More incoherent burbling about fat from Paul Campos

Paul Campos has long been a patron saint of the fat-activist movement. This is because he uses his relatively prominent voice as a newspaper columnist and book author to lie, and lie passionately. Ever one to buck conventional wisdom and practices in his writing–and sometimes he’s spot on–he is the perfect demagogue for any group with an axe to grind.
A lawyer by training, Campos endeavored several years ago to review reams of medical literature tying excess weight to various health problems while researching his book The Obesity Myth. In his quaintly righteous way, Campos, conclusion firmly fixed in his mind in advance, managed to find fault with virtually every study he examined, in each case by cherry-picking in exactly the same manner he accused medical researchers of doing. No one at one of his favorite targets, the Harvard School of Public Health, takes him seriously, but they’re not the ones who stand to suffer for having listened to him.
Campos wrote a column last month for the Rocky Mountain News titled “Fight food fascists’ effrontery” in which he fails to define or identify these fascists (Godwin’s Law lite?) but encourages people to…well, he doesn’t suggest any fighting tactics either. A breakdown of the article follows.

Campos starts by describing a talk he gave before the Boulder Ensemble Theatre’s production of Neil LaBute’s play Fat Pig.

My talk involved points I’ve made hundreds times over the past few years, to audiences ranging in size from a dozen high school students to a few million TV viewers.
I spoke about how the definition of “overweight” used by our public health authorities is a bunch of completely unscientific garbage, created by pharmaceutical companies eager to push the next generation of diet drugs through the regulatory pipeline.

Here he sets the stage: As I’ve been telling you for years, the corporate giants are out to get you. A trite but effective strategy. He also indiectly indicts the Body Mass Index, a highly imperfect measure of adiposity as applied to individuals (and Campos would have you believe that the majority of Americans wth a BMI greater than 25 are pro athletes) but useful in large study populations. Then he gets to the heart of his belief system.

I described the absurdity of various widely held ideas about weight: that we know how to make people thinner (we don’t); that haranguing people about their weight is doing them a favor (it isn’t); and that the reason there are fat kids in America is that fat kids haven’t been informed that it’s considered desirable in this culture to be thin.

Campos assumes he’s speaking for all of his readers and listeners, so I’ll do the same. Let’s look at each of these points individually.
The first is an absurdity. There is no secret to “making” people thin (and such language is idiotic, as no one is running around door to door trying to compress overweight people into thinner forms). Campos likes to highlight the failure of dieting and the diet industry (another multi-billion dollar corporate enemy), invoking the fact that most people who diet eventually regain all of the weight they lose as evidence that fat people are meant to stay that way. This is as senseless as claiming that alcoholics who go through rehab only to start drinking again is evidence that “we” don’t know how to “make” people sober. Obviously, anyone who returns to past behaviors after a respite is going to wind up in the same boat as before; that’s just common sense. In making his claim, Campos blithely ignores the thousands of people who have lost weight and been successful in keeping it off by making lasting lifestyle changes.
Not only am I aware of the myriad distance runners who are dozens of pounds lighter than they once were, but Campos is, too–he used to post on one of the same running-related message boards that I did, and as a five-miles-a-day guy who was neither svelte nor chubby, he knew the ins and outs of the subculture very well. But even then he was starting to get wrongheaded ideas about obesity.
The next two points are more or less straw men. I know of no right-thinking people who believe that badgering people is an effective way to get them to do anything. That’s not to say that people don’t resort to this, of course, but at any rate it has nothing to do with whether people can in fact lose weight or whether being overweight carries known health risks. I also strongly doubt that people think fat kids, or fat people in general, are unaware that they’re fat and need to be brought up to speed. Most people have access to mirrors and eyes. And if fat people didn’t believe that society at large may find them less attractive, there would be no angry fat activists, the very people forming Campos’ de facto fan base.

This last bit of rampant insanity, which is at the center of the government’s current response to the panic over “childhood obesity,” makes about as much sense as arguing that poor people are poor because they haven’t been informed it’s considered desirable in this culture to be rich.

Campos seems to be saying that the government is more invested in reducing childhood obesity than ever before because kids are stone cold ignorant about their own body habitus. Reasonable people would counter by saying that the government is responding to basic epidemiological statistics and realities. Campos’ scare quotes are transparently inane and his analogy, founded as it is on a straw man, is a pile of suck.
Campos then goes on to completely reverse his positon on whether people can be “made” thinner.

Anyway, my favorite part of these talks is usually the question-and-answer period, which gives people in the audience a chance to relate their own experiences.
On this occasion, the most memorable comment was made by a young woman, who spoke of becoming extremely ill and losing a good bit of weight as a result, and then getting complimented by people who had never noticed she was sick, but now noticed she was thin.
I’ve heard some variation on this story many times, and, even for someone who has spent years dealing with our social craziness over body size, it never fails to produce a certain sense of shock and awe.
“How did you do it?” people are asked (meaning how did they lose weight), when the true answer is “I got cancer” or “I became deeply depressed after my spouse left me” or “I haven’t been able to enjoy food since my child died.”

So now we learn the truth as understood in Campos World: People actually can lose weight, but only as a result of trying or tragic circumstances. Who knew that every one of those people I see at road races who formerly carried an extra 50 pounds is secretly divorced, dying of cancer, or otherwise bereaved? Yes, people lose weight when stricken with certain illnesses. But few of them are told how great they look as a result. This, of course, doesn’t stop Campos from doing his damndest to “slyly” demonize weight loss.

On this occasion, the young woman’s story of illness and the reactions she got to it drove home the extent to which our culture’s worship of emaciated female bodies is driven by a hatred of life, health, food and pleasure – that is, by a kind of logic of self-mortification similar to that practiced by medieval flagellants, but without the excuse that such behavior is pleasing to God.

A new twist! Every straight guy wants to sleep beside a skeleton, we’re all self-loathing anhedonic douchebags, and weight loss is the secular answer to being whipped in the name of the LORD. How did I miss all of this?

At the end of the evening I tried to suggest that the best way to combat this madness is through individual acts of rebellion.
Get angry at the lies that bombard us 24 hours a day about what’s supposedly wrong with our bodies.
Get angry about a culture that’s dedicated to making people try to fix things about themselves that aren’t broken.
Eat a doughnut and tell a food fascist it tasted pretty damn good. Light a copy of Vogue on fire.
The revolution starts one body at a time.

Yes, fight the power. Don’t let the Man get you down. Eat up and give ’em all the finger.
Another boilerplate Campos special, this one just as full of empty pathos and lacking in credibility as the others.

  1. #1 by PalMD on December 14, 2008 - 9:02 am

    I don’t know if it’s MT or us, but yours is the 4th or 5th post this weekend that looks like it’s missing a close tag.

  2. #2 by Katharine on December 14, 2008 - 9:44 am

    Yet another walking heart attack gets uppity.

  3. #3 by Kevin Beck on December 14, 2008 - 10:31 am

    As Fletcher Reede said in Liar, Liar after stepping off a crowded and toxic elevator in shame: “It was MEEEEEEEE!”

  4. #4 by Badger3k on December 14, 2008 - 1:29 pm

    All I can say is…WTF? Wow.

  5. #5 by hibob on December 14, 2008 - 4:24 pm

    I’d have to argue that Campos has a point when he says that we don’t know how to get people to lose weight; “change diet and exercise” is an answer, but it’s analogous to saying that the answer to the question “how should we get everyone to work?” is “I have a car, doesn’t everyone else?”. It’s painfully clear that the diet & exercise solution is not embraced by a large percentage of the population, and that we currently have no way to get them to embrace it. For those who can’t or won’t go that route, current medical treatments are unsafe, apply only to limited ranges of medical conditions, or are simply ineffective.
    I’m with Campos on that one.
    For me personally, I’m sticking with surfing over running. Jumping in a cold ocean and getting beat up by waves does wonders for your metabolism.

  6. #6 by Kevin Beck on December 14, 2008 - 4:31 pm

    So the fact that people refuse to adopt the most efficacious known means of losing weight “permanently” (and more importantly, getting fitter and healthier in general) is tantamount to the absence of an efficacious means of losing weight and keeping it off? That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
    Regarding your analogy, not everyone can afford a car, but people who are at least ambulatory can do some amount of exercise. I understand that getting started, especially when you feel like shit and are possibly ashamed to even be seen in public, can be extremely difficult. But the fact remains that Campos is wrong. That he and others choose to sit on their asses and bitch doesn’t alter physiology or physics.

  7. #7 by Julie on December 14, 2008 - 5:10 pm

    If you really want to get mad, read Gina Kolata’s (NY Times’ science/health writer) book “Rethinking Thin: The New Science of Weight Loss — and the Myths and Realities of Dieting.”
    As a science-based journalist (and, incidentally, an accomplished local masters runner, so she certainly walks the walk), I expected more. But she basically comes to the same specious conclusion: “It’s ‘impossible’ to lose weight and keep it off because it’s too hard to establish and maintain the habits required.”
    What bugs me most about Kolata and Campos (and many others) is that they all make a very sneaky leap from talking about physiology to talking about behavior, invariably equating one with the other. The logic always goes like this: “It’s impossible (physiologically) for people to lose weight because they can’t (behaviorally) cope with long term changes in behavior, such as daily exercise, counting calories, etc.”
    By that logic, it’s also “impossible” to save for retirement, practice family planning, pay your taxes, floss, and any other number of activities that are considered standard behavior for responsible, reasonable adults. Why is taking care of oneself physically excluded from this list?
    As a totally unrelated aside, I’ve become so annoyed with the phenomenon of “fat troll husband with hot wife” advertisements that I was thinking of starting a blog just devoted to cataloging them. But, alas, I spend too much of my free time exercising and preparing nutritious, calorie-appropriate meals to devote the time to such a venture…

  8. #8 by Kevin Beck on December 14, 2008 - 6:14 pm

    I’m familiar with Kolata and the conclusions she reaches in her book, although I’ve only read her NY Times stuff. I didn’t know she was a runner, much less fast.

    What bugs me most about Kolata and Campos (and many others) is that they all make a very sneaky leap from talking about physiology to talking about behavior, invariably equating one with the other.

    Campos in particular (and to an even greater extent, BFB types) conflate the medical realities inherent in being fat with the psychosocial aspects. It’s as if they believe that because fat people are allegedly regarded as Less Than by everyone else (and as someone who could never be fat even if he tried, I hardly find fat people to be of weak character or whatnot), everything doctors say is wrong. This is goofy beyond compare as well as dangerous, yet it’s one of the main underpinnings of the whole screwball enterprise.

  9. #9 by hibob on December 14, 2008 - 9:04 pm

    “So the fact that people refuse to adopt the most efficacious known means of losing weight “permanently” (and more importantly, getting fitter and healthier in general) is tantamount to the absence of an efficacious means of losing weight and keeping it off? ”
    Yep. If almost half the population isn’t willing to adopt it, I’d say it isn’t an efficacious solution in this environment. With an emphasis on “in this environment”.

  10. #10 by Kevin Beck on December 14, 2008 - 9:11 pm

    Well, I guess it boils down to whether one chooses to interpret Campos’ claim about making fat people thin as “People are smplynot going to comply with the available means of losing weight” or “There is no known scientific means by which fat people can lose weight and keep it off.” Functionally the situation in the U.S. reflects the former, so I’ll grant you that. But if you knew more of Campos and his ideas, you would know that he is actually taking the latter position.
    Surfing, eh? It’s true that I’ve never seen a fat regular surfer. It’s got to be a great total-body workout, but I’ve never tried it (and my ocean sucks compared to yours).

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