived so long.

 And what responses did I get to this one?

Several people talking about how they felt so much better after going on diets and exercising more.  Sure, it might not mean they'd live any longer, but gosh darn it, it's quality of life that matters! 

Now, I don't know about you, but I have a hard time seeing a life of self-inflicted deprivation as improving quality of life.  I realize ascetics is rather popular right now, especially when it comes to food, but what good is gaining a few more years, if the simple pleasures of life are denied?  Of course, they seemed to completely miss the fact that, for a lot of these long-lives folks, eating, drinking and smoking is part of their quality of life.  If some 90 yr old wants to enjoy a shot of whiskey and a good cigar, who am I (or anyone else) to lecture them? 

The responses, however, were fascinating to me.  Here we have an article that basically said diet and exercise makes no difference to longevity.  It's in your genes. Yet other than one response where someone talked about how her grandmother, who'd lived to 105, had still been an avid gardener at 99, and another that was rather preachy about that whole "quality of life" thing (because apparently the only good quality of life involves eating "healthy" and exercise), they were very "look at me!  I feel so GREAT because I diet/exercise!  I LOST WEIGHT!! It's so WONDERFUL!!!"

It was like listening to preachy ex-smoker, or someone who's just started a new diet program (It's not a diet!  It's a LIFESTYLE change!!!).  It was also curiously "Me, me, me!! Aren't I wonderful!"  I don't think they intended to come across as smug and superior, but they did anyhow.

In each of these pieces I shared, the thing that struck me the most about the responses is that they had almost nothing to do with the stories themselves.  Rather, the stories seemed to be mere stepping stones for people to run off on something they, themselves, have as a personal issue. 

It was truly fascinating.

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