Thursday, April 18, 2013

Yes, You Can Be Too Thin

By Diana Hsieh

Last week, I stumbled on this blog post -- Think Twice Before You Praise Someone For Losing Weight. It piqued my interest because I often ponder questions about weight, health, and body image. Also, it seemed relevant to the question I would answer on moral judgments of obese people on Sunday's Philosophy in Action Radio.

The blog post begins:

It's really the most natural reaction: when we see a friend, colleague, family member, or acquaintance who has visibly lost weight, we love to say to them, "You've lost weight! You look great!"

These statements are usually made with the best of intentions. We are genuinely happy for them, we want to show them that their hard work and sacrifices are being noticed and deserve to be acknowledged. But I want to say something that may seem controversial: we should all think twice before acknowledging or praising someone's visible weight loss.

Why?

First, we don't always know how or why that person lost the weight for which we are commending them.

For example, my friend Anna has Lupus, and at one point, she rapidly lost 30 pounds in a couple months. She was constantly getting positive affirmations about how great she looked and to keep up the good work. For a number of reasons, Anna chose to keep her diagnosis confidential (to most people). So, she was caught between two worlds: one in which she had to reveal why she was losing weight, and another where she just had to grin and bear it.

Anna said, "Every time I heard those words, it was like a punch in the stomach. It not only made me feel disgusted about my body, but it also put me in a position where I wanted to share my diagnosis with people, just to shut them up."

My cousin's professor faced a similar dilemma when she returned to the university from summer break, having lost a visible amount of weight. She was greeted with the same seemingly positive affirmations. What no one realized was, her mother had died weeks before. Her weight loss was a result of stress.

The smiles and the effusive praise offered to these two women were in direct opposition to the pain that caused the weight loss to begin with.

And even when someone isn't dealing with an uncontrollable circumstance, like a death in the family, or a terminal disease, we don't know how someone arrives at his/her weight loss.

It's a good article, and I definitely recommend reading the rest of it: Think Twice Before You Praise Someone For Losing Weight. (It goes on to discuss some other cases, as well as make some important qualifications.)

Obesity is undoubtedly very common in our culture, and as people have packed on the pounds, the view that low body weight means good health seems to have taken hold in a very strong way. Yes, that's been a change in the culture, as these 1950s weight gain ads for women show.

Yet the fact is that being underweight is often a sign of health problems -- or it's a risk factor for death if a person becomes ill, because their body lacks reserves (muscle or fat) for survival. I'm not making that up, as various studies (such as this one) show that being underweight is associated with increased mortality.

My point here is not to extol obesity or anything, since that comes with its own practical difficulties and health concerns. Rather, my point is that we (me included) need to reject the now-standard assumption in our culture that a thinner person is a better person -- healthier, sexier, happier, whatever. Often, weight loss is for the best... but not always!

As for the question about moral judgments of obese people that I answered on Sunday's Radio Show... the question was:

Is it right or wrong to condemn people for being obese? Obviously, obese and morbidly obese people have made mistakes in their lives. Are they morally culpable for those mistakes? How should other people judge their characters? If I see an obese person on the street, should I infer that he is lazy and unmotivated? Should I refuse to hire an obese person because I suspect he won't work as hard as a non-obese person? Is obesity a moral failing – or are there other considerations?

My Answer, In Brief: Given that weight is not a good metric for health and that obesity has many causes, for a person to assume that obese people must be morally or psychologically weak is empirically false and morally unjust. If you notice that in yourself, fight it!

Download or Listen to My Full Answer:
Via Vital Objectives, our own Christian Wernstedt shared the link to the podcast on Facebook, with the following remarks, which I agree with wholeheartedly:
This audio clip has has a good discussion on what one should keep in mind when judging weight problems in both oneself and in other people. As a coach/practitioner I would add that helping people getting rid of excess fat is one of the most difficult issues to deal with because it takes time and effort to achieve in a *sustainable* and *healthful* way, but is very simple to do in a shortsighted and harmful way. You want to lose fat and pose for before and after pictures? Tape worms, starvation or HCG would do the trick! But...the body stores fat for reasons which often add up to the life serving option versus the alternatives. Therefore, simplistically and narrowly targeting the fat storage process (my fancy way of saying "fad diet" or "60 day detox"), and you might, for instance, each time you do this, functionally age your hormonal profile and ultimately end up buying the loss of 10 pounds today for being awarded the body comp of an ostrich later.

Alas, I've lived that. The main reason why my thyroid gave up the ghost, I think, was that I was fasting too often for too long in an effort to lose a few more pounds. The result was months of mental and physical disability, followed by years of health problems, plus 30 pounds of weight gain. Lesson learned.

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