Are We Heading For A Size War?

Really, people? We’re still talking about Surgeon General Regina Benjamin’s weight? This week, Michael Karolchyk, the owner of a gym, appeared on FOX News to voice his opinion about why Benjamin has no right being considered for Surgeon General. Luckily, Neil Cavuto took him to task, but Karolchyk still got in zingers like, “Just because you eat a lot of dinner rolls doesn’t make you a role model.” Oh, and did I mention that during this whole appearance, he wore a shirt that read, “No Chubbies?” How cute! And when I say “cute,” I mean, “Can I punch this guy in the face?”

This whole Benjamin debate has got me thinking—are we heading towards a size war? Is this the 2009 version of the gender, class, race, or sexual orientation wars?It’s not just all the discussion over Regina Benjamin’s waist that has me thinking about this. Earlier today, we posted about a mother in South Carolina who is being charged with criminal neglect because she allowed her son to get to the point of weighing 555 pounds. Bad parenting, sure, but criminal and punishable with time in prison? This is evidence of a cultural storm brewing.

Also interesting—as our culture’s thin-obsession and fear-of-fat reaches a fever pitch, it seems that people in the overweight and obese categories are launching a defensive attack. Take for example, the “fat acceptance movement,” which we told you about last month. Even television producers are catching on to the backlash—how else do we explain the popping up of shows like “Dance Your Ass Off,” a hybrid of “So You Think You Can Dance” and “The Biggest Loser.” Or the soon-to-premiere “More To Love,” a “Bachelor” for thick people. Or “Mo’Nique’s F.A.T. Chance,” a beauty pageant for large ladies on Oxygen. These shows are doing really well with viewers. They’re resonating, I think, because people who battle the scale are just plain sick of being told how unhealthy and undesirable they are. Because that’s just nasty. Everyone in this country does something that is unhealthy—be it smoking, or living in a city with a lot of smog, or exercising to the point where their joints are at risk. Being overweight just happens to be one of the few unhealthy habits that is always visible.

Part of the problem here is that, because we each happen to be the size that we are, we can’t talk about weight without thinking about ourselves. I’m a size 12 myself—the size of the average American woman and someone smack dab in the middle of the thin-to-fat spectrum—so I feel like I’m well-poised to translate what’s happening here. People on the thin end of the spectrum often say things like, “Obesity is an epidemic—it’s dangerous and linked to diabetes and heart disease.” Is it true? Yes. But when that’s said, here’s what people on the opposite end of the spectrum hear: “You are disgusting and have no control over your actions. Put down the Cheese Doodles.” Meanwhile, those same people whose girth is wider keep saying things like, “Real women have curves. At least we eat.” Here’s what a skinny person hears when something like that is said: “You’re not real.” Body image is so charged for each and every one of us, that it’s impossible to start discussion without feeling criticized. And even worse, judged.

All around me, it feels like this standoff is escalating. And because Regina Benjamin happens to be up for a largely symbolic office, the gloves are coming off and people are saying what they really think. Both sides are a little disturbing.

Honestly, just like with homosexuality, I think how you feel about those who are overweight has a lot to do with whether you think being overweight is genetic or a choice. On the skinny spectrum, I think it’s a lot easier to view being overweight as a choice. From the heavier end of the spectrum, I think it’s much easier to see it as genetic. Is weight tied to everyday choices like eating well and exercising? Absolutely. But don’t we all know people who are constantly popping Krispy Kremes and never so much as think about going to the gym and still manage to be slim? And don’t we all know people who eat well and exercise regularly, and yet will always be a little larger? There’s strong evidence that size travels genetically through your parent of the same sex.

Partly, I think this war is a false one. There are other physical characteristics linked to not-so-hot outcomes. For example, some evidence says that tall people tend to live longer lives and to be a few IQ points smarter than short people. But do you think there will ever come to a point where short people are looked down on as unhealthy and stupid? Sounds crazy, but given this current divide, it’s not so far-fetched.

I’m not sure exactly how to diffuse this war. The only thing I think will help is if we all just mind our own damned business. Some people are skinny, some people are fat, and some people are in the middle. How does where someone else falls really effect you? All of us are human beings. All of us are real. All of us deserve respect, kindness, and to be able to walk into a room without being judged. I think if we all focus on our own true health—getting regular check-ups, not smoking, not excessively drinking, and abusing drugs—rather than weight-as-a-stand-in-for-health, we’d all be more accepting of what we see in the mirror and in other people.

Rant. Over.