I’m sorry if you’ve had the misfortune to witness the furore unfolding online recently. It’s full of fat hate. If you’ve missed it, here’s what happened:
Cosmopolitan magazine’s latest UK edition profiles 11 women who explain what wellness means to them and how it’s not ‘one size fits all’. The headline reads: This is healthy! The women are all shapes, sizes and abilities, each with her own unique history and journey to making peace with her body.
All was well up to this point – until it got sucked into the eye of a Twitter storm and Piers Morgan got hold of it like a starving dog with a bone. He claimed that Cosmopolitan is ‘irresponsible’, that it’s ‘celebrating o*esity*’ ‘in the middle of a pandemic where we know o*esity can kill you.’ Susanna Reid, the Good Morning Britain’s co-host, says Piers believes that ‘being o*ese is simply not healthy.’
Here are 4 reasons why I believe Piers is wrong and Cosmo is right
1. ‘Celebrating o*esity’
Where to begin with this?
You could say that both Piers and Cosmopolitan are right that the mag is celebrating people at higher weights. What’s wrong with that? It’s only a problem if you believe that is a dangerous thing to be doing, like promoting smoking or having sex with a stranger without a condom (or not wearing a mask in enclosed public spaces!). Piers believes that the o-word** is inherently unhealthy and that spotlighting higher weight people and their journeys towards greater wellness in the bodies they’re in, is somehow sending a message to all people that it’s ok to not care about your health.
- It IS ok to not care about your health. Your body, your rules. We don’t all value the same things and that’s ok.
- Being in a bigger body does not mean you’re inherently unhealthy, which is the next reason I believe Piers is wrong.
2. O*esity is inherently unhealthy
Any straight thinking human will have to agree that you cannot tell a person’s health status by looking at them. A thin person isn’t automatically healthy. We all know this. A person on the higher end of the weight spectrum isn’t automatically unhealthy. Equally, not all fat people are healthy.
Is it true that there is a correlation between higher weights and poorer health outcomes? Yes, that is true. But it doesn’t mean that adipose tissue in and of itself is causing the poorer health outcomes. There are many reasons why this could be so:
- Social determinants of health. Fat people are discriminated against. As a demographic, they are paid less, get fewer promotions and poorer healthcare. Also, many fat people may be marginalised in other ways (race, poverty, disability etc.). The more marginalised you are in society, the poorer your health outcome is likely to be because marginalisation creates chronic stress in the system which is bad for health.
- Behaviours. A good predictor of health outcomes is consistency in health-promoting behaviours, whatever your BMI. In fact, this study shows that when engaging in 4 health-promoting behaviours consistently, BMI’s relationship to risk of death from all causes is pretty much the same across the BMI bands (low). It’s untrue that all fat people sit on their bums all day eating donuts. It’s equally untrue that all thin people eat loads of fruit and veg and exercise. However a big reason why higher weight people might not engage in 2 of these behaviours consistently (moderate exercise and eating fruit and veg) is because they associate these behaviours with dieting which has not worked (unsurprisingly). Chronic dieters become black and white thinkers when it comes to food and exercise: they’re either ‘being good’ by exercising and eating fruit and veg, or they’re ‘being bad’ and eating all the things they’ve been restricting in big quantities (because soon the diet will start again and they won’t have access) and not exercising. In short: when they’re not dieting, they’re also not doing the behaviours that they associate with the misery of dieting, but which might support their health.
- Weight cycling. Dieting causes people to weight cycle (yo-yo). And weight cycling has been shown to be a risk factor in all cause mortality. You’re better off at a stable higher weight than you are repeatedly losing and regaining weight.
- Unidentified factors. It’s possible that there’s another factor involved that potentially causes both the higher weight AND the disease.
3. ‘It’s irresponsible’
Piers Morgan is claiming that featuring higher weight people who are telling their stories about their journey towards greater wellness is irresponsible.
How is that irresponsible? What is irresponsible about showing people how one can engage with health-promoting behaviours, regardless of their impact on one’s weight? What is irresponsible about showcasing people’s recoveries from eating disorders and other mental health challenges?
I’d actually say that Cosmo is being responsible in moving away from the tiresome, simplistic and frankly unhelpful narrative of fat = unhealthy. Perhaps it will open people’s eyes to a more comprehensive understanding about wellness and perhaps as a result of this, more people will take actions that are good for them because they’re not waiting for the magical moment when they lose weight and sustain it. Surely that’s helpful???
4. This is healthy!
Cosmo is right – all of the women profiled in the February edition are seeing health as complex. They are considering their mental wellbeing as well as their physical wellbeing. They are listening to their own bodies and needs and behaving accordingly as much as possible.
Piers Morgan is giving a simplistic message about health: if you’re fat, you cannot and are not healthy. This is incorrect. Any person with no concerning health markers (like blood pressure that is either too high or too low, poor insulin regulation, high triglycerides with low HDL, a heart rate that is either too high or too low, or poor kidney and liver function) is not, as far as tests can say, physically unhealthy – whatever their size. It’s erroneous to say that fat people will all have poor health markers and thin people will all have good health markers. It’s just wrong.
4. O*esity can kill you if you have Covid-19
Those are not Piers Morgan’s exact words. His exact words were that [Cosmo was wrong to publish this] ‘in the middle of a pandemic where we know o*esity can kill you.’
I’m not going to go into this in massive detail. I own that I’m not a medical professional. It’s also true that Covid-19 is a relatively new disease. Data is being collected and made sense of all the time.
What I will say is that people I trust are questioning this. These are people who are health professionals, who do understand data and research methods and their pitfalls. One of these is Christy Harrison, registered dietitian in the US and host of the podcast Food Psych. Christy wrote about this in Wired back in April last year, saying that the claims that people at higher weights were at increased risk of dying of Covid-19 are grossly overstated and ‘based on flawed and limited evidence’. Then in December, she dedicated time in episode 263 to talk about the new evidence that had emerged in recent months. In particular, she talks about one study of more than ten thousand people in the Veteran’s Association hospital system in the US, which showed that being at a higher weight is NOT a risk factor for hospitalisation, intubation or death from Covid-19. The beauty of this study is that it accounts for confounding variables – which makes it more reliable.
There you have it – 4 reasons why Piers is wrong about Cosmo’s latest feature on wellbeing.
- * o*esity and o*ese are written in this way to draw attention to the fact that the BMI categories are problematic because they pathologise body size and assume that there’s a correct size to be. I use:
- ** o-word or sometimes swap one letter with an asterisk to make this point
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