There are no words in the English language to describe the ire I feel when I hear ignorant, narrow-minded opinions about fat people.
Why are we here today? With one of the last acceptable prejudices being against someone’s weight, which as I’ll explain, has less than ever to do with victorian values of ‘personal responsibility’ and ‘a jolly good helping of elbow grease and grit’, the stuff of real characters! Go-getters! Nay, dare I say, thin people?
You’ll regularly here from thin people that ‘fat people only have themselves to blame’, but that just isn’t true. Society is playing an ever greater part in obesity, and I cannot sit by any longer and hear all about the erudite, no, transcendental wisdoms of the general public, who more often than not, have no understanding of the science of obesity whatsoever.
I’ll admit, I’m coming on a little strong, but remember, if you even have a niggle in your mind that society is at least partly to blame for fatness, then this is not directed at you. Remember that. If you’re on the fence, then this is probably not directed at you either. There’s a lot of misinformation out there, and it’s hard to know without a thorough rummage through the science, what exactly is true on the topic of obesity.
No, this piece is about that charming selection of people in the audience who take no greater pleasure than provocatively poking fat people with metaphorical sticks and other sharp, pointy things, telling them how disgusting and lazy they are, and how their health is declining because they can’t stop shoving pork pies in their mouths. Well, I’ve got news for you, nasty, you’re wrong, and I’ll tell you why right… now.
Despite what you may think about fat people, they are still people, and people have been peopleing now for a very long time. People have been the same, physiologically speaking, for at least long enough for me to make my next point. If, accepting that human physiology has not changed in any discernible way in the last millennia, even in the last thousand years, why, in the last hundred, have people become fatter and fatter? Obesity levels are reaching record heights. People are fatter than ever. Not just fat people, but people in general.
More people are morbidly obese, proportionately speaking, than at any other time in history. Since 1991, obesity levels in the UK have risen by 65% in males, and 25% in females. To believe that fat people are lazy or disgusting is to admit unbridled ignorance. Society is changing the proportionality of obesity. It is fair to say that the amount of human willpower, or our propensity towards good old-fashioned elbow grease has not decreased. We are still animals of fortitude, tenacity and endurance by all accounts. So what has changed? Fat people are not the hinge on which obesity generates itself, they are but a byproduct of something much more sinister and creeping.
Dr Giulia Enders in Gut tells us that the concept of obesity is far more complicated than just willpower. Our gut microbiome plays a significant role in our propensity to eat the wrong things. The most memorable test she illustrates was done on a unique set of lab rats without any bacterial colonies in their digestive systems at all. They were completely sterile. These rats then received various colonies of bacteria in transplantation. The rats who were given strains of bacteria known to cause disease became disproportionately obese. The rats given a healthy cocktail of lactobacillus and friends continued to maintain a slim weight.
What is more, the gut biome, much like the cordiceps mushroom or the parasitic wasp, may actually influence host behaviour. When you have an overgrowth of bad bacteria, you are more likely to crave carbohydrates and processed sugars, Enders says. These bacteria can produce chemical signals to request more food from the host. This symbiotic relationship between our gut bacteria, which help us digest our food and us, has been a pact of understanding for aeons. We are only just beginning to understand the mechanisms by which these tiny microorganisms can have such large effects on our behaviour.
Genetics, method of birth, food eaten, trauma, antibiotics, sleep and exercise, all impact the gut biome. A compromised gut makes room for pathogens, which leads to obesity as cravings increase for processed sugars and carbohydrates which feed these bad bacteria. This mixture of influences is a fairly common list in how to be healthy or unhealthy, but it’s not as simple as ‘do these things and you will be healthy’. We are now contending with an environment which actively wants to take these things away from us.
During the birthing process, the mother provides a great deal of beneficial bacteria to the baby as it leaves the birthing canal. Cesarians are on the rise. Cesarians prevent this important transfer of beneficial bacteria. Breast feeding has also been displaced by formula milk. Breat milk contains huge amounts of beneficial bacteria to an infant, as well as lots of important antibodies. From birth, our gut biomes are under onslaught from westernised influences which can set us behind, or even lead us to obesity.
Look at sleep, for instance. Sleep deprivation is on the rise. From 2010 to 2018, sleep deprivation (classed as anything under 7 hours), rose from just over to 30%, to just over 35%. That might not seem like a lot, but if we account for the fact that this has happened over just 8 years, we can see that modern life is coming for our z’s.
Physical exercise becomes a chore when so many of our waking hours are consumed by menial tasks, work commitments and socialising at the end of the day. Jobs demanding physical activity are falling as more people work at a desk for at least 8 hours a day. A poll of 2000 UK residents found that, during the lockdown, physical activity fell by 30 minutes, leading to weight gain over time.
Antibiotics are a blessing. They provide a way for us to perform surgeries without sepsis. They allow common infections to be treated and cured with relative ease. They’re essential to saving lives. Unfortunately, they’re also overprescribed needlessly for common complaints which might improve with rest, and they’re devastating for the gut biome. When antibiotics are used long-term, they can kill off many of the important fibre digesting bacteria which support health, which then leaves space for hardier pathogens to take root in the gut lining.
Finally, the food that we eat is laced with additives which promote weight gain. Drinking a diet coke to be skinny? The artificial sweeteners are known to cause obesity. Our meat is drenched in hormones and antibiotics to meet high meat demands and the growing prevalence of disease and antibiotic resistance in intense agriculture. Pesticides riddle our produce. Tomatoes are bred to contain more sugar. Food is a constant onslaught for our insides. All of these factors are detrimental to our gut health, and poor gut health correlates with weight gain, autoimmune diseases and metabolic syndromes.
Society is fuelling obesity, perhaps not consciously, perhaps not with malicious intent, but definitely, and powerfully, and even, dare I say it, clandestinely. We just see fat people and their fatness, and it makes for an easy target. They’re there, we can observe that they are fat and therefore, by some kind of cave man logic, they must be the source of fatness, but, as with anything that’s worth researching about, it’s not that simple.
People like to blame what they can see because it’s much easier to live with than what they cannot. The Cold War was a time of anxiety, deep suspicion and secrecy. The sort of contextual backdrop which leaves the hairs on your nape on end. Not knowing your enemy, or when he will strike is fear itself. Without fat people to take the fall for obesity, who would we point the finger at? It’s not easy when you can’t see the problem, but it is there and it needs addressing now.
Fatness is endemic.
Fatness is spreading.
Fatness is not about fat people.
Society plays a bigger role than ever in fatness. Fat people have agency, yes. We all have agency, but agency is also effected by societal structures. Big food corporations, employment law, covid isolation sanctions, stressful lives and so much more. To say that fat people bring about their own health issues is to ignore the mounting scientific evidence. The walls are closing in on us. We’re being squashed in our freedoms, liberties, and desires for healthier lives. You can’t fight a shrinking room with no doors. Not without looking at the problems in our modern lifestyles will we begin to make better choices.
The paradox of it all is this.
As our world shrinks in around us, we’re all going to get bigger.
Fat is symptomatic of an imbalance in the social fabric of our lives. The sooner we recognise that, the faster we can begin to heal.
And for the last time, repeat after me, fat people are not the cause of fatness, society is.