Why I comment on every little “joke”

I recently read an interesting enough piece on The Conversation about why taller humans tend to die earlier. One of the threads the author pursued was that of caloric restriction. There is some evidence from animal studies and from populations of people who have lived through food scarcity, for example due to war or famine, that a degree of under-nutrition is associated with longevity. This pertains to the article because under-nourishment is also linked to reduced height. The other thread the author discussed was that of genetic influence. None of this is the point of this blog post. It’s just a bit of background to provide context for what came next.

My objection arose because of the final paragraph, specifically, the final sentence:

So while tallness is linked to shorter lifespans on average, we don’t really understand why. There’s some good research at the moment regarding both genetics and lifestyle, which may reveal that simply eating a little less over the course of your life may lead to a longer life. A simple sounding fix – but getting people to eat less has not always proven easy.

 You can see where this is going, right?
My comment:

“A simple sounding fix – but getting people to eat less has not always proven easy.” And a nice stigmatising neoliberal nonsense to finish up on.

Human beings, like other animals, tend to be hardwired for survival. Choosing to consume less than needed for maintenance of the status quo is not a biologically sensible decision or physiologically supported – it requires fighting against our bodies’ inbuilt survival mechanisms. What forced hardship (famine, war, etc) can teach us about biology is, of course, very interesting. Let’s try and keep the science separate from the culturally sanctioned shaming.”

It’s always interesting to see what comes next after you call out an instance of fat shaming (or any other form of inappropriate content toward a marginalised group). Defiance and denial are the most common, awareness and self-reflexivity rare. Sometimes you get insults – if you don’t want to be stigmatised, you should just lose weight, you [insert offensive fat-shaming attack here]. Dissimulation is another biggie: it was just a joke, lighten up, I didn’t mean anything by it. Some people are simply bewildered – they just don’t get it.

As it was, the author didn’t respond, but somebody else did. He went with gas lighting and patronisation. This was Jon’s comment:

Really Angela,

I am a good deal rattier about PC than most people, but here I think you were unfair in taking the quote out of context.

What the author said in context was “There’s some good research at the moment regarding both genetics and lifestyle, which may reveal that simply eating a little less over the course of your life may lead to a longer life. A simple sounding fix – but getting people to eat less has not always proven easy.”

In all fairness, it was a loose remark in speculation on a line of research that has little to do with PC, and little hard data and hard logic behind it, but which, if it does establish relevant logic and data, will be of both interest and importance in many contexts. Nothing in the comment suggested commitment either to the field of research or to the nature of the outcome nor to its relevance to the current topic.

Let’s not be judgemental too far in anticipation.

The use of the word “PC” should have told me all I needed to know. People who complain about “political correctness” are generally just annoyed they’re not allowed to be rude and superior about somebody they like to look down on without being called out on it. As I understood it, Jon was in favour of “PC”, he just thought I was going too far in this case. And it almost worked, I began to doubt myself – that is the power of gas lighting. And if it nearly worked on me, a specialist in weight stigma and an activist, it must be nearly impossible for lay people to withstand these kinds of attacks when they try and stand up for themselves. I got a friend to take a look, get a second opinion.  After she had looked up the meaning of ‘gas lighting’, she agreed. No, I wasn’t over-reacting. The original sentence was shaming and the commenter was not only telling me I was imagining it, he was engaging in a nice bit of mansplaining to boot. Having been let off the leash, I said what I should have said the first time round, and I want to reproduce it here. This is why I comment every time I see something like this, no matter how apparently minor or “innocent”. Every. Single. Time.

I hope these arguments may help other people stand up and deal with this kind of stigmatising content.

Really Jon, could you perhaps try and be a little more patronising?

As a weight stigma researcher and activist, I have developed a zero-tolerance policy to fat shaming. I don’t doubt for a moment that the original author did not intend to engage in shaming anyone. He considered it a light-hearted throw-away remark meant to provide a little humour at the end of his piece and leave everyone with a knowing chuckle. But lack of malice does not necessarily equate to lack of harm.

First let me deal with why I consider this shaming, and then I will explain why I feel the need to call out what was obviously intended to be a light-hearted statement and make it into A Thing.

Public health efforts have never been directed toward the promotion of caloric restriction for longevity. Thus, “getting people to eat less hasn’t proven easy” clearly refers to the handwringing individual-centred approach of the so-called ‘war on obesity’, and the ongoing disapprobation and stigma toward individuals who either fail to permanently lose weight or choose not to pursue weight loss at all. It speaks to the supposed inability of fat people to stop stuffing their faces for their own good and contains a clear tone of moralisation and negative judgment Bus as I explained in my original comment, “dieting” is not an adaptive behaviour. This sentence, as you note, is of practically no relevance to the current piece, and was simply added for its entertainment value.

Which brings me to my second point. The fact that this sentence was supposed to be amusing relies on the collective cultural awareness of this sub-text among the readers. We all know what he’s talking about and we can all nod our heads and smile knowingly, and somewhat condescendingly.

I have lost count of the number of times I have seen somebody use humour about the supposed gluttony and sloth of higher weight people to lighten up their scientific presentations. This includes medics, obesity researchers, and people who are speaking about things entirely unrelated to the subject but just wanted to throw in a funny cartoon to break up the monologue a little.

At one time, I used to take these people to one side after their talks and point out why their attempt at humour was stigmatising. If people laughed and smiled at it, even more so, for the reasons I have already stated. Generally, they just explain that they didn’t mean it like that, that it was just a joke. Sometimes they looks at me blankly and simply couldn’t grasp what I was talking about – why these cartoons and these jokes are stigmatising. Once, ONCE, the person I was speaking to got it, apologised, and said he could see what I meant and he would be more aware of such things in future. I wonder if it is meaningful that the one person who got it was not actually speaking about weight or obesity at the time.

But the problem with that approach is that to the 30, 60, 100+ people in the audience, the stigmatising comment/joke/image went unchallenged. Weight stigma is so ingrained in our society that the vast majority of people don’t even recognise it as such, and this becomes just another instance where those messages are unconsciously reinforced. There is another problem with the behind-the-scenes approach: the fat person or people in the audience (or reading at home) who just want to sink into their chairs and die as yet another person takes a jibe at them and everyone laughs. I comment for them. I comment to say, this is not OK and you deserve to be treated with human dignity and not to be used as a convenient trope to be the butt of people’s jokes.

So, like I said…. this is my area of expertise. That comment was fat shaming. Weight stigma creates real harms, and I have a zero-tolerance policy toward it. Until we start to see it for what it is, it is not going to change.

I’ll leave you with the words of activist extraordinaire, Marilyn Wann:


Posted in weight stigma

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My other blogs

On Huffington Post UK

On The Conversation

Never Diet Again UK (Temporarily off-line) This one is aimed more at the lay public; may contain ranting and occasional language! Similarly, my blog posts for the sadly, now-defunct, Fierce Freethinking Fatties: archive here

Weight Stigma Conference
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