Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Everything bad is good for you.


And contrary to the title, this isn't going to be one of those articles you get every Christmas that say chocolate is good for your mood and drinking alcohol is good for the heart. Having said that, if you have cirrhosis from years of alcohol abuse, as I am sure so many of my readers have, drink lots of coffee. It seems to work amazingly well.

Anmyway, random thoughts on some stuff I've been reading about.

It's not the first bit of research to point this out, but another paper has been published looking at the link between lesbian sexual identity and obesity. Basically, women who call themselves lesbians have a higher BMI than women who call themselves heterosexuals. The BMI is one that puts them in the overweight/obese range. And it's not muscularity, stresses this latest paper, it's obesity.

There were a couple of things I found interesting about this - things maybe I wouldn't have found interesting in the same way two years ago when I was working at Hogarth House, seeing the fifteen-year old anorexics. But the main thing that gave me pause was the authors suggesting that part of the cause of the greater rates of obesity in lesbian women may be their healthier body image.

Now, I don't know that what they say is true about the better body image, but I have heard a couple of studies say that. I don't know that lesbian women have a lower rate of eating disorders than straight women (I know women of all orientations have a lower rate of eating disorders than gay men, but everyone has fewer eating disorders than gay men) - my memory is it's a complicated area. And the hostile to-ing and fro-ing of studies in politically charged research areas like this makes the Middle East look like a meditation retreat.

Annyway, the thing that gives me pause is the association between healthy body image and obesity, the link between a (healthy) way of looking at things and an (unhealthy) result. There seems to be a contradiction here - in what sense can the body image be called healthy if it leads to illness?

Obesity kills a hell of a lot of people, and it makes them sick for years before it kills them. If a healthy body image is associated with obesity, it's a serious risk factor. By this reading, happiness and confidence may actually be bad for you, and misery and self-loathing good.

Mothers and fathers, one could argue, if you wish your children to succeed in life and be popular and avoid premature misery and death, raise them to hate their bodies - they'll be anxious and conflicted and maybe cut themselves in their bedrooms, but they'll be less likely to be fat.

And given the high rates of heart disease amongst men, try to make sure your son turns out gay - the low body image and high prevalence of eating disorders may make him slimmer, although I can't be sure about that. Although, if your boy is going going to grow up to be gay tell him the best thing to do is to hide - gay men who disclose their sexuality in the workplace have higher levels of cortisol ("the stress hormone"), which might lead to increased blood pressure, high cholesterol, all that kind of stuff. Plus, the cortisol will make sure any fat he does have will be unsightly abdominal fat, which won't do a lot of good for his eating disorder...

I don't know. In the ICU we don't see life's winners, and we see the morbidly underweight - excluding the cachectic - on rare occasions, the morbidly overweight on a daily basis. But this idea that being happy makes you sick is an ugly idea. I think I find it ugly partly because I have strong opinions about fat, and partly because of my own experience - when I am overweight, as I am now, I feel guilty in the presence of the healthy, silently reproached, as they float lightly around, in some strange way being slim at me.

Anyhow. Weird thoughts. It's intersting, too, interesting about the lesbian side of it - you could argue that like murder, pre-eclampsia and many sexually transmitted diseases, poor body image seems to be a consequence of heterosexuality in women - a series of plagues that, were they visited upon gay men rather than straight women would be clear evidence of God's wrath.

And the link is fairly easy to draw out - at some deep level, every woman who lives under our realm of ideas knows that big is bad, that to take up space is wrong, that being small is the only way to demonstrate that you are not a threat. There is a sin in having substance, and to be seen to be strong is an act of rebellion.

I don't know. I told someone about this and she suggested that maybe it all made sense if you said obesity was an eating disorder of itself - underappreciated, unglamorous, but real. In this reading, obese people are the cockroach of the eating disorder world, anorectics are the polar bears.

I don't know how far you can push that idea. There are some ways in which anorexia is an illness that obesity is not - people with anorexia have fixed ideas about their weight, and the medical term for a fixed, false belief is a delusion*. We overweight people have no such delusions.

Anyhow, enough of this. I have to go off and starve.

Thanks for listening,


Blogger Camilla said...

Eh??? I share your perplexity. Since when is obesity a sign of a healthy body image?? If there's anything psychological going on w.r.t. someone's weight gain, IMO it's more likely to be that they're using their fat as a kind of body armour. Given that mainstream culture is generally not terribly forgiving of same-sex oriented people, it doesn't seem far-fetched that lesbian women might have a tendency towards obesity for this reason. Maybe there's also something in there about desirability, and where lesbian women fit into a mainstream culture that values a particular kind of female sexiness (i.e. their reaction could be seen as a rebellion against the Playboy bunny generation).

Also, not all eating disorders lead to thinness - the opposite, in fact.

Did anyone actually ask the women in the study how they felt about their bodies? Or was the study grounded purely in statistics?

12:07 AM  
Anonymous foilwoman said...

Once again, you write something I had tried to write and failed. The idea than thin people being thin "at you" and the idea that for women "that big is bad, that to take up space is wrong, that being small is the only way to demonstrate that you are not a threat". I've been fighting both these concepts all my life, and am disconcerted, at age 45 (almost 46) to be shrinking, almost against my will. I have to think about this more. Thank you, as always, my unknown, but deeply appreciated friend.*

*I know, I am presuming a lot. But even though I don't know you, I like you.

5:02 AM  
Blogger Benedict 16th said...

When food was scarce, fat was fashionable (eg historically the Polynesian islanders and various monarchs in history) where only the upper classes could afford enough food without having to do hard physical work to get fat.

Now that food and calories are cheap, only those with enough time and can afford a personal trainer and have a Lutheran guilt ethic etc etc ... can be thin...

I suspect fashion becomes renown for being hard to attain.

9:07 PM  
Blogger Bronze John said...

Hail Milly,
I agree it's a horribly complicated area, particularly when every researcher and his/her dog has some idealogical barrow to push. It is a bit dispiriting that the group with the best body image is the one without men in it, and the one with the worst incidence of eating disorders is the one with two men in it. Having said that, if you did a sweep through the gym I go to, a fair proportion of those men sampled would have, at the very least, deeply inaccurate body images.

Anyway. If I don't lose weight I'm going to have to ring home and tell them I've become a lesbian.


5:22 PM  
Blogger Bronze John said...

You don't presume anything. I don't have squillions of friends, but I read your blog pretty much daily and think frequently about what you have said, and if people can be friends via that medium, we're friends.

Thanks for the support, too.


5:24 PM  
Blogger Bronze John said...

All true. This is why clothing fashions change so frequently - if they didn't, the poor would be able to catch up.


5:27 PM  

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