body image · diets · eating · fat · health

Shame on You Daniel Callahan or Bad Fat Day Rant

by Sam B and guest blogger, Kristin Rodier. (Kristin will be guest blogging later about her cross country ski experiences.)

Kristin is a philosophy PhD candidate at the University of Alberta. She works on “the connection between freedom and embodiment — specifically on habit, how to change habits, how habits constitute our selves, and different ways of having habits especially habits of gender.” And Kristin’s work is supervised by Cressida Heyes whose work on Weight Watchers and Foucault, we’ve mentioned here.  Her website is here,


Yesterday was a bad day for fat news on the internet.

First across the newsfeed was this treat, Obese Drivers 80% More Likely to Die in Accidents.

With thanks to current scientific research, scholars have already have observed issues connecting obesity with unsustainable ecology with causal links to industrial chemicals. Obesity is an ongoing global health concern, perhaps second only to the trend of climate change, and a recent study has discovered that auto accidents are a new venue of risk of fatality for obese people. Recently published research has indicated that the significantly overweight are 80% more likely to perish in an auto accident.”

How are climate change and death rates in auto crashes connected? Is the higher death rate in car crashes karmic revenge for the role fat people play in causing global warming? All this bad reasoning before morning coffee. (Coffee didn’t help.)

Because, you know it’s not large fossil fuel and fossil fueled corporations that are responsible for our environmental woes, nor the fault of governments who largely don’t regulate them, it’s the fault of individual fat people and our bad fat choices. (Actually, there are team meetings where we plot the downfall of the planet, text us your BMI and we’ll see you’re invited next time.)

It’s reminiscent of the episode of Dr. OZ where he had on Glen Gasser, author of Big Fat Lies.  Dr. OZ asked Gasser to put on a backpack weighing 80 pounds and then asked him to walk up a flight of stairs.  Gasser, being the Health At Every Size Proponent that he is, was there to promote the idea that weight maintenance and not necessarily weight loss combined with lifestyle changes can improve health at any size. When Gasser tried to walk up the stairs and fumbled slightly Dr. OZ said “even your risk of falling increases with obesity.” As was pointed out by blogger Ragen Chastain, argues, yes if you gain 80 pounds in five seconds, you might fall.

But, that isn’t how fat is experienced on the body when it is living supportive tissue that sustains and is sustained within an organism.  As fat women, we both have had our  lean body mass index assessed and our lean body mass is 122 lbs. for one of us and 187 pounds for the other (we won’t say who is who or what the rest of our bodies weigh!).  If  either one of us were to lose 80 pounds, it would likely be a combination of fat and muscle because we wouldn’t need as much muscle to move our bodies (fat and other tissues) around. Gasser was asked to put on 80 pounds of dead weight on his back.

Next up on the news was this, a hate filled review of in the National Review, Fat Politics , by Betsy Woodruff.
“To hear “fat activists” tell it, the only problem with being obese is societal oppression.”  Woodruff’s caricature of fat activists makes it seem as though their fat has interrupted their brainwaves and thereby made them delusional truth-haters.

But worst, was a goal on our home net so to speak, a call for more fat shame from noted bioethicist Daniel Callahan published in the usually reputable bioethics publication Hastings Report.

“Fat-shaming may curb obesity, bioethicist says” Read more here

Because you know fat people are all proud, never feel any shame, and really aren’t even aware we are fat because no one ever points that out. Women’s magazines hardly ever mention weight.

Honestly, if shame caused weight loss, we’d all look like Twiggy.

Two hard questions for Callahan: Does shame motivate anyone to change their ways? If fat people were to change our ways, what would you suggest Daniel Callahan? Diet? Like that’s successful for more than a very few people. Exercise? Sure. We all ought to move more. It’s good for everyone but it doesn’t lead to weight loss. Read Science, exercise, and weight loss: when our bodies scheme against us on this blog for some discussion of why that’s so.

Now shaming might be a useful social tool if and when there are clear reasons for doing so and there are clear methods to enact the shaming and to use it to bring forth a new future. This doesn’t seem to us to meet those criteria.

Fat activists and health at every size proponents believe that we took a very wrong turn in society when we let weight loss industry studies infiltrate our medical categorizations of bodies.  Look upstream of any obesity study and you will see that they are funded largely by people who will profit from making other people lose weight REGARDLESS of the health effects or the long term sustainability of the procedure. In fact, it is fat activists’ and HAES proponents’ point that the overriding desire of others for fat people to lose weight is what is making everyone less healthy.

Perhaps  Callahan should read some carefully reasoned articles by people who disagree with him in order to make his case more sound—i.e., the principle of charity meaning that we should respond to the strongest version of our opponent’s view.  This is something that we teach our undergraduates and it is a best practice that perhaps eludes him.  I suggest reading Anna Kirkland’s “The Environmental Account of Obesity.”

“The most recent survey of Americans’ fast food habits revealed high-frequency customers (the 14 percent of the population that accounts for half of sales) to be men below middle age with incomes averaging $67,575 (“Study Says” 2008). Yet we haven’t seen upper-middle-class men discussed as a subpopulation of concern for obesity researchers. Americans are actually more physically active today than in past decades (Kolata 2007b, 194). It would seem that this would make us thinner, except that it turns out that exercise cannot be shown to necessarily produce weight loss (Taubes 2007). Walking (which many urban residents of all income levels presumably do a lot of) can have health benefits, but people participating in walking programs only lose about two pounds on average (Richardson et al. 2008). We make a long chain of assumptions about causal relationships in antiobesity policy, and the rhetoric in which they are presented rarely represents them as contested, uncertain, or incomplete.”

[Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 2011, vol. 36, no. 2] (463-485)

Perhaps as a man who fits closely to the at-risk group for fast food consumption, Callahan should shame himself, especially for writing the aforementioned article.

Oh, and of course, all of these articles featured the ubiquitous headless fatties photos. Sigh. We suggest journalists read this.

(Last word from Sam: Now this blog is about fitness. You might wonder how fatness and fitness are related. It’s not in the way most people think and I’ve blogged about that here, Obesity, health, and fitness: some odd connections. If you’ve been reading the blog, you also know I’m ambivalent about the label ‘fat’ as it applies to me though by BMI categories, I’m so there. You can read about that here, Fat or big: What’s in a name?.)

(Last word from Kristin: I would like to see bioethicists debate the worth of anti-obesity policies and procedures in a way that does not just presume that fat people are too stupid to figure out that diet and exercise leads to fat loss and thus an increase in health. That is just diet and weight loss industry rhetoric and I ain’t buying it.)

7 thoughts on “Shame on You Daniel Callahan or Bad Fat Day Rant

  1. Great post, Kristin and Samantha. Thanks for guest blogging, Kristin. I look forward to more of your posts in the future! I really want to read the Kirkland article. Thanks for drawing attention to it.

  2. Actually, there are team meetings where we plot the downfall of the planet, text us your BMI and we’ll see you’re invited next time.

    Text where? World domination by convoluted, nefarious means is my DREAM!

  3. I was largely struck by Callahan’s poor analogy – he suggested that being shamed for smoking helped him quit, and so being shamed for being fat would help people lose weight. But surely there’s some sort of relevant distinction between being shamed for your activities (what you do?) and being shamed for your appearance (who you are?) – though this presents all sorts of other, difficult questions. But that he thinks they’re relevantly similar reveals a series of problematic assumptions. Shaming people for eating junks would fit his analogy better (go eat your taco bell outside!), and would certainly make for a more interesting investigation. Of course, as we all know, shame for eating junks isn’t equally distributed either…

    Thanks for the post, and for the blog!

  4. Thank you for this excellent post.

    I am livid that anyone would think that shaming people who weigh too much would *ever* be likely to work, number one. And that anyone would think it’s a good idea when people who weigh too much already face so much ostracism as it is — well, that goes beyond number two (and take that any way you’d like).

    I’m disgusted that Callahan seems to think that we all can lose weight magically without trying if we’re only “shamed” into it. And I’m even more outraged that someone who’s a bioethicist, who should realize there are many, many causes at work that keep people’s weight high (including fast food, additives in most processed foods, genetic issues that may make some people more predisposed to carry extra weight than others, peptide issues — Dr. Howard Dean mentioned this, I believe, on MSNBC a year or two ago in that this particular problem seems to have more research going on that might actually do some *good* (as there might be a receptor in people who weigh more that’s either malfunctioning or perhaps functioning _too_ well — i hope I remembered the right term for it, but I thought he’d said peptides) rather than merely people “eating too much” for the Hell of it, would stoop to the level of “Fatty, fatty, two by four! Can’t get out the kitchen door!”

    Because that’s exactly what he’s doing.

    I’ll tell you what. I’ve been overweight/obese most of my adult life (though I hate the word “obese” because it makes me sound like a bison, and I hate “morbidly obese” even more). And my blood work is *flat normal* and has stayed that way for *twenty-five years*.

    I am not diabetic.

    I am not hypoglycemic.

    My liver function is normal.

    Everything is flat normal.

    And while I’m asthmatic, have migraines, and have a number of other chronic health conditions including carpal tunnel syndrome, NOT ONE OF THEM IS DUE TO MY WEIGHT.

    (Apologies for the all-caps. It’s not at you. It’s at that idiot bioethicist, He Who Must Not Be Named Anymore, For He Is A World-Class Moron Despite All His Alleged Higher Education.)

    I agree we should all be as fit as possible. I agree that we all should do whatever we can to become as healthy as we possibly can.

    But I’m really tired of the overgeneralizations being perpetuated by He Who Must Not Be Named Anymore. Because if I’m well into my mid-life (as I didn’t become “morbidly obese” until I was a full adult and had a bad reaction to a name-brand medication, then was never able to lose the weight again) and don’t have the problems he’s discussing, well . . . how many other overweight/obese people don’t fit the narrative, either?

    (Oh, and while I’m sure you’ve figured this out, over time I’ve done everything I can to improve my diet, exercise to tolerance as I have fibromyalgia and osteoarthritis — mind you, I’d have the *same* things if I were thin — and very little has changed. I’ve been able to lose a few pounds a year, very slowly, and it hasn’t returned. But I’m still easily in the “morbidly obese” category. Yet I’m healthy.

    (He Who Must Not Be Named Anymore should go soak his head where the sun doesn’t shine. He’d do much more good that way.)

  5. I found this post when Googling for Callahan’s article. Thanks for the pointer towards Kirkland. Having found the article, though, I read this:

    “That will not much help most of those who are already overweight or obese. But beyond marginal improvement, most of them are already lost… [T]he important work is to be done with those not yet in that condition.”

    Another lesson I assume you teach your students is to read the damn article! Careful with those snide remarks. That said, I found his musings on the benefits of stigmatization to be quite weak, and I’m sure you could find a stronger counter-argument if you read them.

    And to the commenter Barb Caffrey above, who seems to have based her judgement on your account in this piece, not even reading the linked-to news report: Callahan does address food production, ecological and societal factors as hindrances to obese people; and no, as indicated in the quote above, he does not expect you to lose weight.

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