Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Sweet reason

There is so much data out there, both anecdotal and gathered through systematic study. Anyone who has struggled with their weight would be able to confirm it. Diets do not work permanently; the weight always goes back on. Dieting leads to an unhealthy obsession with food. You can never lose weight beyond a certain point; and that point is never quite low enough. People are different; there are many who guzzle all day and sink the pints at night who remain disturbingly slim. Your shape changes with age. All of these point to explanations for obesity that are both more individualised and more complex. Yet in the popular imagination we are locked into a simplistic, moral narrative. Fat is the product of sin. We haven't left the medical model of the Middle Ages. And so I read this long article about recent research into obesity with increasing interest.

David Berreby swiftly disposes of the moral dimension in both its punitive and profitable manifestations:
Moral panic about the depravity of the heavy has seeped into many aspects of life, confusing even the erudite.
Followed by:
Hand-in-glove with the authorities that promote self-scrutiny are the businesses that sell it, in the form of weight-loss foods, medicines, services, surgeries and new technologies.
But then he raises an awkward fact:
Consider, for example, this troublesome fact, reported in 2010 by the biostatistician David B Allison and his co-authors at the University of Alabama in Birmingham: over the past 20 years or more, as the American people were getting fatter, so were America’s marmosets. As were laboratory macaques, chimpanzees, vervet monkeys and mice, as well as domestic dogs, domestic cats, and domestic and feral rats from both rural and urban areas. In fact, the researchers examined records on those eight species and found that average weight for every one had increased. The marmosets gained an average of nine per cent per decade. Lab mice gained about 11 per cent per decade. Chimps, for some reason, are doing especially badly: their average body weight had risen 35 per cent per decade. Allison, who had been hearing about an unexplained rise in the average weight of lab animals, was nonetheless surprised by the consistency across so many species. ‘Virtually in every population of animals we looked at, that met our criteria, there was the same upward trend,’ he told me.
Unless laboratory mice were secret sinful binge eaters who had obtained the keys to the cage and could open a fridge, clearly there is something more going on. Berreby gives us an overview of some of the latest theories including a kind of anti-imperialist study of obesity by Jonathan CK Wells, described by Berreby as "the only one I’ve ever read that references both receptor pathways for leptin and data on the size of the Indian economy in the 18th century".

This is all fascinating stuff and should make people pause before engaging in self-punishment or buying into the latest, expensive diet fad. But it won't. We are locked into persistent moral explanations that are fundamentally religious in form. For the wages of sin is weight. Sin can only be forgiven through repentance and suffering. That suffering leads us to eternal bliss - being thin. Only it doesn't. So we have to repent and suffer all over again, whilst the naturally slim gaze down on us with the inherent superiority of the elect and condemn us for our moral squalor.

This way of thinking is pervasive. It is inherent in the economics of austerity and approaches to the Eurozone crisis (see my previous post). All of which brings me to one of my historical subjects, something that I want to write more on - the Freethought movement. Its nineteenth century manifestation saw it as the incubator of radicalism as it sought to remove religious and dogmatic thinking. It is intriguing that by the end of the century many radicals abandoned it and became enamoured with mysticism in what James Webb called the "Flight from Reason". Annie Besant's defection from the National Secular Society to Madame Blavatsky's weird cult, Theosophy, is a prime example. It is from there that we can trace many of the arcane features of modern ideas, from New Age romantic lunacies to the egregious conspiracy thinking of the various 'truth' movements infecting the Internet. Seemingly radical, most of these are deeply reactionary.

Seen in this way, fat is more than a feminist issue. Our thinking on obesity illustrates much deeper concerns about the way we see the world and about our political as well as our personal lives. There are medical and social reasons for attempting weight loss, just don't expect it to last or make you happy. Only being happy can do that. And one of the best ways to be happy is to abandon the sense of shame, guilt and sin that is our intellectual heritage and that can prove so profitable to those bright-eyed evangelists who wish to sell us some nonsense masquerading as salvation.

Hat tip: John Angliss

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