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August 31, 2009 / Katie

Sickness Is Not A Cosmic Punishment

I’ve seen some really beautiful posts in the fatosphere lately regarding the phenomenon of the “Good Fattie” vs. the “Bad Fattie.” The good fattie is the person who has perfect health—stellar blood pressure and cholesterol levels, perfect mental health, a kick-ass immune system so they never get sick, no diabetes, no heart disease, no joint pain/problems/arthritis, you name it—and are “still fat.” This attitude seems to pervade a lot of the fat activism books, blogs, and groups.

I don’t have a perfect bill of health, and I struggle with my own internalized prejudice about “bad fatties.” It’s as if, just by virtue of being fat, I should be in an exemplary exercise routine and eat a perfect diet. That if I was thin with the same health issues, they would be attributed to their actual (environmental, genetic) causes but since I’m fat, I have to prove it, to the world and even to myself, that these issues aren’t caused by my fat. Exercise and diet become punishments for being fat and a way to prove it to the world that I’m one of the “good ones.”

Within FA, sick fat folks get marginalized, as all of us try to “prove it” that You! Can be healthy! And fat! It is true, you can be healthy and fat. But for those who are sick and fat, whether our sicknesses are related to our behavior choices or our body size really isn’t anyone’s business (and as far as I can tell, somewhat of a moot point, since we don’t know how to make people thinner anyway). No matter what your body size or your movement and food choices, you still deserve just as much respect and dignity as any other living person.

I really like the Food For Thought Pyramid. It so clearly illustrates the fact that our personal choices about movement and exercise are only one small factor affecting our overall health.

The Book of Job is a short, powerful story in the Hebrew Scriptures*. It starts out by telling us that Job is an “upright and blameless” man. One day God is meeting with the “heavenly beings” and Satan turns up. God says, “Hey Satan, have you seen Job? That is one kick-ass dude. He is faithful to me and always does what is right.” Satan replies, “Seriously God? You blessed him with all this awesome stuff—huge house, big family, fruitful fields. Would he really be so faithful if you haven’t been so good to him?” So God says, “Okay Satan, I’ll prove it to you. Everything in Job’s possession is yours to do what you want with, and I’ll show you that Job remains faithful.”

For several chapters, then, we see Job lose everything. He gets sick, his family dies, he loses his home and his fields. And his friends come by and say, “Job, what the hell did you do to piss God off so bad? You must have really sinned for God to be forsaking you like this!” For a time, Job maintains that “God gives and God takes away” and it is no reason to stop being faithful. Eventually Job gets upset and yells at God, and God yells back, saying, “who are you to question me?” But God’s pleased with Job’s continued faithfulness and honesty, and gives Job a new family, house, etc. to replace the old stuff that Satan ruined.

Yeah, it’s a funny little story (and yeah, I was paraphrasing). Some parts of it are a bit far-fetched (I seriously doubt God plays fast and loose with our lives, giving an evil being control over our health, families, and livelihood, to basically win a cosmic bet) but we have to take it in context. It comes from thousands of years ago, before the various sciences could explain things to us in a bit more detail. Folks in that time were, across cultures, making it a habit to explain things based on the heavens, or the “heavenly beings”—the gods/God (depending on the religion), the angels, Satan, etc. Elaborate stories were created to explain why things happened. The question the Book of Job is trying to answer is one that we still wrestle with: Why do bad things happen to good people? And in their own attempt to answer that question, Job’s friends assumed that Job brought it on himself by being bad. When they said, “Dude, what did you DO to deserve this?” they were doing what all of us do when we look at a fat person in ill health and assume that they have done something to bring it on themselves.

Honestly, I’d hoped we’d made a little more progress than this since who-knows-when BCE (there is no specific date for this book as it was first passed down through oral tradition).

But we haven’t. We haven’t figured out that bad things happen to good people. It’s a fact of life; it is what it is. We haven’t stopped grasping at straws to find an explanation for why this is; it seems we cannot bear simply living in the ambiguity, living in the question. We want the answer, dammit!

So the story we write, the modern-day religious myth, is that ill health is caused by fatness, and fatness is caused by laziness. Despite all evidence to the contrary. Despite the way it harms actual human persons. Despite the fact that the comfort it brings thin people is a completely false and fickle comfort. We remain “shocked” when people who’ve “been good” (i.e. they are thin, exercise, diet, don’t smoke, etc.) get sick. And we maintain that any sickness a fat person has is all their fault. Ironically, even staunch atheists continue to perpetuate this essentially religious myth.

The best religious and philosophical minds for thousands of years have argued and debated and lost sleep over the question of theodicy, i.e. “why do bad things happen to good people?”

I am sorry to disappoint you, but I must point out, the fact is that if this question has not yet been answered, it’s not going to be.

So we need to make the best of a world that doesn’t always make sense. We need to accept that bad things happen to good people (and good things happen to bad people!) Life isn’t always fair, and it’s not always just. We can do what we can to challenge and change things (like social systems) that we actually can have some influence and control over, but we do not have control over an earthquake. We do not have control over an aggressive cancer that is killing a loved one. And while there are some minor ways that some of us can influence our health through lifestyle choices, ultimately we do not have control over our health and our weight. And when we are fat or sick or both it is not because we have done something wrong.

It just is.


* I use the term Hebrew Scriptures instead of Old Testament because the “old” vs. “new” terminology has implications that I disagree with, such as that the “Old Testament” is dusty and dead, not as relevant to our lives today. I think the terminology does a disservice to Christians by not encouraging us to find the living Truth within the “Old Testament” and it’s also not exactly respectful of Jewish folks, for whom these Scriptures are primary.



Leave a Comment
  1. RMJ / Aug 31 2009 1:47 pm

    Great post! You should check out this from the Fat Nutritionist:

    • Katie / Sep 2 2009 12:59 pm

      thanks for the recommendation! I ended up clicking through to multiple great posts from her on the topic of health :)

  2. JenniferP / Sep 1 2009 5:21 pm

    Great post, thank you so much for articulating this. My knees hurt. I have asthma. I get sleepy if I eat too many carbs, which tells me there is a blood sugar thing going on. But I still deserve health care, and a good life.

  3. Nicole / Sep 1 2009 9:24 pm

    the whole “good fattie” vs. “bad fattie” is something I still struggle with. It’s so easy to say “you’re not doing x, therefore don’t be surprised when y happens” despite the fact that I know that medical science has some serious flaws. I know for me personally I’m focused much more on health than fat acceptance – but I don’t have the right to demand/expect that everyone else focus on health (and in my mind the FA would come when people understood health) – – I need to get past my mental block there!

    • Katie / Sep 2 2009 1:00 pm

      Well I do too; it’s one of those things that I know “in my head” but I haven’t really completely internalized it yet. RMJ’s recommendation above of the post by The Fat Nutritionist is really good. It’s a blog I bet you’d really like!

  4. Oliver Danni / Sep 2 2009 5:04 am

    “the “old” vs. “new” terminology has implications that I disagree with, such as that the “Old Testament” is dusty and dead, not as relevant to our lives today”

    Funny, that’s the same way we discredit the wisdom of old humans, too. ;-)

    • Katie / Sep 2 2009 12:59 pm

      good point! (sadly…)

  5. Susan / Sep 2 2009 5:25 am

    Two thumbs up, K.

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