A review of “Rethinking Thin” by Gina Kolata

Not to put too fine a point on it–if you’re an even remotely happy, well-informed fat person, skip this book.

I’m both surprised and saddened to write that sentence, because I was very ready to welcome this book into the anti-dieting fat-acceptance canon, begun way back in the 1970s with The Dieter’s Dilemma and continued throughout the last 30 years with such excellent resources as The Forbidden Body, The Invisible Woman, Never Too Thin, Losing It, Fat!So?, The Obesity Myth, and many, many more. But sadly (for Kolata anyway), those of us who are fat and getting on with our lives will gain much more from reading any of the above than from Kolata’s latest endeavor.

Seven of eight chapters of Rethinking Thin discuss the history of weight loss dieting and the course of research on “obesity.”* (Two of these chapters go to wankerish irrelevant “agouti-related protein” lengths about research on a tiny minority of people who are fat due to rare genetic disorders.) The admittedly ludicrous history of dieting has been more than adequately covered in Roberta Pollack Seid’s Never Too Thin (1989) and Laura Fraser’s Losing It (1997) and I’m not sure why Kolata felt the need to revisit that material, without mentioning either of those books. Despite the title’s implication, Kolata pays hardly any attention to the reality that being thin is no backstage pass to a life of unending health, wealth, immortality and glamour. Instead, Rethinking Thin is all about how diets don’t work. If you hadn’t heard this before, by all means, cough up $24 for Kolata’s rehash of the facts. If it’s old news to you, well, maybe take yourself out to dinner instead, because arguably the most objectionable part of this book is its ongoing, unquestioning presentation of fat people as pathetic losers obsessed with food, appearance and weight loss. This theme culminates in chapter 7, when Kolata uncritically quotes British “obesity” researcher Stephen O’Rahilly on the “plight of his fat subjects”:

It is really bad to be morbidly obese [sic]. Not only is your life shortened, but your social life is miserable. No one wants to speak to you. You are socially isolated and poor because no one wants to employ you.

This from a scientist who is supposedly sympathetic! Now, I am all about how mainstream western society treats fat people like shit; you’ll get no argument from me on that. But I will beg to differ with most of O’Rahilly’s statement. First of all, the jury is very seriously out on whether being “morbidly obese” translates into any significant decreased life expectancy. Even if the “fat people die young!” panic is ultimately proven to be true, the application of that statistical reality to any given individual will continue to be very tricky business.**

Some fat people have miserable social lives, it’s true–so do many thin people. And fat folks do make less money than thin ones, but, following the logic here, if it were really true that we were completely unemployable, wouldn’t we be starving in the streets, and therefore, you know, no longer fat?So let’s not overstate the case.

Lots of fat people, including many “morbidly obese” people like me, live as happily as anyone can in this competitive, exploitive, anxiety-wracked dung heap we call a culture. It’s probably likely that the fat people who volunteer for “obesity research” studies have some things in common psychologically with gay people who turn up at Exodus International. If you’re seeking a cure for something you think ails you, it stands to reason you’re not going to be the happiest, most well-adjusted example of your breed–and not exactly the person that others who share your “problem” would want to be compared to! How about interviewing some happy fat people who like our bodies, have full and interesting lives, and have decided not to diet, Gina, you investigative journalist, you!

To us champions of fat acceptance, the problem is that fat bodies continue to be seen as the problem; instead, we opine, the powers that be need to turn the fix-it spotlight on the treatment that we fat folks receive, socially, medically, and economically, because of the way we look. To put it another way, consider the recent data suggesting that underweight women share some of the supposed difficulties very fat women face. The underweight supposedly have increased mortality rates versus the overweight.*** Very thin women also can experience some degree of social difficulty, given that standards for attractiveness for women include extreme slenderness but also require large breasts and perhaps some curves around the hips–attributes that are difficult to achieve for very thin women unwilling to have plastic surgery. But is anyone suggesting that underweight western women ought to undergo weight-gaining regimens to offset their chances of dying tragically young, and to enable them to get dates? If they are, send them to me, and I’ll dork-flick them on the forehead right along with the diet tyrants.

So now for the obligatory “what-I-liked-about-it” paragraph–the teeny bit of attention paid to fat acceptance in chapter 8, “The Fat Wars,” was useful as far as it went, which is to say, if you’d never read anything on the subject before, it might induce you to find out something about this strange national obsession. Of course, this chapter was nothing like as informative as Fat!So? or The Obesity Myth, but still, B+ for effort there, Gina. I particularly enjoyed the expressions of shock from the statisticians who set out to redress the methodological errors in the 1999 study that was the source of the now-infamous “350,000 Americans die from ‘obesity’ every year!” claim. Katherine Flegal and her colleagues were clearly not prepared for the reaction that anyone in the fat acceptance movement could have told them would ensue when they had the audacity to question the accepted wisdom in “bariatric medicine” circles. Even though other statisticians–including ones not part of the project, and ones not working in “obesity” research at all–agreed that the methods used by Flegal et al were impeccable, the author of the “OMG 350,000 deaths per year” “study” and his colleagues predictably went into attack mode. Kolata quotes Flegal’s colleague, Barry Graubhard, saying that reactions to the publication of their paper were

…a really strange mix of politics, science, and the personal way people view themselves and their condition…And there’s an economic aspect too. It’s a very volatile mix of all these things…It brought out the worst in everyone. I have never seen anything like this before. I was stunned by the whole reaction.

Welcome to my nightmare, Barry. Katherine Flegal herself says about the controversy,

I don’t know what to say. I don’t have a problem with people at a conference talking about their data, but I do have a problem with people at a conference talking about our data and saying we should have found the same things they found…Isn’t this good news? Isn’t it good that people aren’t dying?

Katherine, sister. How naive. More extensive commentary on this aspect of the whole ball of wax will be presented in part 2 of this post.

So, as this book wore on, my brain kept saying, more and more loudly, and in increasingly desperate tones, why? Why? After so many failed attempts to figure out why the majority of fat people are fat, so they can make a pill or an injection to sell us that will make us not fat, why do researchers continue to flush their grant money down the toilet of the-magical-weight-loss-cure-that-must-exist-because-we-say-so-!? Why was it suggested nowhere in Rethinking Thin that perhaps such an unrewarding area of inquiry as permanent weight loss ought to be abandoned–particularly as there’s no hard evidence that the vast majority of fat people are in any way endangered by our condition? “Doctors” are sewing live mice together, for fuck’s sake, in an effort to find out why I need a size 6X in pants. How much evidence–or failures to produce evidence–need to pile up before I’m allowed to just wear my pants, and have the rest of the world leave me, the fat kids, and the mice in peace?

I really wish Rethinking Thin were likely to move us farther down that road, but Kolata seems to have concluded that a simple rehash of the tragic failures to find a cure for the fatties threatens no one–least of all pharmaceutical and dieting industry corporations who stand to lose vast amounts of money if we all wise up. The experience of Katherine Flegal and her colleagues, like many others, demonstrates what can happen when those with any kind of meaningful voice in this debate refuse to toe the party line. So instead of presenting any kind of challenge to the vested interests that make fat people’s lives more difficult than they need to be, Kolata has seen fit to leave us with an incoherent jumble of “diets don’t work but obviously fat is horrible so what’s a fat person to do?”

How about, live like there ain’t no tomorrow?

*I’m putting “obesity” in scare quotes because I consider it hate speech. It’s used to perpetuate unfounded myths, stereotypes and lies about a class of people and it is never used by the consciousness-raised and politically active among that group to describe ourselves. We’re fat. End of discussion.

**And if life as a “morbidly obese” person were truly so terrible, shouldn’t we be glad that it will be mercifully brief?

***Again, let’s be realistic about this. This is less likely to mean that the skinny nonanorexic girl next to you in biology lab is going to die anytime soon, than that weight loss, particularly for the very old and/or the very ill, typically precedes death.


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