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Health Shaming

January 16, 2014

These days, we hear a lot about fat shaming.  Considering there is so much obesity, it’s not surprising that the subject is heated and has been moralized, but I’m not even here to talk about that.  I want to discuss the opposite effect: something I’ll call health shaming.  Simply having a healthy, thin person around is enough to create self-induced guilt in less healthy, obese people, creating pressures on a healthy person to conform to an unhealthy lifestyle against his or her wishes.  This is best illustrated with examples.

Have you ever been out to a restaurant with friends or family and everyone around you orders food which is fattening and unhealthy?  You’re there to reunite with old friends, celebrate an event with coworkers, or a spend the holiday with family, and you’re the lone person in the pack with any concern about nutrition and health.  You sit quietly sipping your water while they begin ordering entree dishes, and the waitress brings out cheese balls, a blooming onion, and other fried things.  You won’t touch any of it and you’re already feeling awkward.

It’s time to order your main dish and the waiter goes around the table.  Friend one orders a triple bacon cheeseburger the size of a large shoe box, the other a giant greasy steak, and another a mountain of fettuccine alfredo with chicken strips.  They’re all washing it down with sugary drinks.  Now it’s your turn.  You go with a salad along with a small piece of baked chicken and a side of boiled carrots.  Of course, you’re just drinking ice water.  Now it’s really awkward.

You’re not judging anyone.  You don’t want to meddle in anyone else’s business.  You haven’t given anyone any weird looks.  You just want to spend quality time with your friends and family members, but it’s never easy.  The fun is zapped out of the room and everyone starts feeling guilty.

Once they see you ordering the lone healthy dish from the menu, the health shaming effect begins.  Their bubble has been burst, and reality is stepping in.  They’re all experiencing a realization that their portion sizes are way too much, that the food is fatty and unhealthy, and that they actually had the choice not to eat those things.  So, you, the healthy person, sit there in a very awkward position.  Your companions will start talking about new years resolutions, diets, or they’ll make some comment like, “Good for you!  I should take better care of myself too.”  Then everyone reluctantly and awkwardly agrees, there’s a long silence, and then the topic changes.  

How do you respond to that?  This suppressed guilt starts pouring into the conversation, and what are we supposed to say?  What are we supposed to do?  In a way, us healthy folks want to order something really fatty and unhealthy just so this doesn’t happen, but at the same time, we don’t want to spend an extra hour in the gym the next day trying to burn it off.  So we’re stuck at an impasse.

People have strange ideas about health.  I’ll be having dinner with my family and my mom will say, “You’re so thin.  What are you worried about?”  Then they plop some giant two pound steak on my plate, grease dripping off it.  I’m hungry, but what do I do?  Hold on guys, I’m going to heat up a bowl of oatmeal?  I feel so rude, but why should I?  I often just take a few bites, eat my salad and then say, “I’m full”, when I’m really not.  Then once everyone’s out of the kitchen, I’ll quickly eat a turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread.  I can’t even be open about how I want to live, eat, and treat my body without this tension and conflict.

I don’t know what to do in those situations.  I do nothing to provoke it.  Hardly anyone cares about their health, shoveling garbage into their bodies every single day, and that’s their choice.  The problem is they subtly try to force it on others, but we don’t want it.  This is especially true of sweets and junk food.  You see people walking down the street with these giant soft drinks from gas stations and fast food restaurants.   Look at how much sugar is in these sodas.

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Imagine going to the store and buying a huge bag of sugar everyday and just shoveling it into your mouth.  That’s what people are doing and wonder why they have health problems.  Also, the corn syrup in most sodas triggers fat storage mechanisms in your body.  You just pack on the pounds.  You look bad, feel bad, are plugged up, are working your way toward becoming a diabetic, and the complications just pile up.

I wish the world wasn’t this way.  It’s frustrating that pretty much every restaurant that’s out there serves nothing but unhealthy food.  Maybe that isn’t the case in big cities, but where I live it’s how things are.  I go in a grocery store like Kroger and 95% of what’s in there is bad for you.  Red meat, sweets, sweetened cereals, alcohol, soda, fried chicken, and on and on.

I don’t even like eating meat.  I think of the animals and their suffering and feel it’s immoral.  I only eat it when I’m with family or something, trying not to be rude.  But try to live as a vegetarian!  Ha!  Where I live there isn’t a single vegetarian restaurant.  Thinking about it, I can only think of maybe three to four vegetarian dishes even offered in my entire town, other than salads.  Almost everything has red meat of some sort.  Try to get beans and it’s filled with ham.  Even when you get salads, they’re covered in mounds of cheese, ham, and other things.

Long ago, I told myself that I was never going to let myself get obese.  I plan to always take care of myself and be good to my body.  I don’t want a big pot belly, fat rolls, or love handles.  I don’t want to eat lunch and need to take a nap.  I don’t want diabetes, heart disease, or high blood pressure.  I don’t want to take a bunch of pills or insulin to keep myself going.  I don’t drink alcohol, smoke, or do any drugs.  And I’ll even go farther — I prefer looking good.  I like having energy.  I like sleeping well at night.  I like being healthy and there isn’t any food that is worth not feeling good.  And you know what?  Nobody is going to health shame me into feeling weird about that.

If you take care of yourself, you’re in a minority.  There’s advantages to being healthy and thin, but society makes life difficult.  You easily can be overworked and have no time to exercise or cook healthy meals.  And no matter what restaurant you go to, or what social event we attend, you can’t eat anything.  Often can’t drink anything.  I mean seriously, we’re not going to eat that giant slice of cake just because it’s somebody’s birthday in the office.  

I have that happen all the time.  Somebody is retiring and I show up to be nice.  Oh, cake and ice cream?  *shivers*  Someone there will will just plop some giant piece of cake on my plate along with a huge scoop of ice-cream.  They rarely ask, “How much would you like?”  If they would have asked, I’d only have wanted a taste.  There’s often a line behind you and it’s awkward having to make this scene, “Oh, I just want a small taste.”  So, I just take a bite and throw the rest away, and that feels rude.  “Do you not like it?”

We’re not rude for refusing to eat the junk food.  Why do we have to so often resort to subterfuge, “Oh, I’m on a diet.  Please excuse me.  I’d really love to eat that, but I just can’t.  I hope you understand.”

I can’t think of many things more important than your health.  I had a friend who was a top scientist at NASA.  He graduated from Yale and Harvard, PhDs in Mathematics and Physics, and was the best of the best.  What did him in?  He drank, smoked, and didn’t watch his diet.  He died in his late 40’s of heart problems.  He had diabetes and they had to chop off portions of his feet.  He had no energy.  We’d walk up a staircase and he’d be exhausted.  That’s not happening to me.

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