One of the things I like about the online community is that no one knows if you’re fat or thin, male or female, black or white or purple with pink polka dots, unless you tell them. And even then you could be lying, unless you took a nap in the same room as a toddler with magic markers. However, if you’re an asshole it becomes apparent pretty quickly, which it did when I was reading a TV blog many weeks ago.
On this blog there was a post about an actress donning a fat suit for a made-for-TV movie and one of the first comments was that fat people were outcasts by choice. The argument was that fat people choose not to exercise, choose to eat large portions, and choose to eat unhealthy foods. Thus they choose to be fat and are personally responsible for becoming the type of person that the world generally discriminates against.
Is being fat a choice? I’d have to say yes and no. But reflecting on my own period of being overweight, obese, morbidly obese and then super morbidly obese, I’d say my fatness was more a result of the choices I wasn’t making.
To say that you chose a certain outcome, you need at least three things:
1) A moment where you actually consider several different options
2) Knowledge of the possible repercussions of these options
3) The means to actually pursue these options.
For instance, I woke up this morning and went to work. I did not go to Bermuda. Can we say I chose not to go to Bermuda? In all the time I spent picking out camouflage socks that matched my green top, measuring the proper amount of milk into my instant oatmeal, and locking the door as I left, not once did a thought bubble appear over my head saying “Hey, I could go to Bermuda!” This is partly because I am not a cartoon character and partly because the thought never occurred to me. If I never even saw this as an option, it’s not fair to say I made a decision not to go to Bermuda.
Similarly, I doubt most fat people hit a situation in their daily routine where they have to consider “Do I get fat or do I stay thin?” We don’t live on the Let’s Make a Deal set with curtain number 1 or 2 to choose from. At the most, you hit situations where you have to consider options that will lead you to the two possible end points of thinness and fatness, which is where number 2 on the list comes in.
Knowledge of the possible repercussions of these options
To convincingly argue that fat people choose to be fat, you have to prove that fat people are aware that their obesity-causing behaviors make them fat. If there had been a moment this morning when I had considered going to Bermuda instead of to the office, I would have also had to consider that such a choice would probably get me fired and drain my savings account. If I had made this choice anyway and then discovered I’d pissed off my family by missing Thanksgiving dinner, could we say I chose to alienate my family? If I honestly didn’t think my family would mind that I ditched their cranberry sauce for cranberry margaritas, did I choose to piss them off? I chose to do the thing that would ultimately irritate them, but I didn’t consciously choose that end result.
Similarly, if someone knows little about nutrition and exercise, has no concept of how many calories they are taking in every day or doesn’t even know how many calories they should be taking in, I wouldn’t say they are consciously choosing to be fat. They are still personally responsible for their actions, actions that are leading them to obesity, but if they are ignorant or at least partially ignorant, I don’t view it as a choice to be fat.
I spent one summer in high school at an academic camp where I ate pizza almost every day for lunch. I also had a not-so-secret affair with the soft-serve ice cream affair, and I wasn’t the only one, that whore! While I knew the ice cream was a bad idea, it never occurred to me that eating that much pizza was going to keep me fat too, even with all the walking around campus I did. I don’t know how I made it past admissions with this blatant stupidity. I was personally responsible for my food choices, but I wouldn’t say I was choosing to be fat when I chose pizza. I was just being a nutritional idiot who didn’t realize the full repercussions of my actions. When I chose the ice cream though, I knew what I was doing, and that was certainly a choice to be fat.
If the dozens of people I see in the McDonald drive-thru every evening truly knew how much a Big Mac costs them in terms of energy input and output, half of them would probably squeal their tires for the closest Subway shop for a salad. They might even get out and jog there to burn off the extra calories from that morning’s Egg McMuffin, assuming that a salad shop was nearby, which leads me to number 3:
The means to actually pursue these options.
If I had decided to chuck work this morning and run off for a tropical island paradise, would it actually have been an option? What if I didn’t have my passport? When’s the next flight to Bermuda and do I have enough money to pay for it? Who would feed my cat? I don’t even own a swimsuit that fits! Some people have lives where they could fly to Bermuda on a moment’s notice, but I am not one of them.
Some people have lives that are more predisposed to make them fat. If you have decided to eat healthy, what do you do when the cafeteria only has donuts or danishes left for breakfast? How easy is it for you to exercise if you live in an urban environment? Is it really a choice not to go to the gym if you can’t afford a membership?
Saying that fat people choose to be fat is at the least oversimplifying matters, and at the most it implies we have more control over our lives than we actually do. Not everything that happens to you is directly because of a choice you made. If it were, we’d all be all powerful and all knowing. If an idiot rear-ends your car, it’s not your fault simply because you chose to go for a drive. Sometimes things happen to us that we have no control over. Choices we make sometimes have consequences we were unaware of when we made our decisions.
That’s not to say we have no control either. Fat people can get thinner. I’m obviously an example of that and I’ve got the fat pants to prove it. You can start making different choices and altering your behavior. But a lot of my success came from awakening to the fact that I hadn’t been making choices. I wasn’t debating “Should I run tonight or not?” The thought never occurred to me. I didn’t know that eating a big bowl of macaroni and cheese would cause my blood sugar to rise and crash and leave me tired. Considering eating something better for me never came up. However, I did know that eating a jar of frosting with a spoon wasn’t making me the next Kate Bosworth either. That one’s all on me.
So did I choose to be fat? Yes and no. I chose the actions that ultimately made me fat. But I wasn’t always aware that the food I was eating had so many calories and I didn’t always have a treadmill in my bedroom.
I was responsible for being fat, but it wasn’t always a choice.