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Rambling about narratives

March 5, 2009

Both when this was primarily a blog devoted to fat-acceptance and now that it is a general weight-loss/fitness blog (although hopefully one not built on self-hate) I get emails from people absolutely incredulous with some of my stated positions. Generally, these people espouse some opposing viewpoint and their emails are/were full of links and anecdotes all brimming, they assure(d) me with information absolutely devastating to my assertions. From arguments invoking the laws of thermodynamics to endless links to the Keys’ Minnesota starvation experiment, these people seem convinced that there is just some particular argument or piece of information that I need to see in order to see the truth.

These people do not understand the narrative.

Most of us exist in a world of overlapping narratives. We filter our lives through these narratives. This isn’t totally bad. This world of ours is full of complexities and uncertainties and having a framework into which we can fit differing and opposing experiences is sometimes the only way to make sense of everything. For example, I’m a feminist and when confronted with, let’s say, a surrendered wife who tells me that obedience to her husband gives her ultimate happiness, I definitely filter that through what I believe of how patriarchy can colonize all of our brains. I don’t dismiss her experience, but I fit it into my existing narrative in a way she would probably not agree with. Likewise, I’m sure the way my life looks to a super conservative anti-gay rights type would probably not be something I recognized.

Those might be extreme examples, but the same principles apply when talking about issues around fat and health. I don’t see the personal change of opinion I went through on some issues as a change from falsehood to truth. Instead, I decided that one narrative was more satisfactory in explaining what was happening than the other. That doesn’t mean the weight-loss narrative is perfect or has all the answers or that the fat acceptance narrative is a lie. But it does mean that pointing to a single study or a single issue and expecting that to change my mind is silly. If any single instance of contradiction was enough to change most people’s minds, we would live in a constantly-shifting whirl of confusion.

It also means that I recognize the limitations of each narrative in explaining certain things. Why does dieting have such high failure rates (although not as high as 95%) in most studies? Why is obesity unevenly distributed among social classes? How do we explain away the hormonal effects of adipose tissue if we say that being fat doesn’t affect health? How do fit in the data on the genetics of obesity with the idea that size is at least partially under our control?

Where we go to answer these questions and which answers sound the most reasonable is largely a part of what kind of narrative we embrace.

I honestly don’t have anything particularly profound to say about it. I think though that recognizing how the narrative biases us is something that we have to do in order to be able to even have a conversation about these issues that isn’t just a giant echo-chamber. One thing I wanted to avoid was recreating this blog as a place where only ‘rah rah weight loss’ talk was happening. It’s one of the more frustrating things about this issue that just about any place where people write from a particular perspective, the conversation is almost totally saturated with agreement. Most unfortunate in my view is that conversations around science and research are so rarely anything but echo chambers for both sides – filled with anecdotes and heaps of scorn for the other side.

You would think after 13 years on the internet, that wouldn’t still frustrate me.

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. March 5, 2009 3:17 pm

    Weight loss may not be an impossible-forever thing, maybe just a thing where we don’t know enough right now. This is an interesting article that I found today:

    http://www.revolutionhealth.com/healthy-living/weight-management/keep-it-off/how-to-do-it/vigilance-weight-control

    It’s a couple of years old, but it talks about some varying methods that had varying levels of success. I’m not sure it’s strictly a physical issue, but one that deals with lots of physical/behavioral issues at the same time. Untangling that skein of yarn could take awhile.

    • March 9, 2009 10:44 am

      That’s an interesting article. On one hand, I would be lying if I didn’t admit that part of me hopes that there will come a point where maintenance becomes totally mindless. OTOH, it squares with how the people I’ve known who’ve lost weight and maintained for years approach things.

      Yeah, between psychological, social, environmental and physical factors I think it could take a long time to unravel all the different threads. Even then, it may well end up that it ends up being something that varies significantly between individuals.

  2. March 6, 2009 4:23 am

    I think it’s the same the world around. Religion, politics, weight loss, environment-there may or may not be an absolute answer, and some see that, but even more see their way as right, and if you don’t agree with them, you just don’t have all the facts! It’s a frustrating world, but I try to realize that others who don’t agree with me can be just as right in their minds as I am in mine. Which, of course, doesn’t mean I’ll agree with them, but we just have to agree to disagree. And then there’s my mother, who thinks if you don’t agree with her, you must just not hear her, so she’ll repeat herself-not fun. I don’t care for zealots or evangelists of any sort. In my opinion, the worst offenders are religious nuts and low-carbers.

    • March 9, 2009 10:50 am

      That last line is sooooo true. Of course, I must admit there is also a type of vegan who serves as the foil to the low-carbers. These are the ones who insist people are natural herbivores or that any animal product automatically turns to cancer when eaten. For the most part, I would be happy if they all just spent forever arguing with each other and leaving the rest of us out of it.

      • March 10, 2009 8:23 am

        I found some worse. It’s sort of low-carbers, these Weston-Price people. I don’t know who Weston Price even is (my assignment for today), but they believe meat and butter and dairy are super-healthy, vegetables not so much, and fruit not at all. Grains? Poison.

        • March 11, 2009 8:35 am

          ACK! Don’t even say their name! They’ll find me!

          Like a lot of nutritional absolutists, they have a few decent ideas. However, like all nutritional absolutists, they bend, ignore or make up evidence to support their ideas. For the most part they seem like classic revisionists (people were so much healthier long ago!) with a nice helping of pure crankery on top.

  3. guppy permalink
    March 6, 2009 6:37 pm

    I really admire your scrupulous intellectual honesty. In the little that I’ve seen of the FA world it seems the scientific studies are either acclaimed as confirming *exactly* what they knew all along, or tossed into the ‘junk science’ heap.

    But please tell us about the arguments involving the laws of thermodynamics.

    • March 9, 2009 11:16 am

      I think people on both sides don’t always give evidence a fair shake. If Fat Acceptance seems more guilty of this, it’s probably due to swimming upstream against current consensus. You have less people challenging those who think excess fat is harmful. But, for example, I haven’t seen any clear argument against some of the studies which seem to show that those in the overweight category aren’t really less healthy as a whole than people in the ‘normal’ category.

      The thermodynamics argument is interesting because it feels like a simple misunderstanding. Those arguing with me assumed that I thought the human body was exempt from the laws of thermodynamics. That it could make energy from nothing or somehow rid itself of energy through magic. What I believed though, and where I think most FA people are arguing from, is that 1) metabolism adjusts to intake and 2) Individual metabolism may be such that some people can store fat on very few calories while others won’t gain even while eating very very many. These days, I think the evidence points to much smaller drops in metabolism for most dieters and smaller variations in individual metabolism (for those without disorders that slow metabolism) than would account for the failure of calorie restriction or the regain many dieters experience.

      However, no one actually addressed those issues at the time. It was all “PHYSICS WORKS!!!!” Which, as a physics major, I totally agree with.

  4. March 8, 2009 4:07 am

    I think narratives are just part of how our brain can make sense out of anything. Otherwise bits of information would just be free form and disconnected. Our brains make connections and associations, this must create underlying narratives.

    Although I agree with you that awareness is important and useful, we can rarely if ever acheive total bias free judgement, after all, who’d be able to say?

    I think the victory is in the trying on that one!

    • March 9, 2009 10:54 am

      Oh yeah, we can’t erase our biases. Like I said, without having some bigger picture to fit new information into, things would be really confusing.

      But being upfront about them might, at the very least, make us better listeners.

  5. meerkat permalink
    March 8, 2009 6:59 pm

    I thought it was a fat-accepting weight-loss/fitness blog.

    • March 9, 2009 11:20 am

      I avoid using the phrase fat acceptance because general consensus is that dieting is antithetical to fat acceptance. The better distinction I guess would be that this blog used to be anti-purposeful-weight -loss. That’s why I tend to use the phrase ‘body acceptance’ these days.

  6. March 11, 2009 12:52 am

    Hiya, just want to let you know I’m following you with great interest. I’m pretty skeptical about the “facts” on all sides in this: it is just so damned hard to get good information.

    But I do still quite like “fat acceptance” as a term, because it is confronting the prejudice. It’s specifically fat bodies that are seen as socially unacceptable, proper focus for ignorant scorn, and discriminated against. Just off the top of my head, “body acceptance” seems to me like a good thing for the mental health of all individuals. But “fat acceptance” seems more about attitudes to others’ bodies.

    • March 11, 2009 9:10 am

      That’s a really good insight. Body acceptance definitely is about my personal relationship to all that complicated social stuff around women’s bodies.

      I’ve said before that I think of myself as approaching the issues of fat discrimination through the lens of feminism/general leftyness these days. But honestly, I still very much agree with most of the work that has been done by fat activists – it’s just an issue of respect (to the self-definition of the FA movement) and my personal disagreements with some of the tenets commonly accepted in the community that keeps me from self-identifying as a fat activist.

      Definitely giving me some things to think about though. Thanks.

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