Monday, October 5, 2015

About "Dear Fat People"

There has been great angst and consternation reverberating online in reaction to a supposedly comic YouTube video called "Dear Fat People". I was completely oblivious to the folderol until a tumblr post directed me to this video by Tessa Violet, who in turn mentioned this video by Megan Tonjes.

Please watch these two videos. Go ahead, I'll wait.

OK. Normally I don't care even a little bit about the various ephemeral memes storming across the InterWeb seas. But the above videos got me wondering what all the fuss was about, so I watched the "Dear Fat People" video for myself (which I won't link, but is easy to find if you feel you must).

I heard things I used to think (and even say out loud). Things that I stopped thinking about 7 years ago.This post is about how my views, and even my perceptions, changed. I will not describe how or why I came to hold my old views. This is just about how my views changed.

In 2005 a study was started by researchers at the University of South Carolina at Columbia to quantify the relationship between BMI (Body Mass Index) and various health outcomes for seniors (age over 60), while accounting for as many other factors as possible. To do this required a large number of participants over a significant period of time. Such studies are called "longitudinal" studies. In this case, 30,000 participants were enrolled for a study duration of 6 years.

When such studies are designed, great care is taken to set proper goals, and ensure the data gathered can be properly analyzed to assess those goals. In this case, the base assumption was simple: Extreme BMI values combined with age were thought to directly imply poor health outcomes (increased illness and injury, and shorter lifespan). As the study starts, the data analysis starts in parallel, to ensure any problems in the analysis or the study itself are identified as soon as possible.

Just 6 months into the study, the analysis indicated there was a small but significant group of high-BMI folks who had completely normal health. Initial corrections were made to weed out very muscular folks (BMI can't tell muscle from fat), and to correct for a few other known factors,

But the remaining group was still far larger than expected. The experimenters let the study continue while they took a closer look at this group. Over the following year the hundreds of folks in this group were interviewed face-to-face, and the rest of the study population was surveyed to get additional information.

Eighteen months into the study the riddle of the healthy high-BMI group was solved: Aside from a few "freaks of nature", all of the folks in this group routinely exercised at levels well above the norm. They were fat senior athletes.

The study published their findings for this small group 6 months later, in 2007. It made a splash in the press, where I remember the distinctive title of one article in particular: "Fitness Beats Fatness."

This paper was published soon after I joined TCSD (the Triathlon Club of San Diego), and it made me take a closer look at our heavier members. And for the first time, I didn't see folks I assumed were in the club to try to lose weight. I simply saw fellow triathletes.

Well, OK, that's a good step, right? No, it wasn't really much of one. Yes, I wasn't holding their fatness against them, but I realized I still wasn't seeing them in the same favorable light I saw the lean club members. I decided to try my best to truly see all my fellow club members as the athletes they are.

And you know what? It actually worked! It took a couple months, but I soon noticed how my interactions with larger club members changed, how I felt closer to, and more comfortable with, the larger club members.

But there was this damned little voice in my mind that told me I was still placing conditions on how I visually perceived people, that fat folks got a pass only if I knew they were athletes. In my mind, that clearly wasn't fair. Which led me into a more general questioning of my perceptions and assumptions. I didn't like what I learned about myself.

I was raised in multi-ethnic, multi-racial multi-generational neighborhoods, with parents who tolerated no prejudice based on age, race, ethnicity, sex, wealth or religion. My only vestiges of bigotry concerned groups I hadn't met, and those evaporated as soon as I met and got to know members of those groups (e.g., LGBT), I had taken the online "Are You A Bigot?" quizzes, and always scored as "Not A Bigot".

Yet here I was, a fatness bigot.

It took more time, but I finally pounded the simple truth all the way into my head, that a person's weight is their own concern, and had nothing to do with how I should perceive them as a person. Easy to say, easy to think, easy even to know and believe, but much, much harder to live.

Why had I been a fatness bigot? How did that bigotry survive when I was free from so many of the other bigotries that plague our society? How did I not come to recognize it earlier? Why did a scientific study finally force me to take a closer look? Why had it taken months and months to purge?

It would probably take years of therapy to dig that deep. For now, I choose not to be so smug an egalitarian, knowing there may well be other bigotries yet within me.

And today, years later, I hope you see why and how those videos affected me. I recalled my own prejudice and shame, and resolved once more to let people be who they are, and not make assumptions.

Tessa Violet's words burn in my core: "You are the first and last 'you' who will ever exist in all of human history. And you are lovable. And it's such a shame to think anything but."

Please, know this to be true for each person you see. But more importantly, know it for yourself, about yourself.

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