Q&A: How I keep my fabulous figure, and The Nature Argument.

By | March 12, 2010


Here we have two new Q&As originally from Formspring. The first I answered on the Formspring site earlier this week. The second I’m answering here because I thought it deserved a wordier answer than I like to type into the tiny text-entry box the Formspring site affords me. So:

Q. You exercise and and are a veggie lover – What do you eat that keeps you plump?

Kittens, by the handful. And the souls of Jenny Craig “consultants”, since they don’t need them anymore after taking that job.

No. I’m joking, of course. See, nothing “keeps” me fat. Fat is just what I am.

This morning the local news covered a new study that found that moderate drinking helps women to “maintain” their weight. I noticed, as usual, that the concept of maintaining one’s weight, being slim, and avoiding weight gain were all used interchangeably, but these are not interchangeable concepts. This language implies that fat people must necessarily constantly gaining weight, that it is impossible for a fat person to reach a certain weight or size and just settle there. It creates a perception that all fat people must be recently fat, or getting fatter by the minute. The idea is that fat bodies are utterly out of control and wildly accumulating weight at all times.

This is, to put it scientifically, total bullshit. I’ve “maintained” my current weight for a decade. I get no fatter, I get no thinner. I go to the gym, I eat foods that folks who place moral values on such things would think of as positively virtuous. If I didn’t do these things — and there have been periods in my life when I didn’t — my weight still stays the same. It simply doesn’t change.

There is no thin version of me. There never has been. At my slimmest in my adult life (reached as a result of a period of depression and a total lack of self-care during my twentieth year), I still wore a size 20. This is it, yo. I am a fat person. I cannot conceive of a reality in which I am not a fat person. For me, staying fat does not demand effort or commitment or the eating of some special fat-making food at regular intervals. It just… is.

Q. In all other species, there is a range of normal sizes and body fat %, and if an animal is very much outside this range for its species it is an indication that something is wrong. Why do you think humans are the exception?

This is one of those questions that, for me, falls under the logical fallacy known as the appeal to nature. Broken down, the idea is that if something is deemed “unnatural” then it must be bad. I have a few criticisms of this approach. For one, “nature” itself is a culturally-constructed concept. Once you get past the obvious examples of trees and bunnies, what counts as nature? Who decides? Often “nature” is employed to distinguish things that are untainted by human efforts, but that sets up humans as somehow anti-nature, which seems counterintuitive. Are we not ourselves every bit as natural as the trees? Or is it only the objects and circumstances we create that are deemed unnatural?

More than that, “nature” is frequently deployed as a code word for “normal”, and used in this way, it places a value judgment on things that are unnatural/abnormal. For example, opponents of gay marriage (or gayness in general) will often argue that gay sex is “unnatural”, meaning abnormal, meaning something that ought not to be allowed to take place in the established order of things. You’ll note that this carries a very different weight than simply saying “gay sex is icky” or even “gay sex offends me” — calling it “unnatural” makes a global proclamation against the behavior based on some invented “natural order” that is defied by the existence of said behavior. Instead of merely being about personal opinion, this places it in a framework of perceived universal norms of existence.

This question also reminds me of an aspect of the “but isn’t it hard for fat people to run?” question from earlier that I neglected to identify, in my efforts at answering it thoughtfully. Specifically, my question is: how easy is it for anyone, of any size, to run, comparatively speaking? And when was the last time you really had to run, not simply to catch a bus or to beat the rain to your front porch, but in a life and death situation? I’d argue that for most of us living in technologically-advanced nations in the 21st century, running has become a bit of a luxury. Today, as a species, we no longer have to worry about outpacing a wooly mammoth, and I think that’s probably not a state of affairs any of us are eager to return to. It’s something we pay money for the privilege of doing in a gym during the winter; something we perform on a machine meant to simulate the ground we’d cover. Running is something we make time to do, not out of necessity nor as a matter of survival. I can infer from the question an unspoken suggestion that running is somehow of greater intrinsic or evolutionary value than… not running? Reading a book? Some other sedentary activity?

Speaking more directly to the question posed above: humans would be the exception in this scenario for the plain and simple reason that our lives are more complicated than those of non-human animals. Let’s say some random antelope, one in a herd of a hundred hanging out somewhere in Africa, gets very fat. How would an antelope accomplish this task? He gets his nutrition from the grass he eats. He gets his exercise by running like hell to escape lions, which is as good a motivation for exercise as I think anyone can get. His life is pretty straightforward, and is probably very nearly identical to the rest of the antelopes in his herd. If this one antelope gets fat, while the rest of his herd remains normal-sized, you’d have to assume it was likely the result of some biological problem unique to the individual antelope.

Now, let’s look at humans. Humans don’t travel in herds like the antelope, nor do we run everywhere; some of us walk to work, some take the bus. Some drive. Some take a train. Some do a combination of these. We interact with lots and lots of different other humans throughout the day, as opposed to the antelope, who mostly just sees the same other antelopes in his herd. Like the antelope, some of us work outdoors, and regularly use large muscle groups; but some work indoors, and spend hours and hours sitting almost immobile at a desk. Some of us bring our lunch from home; some go out. Some have steaks and martinis, some eat vegan, some Thai. Some go to McDonald’s. So far as I know, not many go out and graze on the grass for every meal. Some of us go to a gym for exercise, which antelopes do not; some of us go home and watch American Idol, which antelopes do not; and some of us watch American Idol while at the gym, which may well happen with cartoon antelopes in The New Yorker, but not in real life. We travel long distances, even across continents, frequently. We survive diseases and injuries that would have turned an antelope into lunch for the next lion that happened along.

We are very different from antelopes. Our lives are far more complex and diverse. The idea that fatness is a biological or evolutionary disadvantage is based on an assumption that the skills and strengths that enabled our ancestors to collaboratively stalk and kill wooly mammoths are equally as important to modern-day success in life, and this, frankly, just isn’t the case. Truth is, any collection of modern-day people would find reproducing an impressive mammoth-takedown hard going, as we (those of us living in places where blogs and reliable electricity are normal ways of life, anyway) simply don’t develop and value the same skills today as we did in the time when mammoths kept us alive.

The above is a bit of a tangent, but my broader point is that you can’t compare modern-day technologically-advanced humans with animals, because our environments and activities are so very different. The last time I attempted to answer the question of whether fat is “natural”, it came down to me asserting that fat people aren’t jaguars, which continues to be true. If you will forgive me for being so narcissistic as to quote myself:

The nature argument is sort of a pointless one to me; essentially it’s just using a very old ideology of Western culture, one that equates nature with pureness and virtue and truth, to try to validate or invalidate fatness. I remember years back, when Kirstie Alley was doing Fat Actress, she made a comment in some magazine arguing that you don’t see fat animals in the natural world. The quote went something like: You never see a fat jaguar in the wild. […] There are lots of animals – elephants and hippos spring to mind, both of which will mightily kick your ass and/or kill you really, really dead if so inclined – that “naturally” incline toward shapes that visually evoke fatness, at least when compared with a jaguar. Was Alley’s point that humans should be more like jaguars than elephants? I don’t even know where to begin with how random and nonsensical the whole idea is. Humans are humans. Elephants are elephants. Jaguars are jaguars. Never the twain shall meet.

…[A]t the end of the day, I don’t really care if this is my natural state, or the state I was destined to have at birth, or the state I’ve created through childhood decisions and past disordered eating… or not. There may be folks out there who worry about whether they’re existing as nature intended; I am not one of them. This is my body, right now, and after years of battling with self-hatred and self-doubt, I am truly, wholeheartedly, happy and satisfied with it. For those who feel differently, I don’t dismiss or belittle your discomfort or worries – in fact I sincerely hope you can work that out in some manner that enables you to feel similarly happy and satisfied with yourself.

My feelings on this haven’t changed one jot. Because I don’t have to justify myself, or my right to live in my body how I see fit, to anyone. Neither do you. Is your body “natural” or “unnatural”? Who the hell cares? You’ll never know; not everyone will agree. And you still have to navigate this world. Why not focus on living your life today, without worrying about the semantics? As we are instructed by that great example of American filmmaking and font of boundless wisdom which I cited in my prior post on this subject: Whatever will be, will be.

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