3.06.2011

A culture of death threats

One of the most effective tools of fat stigmatization are the casual death threats so commonly used to dehumanize and demonize fat people. One of the most effective defenses of fat stigmatization is the way its gotten so many people to accept these tactics as ordinary and even respectful discourse. I'm sure many readers now accept them so implicitly, they are bothered by me calling them death threats. Its part of the way the powerful have framed discussions of fat people to routinely legitimize fat hatred and disenfranchise fat people.

To be sure, direct threats of violence are an insidious part of our cultural discourse for many groups. I know from personal experience that fat activists can be subjected to to this. This is different from the kinds of death threats that are so routine for fat people. Just, its not as different as we may like to think. Its not about a threat of immediate violence to enforce the threat, but its still telling people they will die if they do not do as the powerful wish them to. That is a part of life for many fat people. We are told we will die if we do not lose weight. We are blamed for our own prospective deaths for not doing as we had been told.

It is an empty threat. The science most deferential to the interests of fat hatred finds a difference of only a couple years in the mortality of fat people as opposed to thin people. Studies which "control" for any thin people who die early and which don't consider factors like fitness or dieting history, still only reduces life expectancy by 3 years for most fat people and only 10 years for the fattest. I'm in no way accepting the validity of these numbers, but this is the most generous reading one can make for the kind of death threats fat people are subjected to and it just doesn't add up. Fat people are not threatened with a death in their mid-60's to early 70's. Inevitably, its always a threat coinciding with the next milestone birthday. A fat child is told they will die before 21 if they don't do as they are told. A fat 20 year old is told they will die before they are 30. Then 40.

And who makes these threats matters as well. They are not just made the vitriolic bigots we may accept this from, but by doctors. By parents. Death threats are precisely a tool of those in authority and it is an abuse of that authority. An abuse of that trust. The point of death threats is the perception that they will be followed up on. Whether they are or not is immaterial to their value as a tool of oppression. It is about enforcing authority through fear and that is precisely what happens to fat men and women. To fat boys and girls. They believe they will die if they don't do as they are told. Those in authority have told them so. They have told them they won't live past a couple years unless they do as they are told. It is a threat which fuels a culture of mutilation of healthy bodies in the name of "healing". A threat which supports a multi-billion industry happy to sell self-loathing with a heavy price tag. That it is empty doesn't matter. Indeed, this is very much like many direct death threats when used in political discourse. Its not about the enforcement, its about creating the fear.

A terrible price is paid for this fear. The price is paid in the many who DO die while doing as they are told. In the loss of quality of life for countless others. It is paid by the feelings of hopelessness and despair when you tell someone they will die if they don't so something that is impossible for so many to do. They live their lives expecting death and often make decisions to fulfill that prophecy. Imagine the experience of these people who are desperate to lose weight, certain that they won't live to start their lives. Certain they won't live to see a child grow up. Certain they won't live if they don't do as they are told. Now think of those who have tried to do as they are told but like the vast majority finding these efforts to be in vain. What is done to these people is cruel and inhuman and it must end.

We must reject this violent rhetoric and the false pretense of good intentions which serves as a rampart for those who question it. That those who oppress fat people think they are in the right is immaterial. Oppressors always do. Their death threats are lies. Lies which have harmed the lives of far too many and we must say enough. We must stand the line. The rhetoric of fat stigmatization is about far more that making people feel a little less pretty, as those who demean the purpose of fat acceptance might suggest. This about a life of fear and hopelessness that is imposed upon millions and millions of fat people. Fat acceptance isn't just about reclaiming our beauty, it is about reclaiming our lives from the looming specter of destruction that is considered so ordinary that few even think to question it. Fat acceptance is about a lot of things. Fighting the death threats used to oppress fat people is absolutely one of them.

22 comments:

Sleepydumpling said...

I started to write a comment here but it has turned into a blog post. So I will save that and post it sometime in the near future, and just leave you with this:

When I was a teenager, my Grandma was told by a doctor that she was morbidly obese and if she didn't lose the weight she'd be dead before she was 60. Her 82nd birthday is next week. She never did lose the weight.

Heather said...

"The science most deferential to the interests of fat hatred finds a difference of only a couple years in the mortality of fat people as opposed to thin people. Studies which "control" for any thin people who die early and which don't consider factors like fitness or dieting history, still only reduces life expectancy by 3 years for most fat people and only 10 years for the fattest"

If you have any links to studies about this I would really super appreciate it if you could link to them? I'd love to be able to have these numbers in my corner, but, as always, people ask for sources and don't believe it otherwise.

Brian said...

Heather, the results are from a study conducted by Dr Gary Whitlock of Oxford University. I'd stress again that I do not think they are necessarily fair, just that this is the furthest extent of the scientific claims about increased mortality and even those don't support the "You will die" drumbeat fat people experience for most of their life. I tried to find a link that didn't feature sensationalized headless fat people and came up empty. Even the Oxford University page on the findings had a decapitated fat person. But you can find it if you Google the researcher.

Sleepy, I tweeted last night that people who say you never see old fat people, a common "observation" made as an implied death threat, just aren't bothering to look for elderly fat people. You actually DO see them quite a lot. Its almost pointless to try to "refute" this because there are so many examples of older fat people that its absurd that we even need to respond to such nonsense. Fat is not the faultless predictor of death we are told it is. Not by a long shot.

ruththereader said...

The "you don't see many fat old people" stuff may be partly because a lot of people do lose weight/size in the last years of their lives. Sometimes this is due to illness or medication side effects, but it also seems to be a normal part of the aging process. The fat 60ish person becomes the not "fat" 80 year old. they didn't die, they got smaller.

MollyMurr said...

I was told by my doctors that I'd be lucky to make it to 30. This actually resulted in my running up a ton of debt, since I figured I might as well live it up while I could. The joke was on me, I'm now nearly 40 and going strong. I cleared up the debt, but I could have been much happier without the anxiety of thinking I was going to drop dead.

Brian said...

ruth- I wouldn't give these people that kind of benefit of the doubt. The cliche is unmoored from any observations. Its just what they assume to be the case. They assume there aren't any old fat people so there aren't.

MollyMurr- Thank you for sharing that. Its monstrous what we put fat people though and I think its important we try to recognize the real damage from our culture of fat stigmatization. Stories like yours are a pretty good indication of how framing the rhetoric as death threats, something activists like Marilyn Wann have been doing for some now, is quite valid.

silentbeep said...

I think Regan(?)at Dances With Fat coined a really good term for something similar: VFHT (vague future health threat). I've been told something similar, that even though I'm in basica good health, people have told me my fat will "catch up with me." The thing about age, is that mortality catches up with everyone. I guess being fat sets me up for an especially hellacious death that goes beyond "normal" death? There is not one disease that fat people get that thin people don't get too. I'm so tired of being singled out for doom. I just am.

Meowser said...

It boggles my mind that anyone thinks there are no fat old people.

For starters...yes, there are (Sleepydumpling, LOL). I've seen thousands and thousands of medical records in my life, and I can tell you right now that fat people well into their 70s and 80s are NOT rarities. There are even some over 90.

Second thing, how long you live is correlated with four basic things: Genetics, luck, not doing anything recklessly stupid like riding a motorcycle in an ice storm high on crank, and socioeconomic status. Factor those four things out and weight matters squat-all.

Third thing: What ruththereader said. Wasting illnesses that cost people over 70 dozens of pounds are ridiculously common.

sannanina said...

There is not one disease that fat people get that thin people don't get too.

To be fair, there isn’t a single disease that smokers get that non-smokers don’t get, smoking just increases your chances to get certain diseases – and this is true for pretty much anything else that increases your risk for certain diseases/ injury, in fact, the only exception I can think of are some genetic diseases that are clearly and exclusively linked to one specific gene. And yes, I do know that smoking cannot be compared to fatness because one is a behavior and the other one is a characteristic of some human bodies – but the same holds true for the differences in frequency of certain diseases between men and women.

That said I am also tired of being singled out for doom. There are a lot of reasons for being tired of it – the fact that this kind of thing is used justify discrimination against us “for our own good”, for example, or the argument that it is “just natural” and beyond people’s control to be disgusted by my body since they supposedly evolved to recognize and avoid diseased bodies like mine. And then there is the fact that this kind of belief also makes it so much harder to get appropriate health care. I am absolutely interested in hearing about ways to either prevent or minimize certain medical problems that might correlate with high weight. But as long as many doctors and other health care professionals are focused on intentional weight loss with its abysmal long-term success rate and its rather nasty side effects because they apparently have internalized the idea that I am going to die if I do not drop 100 lbs I do not actually get any useful information of how to take good care of my body. (Not to mention that this kind of attitude makes me less likely to go to doctors in the first place and that it regularly harms me by interfering with recovery from my eating disorder.)

silentbeep said...

@sannanina

When people single out fat people for being at death's door, it's not being fair actually, at all. And no, smoking is not like fat, just like you said - the common cultural discourse is that fat is like smoking and you and I both know that's not true, and it's not a fair comparison.

sannanina said...

@ silentbeep - I did not say that singling out fat people for being at death's door is fair (just as it isn't fair to single us out for supposed overconsumption while pretty much everyone in industrialized countries overconsumes, etc.) I simply pointed out that the fact that there are no diseases that only fat people get does not disprove that being fat might be associated with certain negative health consequences. It does not even disprove that being fat might cause certain problems in some people, and while I am not sure that this is what you wanted to say in your original comment, I have definitely heard that (false) claim from some people in the fatosphere. I think we do ourselves a disservice to make or repeat that claim because it will make some people question if we truly understand what causation means, and that is the last thing we need.

I get that the fatness/ smoking comparison is loaded, and in fact I have pointed out its flaws to others countless times myself (one is a behavior, the other one is not, links between smoking and certain diseases are far stronger and far better explained than between fatness and certain diseases, etc.). So I am going to use another example: Exposure to certain chemicals causes cancer, for example by directly interfering with DNA multiplication which can lead to mutations. The same cancers will also be found in people that were never exposed the respective chemical - in them the mutation that lead to the development of cancer was caused by another factor, but that does not mean that the chemical in question is not carcinogenic.

Now, it is true that there is little evidence that being fat truly causes the diseases thought to be associated with it or if these diseases and being fat simply correlate. It would be necessary to conduct an experiment were you make some naturally thin people fat and keep others thin while keeping everything else equal between groups and then look at the outcomes to truly prove causation, something that is not possible. More importantly, the theories explaining just exactly how fatness might cause certain diseases are rather vague. But on the other hand, we also cannot disprove that fatness might be a cause of certain diseases in some people. The point is that this is largely irrelevant: Even IF fatness can cause disease in some people there is still no known way to make fat people thin, at least not without seriously harming them in the process. Also, even if fatness can cause disease it still remains true that the impact of fatness on health is exaggerated and that this exaggeration is used as a means to coerce fat people to diet for weight loss (and to shut about fat rights). And finally, even if fatness would be as big of a health risk as mainstream society makes it out to be this still would not mean that it is legitimate to discriminate against fat people since they would only harm themselves by being fat.

erylin said...

thank you for having the eloqunce i wish i had, for expressing the outrage i feel so deeply but am unable to express adequately.

Brian said...

@sannanina I don't think FA will get anywhere by deferring to the asserted authority of fat stigmatization. The mandated discussion of fatness provides no room for any of what we have to say. Trying to play by those rules will only ensure our failure. I've talked here before about how we need to have a new conversation about health because the one being imposed on us is failing the health needs of fat people. I see no compelling reason to assent to any of that abuse. That those who hate fat people thinks this makes me less credible is not a compelling reason. They will think that anyway, and offering them any power is too much. They have all of the power and the use it to inspire fear and desperation among fat people. We need to have a rational and measured reflection on the health needs of fat people. Those who tell us we're going to die if we don't do as we're told have nothing to contribute to that. We need to stop living under their rules. My example of what they say mortality rates are was not to concede their point but the expose that their own rhetoric is not internally logical. To expose that they don't actually know what they are talking about. Its not an "if they are right, still" discussion, but a "they are wrong" discussion. They have asserted authority through popular assumption and this will not change unless we challenge that authority and challenge those assumptions. They may have designed this "game" so that we can't do that, but if we don't stop playing their game we'll never get to a place where we can actually advance the health needs of fat people.

silentbeep said...

@sannanina

Death threats and the constant drumbeat of "you are going to die" does not help fat people. The singling out of fat people, goes WAY above and beyond simply having a discussion about risk assessment. In cultural discourse, fat people are often warned quite unfairly, that we are going to die, regardless of fitness levels or any other marker of health status.

"I simply pointed out that the fact that there are no diseases that only fat people get does not disprove that being fat might be associated with certain negative health consequences. "

I never said that there wasn't negative health correlations - correlation does not equal causation anyway. Additionally, I will say that tall people are at a higher risk for back problems, thin women are at a higher risk for osteoporosis: that does not mean these groups of people should be beaten over the head with what kind of health risks they may have, just for being in the bodies that they have- they shouldn't be beaten over the head with that kind of discussion, and we shouldn't either.

"The point is that this is largely irrelevant: Even IF fatness can cause disease in some people there is still no known way to make fat people thin, at least not without seriously harming them in the process."

Exactly. It is largely irrelevent. So no, it's not like smoking and it's an unfair point to bring up.

Brian said...

To talk about the health needs of fat people, we need to change the conversation from one about "fat causes this" to one about the health needs of fat people. "Fat causes" is a construction designed to stigmatize. Its not productive or useful and I think its important that FA reject this imposition on us. As silentbeep points out, we do not talk about the health "consequences" of tallness, maleness, European ancestry when all of these things have unique health concerns.

I get that people label FA as being in "denial" when we reject their stigmatizing language, but we have to reject that as well. They are not trying to enforce some kind of scientific fact but rather their chosen language and construction which is not about helping fat people, but about stigmatizing it. They want to strike the fear of death in us and have us thank them for the despair their create. We need to tell them no.

sannaina said...

"I never said that there wasn't negative health correlations - correlation does not equal causation anyway. Additionally, I will say that tall people are at a higher risk for back problems, thin women are at a higher risk for osteoporosis: that does not mean these groups of people should be beaten over the head with what kind of health risks they may have, just for being in the bodies that they have- they shouldn't be beaten over the head with that kind of discussion, and we shouldn't either."

You are right, and I never said that any of those things are correct. I also get your point about smoking and I apologize for using a comparison that is regularly used against us. (I pointed out how smoking and fatness are different in my original reply, though.) That said, if I read your statement concerning "thin people get those diseases, too" wrong I am sorry, but I have heard people say that this is proof that fatness cannot cause X health problem, and it just isn't. That's all I wanted to say and I am convinced that it needs to be said. Maybe this was the wrong place to say it though.

I am not trying to raise a stink. I agree with what Brian said in his original post - I just also think that it is very important for us to argue in line with the available data if we want to show people how absurd their arguments are. The problem with mainstream “obesity research” isn’t the data in and of itself in my eyes (well, for the most part…) it is how it is interpreted, and how those interpretations are transformed into even stronger sensationalistic, panic inducing statements concerning fatness in the popular press. Granted, there is also a problem with the kind of questions that lead to the data to be collected in the first place… but it is more a question of what is missing than what is present in my eyes. Most of the truly interesting questions concerning fat and health never get investigated by mainstream research.

I am sorry if I derailed this thread.

silentbeep said...

@sannaina

That said, if I read your statement concerning "thin people get those diseases, too" wrong I am sorry, but I have heard people say that this is proof that fatness cannot cause X health problem, and it just isn't.
-------

Yes, you did misread it. I am not interested in pretending that fat people don't get sick, . What I am interested in is dispelling myths that we are the ONLY ones that are especially doomed for disease and that thin automatically equals good health.

Brian said...

@sannaina I would suggest that you are looking at what FA is trying to "prove" through the lens of the conventional discussions of fatness. A discussion which allows for fidelity and denial and nothing else. What we are actually doing is trying to move past these binary discussions of good vs. bad. We push back against "fat is bad" purely for the sake of dismantling this simplistic viewpoint. Not to replace it with equally simplistic "fat is good". That thin people get diseases "caused" by fat calls into question the assertions made by the conventional view point. It betrays the fallacies upon which fat stigmatization has been built. We break down fat stigmatization not to rebuild using inverted blueprints, but to try to start the conversation fresh and without the prejudices guiding the medical establishments treatment of fat patients. Thin people with "fat" diseases show that patients can be treated without fat stigmatization. That there are options for treatment beyond something that fails upwards of 95% of the time. It reminds us that fat hatred is not our destiny.

Tiferet said...

I just don't put up with death threats any more.

I mean it. I fired a gynecologist because she told me that either I'd go on hormone therapy (which in the past has caused me to go into hideous suicidal depressions) or I would get cancer, and refused to consider other options.

I kept thinking: 1) is this because I'm fat? Probably. 2) how can she possibly think a fat person isn't inured to these stupid threats? 3) if I'm really absolutely going to either get cancer of the uterus or take drugs that mess up my mind, take the damn uterus out, I'm not using it, but I need my brain. Finally I realised that I simply am just not going to deal with doctors who refuse to talk to me in terms of alternatives and don't explain things clearly and like to make threats. And I fired her.

nellorat said...

sanniana, I don't think you derailed in the slightest. As a fat activist for over 25 years who also has diabetes and arthritis, I feel it's vital that we acknowledge all sorts of issues about health. There are ways in which fat really is unhealthy, especially if one has the genes for diabetes or inflammatory diseases. OTOH, many, many things are unhealthy but do not get the moral stigma fat does. So I try to get the facts, and I honestly own my risks. Thus, the death threats don't bother me: since I'm open to info on all sides, I usually know the facts better than they do.

Brian said...

Fat people have health concerns, but I feel even the label of "unhealthy" is necessarily stigmatizing and moralizing in the way our culture valorizes a health ideal that is defined to exclude so many people. I'm not interested in playing by rules which condemn us sight-unseen. I see no need to offer concessions to a point of view which actually hasn't proven any of what is regarded as common sense about fat people's health. This is a culture we functionally cannot accommodate, even by accepting their pronouncements of us as "unhealthy". Nor should we. Admitting our supposed unhealthiness is not the buy-in. Its a way of getting us to consent to their rules. Rules that will never have room for our lives or our needs. We don't need more of the same. We need something new.

startledoctopus said...

"I simply pointed out that the fact that there are no diseases that only fat people get does not disprove that being fat might be associated with certain negative health consequences."

Being ALIVE is associated with certain negative health consequences. Like, oh, death.

What would be really nice would be if doctors would bother to ascertain if a person actually HAD any of these "certain negative health consequences" before making diagnoses or recommendations.

Medicine in general is very lifestyle-blaming, when in fact so little is known about the causation of many conditions (see dentistry's recent reversal on brushing after meals!) so death threats from doctors, who should know better, and relatives and friends, who are not doctors and medically don't know their aortas from their superior vena cavas, are entirely unwarrented, incorrect,damaging, and discriminatorily offered.

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.