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Weighty matters - John C. Kirk

Jul. 11th, 2006

12:06 am - Weighty matters

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While I'm feeling in a slightly ranty mood, I've recently been thinking about the term "fatphobia", which I've come across in nou's journal.

Digressing for a moment, I'm not keen on dogs, particularly when they bark. When I was a child, I was basically terrified of them - the only exception was King Charles Spaniels, since they're small/snuffly/quiet. If a dog came anywhere near me, I would freeze to the spot, and if it started barking at me, or jumping up at me (even in a friendly way), I'd burst into tears. Nowadays I can control myself a bit better, having confronted the fear to a certain extent. The turning point came when I was about 15, and I was walking through a local village in my school uniform. There were a couple of boys who decided that it would be fun to scare us (me and the friend I was with) by setting their dog on us, so they sent it charging towards us. It was barking, and I didn't really think it was going to hurt us, but I was scared. On the other hand, I was damned if I'd let those two oiks see it!

As I say, I'm not too bad nowadays, but I still prefer to avoid dogs. There's a building near work that has guard dogs roaming around their yard in the evening, and unfortunately they can't tell the difference between someone who's trying to break in and someone who's walking past the gate (on the public pavement) to get to the bus stop, so they'll start barking and follow along on the inside of the railing. If I do need to work late (as I did tonight), then I normally give them a wide berth, either by crossing over the road twice (before/after the gate) or by walking along the left hand lane of the road, depending on how much time I have before the bus is due. Obviously I'll check for traffic before I walk in the road, but the point is that I'd rather take the small risk of being run over by a car that I can't see coming than take the large risk of having the dogs barking at me.

The reason I mention this is that I would describe my attitude towards dogs as a phobia. I know of people who have a similar reaction towards heights, or insects, or various other things. I suppose it's possible that someone feels this way about fat people, but that's not what the term is used to describe. For my part, I might be afraid of a particular fat person, e.g. if he/she was pointing a gun at my head, but that's all. I dislike the mindset that says "I am in group X, and if you disapprove of my lifestyle then that makes you X-phobic", since it just smacks of sloppy thinking. It's the equivalent of saying that "-gate" means scandal (Watergate/"Dianagate"), or that "-blane" means death (Dunblane/"paintblane"). Admittedly I have used the term heterophobia myself, but only when I was deliberately offering an inverse point of view to "homophobia", and I may change that the next time I update my website.

This is not to say that I necessarily endorse the behaviour that people are describing when they use the term "fatphobia". For instance, when I did a Google search on it, I found someone saying that they'd been refused a table at a restaurant, and the waiter told them that they didn't need to eat anymore; that is both rude and stupid. On the other hand, I also think that some people have a tendency to overreact to any perceived criticism. So, I prefer to avoid the category altogether, and just take things on a case by case basis.

More generally, I've been thinking about some of the health issues associated with being overweight. Personally, I'm feeling a lot better now that I've lost quite a bit of weight, e.g. I'm lighter on my feet if I run up the stairs. On the other hand, I stand by what I said last summer - if you're happy being overweight, then good for you, and I'm not aiming to criticise anyone here. On the health front, I have heard that there are risks associated with obesity, e.g. heart failure/diabetes, but I'm not a doctor, so I'm not qualified to debate them. What I have noticed during my first aid training is that there are some more mundane problems, and I think it's useful to be aware of them.

First, the disclaimers: copying the example from my post earlier today, I'm basically thinking about people like Hurley in Lost, i.e. [morbidly] obese rather than just a couple of pounds overweight. Also, for the sake of argument let's assume that any injury/illness is equally likely to affect people regardless of their weight.

Suppose that you slip over in the shower and break your leg, so you need an ambulance. At SJA we have various equipment that's helpful in this situation, but each item is rated for a maximum load. I believe that our division's carry chair can handle up to 16 stone, and the one I used at Buckingham Palace recently had an upper limit of 114kg (about 18 stone). Meanwhile, the trolleybed in our ambulance is rated for 25 stone. I would hope that they're designed with a bit of margin for error, but I have heard about a vehicle that broke its winch that way - they attached it to the trolley (with a 25 stone person on it), and it was supposed to pull the trolley up the ramp into the ambulance, but instead it got ripped out of the wall (path of least resistance?).

There are some heavy duty ambulances with special equipment, but if you're likely to need one then I'd recommend telling the dispatcher when you call 999, otherwise you'll have a delay while you wait for the first ambulance and then a second delay while they call for backup. For that matter, there are also manual handling guidelines that apply to ambulance personnel, and it may be that the standard two person ambulance crew (driver/attendant) can't lift a particularly heavy casualty by themselves, so they need to call in a second vehicle (or the fire brigade) for assistance. Again, it makes sense to arrange this all during the initial phone call, to save time later on - you don't have to make a big deal out of it, but just say something like "The casualty is male, aged 23, weighing approximately 18 stone", and then the dispatcher can decide whether the extra information is relevant or not.

Based on my own experience, I remember taking a fairly hefty casualty on a carry chair at the Notting Hill carnival last year - the chair was on the ground, but I had to support a lot of her weight myself. In theory we're supposed to talk to the casualty to reassure them, but in practice it was all I could do to avoid panting too obviously, and I didn't think that a comment like "My god, woman, how much do you weigh?!" would really help much. Anyway, the ambulance manual does stress that it's important to be in good physical condition, so I'd say that this counts as an indirect health issue, i.e. other people would be at risk of greater injury/death if all the ambulance crews were unfit. I've heard some people saying that "overweight =/= unfit", but I disagree - if you need to run up 5 flights of stairs with an oxygen cylinder then the less excess weight you have to carry, the better. There may be thin people who smoke 60 cigarettes a day and can barely walk, but that just means that being overweight is one way to be unfit amongst many, rather than that it's irrelevant. That said, I've worked with some women at SJA who are smaller than me but are also a lot better than me at first aid (a couple of them are now at university studying to be a paramedic/doctor), so it wouldn't be wise to restrict personnel to "6 foot tall rugby players only".

Regarding treatment itself, I think that most people are familiar with the Heimlich manoevre, i.e. the abdominal thrust. This isn't actually the first thing you're supposed to try if someone's choking, but it is a useful step. The basic idea is that you stand behind the casualty, put your arms around them, and join your hands at the front. However, if either/both of you have large bellies then that may not be practical, i.e. your arms literally might not reach. There are a couple of alternatives - you can do the abdo thrusts with two first aiders (one standing on each side of the casualty, linking hands at front and back), or you can brace the casualty against a wall and thrust up from the front. However, if you're choking on food in a restaurant (which could happen to anyone), I wouldn't like to rely on a random member of the public knowing about those techniques. Anyway, this is probably something that's worth learning about (e.g. from a first aid manual) if you think you're likely to need it.

Comments:

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From:non_trivial
Date:July 11th, 2006 09:35 am (UTC)
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I think that people are generally lazy with regards to language, and "-phobia" is an easy shorthand for "dislike of/aversion to".

As for the unfitness thing, I know that for cardiovascular risk factors it is much better to be overweight and fit and active than at your nominal weight and sedentary. Quite how common the first case is, I don't know.
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From:nou
Date:July 11th, 2006 09:51 am (UTC)
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Unless I'm misunderstanding, you're saying that "homophobia" is linguistically acceptable, but "fatphobia" isn't? Aren't they constructed exactly the same way? Sure, you can say that people who hate gay people do it because they're frightened, in some way, but you can make a case for people hating fat people because they're frightened, too (frightened of becoming one).

(Incidentally I am very very very interested in the reasons why people dislike fat people, so if anyone reading this knows of any studies then please give me a pointer.)

((Incidentally incidentally I'm becoming a great fan of qualitative interview-based studies. I used to think they were all handwavey faff, but then I read some.))

Going back to commenting on your actual post... it seems to me that if you run up 5 flights of stairs every day then eventually your body will become optimised for running up 5 flights of stairs. Same way as if you play the euphonium every day, your body will become optimised for playing the euphonium. (You may not have to run up those stairs/play the euphonium every day, but if you think there's a strong likelihood of you having to do it, then it makes sense to do it when you don't have to so that when you have to you can.) If people don't want to run up 5 flights of stairs carrying an oxygen cylinder, then fine. If people don't want to play the euphonium, then fine. This is why we have civilisation, so some of us can run up stairs and others of us can play the euphonium.
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From:johnckirk
Date:July 11th, 2006 03:47 pm (UTC)
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Unless I'm misunderstanding, you're saying that "homophobia" is linguistically acceptable, but "fatphobia" isn't?

Ah, no, I didn't explain that very well. I don't like either word, and I think that "X-phobia" should be reserved for actual fears. That said, I suspect that we're stuck with "homophobia" for the forseeable future, so I'm just ranting against the rot spreading... The only reason I mentioned homophobia is that the web page I linked to was a specific rebuttal of a separate web page.

If people don't want to run up 5 flights of stairs carrying an oxygen cylinder, then fine.

Yes, absolutely, I'm not suggesting that everyone should run out and join the LAS :) I just thought that was an interesting example of an indirect health risk which might normally be overlooked. With regard to specific optimisations, I think that there may be some scope for people to be both fat and strong in a particular area (e.g. arm wrestling), but I don't think that applies to running.
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From:nou
Date:July 12th, 2006 09:28 am (UTC)
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What word would you use instead of "homophobia", then? The thing is that people like to have words for things so they can talk about them, and if a word doesn't exist then someone will make one. The other thing is that words can have more than one meaning, and the meanings of words can change. It seems odd to decide that only meanings which existed before a certain time are acceptable, if only because the certain time is so arbitrary.
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From:johnckirk
Date:July 12th, 2006 11:43 pm (UTC)
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What word would you use instead of "homophobia", then?

I'm not sure that we need one - from where I'm sitting, "homophobia" and "fatphobia" both seem to refer to concepts that are so poorly defined as to make them meaningless. However, if you do want such a word then I'd recommend something that would be accepted by people on both sides of the debate. People who are afraid of spiders would probably say "Yes, I have arachnophobia", but I don't think that people who are opposed to gay marriage would describe themselves as homophobes. Playing devil's advocate (i.e. this isn't a genuine suggestion), how about "traditional moral values" as an alternative term?

More seriously, I'd go for something along the lines of the philanthrope/misanthrope terminology. Mind you, "homophile" and "homomis" are just as problematic as "homophobia" in that they've only taken half of the original word, while "philohomosexual" etc. get a bit unwieldy.

I remember a logic puzzle (a version of Betrand Russell's paradox) that uses the terms "homological" (self-descriptive, e.g. "short" is a short word) and "heterological" (non-self-descriptive, e.g. "long" is not a long word). Is the word "heterological" homological or heterological? The idea is that you wind up with a contradiction whichever way you go.

The point is, homo/hetero are useful prefixes in their own right, to mean same/other, but I don't think anyone is suggesting that "homophobia" means "people who want everything to be different".

The other thing is that words can have more than one meaning, and the meanings of words can change.

So, how do you feel about people saying "That's so gay" to describe something that they don't like? Do you think it's a valid additional meaning ("gay"=happy/homosexual/bad), or do you think that the new meaning is still linked to the old one?
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From:nou
Date:July 13th, 2006 12:00 pm (UTC)
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[Kake] What word would you use instead of "homophobia", then?

[John] I'm not sure that we need one - from where I'm sitting, "homophobia" and "fatphobia" both seem to refer to concepts that are so poorly defined as to make them meaningless.

I don't think the words would exist if people didn't find them useful. Yes, they're broad concepts, but then so is, for example, the concept of food; and just like homophobia, "food" means different things to different people, and the edges of food/not-food are blurred.

[John] However, if you do want such a word then I'd recommend something that would be accepted by people on both sides of the debate. [...] I don't think that people who are opposed to gay marriage would describe themselves as homophobes.

Well, being opposed to gay marriage and being homophobic aren't the same thing; although some people will argue that it's not possible to be opposed to gay marriage without being homophobic, I can quite easily imagine someone who's openly and happily gay and yet opposed to gay marriage on, for example, economic, sociological, or religious grounds.

People who exhibit homophobic (or racist) behaviour often don't consider themselves to be homophobic (or racist), as far as I can see. They accept the word as a label for the concept, but they disagree about whether their behaviour should be included in the concept. It's different from the whole "pro-life" vs. "anti-choice" / "pro-choice" vs. "pro-abortion" argument, where there is a very definite terminology problem that clearly often impedes civil discussion.

[John] Mind you, "homophile" and "homomis" are just as problematic as "homophobia" in that they've only taken half of the original word [...] The point is, homo/hetero are useful prefixes in their own right, to mean same/other, but I don't think anyone is suggesting that "homophobia" means "people who want everything to be different".

This is why I mentioned words having more than one meaning. "homo" is both a prefix which modifies other words, and a word in its own right (albeit one which is often used pejoratively) which means "homosexual". It's in the dictionary and everything.

[Kake] The other thing is that words can have more than one meaning, and the meanings of words can change.

[John] So, how do you feel about people saying "That's so gay" to describe something that they don't like? Do you think it's a valid additional meaning ("gay"=happy/homosexual/bad), or do you think that the new meaning is still linked to the old one?

I don't know enough about why people use that phrase in that way to be able to answer that question; I mean, I don't know why people started doing it. I don't think it's common enough usage that it would be accurate to say that the word "gay" has a new meaning, and this meaning is "something I don't like". I hope it doesn't become that common, since it seems to me that language is important in forming attitudes, and I think it's quite clear where the problem lies in that context. Incidentally, vampwillow recently hosted a discussion on the issue, which you might find interesting.

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From:2shortplanks
Date:July 21st, 2006 04:40 pm (UTC)
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"-phobia" is scared. "-ist" is discriminatory.

"sexist" would seem to fit best, though maybe "gayist" would be more descriptive if it didn't sound so pretentious.

I like "homophobia" as a word though. It's wonderfully judgemental. It implies that people are performing their actions because they're latently scared of homosexuals.
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From:ex_lark_asc
Date:July 21st, 2006 03:53 pm (UTC)
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Surfing in via nou's roundup, I'd say there's a second type of phobia I think you've missed: culturally created (and therefore culturally sanctioned) phobias. Homophobia is one of these: in the main, homophobic men are disgusted by gay men because they perceive them as a threat to the stability of their own gender identity. The culture we know here in the West has a lot to say about what a man's gender identity should and shouldn't be: he is not permitted to express emotion intensely, directly or frequently, unlike women, and furthermore true male-to-male bonding in the sense of deep friendship and affection is effectively forbidden thanks to the post-Christian paranoia that it necessarily entails homosexuality. And yet the human urge to bond persists; so in effect, homophobes take their own insecurity about relating to other men out on the gays, demonising them for 'corrupting' others when in fact what they really represent is an uncomfortable reminder that the homophobes themselves are being partly crushed by the narrow confines a Western masculine identity imposes.

Fatphobia, analysed the same way, is a symptom of the West's unconscious insecurity about overconsumption. Thin people find fat people disgusting because fat people represent a threat to the collective Western self-delusion that we consume no more than we need to to survive. In fact we don't, we're nations upon nations filled with rapacious maws in thrall to the morally vacant capitalist mantra consume, consume, consume - but like all human beings we're also colossal hypocrites and we really don't like to have our noses rubbed in that uncomfortable truth.

Well that's my 2p anyway :)
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