Over the weekend, Bill Maher took the fat-acceptance movement to task for lying about the dangers of obesity and excusing overweight people from taking responsibility for their eating and exercise habits. For performing this public service, Maher was accused of being “hateful and ignorant” and ignoring the food industry’s role as “the main cause in our obesity epidemic.” You can watch the clip in the tweet below.
There’s a disturbing trend going on in America these days with rewriting science to fit ideology. We’ve gone from fat acceptance to fat celebration. pic.twitter.com/r0zmqtamUl
— Bill Maher (@billmaher) August 6, 2022
As far as edgy comedy goes, Maher’s segment was rather mild. I was obese for most of my childhood and young adult years, yet I found no offense in what he said. But even if someone thought Maher’s jokes were out of line, what he said was accurate. In so many words, he argued that:
- Our society no longer treats obesity as a preventable health condition but a protected status. This is an example of people “rewriting science” to fit their ideology.
- Obesity carries significant health risks.
- We know why most people gain weight and how they can lose it; arguments to the contrary are stupid.
- Overweight people who slim down are routinely and wrongly criticized for their efforts.
Maher is no scientist!
So far, all Maher’s critics have either straw-manned his points or accused him of oversimplifying a discussion they have actually convoluted with feel-good gobbledygook. Forbes senior contributor Bruce Y. Lee made both errors in an August 6 piece titled Bill Maher Claims ‘Fat Celebration’ Is Happening In U.S., Oversimplifies Obesity Epidemic. Let’s take a closer look at Lee’s response. As we’ll see, someone is confused about obesity, but it isn’t Maher.
“Just to be clear, Maher is not a scientist. During this segment, he also didn’t present any real scientific studies or have any, you know, real live scientists present.”
This actually raises an important question: why is Maher the one taking on the “fat acceptance” movement? If doctors, obesity researchers, and health journalists would honestly but respectfully communicate the risks of obesity to the public, which they increasingly refuse to do, Maher wouldn’t have any material. That’s why his bit is so funny. Not only has society turned a blind eye to the problem, we’ve reached a level of absurdity where major retailers run ad campaigns called ‘Fat Girls Can Do Whatever They Want‘ so they can sell more plus-size clothing.
“Who said that body positivity should be about saying, ‘I’m perfect the way I am because I’m me?'”
Body positivity activists regularly make these sorts of claims. As New Jersey-based nutritionist and physiologist Dr. Linda Bacon told LiveStrong last fall,
“One way advocates for the rights and wellness of larger people try to neutralize [obesity] stigma is to describe themselves and others using a term that has historically been a slur: fat … It’s basically people saying, ‘We’re fat, we know it, but there’s nothing wrong with it.'”
The problem is that Lee and many others have tried to strike a balance between treating obese people respectfully while encouraging them to make necessary lifestyle changes. That’s a reasonable perspective, but self-described “fat activists” do not want society to be more kind to overweight people; they want to discredit the idea that anyone can and should lose weight. Don’t take my word for it, just read their literature. According to a popular text in this field called The Fat Studies Reader,
“If you believe that being fat is a disease and that fat people cannot possibly enjoy good health or long life, then you are not doing fat studies. Instead, your approach is aligned with ‘obesity’ researchers, bariatric surgeons, public health officials who declare ‘war on obesity’ (Koop, 1997), and the medico-pharmaceutical industrial complex that profits from dangerous attempts to ‘cure’ people of bodily difference.”
Even though Lee took a less extreme position than some fat activists do, there was still a lot of overlap between their arguments. Consider this false dichotomy; it’s an example of the obfuscation I mentioned above:
… [B]ody positivity is about understanding that one size or one shape does not fit all. If, for example, everyone were supposed to look like NBA star Lebron James, then Maher would have a lot of work to do on himself, possibly a body transplant.
Nobody has ever said that obese people should aspire to Lebron James-level fitness, just that they should lose weight—and not necessarily very much. Research has shown that losing as little as five percent of your body weight can yield significant health improvements. This isn’t a minor point since some 97 studies involving almost three million individuals and more than 270,000 deaths have shown that:
“Relative to normal weight, both obesity (all grades) and grades 2 and 3 obesity were associated with significantly higher all-cause mortality.”
So while one size doesn’t fit all, there are well-documented risks linked to fat accumulation. The technical, five-dollar description of this phenomenon is a dose-response curve: the higher your BMI, the greater your risk for several nasty chronic diseases—most notably heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.
What causes obesity?
Lee ended his piece by trying to deflect blame away from individuals and implicate processed foods and “chemicals” for our collective weight problem. Taking a page out of Environmental Working Group’s playbook, he alleged that:
…[A] lot in our society has changed since the late 1970’s when obesity rates began rising. For example, some on Twitter wondered … why Maher didn’t say more about the food industry, which has added more and more additives and processing steps to food and beverage items over the years … other changes have occurred such as more and more chemicals in food and the environment.
Lee didn’t specify how any of these variables has actually made anybody fat, and that’s probably because there’s no evidence that they do. Processed foods are not addictive, and giving obese people drugs to lessen their interest in palatable food works—but it doesn’t lead to weight loss.
The other perennial boogeyman is bisphenol A (BPA), one of the chemicals used to make polycarbonate plastics. But after decades of research, we still don’t know how this much-maligned compound could contribute to obesity. There’s also the awkward fact that commercial production of BPA began in the 1950s, roughly two decades before obesity rates began to climb. So we started using BPA and then—WHAM!—20 years later obesity started to increase.
I don’t buy it and neither should you. The obesity epidemic followed a marked increase in the number of calories we consume and an equally massive drop in the physical activity we engage in. We can accept that these changes have had dangerous public health consequences that need to be reversed, or we can stick our heads in the sand. It’s a shame that Bill Maher is one of the few high-profile figures encouraging us to make the right choice.