Maura Kelly is Wrong

On the off chance that you haven’t seen the controversy over at Marie Claire, Maura Kelly came out with a truly appalling, distressing, and honest piece of writing this week. She doesn’t like looking at fat people. She really, really doesn’t like looking at fat people kissing one another. And she compares being overweight to public drunkenness and or heroin use.

Ouch. There is so much to pick up on in this post, and there is so much wrong with it, it’s hard to know where to begin. But I’m going to skip the fat-shaming, the word “disgusting”, and the fact that an educated professional woman thought that it would be OK to speak about her revulsion watching other people. (And that her editor prompted it in the first place.) Those have all been dealt with handily in the 1700 (and counting) comments on the article, and the (probably hundreds of) follow up articles posted around the world. Rather, I want to pick up on her “advice” about obesity. I read the original article, and by the time I was finished, I went looking about on the Marie Claire website to see whether Maura Kelly was primarily writing about health, exercise, or weight issues, because of the following fairly large claim in the middle of the article:

But … I think obesity is something that most people have a ton of control over. It’s something they can change, if only they put their minds to it.

(I’m happy to give you some nutrition and fitness suggestions if you need them — but long story short, eat more fresh and unprocessed foods, read labels and avoid foods with any kind of processed sweetener in them whether it’s cane sugar or high fructose corn syrup, increase the amount of fiber you’re getting, get some kind of exercise for 30 minutes at least five times a week, and do everything you can to stand up more — even while using your computer — and walk more. I admit that there’s plenty that makes slimming down tough, but YOU CAN DO IT! Trust me. It will take some time, but you’ll also feel so good, physically and emotionally. A nutritionist or personal trainer will help — and if you can’t afford one, visit your local YMCA for some advice.)

That’s right. It’s easy to lose weight. It just takes a little bit of willpower and some minor changes in your lifestyle. That’s all. All those obesity researchers and the billion-dollar weight loss industry, every bit of experience that you have with food, hunger, and exercise is wrong. All the effort you may have put in over the years to keep yourself from eating things you desperately wanted, every day you have spent thinking about food, all the calories you have counted, and the dollars you have spent paying other people to tell you what to do: All unnecessary, because it is easy to lose weight. Go for a walk and cut out the sugar.

I blinked. And I looked around her other posts… where is her knowledge that would lead to this claim? And how could anybody who hasn’t been living in a box for the last 20 years possibly believe that it is EASY?!?! Maura Kelly’s “advice” on weight loss is facile and absurd. It completely ignores all research available on what works, what doesn’t, the sociology and biology of weight, and whether and what amount of intervention is necessary. It is, unfortunately, typical.

Let me out myself here: I belong to that vanishingly small category of people who have lost over 50 pounds and kept if off for over 5 years. I do not want to hear any congratulations because it does not make me morally superior or a better person. I will also not expand on “how I did it”, and I have no advice, for the simple fact that I don’t know.  I changed almost everything in my life. I changed what I ate, how I spend my spare time, what I focus on in my thinking, my religious practices, the shape and size of my family, where I live, what I do for a living… EVERYTHING. I don’t count calories or portions. I don’t exercise regularly. I eat whatever kind of dairy I want to. I don’t use artificial sweeteners. I still eat cake and potato chips. I do a little bit of yoga from time to time. I occasionally go for a walk. That’s it. Nothing to emulate here, not studies to follow, no advice. I’m not going to pretend that changing everything in your life is an easy fix. Also, to keep things in perspective, as recently as six months ago, a complete stranger found it necessary to comment on the size of my behind when I was eating in public… and for the sake of politeness, I found it necessary to justify myself for eating breakfast, rather than rightly saying, “F-off you miserable prick, it’s none of your business.”

One of the most eye-opening books I have read in recent years was The Obesity Myth by Paul Campos. I was working through the entire section on weight loss at the library, trying to figure out how to lose that “last 10/20 pounds”. It was a breath of fresh air, and a liberating thing to come across. It is not the book that he set out to write. As he says, he “…assumed the fact that being “overweight” was a serious health risk was so well established that this aspect of the subject was hardly worth discussing.” After five years of reviewing the scientific literature, though, he found overwhelming evidence that being “fat” in and of itself just didn’t matter that much to health. The most startling set of outcomes that he highlights are these: Several studies found that their interventions were not only ineffective in the long term, but they were significantly more dangerous than staying fat. (I am using “significantly” in its technical sense here, that is to say that the outcomes are supported statistically by the analyzed data.) Despite the data that these scientists presented, in their abstracts and conclusions, most of them held onto an ideological position that was contrary to their findings, advising people to just keep trying to take the weight off, even though we don’t know how to do it, it probably won’t work, and it may be dangerous to your health.

All of which is to say that Maura Kelly doesn’t know what she is talking about, but her moral position is completely consistent with that of the majority of our culture. She has bought into the dominant narrative so completely that she has nowhere to stand to question it. She is so wrong that she has no way to conceive of anything else and no language with which to express a more compassionate position.

That being said, I will give the last word to Paul Campos, who offers us the chance to do better: “The rejection of the war on fat is based on a simple principle: that tolerance toward an almost wholly benign form of human diversity is the least we should expect of ourselves, if we wish to lay claim to living in a civilized culture.”

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