Fat is not just nature’s back-up power pack. Fat is an organ. An organ pumping out chemical signals to the rest of your cells, telling them to do things they don’t need to be doing.Like growing into cancerous tumors.
The link between excess weight and heart disease is widely known, but the association between obesity and cancer has until recently been less well understood – both by medical professionals and by the public at large.
Although the exact mechanisms by which excess body fat contributes to the development of certain cancer are still subject to ongoing research, the relationship between being overweight for your build and developing certain cancers is now impossible to deny.
It is not simply the case that obesity correlates to higher rates of certain cancers; obesity cause cancer. And the consequences are stark.
1 in 20 cases of cancer in the UK is caused by being overweight or obese, which makes it the second most common cause of cancer after smoking cigarettes.
And just like cigarette smoking in the 1960s, there are those who are keen to shut down the discussion as quickly as possible.
When the link between smoking and cancer was proven in the mid-twentieth century, big tobacco companies poured money into campaigns to cast doubt on the findings. They paid off doctors, launched slick advertising campaigns and tried every trick at their disposal to keep the public complacently puffing.
Not because tobacco executives doubted the findings of the scientists, but because they put profits above human suffering. But at least their motives, however indefensible
were easily comprehensible.
The current generation of health denialists, who seek to undermine the public health campaigns that draw attention to the causal link between obesity and cancer, are not paid lobbyists for Big Burger.
For the most part they are typically highly educated, if scientifically illiterate, younger women who make often valid arguments about the sociological dimensions of cultural attitudes towards fatness and fat people.
They are typically not being paid for their efforts, and while one or two may get a book deal off the back of a blogging career they are seldom hitting the bestsellers lists. You are still far more likely to make ready cash flogging the Ultimate Bikini Body 10-Week-Diet-Plan, than the Fat Girls’ Guide To Feminist Theory And Parrot Print Swimsuits.
To the rest of us – the 2/3 of adults who are classified as overweight or obese, the increasingly massive masses – the arguments of the fat acceptance movement against medical advice seem absurd.
So why does it matter?
I won’t argue, as some have, that fat acceptance is dangerous. Making peace with one’s physical body and treating oneself kindly, is one of the fundamental steps to improving both physical and mental health. It’s very hard to treat a body you hate well.
Apart from the second-hand embarrassment in seeing otherwise intelligent people vocally and publicly espouse things that are just demonstrably false, the fat acceptance movement vs. cancer research UK spat and similar skirmishes in the pro-fat guerillas in the war on Obesity have something to tell us about what happens when the polarization of niche political interests meets decades of misinformation about health.
For the fat acceptance advocates attempting to undermine public health campaigns that draw attention to the relationship between obesity and cancer, the motivation can be more difficult to explain.
Having spent some time in the fat acceptance/ body positivity blogosphere, I am inclined to believe that most of the pro-obesity health denialists are not acting cynically.
In the fairly insular and self-referential world of online fat acceptance communities, well-educated but scientifically illiterate young women tend to make and repeat the same dubious arguments about the relationship between fat and health.
Higher rates of mortality and morbidity among fat people, a common argument runs, can be put down to the discrimination they face from the medical industry and society more widely.
And they are not entirely wrong.
It is important to look at health and disease in its social context; not just because it furthers our understanding in the abstract, but because it allows us to plan more effective health protocols in the most practical sense.
We are not just scaled-up, wandering versions of a Petrie dish in a lab. Our health can’t be separated out from everything else going on in our lives. Stress, discrimination, social attitudes and cultural expectations do influence our health – and our experience of our health – in all sorts of interesting, and sometimes unexpected, ways.
But there’s a reason why we typically want to treat our cancer with chemotherapy, not performance art.
And that’s because we are also biological organisms and subject to the same chemical and biological processes that govern other life-forms.
The disease is not waking. Cancer hasn’t read much theory. Heart attacks don’t care if you’ve checked your privilege. And diabetes will not educate itself.
So no. Obviously disease itself does now operate in the awareness of its social context. But an awareness of the social context in which disease operates is a part of formulating better responses to disease – both for individuals and more generally.
Losing weight – in theory – is very simple. The fact that it’s so difficult for so many people tells us that there’s more going on in practice than either fat haters or fat activists are willing to admit to.
It might be tempting to put it all down to a lack of self-control or a deficit of self-discipline. But many
But an awareness of the social context in which disease operates, is part of how we can treat complex diseases
doesn’t have to have an awareness of the social context
Many fat acceptance activists come from an academic background in the humanities and social sciences, in which the extreme forms of social-constructivist theory tend to dominate.
And most of the fat acceptance movement’s most vocal detractors find this world-view inherently contemptible.
Fat acceptance activists also – rightly – recognize that part of the reason their movement attracts more scorn than other subcultures of dubiously scientific standing is rooted in misogyny.
A fat man might not even know he’s fat. Whereas, a fat woman certainly won’t be allowed to forget it.
Part of the reason why these public health campaigns are necessary is that the medical consequences of obesity are still not fully understood. We are fatter than we’ve ever been and people are getting fatter at a younger age. But we are also living in a time when public health campaigns of the past are paying amazing dividends.
Far fewer people die in workplace accidents, far fewer people smoke, vaccinations save lives and life-saving treatments have become available for diseases which were once a certain death sentence.
The potent mixture of self-indulgence and arch-individualism, the conjoined twins that set the tone for much of late-twentieth, western consumer culture, made this easier than it might otherwise have been. At least for a while.
Most people know that being obese is linked to heart disease, including serious cardiac issues life, for example, dropping dead of a heart attack.