Excerpts: Paul Campos on Obesity
Law professor Paul Campos, author of The Obesity Myth, speaks with Megan McArdle about America's cultural bias against weight
Note: These excerpts can also be watched in video form.
The claim that high weight has no relevance to health is an exaggeration. It’s only about 97 percent true. A good analogy would be, “How true is the statement ‘Marijuana is a dangerous drug’?” It’s not a completely false statement. It’s just a mostly false statement. But the very same people who would scoff about White House policy when they put out some kind of hysterical nonsense about marijuana just swallow this hysterical nonsense being put out by the weight-loss industry whole because it fits with their particular cultural prejudices. So they have absolutely no skepticism about it. They just don’t ever really look at the data.
I got an email from a woman a couple of days ago, and it was just heart-rending. This was a very successful academic. She wrote this great Ph.D. dissertation that has just been published as a book. She has very successful career. She’s in her early 30s. She’s married. Everything’s going great for her. But she’s a size 14. She wrote me this email that says she feels like a failure all the time, and the only thing that would make her stop feeling that way is if she were an average-weight person.
And the other wonderful, ironic aspect of all this is that as the average American is getting heavier, we’re making the definition of an acceptable body ever thinner! So it’s like a machine to make human beings miserable. And then people get together in Aspen and ask, “Ooo. What can we do about this?” I have an idea: stop talking that way!
What happens is, what we have right now in this culture are people who are literally anorexic telling people how to have a healthy attitude towards weight. You had an anorexic person come up to you and say, “If you follow this routine, you can become anorexic to. You’ll be able to be a size 0 without trying to be hospitalized.
I don’t know if you’ve seen any of these pro-ana sites. It’s where teenage girls come together and basically support each other in being anorexic. One thing that they do is they post photographs of themselves so they can get encouragement from the other girls that they really are thin. They call it “thinspiration.” People are totally horrified by this, naturally, and they see it as a terrible thing. But on the other hand, I have tremendous empathy for these girls. These girls are following the rules. They’re doing what everyone is telling them to do. I don’t blame them for being enraged at a mainstream culture that is giving them these messages that are totally conflictual.
Because the message they get from mainstream culture is “Starve yourself, but not to the point of hospitalization.” That’s what a healthy lifestyle consists of for an upper-class woman in America today. And then if they go just a little bit too far, suddenly they have this horrible eating disorder. Even though the whole culture is a giant eating disorder!”
I was watching the Superbowl with my father who’s a physician. We kept seeing these erectile dysfunction ads, and every one of them had this tagline: “Ask your doctor if Cialis is right for you.” Finally my dad turns to me—he’s this old Spanish guy—and asks, “How the hell am I supposed to know if Cialis is right for you?”
Which is a really good question! Right? On a couple of different levels. One of the things is, he doesn’t really know anything about Cialis. Why would he? He’s an oncologist. What he knows about Cialis is what some drug company representative would tell him about it. But the most profound point is the question of whether Cialis is right for me is only a very marginal way a medical question. I mean, one would hope there’d be at least one other person I’d be asking if Cialis is right for me other than a doctor.
But if you turn it into a medical issue, you sweep that all under the carpet. Instead of seeing the extraordinarily complex nature of the sort of sexual and cultural politics that are involved in something like erectile dysfunction.
Now here’s the thing. In the end, the only thing that counts is data. And the data is that the American population is healthier than it’s ever been before. It’s living longer than it ever has before. All the major causes of death are going down—including diabetes, by the way. In the latest list that came out about a week ago, diabetes has fallen below Alzheimer’s as a leading cause of death in the United States. Heart disease is going down, for stroke the death rate is down, for cancer the death rate is down. Fewer people are dying of cancer than they were in 1917 when the population was only half of what it is now.
Of course, the public health system doesn’t want to advertise these enormous successes because that doesn’t create a sense of anxiety: “Oooo, what are we going to do about the children getting so fat?” That’s why we have to tell fat kids they’re fat. Because, apparently, that message isn’t being conveyed adequately by the culture.