About a month ago, someone tweeted at me, apropos of nothing: “Have you ever considered lap-band surgery?” My first thought was, “Huh? Lap band? Wait…for what?” And then it hit me: Ohhh, this guy was calling me fat! He’d obviously just seen the public service announcement for binge eating disorder awareness that I’m in and decided to weigh in on social media, something that has been happening more and more often as the commercial has hit network and cable channels nationwide. (Another recent gem: “yeezus look at you how did you get so big did you binge in your sleep too?”)
Such concern-trolling of heavy women in the public eye is rampant, I’ve come to find out, since sharing this experience with others. One weight stigma and BED advocate I know warned me to be super careful—a friend of hers had recently been physically threatened and mocked in person by someone who started out as “just” an online hobgoblin. And one of my favorite writers, Sarai Walker, author of the brilliant transgressive feminist novel Dietland, told me she’s constantly bombarded by people who have “public health concerns” about the message of weight acceptance in her book. “A few points I get a lot: ‘I’m glad you like being fat, but it’s unhealthy,’ ‘everyone should love themselves, but [insert dire warning],’ and the assumption that fat people don’t eat healthy or exercise, or that all fat people eat fast food all day.”
Is it possible that concern-trolling strangers aren’t trying to insult us, but are instead attempting to offer truly heartfelt, well-meaning advice? I suppose. But I’m of the opinion that, regardless of intention, nearly all expressions of concern about someone’s weight equate to health trolling, not helping, and concern trolls should save their breath. Here’s why:
1. Fat people already know they’re fat. Make no mistake: Fat and/or overweight adults are fully aware of their size and any potential* health hazards related to it. In this body-obsessed, health-worshipping culture we live in, it’s impossible not to be! What’s more, fat folk have also most certainly heard of—if not already tried—whatever weight-loss intervention it is that that you or anyone else have a hankering to recommend. (*Why “potential” health hazards? See number 2 below.)
“In that way, concern hurts all of us,” a writer who goes by @yrfatfriend wrote recently. “For those who aren’t fat, it continues to feed that anxiety around becoming fat, the unthinkable possibility that always surrounds them. And it hurts our relationships…Well-intentioned advice, day after day, week after week, year after year, shows me that I am seen first—and sometimes only—as a fat person.” The only person qualified to offer health advice to a person of any size is a qualified professional who has been specifically asked to do so.
2. You cannot predict an individual’s health based solely on her weight or even her BMI. Let me say that again because it’s important: One cannot assess a person’s health based on the size of his or her body. While I’d have to be willfully ignorant to claim that excess body fat—particularly the deep, visceral kind—has no deleterious health effects, the evidence on the relationship of fatness to health is mixed, and even the concept of body mass index (BMI) is flawed.
We’ve all heard how Arnold Schwarzenegger is “obese” according to the BMI, but what you might not know is that such mislabeling happens to millions of regular (i.e., non-muscle-bound athlete) people too. Twenty-nine percent of obese people and 16 percent of morbidly obese people, according to BMI, are perfectly healthy, according to more specific metrics, such as blood pressure, cholesterol levels, insulin resistance, and blood levels of heart-damaging C-reactive protein, a new study found. (Before anyone is tempted to yell “junk science!”: This study had a huge number of subjects, was done by a very well-regarded university, and published in a well-known peer-reviewed journal.)
Nearly half of people who were merely “overweight” fell into the healthy category. And, more than 30 percent of “normal weight” people were actually unfit, according to the cardiometabolic metrics used. (For more on this broader subject of weight and health, read some of this and maybe a little of this or even some of this.)
3. “Public health” concerns do not give anyone the right to weigh in where their opinion is not wanted. No, we cannot blame increasing healthcare costs on fat people any more than we could or would blame them on the rising number of children with autism
As someone who cares about health and people and compassion for our fellow creatures, and who has at varying times been fat and at other times been not fat, I’ll leave you with these words of advice: Unless you are the aforementioned qualified professional specifically hired to consult on a client’s health, hold your tongue.
It’s not your place to tell another adult how to live, and, furthermore, the person may not (in fact, most likely doesn’t) want your “help.” If you’re truly worried that someone you love and are very close with is in mental or physical crisis, ask if they’re OK. In other words, don’t assume they’re not. If you lovingly open the door for that discussion, your friend will know that if and when they do need help, you’re someone they can turn to without fear.
As the Dalai Lama says, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” Good advice for any discussion of how we humans relate to one another, IRL or online.
Sunny Sea Gold is Greatist’s body image columnist and the author of Food: The Good Girl’s Drug—How to Stop Using Food to Control Your Feelings(Berkley Books, 2011). The views expressed herein are hers. A health journalist by trade and training and a mom of two little girls, she’s also an advocate and educator focused on reducing the rates childhood obesity and eating disorders by building Body-Positive Families. Reach out to her @sunnyseagold.