Human Parts
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Human Parts

An illustration of a man looking at his reflection in glass that has been shattered by a lily.
Illustration: Eleanor Taylor

My Journey Toward Radical Body Positivity

A 2017 study of [a] low-income population in urban San Antonio, for instance, found that food insecurity is associated with significant levels of rebound eating, with more than 56 percent of participants reporting binge eating, overeating, or night eating. The risk of these issues increases with rising levels of deprivation, and 17 percent of people with the most severe food insecurity were found to meet the clinical criteria for an eating disorder — far higher than the single-digit rates of clinically diagnosed eating disorders in the general population. This shows that the stereotypical view of eating disorders as a disease of wealthy white folks is sorely mistaken; most of the participants in this study were Latinx and black people living far below the poverty line.

Food insecurity and diet culture don’t exist in separate silos, either: the same study found that those with the greatest degree of food insecurity also had the highest levels of internalized weight stigma, as well as the highest levels of bulimic behaviors and overexercising as a way to compensate for eating. (Those last two findings surprised even the researchers, who had expected not to find compensatory behaviors in this highly food-insecure population). So even if binge eating begins in response to food insecurity rather than concerns about weight and shape, it’s clear that diet-culture beliefs about body size also come into play for those who lack reliable access to food.

It is not surprising that the French and British were at the helm of the eighteenth century racial scientific discourse marking black people as ‘gluttonous.’ The growing codification of black people as greedy eaters developed against the backdrop of the accelerating slave trade among these two colonial powers of the eighteenth century. This, together with the exigencies of reasoned self-management in the context of High Enlightenment, transformed the act of eating from personal to political. Indulging in food, once deemed by philosophers to be a lowbrow predilection of slow-witted persons, became evidence of actual low-brow breeding. It bespoke an inborn, race-specific propensity for laziness and ease, an unbridled desire to meet the demands of the flesh at the expense of cultivating higher pursuits. Such behavior was deemed wholly uncharacteristic of the rational thinkers sitting atop the new racial hierarchy.

The nonmaterial or social effects of living with deprivation and discrimination account for a huge portion of the social gradient in health — much more than attributed to health behaviors… maintaining the primacy of the individual-lifestyle focus — without being transparent about larger influences — is an affront to people living in disadvantage, as it reduces ill health to poor ‘choices’ and blames them, all the while contributing to the stigma and judgmental thinking that fuels oppression, worsens their health, and expands the health divide between the advantaged and the disadvantaged.

It is rare to find an obesity researcher who hasn’t taken money from industry, whether it’s pharmaceutical companies, medical device manufacturers, bariatric surgery practices, or weight-loss programs. The practice isn’t limited to lesser-known luminaries, either. In 1997, a panel of nine medical experts tapped by the National Institutes of Health voted to lower the BMI cutoff for overweight from 27 (28 for men) to 25. So, overnight, millions of Americans became overweight thanks to the NIH. The panel argued that the change brought BMI cutoffs into line with World Health Organization Criteria and that a ‘round’ number like 25 would be easier for people to remember. What they didn’t say, because they didn’t have to, is that lowering BMI cutoffs put more people into the overweight and obese categories, which in turn made more people eligible for treatment. More patients to treat means new markets and more money to be made from doctors and hospitals to pharmaceutical companies and yes, researchers.

Photos by Nick Onken

Weight cycling has been associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular problems and higher mortality from all causes. Indeed some research indicates that weight cycling can account for of the excess mortality risks for certain diseases associated with being in a larger body. One large-scale, long-term study followed more than 3,100 people over thirty-two years; it found weight cycling correlated with an increased risk of death from all causes and an increased risk of developing coronary heart disease, even after controlling for BMI and other potentially confounding factors such as preexisting illness and smoking. Not only that, but the relative risks attributable to weight cycling were comparable to the risks that typically get blamed on being in a larger body — suggesting that if studies were to control for weight cycling, any excess risk from so-called ‘overweight’ or ‘obesity’ might disappear… Until all research can control for weight cycling and weight stigma, we can’t say that being at the higher end of the BMI spectrum any health conditions — even if higher weights are with these health conditions.

The truth is that you know your body better than anyone on this planet ever will. This makes you an expert. Your body tells you when it likes something and when it doesn’t. Your body tells you when it likes a person and when it doesn’t. Your body knows when you’re in danger and when you’re safe. Listen to your body. It’s giving you information all the time. Your job is to clear away as many obstacles as you possibly can so that you can hear all the messages and secrets it has for you. Obstacles include things like toxic relationships, abusive households, teachers who put you down, friends who don’t support you, bullying and emotional abuse, self-criticism, dieting, sexism, and fatphobia.

Afterword

It is critical that we find communities of care and compassion. In their absence, we are relegated to an echo chamber of pathological body hatred and oppression. Radical self-love environments are all around us, and thanks to the power of technology we can find people all over the world who are committed to interrupting body shame.

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A publication from Medium about humanity: yours, mine, and ours.

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Matt McGorry

Matt McGorry

Maker of feels and procurer of LOLs. Activist and intersectional feminist. Bennett on @OITNB and Asher on @HowToGetAwayABC Instagram: @MattMcGorry

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