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Are Happy Fat People Delusional?



Yesterday, I participated in CTV’s Alberta Primetime, a local daily TV show, on the issue of whether or not fat is a good indicator of health and whether it is truly possible to be healthy at any size (regular readers will probably guess where I stand on this).

My co-discussants were Paul Plakas, a personal trainer (of X-Weighted fame and enthusiastic disciple of the ‘no-pain-no-gain’ approach to weight management) and Ragen Chastain, a size acceptance advocate and Author of the book “Fat:  the Owners Manual – Navigating a Thin-Obsessed World with Your Health, Happiness and Sense of Humor Intact.

As may be expected, this discussion soon turned into a controversy between my co-discussants with Ragen, on the one hand, not only claiming that she was quite happy with how large she was and that this had not stopped her from even participating in national dance competitions and with Paul disputing that this was even possible, as being large would necessarily pose a problem and can only prevent her from living a fulfilled life.

The discussion got even hotter, when Paul essentially told Ragen that she did not quite realise how limited her life was, to which Ragen responded that this was not up to Paul to judge or decide for her.

Discussions like this always seem to raise the question of whether or not large people are simply delusional and kidding themselves by rationalising their situation, rather than making the ‘efforts’ to change it. I guess it really is hard for some people to imagine or believe that it is very much possible to be comfortable and happy at any size.

As one would expect, the show prompted a deluge of comments on the CTV website with a wide range of opinions both in support and against the positions that a) it is possible to be fat and healthy, b) anyone who is motivated enough can control their weight, c) fat people who are fine with their size are delusional and a burden on society, d) someone needs to step in and help them see the light for their own good.

This is not a debate that can be dealt with in 15 mins – at best, it can provoke discussion, which, however, with strong opinions on all sides (everyone seems to have personal views on this and ideologies reign supreme), it is unlikely to be anything we will resolve soon.

For someone with my positions (no, we cannot measure health by simply stepping on a scale, but yes, excess weight can cause health problems, in which case treatments for obesity can help and should be accessible in the same manner as treatment for other health conditions), who tends to see things in 200 shades of grey rather than simply black and white, TV talk shows are clearly not the best format to resolve this issue.

But, I am happy to let my readers judge for themselves (apologies, if the video link does not work outside Canada).

AMS
Edmonton, Alberta

22 Comments

  1. My opinion is that is is very crazy to expect everyone to be the same in any sense. It is much easier to judge than to understand and everyone would be better if people would just consider every person as a human being who deserves respect.

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  2. I would imagine it’s somewhat relative: if you used to weight 300 lbs and now you weigh 250, you might be very happy with your weight. Or if you weigh 240 and have no health problems or joint pain, and can lead an active life, you might be happy too. If you weigh 180 and your knees hurt all the time because of your weight, you might be more satisfied at 160. You could weigh 140 and be miserable because you used to weigh 110! I have actually heard women complain about being a size 6, and longing for the days when they were a size 2. I have no reason to think their unhappiness is any less than a 300 lb woman who wishes she were 200 lbs, even if it does seem kind of self-indulgent, relatively speaking! There are thin people with diabetes and fat people with no health problems. The human body is complex and there is a lot of variety in how we respond to fatness. In the end who is more delusional, the woman who hates being a size 6, or the woman who is happy at size 20? I would say neither of them are. Both perspectives are entirely legitimate.

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  3. This question is demented and reminds me of the classic, “Can gay people be truly happy or are they just deluding themselves?”
     
    I also wonder about the relevance of attacking, um, happy fat people. Are obese people supposed to be surrounded by their own self hatred? When exactly does self loathing lead to positive change, anyway? 

    Oh, good heavens, this seems so completely deranged to ponder. lol

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  4. I think what I find most objectionable is the thought that someone else could judge whether I was happy or fulfilled, regardless of my weight or other health conditions. I would like to think that we can feel content and enjoy the best quality of life possible, even while striving to become healthier or thinner, if that is what we choose to do. Personally, I maintain a fulfilled, satisfied life, despite my ongoing chronic health conditions. There are many more indicators of living a life that is worthwhile and full, besides the numbers on the scale.

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  5. Thank you for this blog Dr. Sharma. I think that our judgements of someone’s happiness or health related to weight can be very armful to a person. I never thought it was my place, as a dance instructor to judge my students capacity/skills from their size. My goal is to make everyone feel welcomed to my class and embrace the beauty of their body. Being a Belly Dancing instructor as allowed me to support and encourage my students to discover their inner and outside beauty and to embrace their jiggle :). I can tell you that curvy or not, all women that came to my class have tremedously changed their body image and appreciated the body that they were given and they certainly know how to move it 🙂

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  6. I seem to be technologically challenged here, but I can’t seem to find the video link. Help?? <3

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  7. I was not only expressing my views that I believe extremely obese people are not living a fullfilled life. It is the hundreds of obese people I have worked with over 20yrs that told me once they have lost weight and started experiencing more of what life offered that they never knew they were missing out on.

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  8. “… once they have lost weight and started experiencing more of what life offered that they never knew they were missing out on.”

    What are overweight people missing out on? Not being able to shop at Forever 21? 

    And what kind of impact do you hope this statement would have on me, a person who is 65 lbs overweight? 

    Is it supposed to be motivating? Not only do people think I’m a disgusting sexless lazy pig, but now my life is unfulfilled as well? That’s fantastic. Sign me up for Biggest Loser so I can have Jillian Michaels moo at me.

    Also, isn’t it a bit disingenuous to target overweight people as leading unfulfilled lives when there are plenty of thin people leading unfulfilled lives as well? My husband is of average size, I am overweight. I love exercise. I lift weights and jog. He hates moving. When I drag him out hiking with me, I outpace him so badly it’s absurd. How is my life less fulfilled than his? 

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  9. To quote the post: “I guess it really is hard for some people to imagine or believe that it is very much possible to be comfortable and happy at any size.”

    That is exactly right. Some people are incapable of recognizing that not everyone sees things the same way that they do. They think anyone who lives a different life must be “delusional”, “unhappy” or “unfulfilled”.

    In the weight debate, that works both ways.
    The “health at any size” people deny that some people can be injured and feel very upset by excess weight;
    the “fat is horrid” people deny that some people find their excess weight is irrelevant to living a happy healthy life.

    This argument is unresolvable. Both sides are going to defend their turf, believing that anybody not following their own path is either lying or delusional.

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  10. You say that treatments for obesity can help. What treatments are these, pray tell? Where is the scientific evidence for their effectiveness — at helping people lose weight and keep it off, and at improving overall health and well-being? 95 percent of all weight loss efforts fail. I don’t see any point in investing time and money in anything with those odds. When we have treatments that WORK, I will pursue them; in the meantime, my only choice is to try to be as healthy and happy as I can in the (fat) body I have.

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  11. Personally, I find it unimaginable that wealthy people can be TRULY happy while knowing that the privileges they enjoy (privileges they did not request and may not even recognize) provide them with better health outcomes—or with increased comfort, security and longer life spans in spite of their health problems—while others who live without those privileges often encounter a far different fate. (Suffering and premature death, for example.) Thus, unless the wealthy members of society are spending a significant amount of time, effort and money (lobbying and working) to change these systemic forces of domination, and to transform the unjust and inequitable political policies which create vast differences in access to conditions of material security, then I must assume the wealthy people are living in deep denial. They cannot possibly be content with a status quo which rewards them with access to material and social conditions required to achieve (specific) enhanced health benefits–or more likely to result in longer lives with fewer health struggles—as if (for mysterious reasons no one can justify) the wealthy members of society are intrinsically more valuable as human beings or more deserving of improved health outcomes, comfort, and conditions with greater material security. Moreover, I can’t believe that wealthy people walk around feeling happy–while knowing that (in the U.S., for instance) 1 in 5 children experience food insecurity (a material condition that may result in life-long health problems.)

    However, perhaps I have an overly idealized and unrealistic concept of the human potential for empathy and compassion.

    Frankly, all the speculation about individual fat people’s happiness or lack thereof (as if individuals live our lives in a mysterious realm that is completely disconnected from and uninfluenced by social and material conditions OTHER THAN FATNESS) appears disingenuous, at best. Mostly, discussions like these seem to lend support to dominant discourses that focus on individuals and individual behaviors as the critical factors in determining health outcomes. In other words, as usual, these discussions serve to prop up the power status quo while obscuring health determinants resulting from social and material conditions that originate beyond the control of individuals, individual choices, and individual behaviors.

    So. Are we speculating about poor fat people (perhaps unemployed resulting from stigma and discrimination—and facing few options for improved economic status), or wealthy fat people who might still experience fat bias and stigma, etc., yet also enjoy far more than enough compensatory perks? Are we really going PRETEND TO compare the happiness of someone like Oprah, for instance (or, say, the happiness of the fat white comedian currently pulling in several million $ per series episode)—with the fat, closeted gay teen living in a rural Utah farm community—or with the fat Registered Dietitian (with PhD) pursuing a tenure track full-professor position with an Ivy League college…

    Or are we talking about so-called “middle-class” fat people who may dislike their size but have access to safe environments in which to exercise (golf courses with pools, for instance), who can afford higher quality sources of protein and produce, have easier access to safe and reliable transportation, and safe and secure housing?

    Because I suspect that most debates about fat people (either liking or not liking their lives and/or their body size) are typically framed by the dominant discourses (both medical and obesity discourses), which, therefore, obscure, minimize, or discount the most critical determinants of health and happiness—and, moreover, continue to focus most critical analysis at the level of individuals—rather than conducting critical research and analysis at the level of social structure, social policies, social norms, dominant discourses, and social/material living conditions.

    For example, do we spend time speculating and researching whether *generic* fat people are happy with their lives—or do we investigate and analyse the kinds of social and material conditions most likely to provide people with a history of lived experiences encouraging TRUST in their social institutions? Do we investigate and analyze to discover which kinds of social and material conditions can provide individuals (regardless of their size) with the strongest sense of belonging, the greatest feelings of self worth and value, the material security conducive to taking healthy risks, trust in mutual aid and community support, caring relationships with neighbors, strong community ties, healthy and resourceful communities, authentic social connections, and confidence in the systems of justice.

    The aforementioned factors represent just some of the social and material conditions that—when withheld from individuals and groups—result in widespread suffering, increased rates of illness, and diminishing long-term health outcomes; and when the suffering and sick individuals happen to be fat people—well, naturally, once again, the medical discourses and the dominant cultural discourses about obesity leap forward with their *OBVIOUS* answers—to be found by focusing on individuals, on individual’s supposedly “unhealthy” choices, or on their sloth and gluttony—in ideological mimicry of religious leaders throughout the centuries who have blamed individuals and their “sinful” or “wasteful” choices as the determinants of their personal worthiness to enter heaven–and their personal worthiness to amass monetary fortunes.

    Century after century, average people continue to identify with and idealize the dominant discourses of powerful groups, even going so far as to vote against their own self interests–driven by the socially-constructed belief that they, too, will someday be among the virtuous individuals to earn their way to wealth, heaven, better health (or lower BMI) by carefully following the instructions for success as laid down by the dominant discourses.

    It’s interesting how the ancient individualist ideologies are reconstructed again and again, over time, but the basic mythological promise for personal transformation remains: follow the word, become a true believer, choose the “correct” behaviors, and the power of future happiness (thinness, health, wealth, salvation) will be yours. It’s also interesting to analyse whose interests are actually served by these dominant discourses.

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  12. I found this piece to be both inspirational (due to Ragen Chastain and Dr. Sharma) and frustrating (due to Paul Plakas). People like Ragen, who model a healthy lifestyle at any size, provide such a great example of how larger people can go out and enjoy life, love your body and be healthy and happy at whatever size you happen to be. It’s people like Mr. Plakas who cause larger people to stay away from gyms. You think you’re the big hero trying to save all of us fatties from ourselves. I could even give you the benefit of the doubt and say you probably think you’re ‘helping’ us. But from my side, all I see is a guy with an agenda to wipe all the fatties off the face of the earth. You obviously don’t care enough about others to have the respect to even listen to another point of view without interrupting. And for you to simply dismiss Ragen’s experiences and criticize what kind of dancer she is reminds me of the jocks in school who ruined phys. ed. for me by criticizing my performance.

    Mr. Plakas, you say you’ve helped so many people who just wanted to lose weight ‘so they could be happier and be able to get out there and enjoy life in a way that they couldn’t before they lost weight’ …did you ever think that the real reason they weren’t out there enjoying life was to avoid the stigma of the shitty way people are treated when we are ‘overweight’? The way people snicker and laugh seeing a fat person on the weight machines at the gym? If we were all treated the same and felt comfortable going to the gym, we’d be there. Or I could go riding my bike with my fat butt hanging over the seat and people didn’t laugh at point while I rode by, I’d probably ride all the time. People have been treating fat people like crap for so long, everyone just figures it’s okay to do. It’s funny to laugh at fat people right?

    I agree with Ragen. People do not HATE THEMSELVES HEALTHY! Love yourself, love whatever body you have right now, eat well, move and enjoy your life…Paul Plakas and his ilk can kiss my fatt butt!

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  13. Mr Plakas – the problem with your argument is the “hundreds” of people who have chosen to work with you made that choice because they were dissatisfied. That doesn’t mean that there are not millions of other people who would choose not to work with you because they think their happiness and fulfilment does not depend on their dress size.

    Its like a chocolate ice cream shop saying “everyone in the world loves chocolate ice-cream – we’ve surveyed our customers and they all said so”

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  14. “Are Happy Fat People Delusional?”

    Replace the word “Fat” with another word that represents a different religious belief, path in life, addiction or any decision that is unusual. As an example I’m a childfree (someone who never wants children) atheist and I don’t see how those characteristics would affect my mood, *provided* that the society I’m in accepts it to some degree. Which it does where I live.

    On the other hand if I lived in a place where being an atheist was shunned and I was forced to pray then you would be correct that it would affect my mood to some degree.

    I do believe that the biggest negative effect on many obese people is that of mental health.

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  15. @Paul Plakas:

    Dear Mr. Plakas, respectfully inquiring, sir, what kinds of follow-up “data” (quantitative and/or qualitative) have you collected on the “100s” of (presumably) satisfied clients with whom you have worked? I guess I can’t help wondering how much (or how little) critical analysis and reflection you have brought to your experiences with these formerly “[un]fulfilled” fat people.

    Based on my own personal experiences, an individual’s initial relief (and increased feelings of satisfaction) following weight loss often result in large part from no longer having to endure the repeated looks of disgust, judgement and rejection that accompany fat stigma and bias. (And sometimes the person no longer feels obligated to stay away, as much as possible, from public places—to avoid being the target of ridicule—and thus, after weight loss, may experience a new sense of “freedom.”)

    Suddenly, the formerly fat person may feel “normal” or VALUED because he or she is no longer confronting a daily flood of prejudice, discrimination, and “concern” pouring forth from media sources, neighbors, family members, strangers, employers, and even close friends. Indeed, one who loses weight must often contend with a new and different barrage of social commentary and unsolicited opinions about how “attractive” he or she NOW looks–and how GREAT/PROUD/SATISFIED/HAPPY he or she must surely feel—and what a “tremendous accomplishment” she or he has achieved!

    When all those things (so-called *thinness perks*) happened to me after losing a lot of weight, all I could think, mostly, was “Eeeeew, yuck! I’m finally seeing our culture’s cruel biases and irrational obsessions for what they are—forms of oppression and social control. Ugh.”

    I was supposed to feel “happier” and instead I felt sadder and emptier at having to confront the disturbing underbelly of (knee-jerk) social approval and the ugly backside of (shallow) social values.

    Ironically, the long-term aftermath (of critically analyzing the social reactions to my smaller size) has offered some emancipatory insights. Many commonly accepted “truths” about the so-called “human condition”—and many cultural “shoulds” (social norms)—have become clarified for me (and thus are now open for rejection or resistance) as oppressive bullsh*t.

    For example, the implicit cultural demand that individuals (should) effectively manage other people’s impressions of our selves (enforced by social norms, dominant discourses, threats of stigma, etc) functions as a social force of domination (a form of social control and self censorship that we internalize), which has its historical roots in ancient feudal and religious ideologies (mythologies)—and, more recently, in capitalist hegemony—extolling the virtues of an individual’s ability (and obligation) to “take control” of one’s destiny (regardless of oppressive social or material conditions) by relying on one’s own individual “will power,” “free will”, “personal responsibility,” “power of positive thinking”, “influence”, “determination”, “strength of character”, “faith” (or conviction), “persuasion” (not to mention “feminine wiles”), and so forth.

    Thus, cultural imperatives would have us use much of our precious life energy in the pursuit of attempting to *control* or *manage* other people’s perceptions of us–thus, to create and maintain illusions for other people–for the intended purpose of predicting and controlling—and “producing”—a better long-term personal life outcome (being liked and admired and respected, getting hired, earning social status, attracting *friends*, appearing smart, and–of course–avoiding discrimination, bias, stigma, scapegoating, disdain, social disapproval, etc).

    Tragically, in the process, many of us lose the best parts of our selves; we become disconnected from our own needs and our deepest desires; we feel alienated from ourselves and from others; and thus we seek to feel better by working even harder at earning social approval and acceptance and rewards—in a society that values (and rewards), perhaps above all, surface appearances and illusions of individual control as extolled by dominant cultural discourses.

    So we follow the recommended diets, change our “lifestyles”, make “healthier choices,” pursue “physical fitness”, work on our “personal issues”, and focus on “self” improvement—with the hope (or expectation) of getting “healthier”, feeling happier, and living longer. We keep trusting that (with hard work, will power, and determination, etc) we will at last earn those rewards tacitly assured to us in our seemingly sacred social covenant (dominant discourses): we will reach that promised land!

    Again, having lived on the *other side* (in the land of fat stigma and bias) only to cross over to a place with equally unsettling (and unsavory) conditions, I now wonder how many of us will feel (if we reach our nursing home days) that all our efforts, time, and energies *spent* towards self improvement and “health” actually provide us, in the end, with whatever we had feared “missing out on”—and I wonder if we will be pleased with the results, with “what life offered.”

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  16. Happiness setpoints, weight setpoints – the body works very hard at maintaining homeostatis. What are the health care costs of sports injuries? Obesity is linked to joint pain but so are athletic injuries and working in trades that require heavy lifting and climbing. I find that at 60, I have the same happiness level that I had as a preschooler. The closer one is to achieving the ideal body, the harder it is because that carrot is dangling in front of your nose: “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them on?” Sleeping Beauty’s stepmom was slender but definitely not a joy to live with. Ditch the comparisons and there’s hope of self-acceptance and self-appreciation. At 60, all the experts look like grown up versions of the kids who used to hang out in your backyard – they were always there day after day, year after year, and part of you wished they’d go away but at some deep, barely conscious level, you think maybe they’ll save you when they are at their prime and you are at your weakest.

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  17. Hi, Dr. Sharma,

    I wanted to say I saw your segment with the “fitness professional” and Regan. You did an excellent job refuting all of the myths about exercise. I like exercise but I realize and respect that it is extremely limited to affect body weight, especially ovber the long term.

    I really respect and admire Dr. Jeffrey Friedman and yourself ( as well as Dr. Stephan Guyenet). You’re all good men trying to develop a deeper understanding of body weight regulation.

    I have learned so much over the last 2 years.

    You probably are in contact with Dr. Friedman, perhaps. Pick his brain, exchange new ideas . You may already do this though 🙂 There are vast oceans of unknowns out there about obesity and body weight regulatory systems . We only know about a large glass of water. But, I am grateful at least to have learned that body weight is involuntarily regulated by extremely complex neural circuitry communicating with gut hormones, and gut microbiota. I am a layman who takes a passionate interest in this subject.

    I really enjoy learning from your excellent blog, as well as all of Dr. Friedman’s lectures. Thanks for all of your efforts, Dr. Sharma. I thoroughly appreciate good scientists.

    Your blog, Stephan Guyenet’s and Morgan Downey’s Obesity Report are fabulous and my favorite obesity blogs. I also like Gary Taubes’ blog a ton because he was my favorite writer on another topic- physics.

    Also, thanks for giving my buddy Urgelt of YouTube attention with his obesity video last year.

    Best Wishes,

    Raz

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  18. I too was quite horrified by how Paul was so dismissive and downright rude to Reagan during the segment. While he was there to put forward his own opinion, he was unwilling to even be kind in his assertions. While I am no dancer, I did deliver mail door to door for over 5 years at 280 pounds. I walked for over 3 hours a day going up and down stairs carrying up to 35 pounds of mail (even in the winter). Now, I wasn’t as fast as my co-workers, but I was more fit than most of the general population.

    Paul Plakas, have you gone back to all of the obese clients you have worked with to see how many of them have maintained their weight loss? Statistics would indicate that of even your clients, many of them have re-gained most if not all of the weight they have lost.

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  19. What an odd debate. I wouldn’t even know where to begin to compare happiness in the different states, it’s apples and oranges. Being thinner requires discipline and time – both in weight loss and maintenance – and I suspect the societal disapproval is just as great as for the mildly obese. It’s amazing how many people care what I put in my mouth (or don’t, as the case may be), and take it as a personal rejection if their party food is not in my dietary plans. Equally amazing is how many people will try to convince me that my diet/ exercise regime is extreme, when the WHO tells me I’m “mildly overweight”. I’m in the US, where obesity is the new normal and healthy weight is the new anorexia.

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