Thursday, January 17, 2008

Big Buts, Part One: A real whopper of a red herring

There are some big "buts" that I am really tired of hearing regarding fat people and the "epidemic". This is the first one.

" care costs! OMG!"

This red herring argument crops up as a way of legitimizing poor treatment of fat people. Whether or not you accept that being fat is inherently unhealthy, it can be argued that a person should have the freedom to be unhealthy, so long as their doing so does not infringe on the health of other people. Smokers, for example, are free to engage in their health-damaging activity, but it is not fair for them to inflict their smoke on other people*.

Someone being fat, however does not physically affect other people**, so there needed to be an excuse to infringe upon a person's freedom to engage in "unhealthful" behavior. Claiming that fat people drive up healthcare costs is a disingenuous way to justify dehumanizing them. It's a clever little scheme to make the hardworking, put-upon thin people look like victims for having to hand over their whole paychecks to pay medical costs for the greedy, evil fat people who have nothing better to do than eat donuts all day and gloat about how they've suckered the witless skinny folk.

Here's the thing, though: Even if being fat WERE unhealthy, and even if diets were extremely effective, which it isn't and they aren't***, that still doesn't give anybody the right to tell other people what to do with their bodies. You can smoke, and you can refuse blood transfusions, and you can go base jumping, and you can go work in a coal mine, and nobody should be able to stop you from doing it based on "health care costs". Yes, some behaviors are risky. Some people are going to need more medical care than others. That's part of being a society--we should take care of one another, if we have the means to do so, and that means not denying someone basic freedoms or medical treatment based solely on their fat tissue.

Using fat as a scapegoat for the REAL problems in our health care system doesn't accomplish anything. You might as well say that old people are driving up health care costs. They are, you know, and if they would just stop being old and die already, that would save lots of money--but that is not a reason to dehumanize the elderly. Another demographic that uses a disproportionate amount of health care is premature infants, who use about $26 billion a year in health care in the United States. If we just let 'em die, or smother them at birth, that'd save us a lot of money, right? See how easy it is to dehumanize a whole group of people when we believe that they are costing us money? It's not so nice when we're talking about your grandpa, or your new niece, is it?

Here's the thing: If you see a piece of data claiming to be the health care costs due to "obesity" (god I hate that word), you are most likely looking at a number that was created by attributing every single health problem that fat people have been treated for, whether or not it is actually as a result of their adipose tissue. Every health problem a fat person has is assumed by data miners to be attributable to their fatness, even if they've been injured in a car accident, shot by a mugger, or developed a sinus infection. Similarly, the "deaths attributable to obesity" statistics classify all dead obese people as killed by their fat, even if they were murdered with a tuning fork by evil clowns from outer space. Be very skeptical of these kinds of statistics--after all, the CDC had to modify their 400,000 figure after somebody called them on their faulty number crunching.

So, please, shelve the health care costs argument. It's dehumanizing, it's not accurate, and it really is a pretty poor mask for the real issue--hatred of and discrimination against fat people. There's no excuse for it; it's just plain mean, and it's time people started treating each other like civilized human beings instead of digging up bullshit excuses to hate each other.

* And no, I don't want to hear your "omg secondhand smoke is a myth!" denialism. It isn't just about cancer risk--there are many of us with asthma who couldn't do anything fun until our states passed laws that protect us in restaurants and bars. If it weren't for NY's smoking laws, I would never have met my husband, since we met at a club. My mother works in a restaurant where smoking is allowed, and she has developed a chronic persistent cough because of it. Smoking stinks, and it makes a lot of people sick. Do it outside, or in your home, kay?

** OH BUT, you say, AIRLINE SEATS! So you got squished on an airplane? We are all squished on airplanes. If you were willing to pay for a first class seat, you would be guaranteed a reasonable amount of space. You weren't, and because most people aren't, airlines cram as many seats as they can into economy class. See, it's a class issue!

*** And I'm not going to rehash that here. Go to Kate's post about it instead.


JoGeek said...

"the "deaths attributable to obesity" statistics classify all dead obese people as killed by their fat, even if they were murdered with a tuning fork by evil clowns from outer space."

That's so going on my favorite quotes list, unless you object :-)

mumboj said...

And don't forget for the above list, 'bariatric' butchery, dying on the table and from its effects.

Eve said...

I recently had to fill out a questionnaire for my insurance company about why I was having psych visits. Part of it was my physical health status and there was a list of boxes to check about whatever might be affecting my physical health like heart disease, diabetes, cancer, etc. One of the things on the list was "obesity" and I wasn't sure what to put for that. Yes, my "obesity" affects my health, but probably not in the way they mean. It makes me less likely to go to the doctor, for one thing, because I'm afraid they'll tell me to lose weight. It also makes me less likely to exercise, since I like to swim but I feel self-conscious in a bathing suit. There was no box to check for that.

So, if I ever do have a serious health issue that could have been prevented by an earlier trip to the doctor or more exercise, it will have been partly caused by my obesity, or more accurately by my internalization of society's response to my obesity.