Wednesday, May 18, 2011

One in Six Women Would Rather Be Blind Than Obese

Trigger Warning for Fat Hatred, Disablism and Diet Talk

Today I stumbled across this article which highlights a survey that claims that 1 in 6 women would rather be blind than obese. This type of survey isn't new, when I was a freshman in college, I read Courtney Martin's book, Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, and a similar survey indicated that the girls profiled (I say girls because it was all young women under 18, the age group of the 100 women done for the recent one wasn't stated) would rather be hit by a truck than be fat, that they would rather be mean or stupid than be fat. There were other gems labeled as "socially stigmatized conditions" which the women were asked if they would rather experience over obesity. One of them was depression, which I have struggled with before. Herpes and Alcoholism, which is found in several of my family members (not mutually exclusively either) was also preferred by some over obesity.
But the women's answers didn't disturb me so much as the idea behind the survey itself, and the wording of the article. Pitting disability against obesity is problematic, obviously first and foremost because disability and obesity often end up going hand-in-hand in the case of both physical and cognitive disabilities.
But there was something else bothering me about this that I couldn't quite figure out. After some thinking, I also figured that I was disturbed by the implication of "Oh, how terrible, disability is more desirable than being fat! O tempora, o mores!" It framed disability (specifically blindness) as such an utterly undesirable condition, and the research was supposed to be baffling to us, make us wonder "Why would any woman rather be blind than obese?" But there was more to it than that, and I was struggling to figure out what it was that was itching me.
After I gave about 5 minutes of reading over though, it hit me, duh! The very end of the article:

"Being obese is avoidable by taking steps to maintain a healthy weight, eating properly and taking exercise, and even if you are obese there are effective ways to lose weight."

"It's surprising that it takes an academic study to tell us what seems fairly clear, that people tend to socialise with others of a similar size and there is a tendency for them to have similar eating and exercise habits."

"Other US research found you don't necessarily become fat if you've got a fat neighbour, but if you travel 20 miles to have dinner with fat friends you'll probably be fat."

"The answer is not to drop your fat friends, but start eating more sensibly together and taking exercise," he added.

Yea, that right there? There's a reason why the blindness was used as the headline to grab people towards this survey. Because unlike the other socially stigmatized things the women were asked about, blindness is thought of as being something you can't help which is not treatable and is utterly devastating to every aspect of your life. This is a common misconception about blindness, but I won't get into that. The point is, it provided the perfect springboard for the researchers to talk about how they needn't despair and make an oh-so Sophie's choice about whether to be blind or fat, because fatness is absolutely curable, just eat right and exercise, bring your friends too! Kill two fatties with one stone!
Using disability to contrast with obesity is ridiculous. The things named on that list, such as alcoholism, depression, STIs, and other disabilities are connected with obesity. As someone who has multiple disabilities and is obese, I can tell you that framing this discussion in this manner erases many of the causes of obesity. Disabled people are often more likely to live in poverty than their able-bodied neurotypical counterparts, we have a harder time getting exercise that is accessible to us for a variety of reasons, and if you are working through depression, anxiety, or struggling with your mental health, obesity can creep up on you.
The problem with fat hatred and self esteem in the populace is a huge problem that needs being addressed. But we are not getting anywhere by pitting disability against obesity and then pearl-clutching about how horrible disability is and how easy it is to lose weight if you only try.

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