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Dear Ignorant People: Fat Shaming Is Real And Ridiculous

Julie Wittes Schlack: We shouldn’t need to counter bigotry with facts, but we do need science to fight obesity. Photo: Nicole Arbour in a screen grab from her recent "Dear Fat People" YouTube video. (YouTube)MoreCloseclosemore
Julie Wittes Schlack: We shouldn’t need to counter bigotry with facts, but we do need science to fight obesity. Photo: Nicole Arbour in a screen grab from her recent "Dear Fat People" YouTube video. (YouTube)

Comedian Nicole Arbour’s “Dear Fat People” rant on YouTube was one of last week’s top trending social media scandals. An amalgam of ridicule, self-aggrandizement and shaming — all under the banner of provoking the overweight to stop being so, well … fat — it generated over 4 million views. However, I suspect that at least 3.9 million of them were from people looking not for a laugh at the expense of others, but for the opposite — for a chance to cry out against one of the last socially acceptable forms of prejudice.

Just the phrase “top trending social media scandals” should be enough to clue you in to the level of discourse in Arbour’s monologue. After complaining about the special treatment afforded the overweight (such as getting to go to the head of the security line at the airport, which happens about as frequently as the Big Bang), after urbanely observing that fat people not only look like but smell like sausages, Arbour tries to have her metaphorical cake and eat it too by claiming that her monologue is not an attempt to publicly humiliate those suffering from obesity. “Fat shaming is not a thing; fat people made that up,” she asserts. “That’s the race card, with no race.”

[Fat shaming is] one of the last socially acceptable forms of prejudice.

No, apparently her rant is simply a gesture of concern. “I will actually love you no matter what,” she promises towards the end. Phew. “But I really, really hope this bomb of truth exploding into your face will act as shrapnel that seeps into your soul and makes you want to be healthier so that we can enjoy you as human beings longer on this planet.”

“Shame people who have bad habits until they f****** stop,” she crows. Now there’s some healing shrapnel.

Ironically, by disabling the Comments feature, Arbour guaranteed that those offended by her clip had no choice but to express their outrage not with all-too-typical invective-crammed messages in all caps, but with videos of their own. The result is a mélange of posts that look surprisingly like dialogue, and with little of the victimology that Arbour seemed so determined to preempt. Respondents noted that they feel self-conscious enough without being reminded of how their girth inconveniences others, that humiliation is rarely a stimulus to positive change. They rejoined with anger, with sorrow, with acknowledgment of the ways in which their own behavior may contribute to their obesity. But almost uniformly, they answered back with dignity, sincerity and class.

I just wish that more had also weighed into the debate with some science. The conventional wisdom has always been that if you take in fewer calories than you burn, you will lose weight. That mathematical argument makes it easy to judge the overweight and see them — us, actually, in the interests of full disclosure — as architects of our own failure. “Just put down the Oreos” is good advice for those who eat them, but not all obese people do. “Just exercise more” is a useful admonition, but a bit hollow for the overweight people who already work out at least five times a week.

“Obesity has traditionally been seen as the result of an imbalance between the amount of food we eat and how much we exercise, but this view ignores the contribution of genetics to each individual’s metabolism,” says Manolis Kellis, senior author of a seminal new study published in The New England Journal of Medicine. In it, researchers identify a genetic pathway that serves as a metabolic “master switch,” predisposing people to store energy from food -- that is, to accumulate fat — rather than burn it.

Genetic differences also account for the preponderance of different types of gut bacteria, and according to Scientific American, “New evidence indicates that gut bacteria alter the way we store fat, how we balance levels of glucose in the blood, and how we respond to hormones that make us feel hungry or full. The wrong mix of microbes, it seems, can help set the stage for obesity and diabetes from the moment of birth.”

'Just put down the Oreos' is good advice for those who eat them, but not all obese people do.

In short, a new body of research is validating what many overweight people have long known — that for many of us, obesity is not solely or even primarily a manifestation of moral weakness, selfishness or sloth. The millions of us who record every calorie we consume and step we take, who live on protein shakes and carrots, who have our stomachs largely surgically removed or bypassed -- we’re not suffering from a lack of commitment to our own health or, heaven forbid, a lack of consideration for our more socially desirable slender brethren. No, we’re afflicted by the biological fact that our consumption of 1,000 calories may be equivalent in its effect to Nicole Arbour’s 3,000 calories, that we may have to work three times harder just to maintain our weight than she would to lose it.

Nonetheless, it is work we must do. Even if we’re fighting our own biochemistry, incremental change is possible. We owe it to ourselves to try to resist obesity’s debilitating toll on our health, our energy, our health care resources and, yes, our self-esteem.

And when we counter both the snark and stupid exhortations in videos like "Dear Fat People," we need to do so not just with legitimate hurt and ire, but with facts. We shouldn’t need to counter bigotry with research proving that its victims aren’t so bad after all. But perhaps if we do, we’ll come to believe it ourselves. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll encourage a fat-shamer like Arbour to pick on someone her own size.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misspelled Nicole Arbour's first name. We regret the error. 

Related:

Julie Wittes Schlack Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Julie Wittes Schlack writes essays, short stories and book reviews for various publications, including WBUR's Cognoscenti and The ARTery, and is the author of “This All-at-Onceness” (Pact Press, 2019).

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