Confessions of a Skinny Fat Person: Welcome to The Fat Wars

Kate Harding almost got me fired. The week I started at NEWSWEEK, I read an advanced copy of Lessons From the Fat-o-Sphere: Quit Dieting and Declare a Truce with Your Body. Written by Harding and Marianne Kirby, it put me into such a crisis of confidence that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do my job.

            The book is a plea to overweight readers to stop trying to lose weight, stop blaming themselves for being overweight, and focus instead on being healthy and happy. Weight is innate, they argue, and trying to fight it only results in a tortured relationship with food (better to listen to your body, eat when you’re hungry and stop when your full), exercise (instead of seeing the gym as torture, find movement you love to do─and give yourself a break if you have to skip a few classes), and your reflection in the mirror (if you're unhappy, find treatment in therapy and positive friends, not food or body obsession). After all, they say, most skinny people aren’t paragons of virtue, would-be fatties who have thwarted weight thanks to sanctimonious food and fitness patterns. They’re just blessed with slender genes.

            As I’ve mentioned before in print, I am what is known as a skinny fat person. I’m tall and thin, but a body-fat analysis done three years ago measured about 30 percent fat; fat that might be damaging my internal organs and putting my health at risk. I was shocked at the news─my pants fit and my ass looked good, both of which usually determined whether I went to the gym. I always tried to watch what I ate, meaning I kept myself slightly hungry until I was too hungry and binged on something huge and greasy. My eating habits were terrible, and my fitness routine sporadic, but as long as I looked good in my underwear, what was the harm?

            The harm, an analysis of my diet revealed, was a lack of nutrients, an excess of unhealthy fats, and too many calories doing too little work. After a week of carefully prescribed eating habits, I had much more energy, sharper thoughts, and brighter skin, clear indicators of how damaging my body-shape based health plan really was. There are plenty of fat people who benefit from the gym. But I'm a skinny person who would also benefit, and my focus on weight obstructed that.

            I completed the body-fat analysis for an article I was working on as weight-loss editor at Women’s Health magazine. The job had me convincing our millions of readers that dieting was not only possible, but a desirable ideal, and that whatever it was you were eating (or no matter how you looked), you could probably do a little better and weigh a little bit less. Reading The Fat-o-Sphere suddenly had me questioning all my earlier training, and for a few days after I was hired to write about health for NEWSWEEK─including covering obesity─I was at an impasse, unable to finish an article about traveling while fat: it all felt to uncertain, too exploitative, and I too uneducated.

I wasn’t a total convert.  I do think food can have moral value, for instance, and have no problem labeling some overprocessed, chemically treated, nutritionally negligible food as “bad.” I think that humans are drawn to eat a lot of junk, and that listening to your body can sometimes steer you down a Coors-and-Cheetos laced path (or is that just me?) I do think poor choices and poor access to healthy foods, especially in childhood, can set up dangerous patterns with weight-related consequences: while some people may be designed to carry extra fat, and can do so healthfully, some people are not, and simple changes will help them find their natural, more slender range.

But I didn't know. I started to re-examine what I thought I knew about weight and health. I also started to pay more attention to how fatness was discussed and debated in the media: It’s not pretty, and it seems that the venom we have for fat people far exceeds the scorn we lay on smokers, or adulterers, or those who text while driving, and the recent health-care debate is only making things nastier.

The Fat Wars, a series starting today and running throughout the week, is an attempt to re-examine the attitudes we have toward fatness: is our focus on weight loss over health actually making us less healthy? Is our bias against fatness clouding our judgment when it comes to the real health risks of being overweight? Or is permissive, fat-positive attitudes just a recipe for more health problems? Do we have the ability─and responsibility─to slenderize our bodies through diet and exercise, or is health better measured in other ways? Obviously, we can’t solve all these issues definitively, and in some cases these articles may raise more questions then they answer. But we’ll start asking, and hope that we can start a discussion─free from name-calling, thanks─that brings us closer to some solutions.