The Nightline Obesity Debate: Of Fatness and False Benevolence

The “obesity epidemic” continues to rage, apparently — and it was the subject of a debate on ABC television’s Nightline. I recently sat in the audience for a taping of Nightline at Cooper Union in New York City. Juju Chang moderated an debate titled, “Is it OK to Be Fat?”

Arguing on the side of fat indeed being “OK” were plus size model Crystal Renn and Marianne Kirby, co-author of Lessons From the Fat-o-Sphere .

Arguing that fat was most definitely not OK were Kim Bensen and Meme Roth. Kim Bensen is the author of Finally Thin!, a memoir detailing her struggles with yo-yo dieting and her eventual triumph (so far) over obesity. Meme Roth is an emphatic woman who made up an organization called National Action Against Obesity, then gave it a web site and a mission statement:

“National Action Against Obesity is a non-partisan, all-volunteer advocacy group dedicated to reversing the obesity crisis by eliminating disease- and obesity-accelerators from the food supply; barring junk food from child care centers, preschools, and schools; and eradicating Secondhand Obesity ™ (obesity handed down from one generation to the next, as well as from citizen to citizen); while encouraging exercise across all ages. Success relies upon wholly re-imagining what the U.S. population considers ‘normal’ food consumption and ‘normal’ exercise. When the majority is overweight, America cannot be normal.”

The issues touched on during the debate were the same old same old, as far as I was concerned. Roth asserted that thin people are unfairly shouldering the financial burden of fat people and their fat-related diseases. There was bickering back and forth about the effects of dieting and food restriction, about eating disorders. It was argued that fat people are treated unfairly by the medical community, that cupcakes should be kept out of the classroom.

What no one was talking about, however – what no one ever seems to have the clarity (or perhaps the balls) to talk about – is fat hatred framing itself as humanitarianism, with society’s hearty blessing.

Remember my essay “Fat is Contagious”? In it, I introduced you to a woman I called Miss Hostility. On a New York City bus, Miss Hostility harassed me, unkindly and openly, about my body size. And in the next breath, she had the nerve to claim an interest in my good health.

There are legions of ordinary people like Miss Hostility who give fat people a hard time, and attempt to mask the less charitable roots of their bad behavior by playing the insincere “but it’s about their health” card. As if they really, truly give a damn. Heck, most of these holier-than-thou types are so thoroughly lacking in self-awareness, that in spite of all behavior to suggest the contrary, they actually believe they’re doing us fatties a kindness. I suppose alienating us, stigmatizing us, and otherwise playing unfair is all done in the name of tough love.

But there’s a higher profile, more destructive breed of the same animal, and the Nightline debate gave a platform to two textbook examples.

Kim Bensen and Meme Roth are individually building careers out of harming fat people and calling it “help”. Their methods differ, but the game is the same.

The commonality between Bensen and Roth and others like them is an egocentric delusion. Each believes she has the one and only true answer to the “obesity problem”. They see themselves as crusaders; Florence Nightingales to the fat masses who can’t seem to help themselves, poor things.

But their “concern” for fat people is a sham – and not even the messiahs themselves are able to see it. To recognize it, and further to admit it, would shatter their apparently delicate psyches.

But I think it’s time to call the bullshitters on their phony benevolence, to bring into question their misguided “aid”. Let’s pull away the downy baby blankets that protect their deeper motivations to wage war on other people’s bodies.

If they’re made of even halfway-decent stuff, Bensen and Roth will find some humility, acknowledge where they’ve done their fellow beings a disservice, and do better.

Kim Bensen has a story with which many American women can identify. For years, she got suckered in by the threats and promises of the weight loss industry. She tried and failed, over and over again, to reach the promised land of her ultimate Goal Weight. For years, like most people who diet, she was unable to sustain any single weight loss program. Each time she fell off the wagon, she regained the weight she lost and then some. Eventually, she peaked at about 350 pounds. It’s a classic story of yo-yo dieting up the scale.

But Kim Bensen isn’t fat anymore. She tried dieting one more time – and succeeded. She reached her goal weight and appears to be keeping the weight off.

This is how Kim Bensen sells weight loss – and make no mistake, she is selling it, with a web store replete with specialty food items, scales, pedometers, “Believe” tote bags, kitchen tools, jewelry, and “premium” memberships that entitle one to online meetings, food plans, member-exclusive videos, access to 24/7 chat rooms and other features smelling curiously like Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers, Nutri-System and the like.

Bensen sells an empty promise – empty for most. “Believe”! It’s the same tiresome product the weight loss industry has been peddling for years. It’s the hope that some day this dieting thing really is going to click, and then I’ll finallybe thin, and life will be great.

The only fresh twist on this haggard theme is Bensen playing up the frustrations of yo-yo dieting specifically – the pseudo-tender “I’ve been there”, the seemingly no-punches-pulled confession that yo-yo dieting does make you fat – hey, it happened to her! I guess this is supposed to make fat, fed-up women trust Bensen more readily. I guess it’s meant to set Bensen’s weight loss plan apart in the minds of vulnerable women. Wow, she’s admitting that yo-yo dieting is a loser’s game! How refreshing – now here’s a diet peddler I can trust!

Bensen is asking fat people to swallow the bullshit all over again. She’s begging them to try just one more time, because the only way to guarantee you’ll stay fat is to stop trying to get thinner.

Ironically, Bensen is saying just the right thing to keep fat people fat.

I believe that Bensen believes in what she’s selling. At the Nightline debate, she spoke in pleading, syrupy tones about how she, personally, suffered as a fat person. “I couldn’t put on my own shoes,” she said. “Crossing my legs was something I just dreamed about doing…I couldn’t breathe when I slept at night. I had sleep apnea…my throat closed up, and I would snore so loudly, and I don’t snore at all anymore.”

But there’s an arrogance to Bensen’s campaign to “help” others that’s downright reckless. Meanwhile, she seems to think she’s doing good.

Bensen will easily admit that yo-yo dieting makes people fatter and fatter, adds to their frustration, their sense of hopelessness, their misery. She lived it, all the way to 350 pounds. But her highly unusual success has gone to her head.

Bensen is the walking embodiment of the familiar diet disclaimer, “results not typical”. She’s delivering false hope – and making a tidy profit in the process.

The fact is, most people who yo-yo diet themselves to fatness will never experience the One Diet That Permanently Worked. Most people will never be Kim Bensen. Sad but true. The statistics are out there. Furthermore, researchers point to the health dangers of fluctuating weight versus the benefits of weight stabilization. And let’s not forget the psychological ramifications of repeatedly cycling through failure and false expectations, versus reaching a more empowering place of self-acceptance.

Meanwhile, the very nature of yo-yo dieting means that every failed attempt results in the packing on of even more pounds.

When Bensen begs us to try one more time, buy her premium membership, order her tote bag, foods, food plans and scales, she’s asking us to take the risk of getting even fatter.

How dare she?

It’s utterly irresponsible.

Bensen lives inside her own narrow, self-centered world, where everyone who’s fat surely must feel the exact same way she once did; a fantasy world where her one-size-fits-all weight management plan is the answer to every fat person’s prayers.

The woman’s failure to see outside of herself is downright dangerous.

Even if Kim Bensen is able to help one person achieve permanent weight loss, it’ll be at the cost of dozens, hundreds, probably thousands of other souls who failed, and who are consequently that much more miserable, and a few pounds heavier than before they put themselves in Bensen’s “expert” hands.

Bensen is an expert in nothing but her own body, her own experience of the world – and she’s free to talk about that experience, write about it, promote and sell it along with her special “light” bagels and plastic egg poachers. But just because Bensen wants to be a beacon of hope to others, doesn’t mean she’s doing right by her fellow human beings. In fact, her efforts just make her part of the same old problem. In the final analysis, she hurts people. She makes them fatter. She makes them sadder. She weaves fairy tales that are unlikely to ever come true. She puts bad joss out into the world, period.

Bensen would be better off championing improved eating habits and increased physical activity, outside the context of weight loss. She’d be far more trustworthy, far more credible.

If it’s not about Bensen’s ego, or a god-like belief in her singularly perfect ability to “fix” fat people; if Bensen is so selflessly true-blue about wanting to help fat people, then where are these disclaimers on her website?:

– Statistics show that my weight loss program will most likely be just another in a long line of programs you’ll try in your lifetime that will fail to result in permanent weight loss.

– Just because I’m one of a very, very few people who ‘did it’ doesn’t mean there’s anything special, magical or advantageous about my particular weight loss program over others.

– If my products fail to get you to your goal weight and keep you there for life, you will experience disappointment, self-loathing, self-doubt, weight gain above and beyond your previous highest weight, and possible physical complications associated with weight gain.

– I don’t know anything about your unique physiology, your private relationship with food, or anything else that might affect your ability to lose weight, and therefore my program is not designed with you in mind.

I guess if she did include disclaimers this honest and forthright, Bensen wouldn’t sell too many “reflect-encourage-reward” bracelets, now, would she?

Americans have lived around the corner from Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers for decades, and in those same decades, obesity rates have steadily increased. How is this fact lost on Kim “premium membership” Bensen? If she’s a smart woman with pure intentions who’s also interested in her own personal growth, she needs to stop kidding herself that she’s a selfless crusader for the unfortunately obese. Her efforts are clumsy, and her mini weight loss marketing empire is entirely self-serving.

Until she stops persuading people to follow in her footsteps, Bensen is contributing to the very problem she claims to be battling. She is hurting far more people than she is helping. She is naïve to believe otherwise.

Meme Roth is not as subtle as Ms. Bensen.

It’s easy to dislike the woman. Sharp-tongued and sharp-featured, she comes off snippy and self-righteous.

Roth’s communication style alone makes it difficult to take her seriously. She reminds me of a phony medium, as though employing that old trick meant to unsettle an audience and place them in a more suggestible state: speaking quickly, with a rapid-fire spewing of questionable statistics and the rushed quoting of university studies that may or may not be trustworthy. After all, it’s old hat for individuals and organizations with something to sell (like weight loss products, for example) to commission sloppy university studies that support their shaky claims.

Roth made no friends when she rambled to a largely fat Nightline audience that “…the overweight person, their brain is four percent smaller than a healthy weight person…that’s out of the University of Pittsburgh. That’s how the University of Pittsburgh, the obese brain is eight percent smaller…by age seventy, than a healthy weight person. You can laugh, but this is…this is in the mainstream science.”

Roth rattles off a lot of names and numbers to create a seemingly credible context for her message. She hasn’t quite perfected her delivery, however – she wins over far fewer people than she rubs the wrong way.

Like Bensen, Roth claims to be fighting obesity for the greater good of society. She cites obese family members as her inspiration:

“My father’s 300 pounds. My mother in the ’80s was 225 pounds and I assure you, back then, that was considered very large. My grandmother’s over 300 pounds in a 24-hour care facility, my aunts and uncles were all overweight. My father used to do sprint track runs with me, and now can barely walk from one end of the Walmart to the other. My mother has type 2 diabetes, my grandmother…uh, it is tragic. She went from the point of being voluptuous, chubby, fat, obese, to morbidly obese, to a woman who stares out the window at a hummingbird feeder, who a few years ago decided it was too much effort to get out of bed to go to the bathroom. So I do know obesity takes people, and I assure you the people in my family aren’t just a little overweight; they are dangerously, tragically overweight.”

However, Roth’s energetic crusade may be fueled by a loathing of her family roots, rather than a bleeding heart on their behalf. Her efforts to “help” fat people may be, in actuality, the twisted acts of Roth’s angry, embarrassed inner adolescent.

If Roth was genuinely interested in improving the health of fat people and those in danger of getting fat, she would fight for things that are an inarguable physical benefit , while simultaneously steering clear of supporting anything that stands between fat people and a better quality of life.

Roth’s battles are schizophrenic. On one hand, she believes fat people should lose weight because god forbid they should get as sickly and immobile as her beloved fat relatives – that would be tragic.

On the other hand, this compassionate spawn of giants works hard to egg on the marginalization of fat people. She encourages fat hatred by spreading the idea that fat people are making health insurance more expensive for everyone else. She’s trying like hell to popularize the idea, and to what end? So that fat people will eventually be unable to get insurance and thus health care, either because insurers will refuse them coverage, or charge amounts that are unmanageable? Is that caring about the health of fat people?

If you believe Roth’s statistics about the alarming number of fat people in America today, how is denying affordable health care to such a huge segment of our population promoting a stronger, healthier nation? Rather, it reeks of eugenics. Perhaps Roth wants to concentrate on the prevention of fatness in children and let the existing fatties die off from neglect, sparing her of the uneasy transference of her familial humiliation onto fat society as a whole.

When fat people don’t devote themselves religiously to weight loss in precisely the ways Roth deems appropriate, she has the arrogance to accuse them of being defeatist.

In the Nightline debate, Marianne Kirby attempted to make a sound point about the diverse causes of obesity:

“It is almost impossible, I think, to sum up the reason why people are fat…There are a huge number of complex factors that go into human biology, and that go into the way our bodies process food and store fat, and respond to activity…To believe that we have some sort of conscious control…through the power of…absolute will…is, I think, a very socially irresponsible position to take.”

Roth’s prompt response was,

“I think defeatism is a socially irresponsible position.”

Accusing fat people of being defeatist does not support Roth’s self-professed mission of “reversing the obesity crisis”. It is presumptuous, disrespectful, and dismissive.

Even if one assumes that eradicating obesity is the way to a healthier America, Roth’s refusal to hear fat people isn’t going to help anybody lose weight. The reasons why people are fat can be complicated and varied. Anyone with a sincere, unclouded agenda to simply make people healthier would be willing to entertain flexible approaches to improved health. They would understand that unforgiving rigidity doesn’t work for most people.

Fat people have been trying to tell Meme Roth what’s working and what isn’t. She isn’t listening. She’s married to her ideas. It doesn’t matter that they’re far from being the most effective in creating lasting change in the population. It doesn’t matter if her suggested initiatives are the least likely to be permanently adopted by the majority. And it doesn’t matter that throwing a floodlight on the most ridiculous claims of all – like fat people having smaller brains than thin people, thus suggesting inferior intelligence – puts most of the fat world on the defensive, unwilling to listen to anything Roth has to say.

There is ego involved here – not clean benevolence, not sainthood, not public service. There’s a deep-seated personal agenda that has nothing to do with saving my fat ass or yours. If this weren’t true, Meme Roth would be working with fat people, not against them.

It’s a shame Roth has chosen to foster a repellent, hard-edged persona, because some of what she says makes sense, but is unlikely to be heard. Her point about food and the prominent place it takes in American culture harkens back to observations made by David Kessler in his eye-opening book “The End of Overeating” (read my review of the book here).

Kessler spoke to people from other countries who found the presence of food in settings like business meetings and classrooms distinctly odd. They marveled at our tendency to put a platter of sandwiches or bagels on a conference room table for every office gathering. They didn’t understand why college students would bring snacks or even cups of coffee into a lecture.

I’m not opposed to questioning our culture – why do we feel the need to insert food into almost every social situation? Aren’t our interactions with one another enough? Can’t social occasions be centered around enriching activities rather than the consumption of food? I think it’s a subject worth further discussion – though I’d probably leave Roth out of it.

I don’t believe fat-fighting generals like Roth and Bensen are truly evil – I don’t believe they wake up every morning and ask themselves, “Hmmm, now how can I torture a fat person today?” Rather, they just have their heads far up their own behinds. They’re more invested in their own PR than they are in creating real beneficial change for other people. It’s their way or the highway, simply because they say so. And their way – at least in their eyes – has taken on an almost holy shimmer. They couldn’t possibly be doing wrong by other human beings when they’re feeling so darn right.

* * *
Fat prejudice can be detected in many arguments, products, and services claiming an interest in helping “obese” people get healthier. Just because a line of thinking is common doesn’t make it correct. Think about the so-called “obesity epidemic” and ask yourself: if so much obsessive concern about weight loss (and the availability of so many diets and weight loss programs) is truly the answer to getting thin permanently, why are Americans supposedly getting fatter?

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