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The fight against fat - and fat bias
Publication Date : 31-07-2013
While obesity can be linked to a range of diseases, there is much bigotry against people who are overweight than most would care to admit
The funny sign on my 20-year-old car is a great conversation piece. It ads: “Fat people are harder to kidnap”.
My daughter, who has a wicked sense of humour, stuck it to a rear window several years ago.
I thought that she bought it after reading Carl Addison Swan son’s hilarious book of the same name.
But she had just put it there for me to see the light side of my battle against the bulge then.
The tussle against rising weight is far from over. The current load, hovering between 83kg and 85kg under a body mass index of 31, lumps me into the "obese" category.
Results of an instant online test are worse. My index is higher than 98 percent of men between 45 and 59 in the country and 92 percent of those in the same age group globally.
The only time when I was out of the flabby group was 30 years ago when I used to have just one meal and run 5km a day.
I was forced to do it so as not to look like such a fatso against my better half at the wedding ceremony.
Three decades later, it’s back to the usual rotund self and it seems easier to settle with it. As Billy Joel said in his song, I suppose it is easier to be “just the way you are”.
Why this focus on corpulence?
Last week, a face-reading columnist in The Star gained notoriety for what she wrote about fat people.
She was severely criticised and she has since apologised, admitting that the views expressed in her column were insensitive and offended many.
But obesity has indeed bloated into a serious issue in Malaysia. We are now undisputedly the fattest people in the Asean region.
About 43 percent of adults, 20 percent of adolescents and 26 percent of primary school kids in Malaysia are either overweight or obese. The Philippines ranks second, followed by Singapore and Thailand.
Surprisingly, in East Malaysia, Sarawak was found to have the highest rate of obesity while it was lowest in Sabah.
Obesity, which used to be associated with developed, high-income countries until a few decades ago, now affects even the poorest of nations. About 1.6 billion people in the world are overweight and some 400 million obese.
According to Prof Dr Mohd Ismail Noor, president of the Malaysian Association for the Study of Obesity, there are strong links between under nutrition and obesity, with both occurring in low income households.
Last month, the American Medical Association declared obesity a “disease”, giving rise to the assumption that people had no control over the condition.
Critics say a third of Americans, now labelled as “diseased”, can expect to face more weight stigma, prejudice and be made to pay more for insurance.
And so the United States’ US$66 billion-a-year weight-loss treatment industry is expanding, just as two new obesity drugs have entered the market where dieters usually regain their weight and end up as perpetual repeat customers.
While obesity is linked to risks for diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure, there is much bigotry against people who are overweight than most of us would care to admit.
The chubby are shamed or ridiculed for not having self-control, spreading the surmise that their sizes are solely the result of laziness and gluttony.
The ideal body type for women during the Victorian era was plump, fleshy and full-figured but today’s fashion industry disdains women in the same size.
It is not just ordinary folks who hold such bias. A study on the attitudes of 400 US medical professionals towards obese patients found that doctors linked obesity with conditions associated with poor hygiene, hostility and even dishonesty.
But as Dr Denise Cummins, a prominent “fatness expert”, wrote in her recent article in Psychology Today, the relationship between food intake and energy expenditure is far more complex than the simple “calories eaten, calories burned” equation which doctors and personal trainers would have us believe.
Rather than a simple equation with two variables (diet and exercise), obesity is a multi-factorial disorder in which environmental and genetic factors interact to yield a disorder of energy balance.
Dr Linda Bacon, another famous fatness activist, has provided compelling research results showing that overweight people tend to live longer than those with normal weight in her book, Health At Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight.
In short, it says body fat is simply not the kind of killer it had been portrayed to be.
Malaysians, like people elsewhere in the world, must look at weight bias as what it should be seen as – a human rights issue.
In the US, there are several bodies championing the cause of the overweight folks, including the Association for Size Diversity and Health and the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance.
They promote the right to be peaceful with one’s body, provide education, research and services free from weight-based discrimination.
In Malaysia, the only people who seem to be proud of their bulk are restaurant owners, with names like "Madam Fatso", "Fatty Loh Chicken Rice", "Mama Fats" and "Fatty Chong" for their popular premises.
It’s a fat chance but could they be roped in to start similar bodies here?