D. Heimpel

Daniel Heimpel's life as a journalist

Thin Guilt

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A couple of weeks ago I wanted to write a story about the proliferation of television shows like Dance Your Ass Off, More to Love and the Biggest Loser. Shows that exemplified what I thought to be an American acceptance of being fat: harbingers for a very, very heavy society.

Behind the shield of fat-induced bad health, I could safely lob judgment on what I saw as a perverse trend of upward spiraling obesity. An Internet search gave me what I needed: reams of data saying that being fat was indeed bad, dangerous, an epidemic!

“Health is a secular god,” Paul Campos, a University of Colorado law professor who recently co-authored a controversial paper questioning whether obesity is a true health crisis or a moral panic, told me. [http://ije.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/short/35/1/55]. “When that happens it is very easy to repress that what is really driving this stuff is an aesthetic judgment that fat is disgusting and a moral wrong.”

At this statement I had to take pause. Was my aversion to fatness, my desire to write about the subject, somehow a way to vent my prejudice against fat people?

That would be hard to believe considering my background. By my sophomore year of high school I was 5’ 10” tall and weighed 225 lbs, which calculates to a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 32. I was clinically obese, and I hated every day of my life for it.

Through team sports and a self-imposed ban on soft drinks, I started shedding the weight. Fourteen years down the road and I am two inches taller and 45 lbs lighter with a BMI of 24, which means I am normal – Ha. Understandably, after having lived through all the shame of being heavy — the problems with the girls, the mediocrity at sports and the layering of clothing to cloak my belly – my pervasive thought associated with fatness was negative.

This formed in my mind, what in psychological terms is known as a schema, a network of concepts that give structure to some aspect of the world.

My “fat” schema was all bad and wrapped up with personal shame, a perceived collective laziness and overall disgust. Schemas are good for putting new ideas into old boxes, but can interfere with creating new ways of looking at old concepts. This hampered my ability to take in novel information, so even as a journalist who is supposed to go into every story open and rigidly unbiased, I felt myself resistant to science that said maybe being fat wasn’t as bad as I had spent my whole life thinking.

Before I started researching I would have never guessed that the mortality rate for overweight people was less than for normal weight people. Or that evidence from scores of diet studies including tens of thousands of dieters would say over and over again that diets don’t work at all. But the most telling truth was that as we have grown heavier as a society, we have also collectively increased our life spans – meaning that even if we are fatter as a society we are also healthier; at least longer lived. That rattled my unfounded hypothesis (sinister suspicion) that being fat was killing America.

My fat schema started falling apart. Clearly there is a wide range of conditions linked to obesity and being fat can be detrimental to your health. But to what extent? Much less than what I had though a certainty. And it dawned on me, that in one immensely important realm of thought, I had simply abandoned critical thinking. I had let my own bias rule my conclusions.

And in realizing that I, a person paid to think critically, had been so lazy as to not understand such a topic that touched me and everyone around me on so many levels I got scared — scared that I wasn’t the only one.

I spoke with Gina Kolata, who has written countless obesity-related stories for the New York Times and wrote a book on the subject: Rethinking Thin. “Fat people are discriminated against and just scorned more than anyone else in society,” Kolata said.

Having lived through being fat, I knew how the scorn felt. I like so many others was told that I had to loose the weight. I did and that emboldened my belief that if I could do it anyone can. But as I point out in a recent story which I wrote for Newsweek.com the vast majority simply can’t. Still society cries for them to do it. Even the CDC, an agency charged with protecting health, calls for weight loss to combat the ills of obesity, when there is little evidence that weight loss is possible in the long term and a ton of evidence that shows dieting can be dangerous.

When I started to dive into the material it became clear to me that I had spent my life like many around me: thinking that obesity is not only ugly but terribly unhealthy. With the science throwing into question just how unhealthy being fat is, my judgment on obesity seems disproportionately about the way being fat looks – and that is ugly.

Dealing with America’s health problems, including obesity, is already an immense task. Clouding facts with aesthetic prejudice will only make that task more difficult.


Written by dheimpel

September 8, 2009 at 3:25 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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