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Is The War On Fat Harming Our Children?

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America's ongoing war on fat, which aims to save this country — and especially its young people — from a costly and damaging epidemic of obesity, turns out to be dangerous all on its own: It exacts a severe psychological and physical toll on the very individuals it purports to help, according to an upcoming book.

This thesis is at the core of Fat-Talk Nation: The Human Costs of America's War on Fat, a book written by Harvard University anthropologist Susan Greenhalgh and set to be published on June 2.

I've written here at NPR about issues of fat and fat-shaming in academia and science, as NPR producer Anastasia Tsioulcas has done for the world of music.

Greenhalgh's book goes beyond uncovering examples of fat-talk and fat discrimination to give voice to the people who, Greenhalgh says, "have been shamed into silence." Her work is based on auto-ethnography, a method in which the researcher gathers narrative accounts from individuals who write about their lives. This approach differs — quite purposefully — from a biomedical discourse that relies on statistics and, through which, scientists "impose their understandings of what matters and why on people's lives," as Greenhalgh phrases it.

Greenhalgh gathered accounts from 245 people, all college students, most from Southern California and most women. A variety of ethnic backgrounds and income levels were represented. (A small percentage wrote about older relatives rather than about themselves.) Of these 245 accounts, 45 were chosen as central narratives for the book.

Over the past week, I have corresponded with Greenhalgh by email. My questions and her answers follow.

I do feel concern for teenagers and young adults regarding the established links between weight and illness, for example between weight and certain types of cancer and, thus, I read carefully Greenhalgh's section on myths centered around fatness. Greenhalgh writes that "obesity is statistically associated with a host of serious diseases" but notes that it is not obesity, per se, but instead "a complex array of metabolic changes in the body set in motion by significant weight gain" that causes disease. This nuance is important scientifically. But when it comes to the health of our kids? We can't lose focus on the central point, which is that the extra pounds do set in motion unhealthy changes.

The peer-reviewed scientific data on the cost-benefit ratios of fatness are important, and they deserve attention and scrutiny as they come in.

Even as we engage with the data, we can: recognize that an inability to lose weight is rarely about willpower alone but, instead, rooted in a complex dynamic of environmental and genetic factors; refuse to engage in fat-shaming; think hard before we speak, even when using the language of weight-loss celebration; and aim to create a calmer and more effective dialogue about our children's bodies, emergent, in part, from listening to those harmed by the war on fat.


Barbara J. King, an anthropology professor at the College of William and Mary, often writes about human evolution, primate behavior and the cognition and emotion of animals. Barbara's most recent book on animals was released in paperback in April. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Barbara J. King is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary. With a long-standing research interest in primate behavior and human evolution, King has studied baboon foraging in Kenya and gorilla and bonobo communication at captive facilities in the United States.