An Open Letter to NYC from One of Your Fat Residents

Dear New York:

You know I love you. I’ve been here more than five years. I would have moved somewhere else a long time ago if it wasn’t true love. But there’s something we need to talk about. You’re getting a little heavy, no pun intended, on the weight shaming.

Poster from NYC subways that shows someone pouring fat out of a 20 ounce soda bottle into a glass. Captions read "Are you pouring on the pounds? Don't drink yourself fat. Cut back on soda and other sugary beverages. Go with water, seltzer, or low-fat milk instead."
This is not something I want to stare at on my 7 a.m. train.

I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume your heart is in the right place. You want healthy residents, so people are happy and the city thrives. That’s important, and an admirable goal. But you’re completely misguided here, and once you actually look at a few facts it becomes clear that your attempts read as nothing more than poorly-disguised bullying. You put up subway ads with globs of fat pouring into cups, with the cartoonish outline of a fat man full of donuts and fries, and you digitally alter images to make a large person look like he lost a limb to diabetes. And I have to sit under those ads.

See, I’m fat. I’m who you’re talking about when you throw around phrases like “obesity epidemic” (which isn’t actually a thing that’s happening). Those anti-fat posters you put on the subway are directed at me. Clearly, you think I am a blight on the city, some kind of ticking time bomb of health problems ready to explode and cost you bazillions of dollars.

First of all, and this is important, my being fat isn’t costing anyone extra money. In fact, I’m on Medicaid, so whether I’m fat or thin, you’re paying for me either way. You could argue that I’m currently costing you less because the mistreatment of fat people by doctors (including the one I recently went to who didn’t believe I understood how to walk or exercise) actually keeps me from going unless it’s absolutely necessary.

Second of all, recent articles have shown that fat panic can be more dangerous than actual fat, and that the mortality rate for those categorized as “overweight” and “obese” on the (bogus) BMI scale is actually lower than those classified as “normal.” So even if shame and bullying were acceptable tactics for public health campaigns, you’d be barking up the wrong tree.

Let’s pretend for a second that all of the health panic is grounded in evidence (it’s not; we’ll get to that in a minute). Even if that were the case, diets don’t work. I know that’s a tired phrase that was at one point co-opted by Weight Watchers in order to sell – wait for it – a diet program, but I mean it. Most people gain the weight back, and would be better off in the long run having never been on the diet to begin with. Think about this logically. If diets worked, diet programs would have no repeat customers and it wouldn’t be a multi-billion-dollar a year industry.

Research 101 teaches us that correlation does not equal causation. So even if you find a link, you don’t know what the actual cause of a problem is, so prescribing weight loss is basically just guesswork founded on what you might find icky to look at. But really, the health risks tied to weight have been greatly exaggerated, and habits are more important to health* than size. So on top of the shame, those subway ads are incorrect.

Let’s get into that shaming and bullying side of things. Even if you were working with accurate science, this would not be the way to go. If this were the actual black-and-white world the weight bullies like to pretend it is, where all fat is bad and you really can count on thermodynamics and calories, it wouldn’t matter. Being shamed by a poster (or a family member, co-worker, significant other, or douchecanoe at the gym) doesn’t make people want to do anything. It makes them (us, really) throw up a roadblock and a middle finger.

So really, the only thing you are accomplishing by filling the subways with bad information and headless fatties is feeding into the same old supply of lies and hate we’re already stuck with on a daily basis. You’re making me do a quick scan of the subway car before I choose a seat – not so I can make sure to avoid the smelly guy or the kid having the tantrum, but so I don’t spend the ride underneath an ad telling millions of people that my body type should be eradicated from the city. So I don’t have to wonder if some dude is looking at me because I’m super-cute or because he thinks it’s some kind of poetic hilarity to see the fat chick sitting under the “drink water because soda will make you fat and give you diabeetus” poster.

Here’s a thought: why not take all the money you’re wasting telling us we’re fat and gross and pour it into something useful, like farm stands in poorer neighborhoods or after-school activities for kids that focus on movement for health instead of weight? And I’m sure in the post-Sandy city there are a whole bunch of food access issues I haven’t thought of, none of which center around shaming people for their bodies.

I’m not going anywhere any time soon, New York, and neither is my fat. It’s your turn. Time to stop with the lie-based shame and do something that really helps.



*I just want to clarify that no one is required to be healthy. Many people have chronic ailments or disabilities (or choose to live different ways) and that’s perfectly OK. Plus we all are entitled to our own definitions of what “health” means. I include talk of being healthy in direct argument to the haters’ favorite argument that fat is a death sentence.

Hat tip to Dances with Fat, which led me to many of the studies linked above

By [E] Liza

PhD student. Knitter. Brooklynite. Long-distance dog mom. Reluctant cat lady. Majestic unicorn whose hair changes color with the wind.

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