Fat, But Fit, But Shut up.

My least favourite phrase is back.

Right in the headline. Glaring at me.

Something similar, a few days ago from Louise Green (author of ‘Big Fit Girl’, which I haven’t read but would like to):

That’s why I was so taken back by Phillip’s opening question, “so you think you’re fit” in a condescending tone.

It isn’t hard to find some reflection of this elsewhere.

“I’m an aerobic instructor, but I’m 5'4 and 240lbs. I’m fat but fit!”
“There’s no such thing!”

“I’m an obese ballet dancer, I’m fat but healthy.”
“How can you be fat but healthy? What about your organs? Your joints?”

Let’s cut right to the chase: all of the words used here exist on a continuum.

THERE IS NO ‘FAT’. There is no ‘healthy’. There is no ‘fit’.

Like most language we use to talk about health and the body, this isn’t scientific language, it’s coded. And weaponised. If someone ever says any of the above to my face, my immediate response is:

“Define fat.”

They can’t. This is the point where the transmission falls out of the bus and people stare blankly.

“I guess, I mean, like, having lots of fat?”
“HOW MUCH IS LOTS”

It’s rubbish. Any definition just pushes back the threshold where you need to make a decision about what you’re actually trying to say. It just palms the threshold further onto other words, until eventually we can shrug and say ‘you know… what everyone else says’.

Newsflash: there is no ‘everyone else’. You’d be alarmed at the size of fat people in Japan or Korea… if you could find one. Alternatively, I’ve been places in the American South where Louise Green, self-described as ‘big’ on the cover of her own damned book, would be quite svelte.

These words HAVE scientific definitions, of course, it’s just that no-one ever uses them. We just pick a point on a continuum which suits us. Here’s what I mean:

“Fat” (as in bodyfat, don’t get cute with me)

Scientific definition: a white or yellow adipose tissue containing stored triglycerides.
Colloquial definition: an arbitrary amount of the above, past an unstated absolute or proportional threshold

“Fit”

Scientific definition: adaptation to local or prevailing conditions to the extent of being capable of reproduction
Colloquial definition: capable of performing an arbitrary amount of an arbitrary type of physical activity.

And of course, the shower of rubbish that is “Healthy”

Scientific definition: physically and/or mentally capable of performing tasks, disease free, energetic… I’m not even sure if that covers it adequately…
Colloquial definition: literally whatever the hell you like

(I’m not doing ‘diet’ or ‘lifestyle’, because I don’t want to have an aneurysm.)

Note that healthy sucks double because the scientific definition stinks as well.
I mean, what is “disease free” mean if we define diseases themselves along a continuum? If I have almost-high blood pressure with a systolic of 135… am I healthy? What if I have a BMI of 25.1? What if I have cognitive symptoms of a disease but not full biomarkers? There’s no black and white, just grey on grey.

With these chimeric and incredibly crap words and our own prejudice, we end up having discussions which should be about angels and pinheads, just with bodies and people.

“Is Eddie Hall fit?”
“Uh, I guess.”

“Dude, Ashley Graham isn’t fat.”
“She totally is, dude!”

“I got these great new healthy granola bars. They added protein!”
“What are you like! Granola bars aren’t healthy! They’re full of calories!

These are not conversations about evidence, or truth, or the shared nature of reality. These are conversations about VALUES. If your words don’t accurately map to concepts, you are trying to communicate what is important to you. The above is all just coded language designed to make sure other people share your assumptions. That’s all.

The weaselly part is where, after being called out for using one of these words to be horrible to someone, there is an immediate retreat into sanctimony:

I’m just concerned about you. 
I just want to help. 
I’m just saying what I feel. 
I just don’t want to you to get sick or hurt.
I’m just worried about your health.
I just…

“I just…” as a response to something where the speaker is defensively explaining their motives is so loaded it should have Colt written on the barrel.

It means something like: “how you feel about what I’ve said is incorrect, you need to reframe my behaviour, because a legitimate defense for what I’ve said is to claim I have the correct intentions — and this is regardless of you thinking what I’ve said is insensitive, gratuitous or mean”.

Now we have that out of the way, let’s look at the Guardian’s quick foray into this language today.

Don’t get me wrong — the article is a pretty factual description of what appears to be some solid research (although the study was presented at a conference, not published… I can’t read it yet). It’s just that the use of our woolly body-language wrecks the framing completely.

So, headline:

No such thing as ‘fat but fit’, major study finds

And in typical health journalism style, the lede doesn’t actually address the headline, but rather dances around it.

People who are obese run an increased risk of heart failure and stroke even if they appear healthy, without the obvious warning signs such as high blood pressure or diabetes, according to a major new study.

It continues:

The study found that those obese individuals who appeared healthy in fact had a 50% higher risk of coronary heart disease than people who were of normal weight. They had a 7% increased risk of cerebrovascular disease — problems affecting the blood supply to the brain — which can cause a stroke, and double the risk of heart failure.

THERE’S the payoff.

No-one in the medical community is even slightly surprised, because body fat is metabolically active tissue with consequences far beyond whether or not you can fit into your old pants. I’ve written about this at length previously. The Guardian article even handily links one of the previous studies on this, which makes a nice change.

However, that’s just today’s version of healthy — ‘at increased risk for XYZ, according to parameters ABC, under statistical parameters DEF’.

Which is pushed all the way back to this silly trope of ‘you can’t be fat but fit’.

It’s hard to get around the popular use of these rubbish code-words. Their use invades all the collective language we have in this space, and interferes with our ability to communicate facts and risk. The following more-accurate-but-still-rubbish headline I‘m writing now relies on them still:

“Healthy but obese” people still more likely to get sick

Not quite as snappy, sure. But it’s a lot less wrong.

Conclusion

So much the dialogue about weight and bodies and fitness is just people yelling poorly thought out morality at each other. There is so much ‘should’. Authors cannot help but insert themselves into what they are saying. This is enabled by ‘healthy’ and ‘fit’ and ‘thin’ and ‘fat’ and various other placeholders, which amount essentially to the speaker saying I FEEL.

I have a test for discussing this stuff myself. Before I open my mouth, there’s two simple conditions to be met:

  1. am I being compassionate?
  2. am I accurately using language to discuss actual evidence?

When these conditions are met, we can talk about fatness and thinness and bodies and identity and all their many and various friends.

But if the answer is “no” to either, I practice something that an awful lot of people in the health/fitness/nutrition space could use — it’s called shutting my damn mouth.

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