Fat or skinny?

Is fat better than skinny?

A post today on Jezebel was provocative but instructive for those of us working in women’s health.

“Science Proves that Thinness is Deadlier than Obesity,” screamed the (very inaccurate) headline. Of course “science” proved no such thing.

However, the orthodoxy that obesity is to blame for almost every affliction in the contemporary United States is something that must be questioned.  This issue in particular is a good reminder that  medical  researchers and public health professionals must be careful about what we take for granted.

The ubiquitous obesity map.

In regards to obesity, the reality is that there is lots of data that indicates that fitness is more important than weight. As this article in the New York Times reports:

In study after study, overweight and moderately obese patients with certain chronic diseases often live longer and fare better than normal-weight patients with the same ailments. The accumulation of evidence is inspiring some experts to re-examine long-held assumptions about the association between body fat and disease.

All health issues are also embedded in culture. There is so much disdain for fatness in this society, something that  feminist writers have pointed out.  Jumping on board the “fat is deadly” bandwagon makes cultural sense. It’s easy for public health officials, doctors, programs and education initiatives to take this assumption and run with it.

Stigmatizing obesity is supported by decades of cultural baggage which says that fat people are greedy, sloppy, careless, and out of control. While men are certainly affected by the obesity-is-deadly rhetoric, it is women who bear the brunt of this trend.

Is this campaign really a good way to promote women’s health? Do women really need another reason to obsess over their weight?

This research is a great reminder to always be ready to question health orthodoxies, particularly when they have to do with women.

No matter how objective the research, cultural assumptions about beauty, sexuality, motherhood and appropriate gendered behavior tend to permeate what we think we know about women’s health.

It’s my thought of the day: question what you think you know. How could this help improve how you communicate about health?


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