“Fat and Proud” – Studies in Kiwi Sociopolitics

I find Kiwi politics fascinating. Case in point: a somewhat controversial front-page article published in The Dominion Post today in which “pro-fat” scholars made a heated argument that “obesity is not a big health problem.” Instead, the Kiwi and American experts cited in the article (both of whom are considered obese) argued that “fat hatred” and “fat phobia” are far more damaging to an individual’s psyche than they are to their health. They claim that the “war against obesity” is nothing more than a system of social eugenics, and equate “fat hatred” with racism, sexism, and many other types of now-taboo prejudices. One scholar in the article even went so far as to claim that “none of the ‘obesity myths’ (such as heart disease and stroke, diabetes, osteoarthritis) were backed by science.” Uh wow.

Now, it’s one thing to claim that obesity is not a significant health risk. But the message of the article – particularly in the context of Kiwi and American sociopolitics – is fascinating. Depending on where you look, the United States and New Zealand are among the Top 10 fattest countries in the world (the article claimed New Zealand was #3, but I couldn’t find anything to support that ranking). In both countries, obese individuals make up a significant part of the population, and the level of “fat hatred” is equally as extreme. Individuals viewed as fat are picked on, stared at, and publicly shamed. They’re often denied work due to their size, and can be fined when they board airplanes. They can even be denied entry to certain countries due to their weight (for example: New Zealand!). Both of the female ‘experts’ cited in the article had firsthand experience with ‘fat hatred’ – one weighs 300 pounds and was nearly denied entry to New Zealand when she first arrived, while the other works as a fitness instructor despite weighing more than 260 pounds. It’s understandable why both of these women feel that their worth as human beings (and their level of “health,” in the case of the fitness instructor) should not be based on their weight.

As a young woman from another of the fattest countries in the world, I also understand the ‘fat hatred’ they’re describing. While I’ve never been technically obese, it’s easy to internalize the negativity surrounding heaviness. To be thin is to be sexy, and vice versa. Even women with ‘curves’ (as the media has been so keen to focus on the past couple of years) are beautifully toned and rarely have a significant amount of body fat on them. It’s easy to equate fatness (whatever that means) with laziness, unhealthiness, and ugliness. And it’s not always easy to ignore the temptation to go to extreme lengths to change your size. Even if you do manage to maintain the confidence to “love your size,” it’s still difficult to navigate the prickly world of dating and relating when your appearance seems so crucial to the process. I can’t count the number of times I listened to my French companions point out beautiful women on the street, and they factor they all had in common was their slim figure. Of course, my friends were 1) French, and 2) expressing their individual taste(s), but it’s examples like this that tend to affirm a person’s negative body image. Extrapolate that feeling to the millions of obese individuals in the world, and it’s easy to understand the level of prejudice they must be feeling.

The issue of obesity and fat hatred is especially relevant to New Zealand. A majority of native islanders are significantly overweight (many of them crossing the line into obesity), and the health risks associated with them are some of the biggest issues facing New Zealand today. The United States is facing the same problem. So how do we deal with this issue? Where do we draw the line between “loving our bodies” and “fat hatred”? Can you be “fat” and “fit”? And is the level of “fat hatred” in the world really equatable to any other prejudice like racism or sexism? It’s a blurry subject. What do you think?

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