I feel I have to address the comments Bill Maher made in his editorial segment at the end of his show on Friday. I’m certainly not the only one who will. I’m sure there will be many posts and articles in the coming days (which isn’t unusual for Bill). In my summary, Bill Maher argued for the use of shame to relieve the public of the negative health effects of being fat. He characterized shame as a useful tool to promote healthy behaviors in the same vain as smoking, drinking, and wearing a seat belt. Bill Maher has been frequently cited for his views on African Americans, Muslims, and gay and trans people… and Stan Lee. So this isn’t new. And he’s made discriminatory remarks about fat people many times before. Still, as someone who’s been fat most of their life, and spent a great deal of time studying how the media handles diet, weight, and health, I’m going to address issues that I see with his argument.
I think people who are addicted to smoking tobacco or drinking alcohol should not be shamed out of it. Like any addiction, there are neural, hormonal, behavioral, and socioeconomic factors that support smoking and drinking. From what I’ve read, shaming isn’t even the most effective way to change any behavior – not for children or for adults. People generally understand if their behaviors are harmful. They still feel compelled to do them anyway. Only if you address the factors supporting peoples’ addictions can they be free to “will” their way to new behaviors. Also, drinking in particular has a long grandfathered history in Western cultures, integrated into so many aspects of life. How are addicts supposed to fight THAT, exactly? …Even with the current science on how harmful drinking can be. More than that, food addiction and eating disorders are not the same because – and really, this doesn’t take much observational prowess to point out – you chemically MUST eat, practically every single day, for the rest of your life. If you want to stop smoking or drinking, ideally you would aim for abstinence because you would want to mitigate the temptation to overdo it, and to eliminate any other opportunities to do further damage to your body than you already have. But what if you were told you needed to drink an alcoholic beverage every single day – forever – but any more will hasten your death?
I do agree with the premise that corporations are greedy and manipulate us into behaviors that hurt us in order to increase their profits. We should have the choice about how we want our bodies to look and whether we eat more healthfully. Right now, we don’t have that choice. Sugars are addictive, the liver doesn’t process fructose very well, vegetables are relatively expensive, and people don’t have cultural allowances for homemade meals. Exercise isn’t seamlessly integrated into everyday life for many people – instead, it’s optional, and it’s up to each person individually to figure out how they can do it. This is… a pain in the ass. Scientists estimate that at least 70% of people have enough abdominal fat to affect health outcomes. That’s got to be a larger pool of folks than people who have eating disorders. For many people, fat is something that just kind of… happens. And a lot of them aren’t even noticeably fat. Shame certainly isn’t going to reach these people, and it shouldn’t. Easy access to unhealthy food, and rituals designed around it, are definitely part of why people less healthy than they could be. But holding people individually accountable to eating better is incredibly difficult in this context, and it’s only one contributor to why people get fat. And let’s say you can get people who are already experiencing poorer health from being fat, or from having an eating disorder, to adopt healthier eating and exercise habits. Their bodies will still never behave as if they hadn’t had an unhealthier experience, what with the changes to the reward system of the brain, the hormone ghrelin, and increased fat cell count and long-term lowering of metabolism in some cases. Does fixing “bad” eating habits change all of this? Will they never need to cross paths with food advertising, restaurants, or catered events? We do not have the tools (yet) to effectively treat the entire body for the adverse effects of getting fat. But we can invest in changing the infrastructure that supports the lack of food choice and exercise opportunities. And all the while, let’s not shame people anymore.
I’ll post references when I get around to it. In the meantime, I’m exhausted. I could go for some cookies and some bread. And like, also a danish.