1. The government is studying obesity in lesbians.
To be more precise, for the past four years the National Institutes of Health have been studying why lesbians are so dang fat, compared to straight chicks and gay dudes. According to available information, this study has racked up a cost of $2.87 million since 2010, and it still has another two years to go.
Why? The study’s researchers say that fat lesbians are of “high public-health significance.” Possibly they know something we don’t. Which would support my long-held belief that fat lesbians will be the key to resisting a massive invasion of godlike space aliens in the near future. (I just KNOW.)
2. This study has cost three million dollars in federal money so far.
Science is expensive. Studying things is expensive. I’m hardly the sort to mock the government spending taxpayers’ money on bizarre science stuff. I’m not a libertarian. I don’t think spending money to increase our overall scientific understanding is a bad thing, even when it seems weirdly specific.
But some folks are decrying this as another sign of a government run amok, especially since, like, everyone knows why fat people are fat, duh! They eat food! Especially lesbians, because they don’t have men in their lives to keep them in line. Or penises. Food = surrogate penis. Read the comments on the Washington Times coverage if you doubt me.
NB: Don’t read those comments unless you hate lesbians, fat people, or yourself.
3. ...But why?
It is now well-established that women of minority sexual orientation are disproportionately affected by the obesity epidemic, with nearly three-quarters of adult lesbians overweight or obese, compared to half of heterosexual women. In stark contrast, among men, heterosexual males have nearly double the risk of obesity compared to gay males. Despite clear evidence from descriptive epidemiologic research that sexual orientation and gender markedly pattern obesity disparities, there is almost no prospective, analytic epidemiologic research into the causes of these disparities. It will be impossible to develop evidence-based preventive interventions unless we first answer basic questions about causal pathways, as we plan to do. Our study has high potential for public health impact not only for sexual minorities but also for heterosexuals, as we seek to uncover how processes of gender socialization may exacerbate obesity risk in both sexual minority females and heterosexual males.
Basically, we need to study why lesbians are fat so that we can more effectively instruct them on why they shouldn’t be fat. Seems plain enough.
Moreover, we can also use this information to figure out how to make straight men more uniformly body-obsessed, like gay men seem to be, according to the research. (The answer to this, at least, is both straightforward and unlikely to be reproduced: blight them with a deadly and terrifying epidemic. The perceived gay male preoccupation with muscular bodies is largely understood to be a direct result of AIDS, a disease that disproportionately affected gay men for many years, and in which thinness came to culturally represent sickness and death, while muscles represent strength and good health.)
4. What have we learned from it?
The researchers, led by an epidemiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, have already concluded that lower athletic self-esteem among lesbians may lead to higher rates of obesity and that lesbians are more likely to see themselves at a healthy weight when they are not, according to the Free Beacon report.
Researchers have also determined that gay and bisexual males had a “greater desire for toned muscles” than straight men. This supposedly helps explain why gay men are generally more fit than lesbians.
I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that lesbians, like many other humans, may well “see themselves” at a “healthy weight” even when doing do directly violates the chart-based standard because they feel good and, well, healthy at the weight they are, and because they have no reason to believe their weight is anything but subjectively normal and acceptable for them.
Socially, we have this odd notion that the controversial and scientifically limited Body-Mass Index knows more about an individual’s body and health than the individual herself -- even an individual who seeks out routine high-quality healthcare and who takes an active role in her own overall well-being. This idea would make sense if all humans fell off the exact same assembly line in a single factory and were made with identical parts.
But people are not machines, and bodies vary dramatically from one to the next. For some people, being not-fat is a lifelong endeavor that requires daily vigilance and extreme discipline. For some, this kind of vigilance is practically impossible to carry on forever. Even for average-weight women, it's not easy: a 2010 report from the Women's Health Study found that middle-aged women with "normal" BMI require an hour of exercise every day simply to avoid gaining pounds as the years go on.
Maybe, given all the handwringing about fatness being "contagious," lesbians are just passing body-acceptance around like a virus. It's hard to say, if the study in question presupposes that lesbians are simply misinformed outliers who don't understand what a "healthy weight" is, or HOW IS FATTY FORMED, or whatever.
5. YAY, STEREOTYPES!
By now, you’re probably wondering why the government is funding a study that, so far, has largely reinforced stereotypes of gays and lesbians. The project summary says that “racial and socioeconomic disparities are receiving increasing attention” and lesbian obesity is “of high public-health significance.”
I’m actually not wondering that, presumptuous and kinda-lazy science reporting, as my lesbian stereotypes include softball players. And basketball players. And hockey players. Is unathleticism a real lesbian stereotype in some parts? Because it's certainly not one I'm familiar with.
The obvious but carefully unspoken stereotype in play in much of the cultural thinking here is the idea that lesbians are fat because men don't want them. Or they're lesbians because they're fat and men don't want them. Or men don't want them because they're fat, therefore lesbians. Or something something fat and men men men, men rule everything, blah. Maybe it’s vaguely possible that some lesbians are fatter than they might be if they were straight, because they are not feeling the same pressure they might if they were dating men -- doing their public service bit to reduce obesity -- who were constantly making asshole comments about the size of their hips.
Or, maybe this is bullshit, because lesbians -- like women of color and other groups that straight white people love to stereotype as existing in a special insulated subculture of body-positive self-lovin’ utopia -- also live in the same world everyone else does. Being gay doesn’t render a person impervious to the dominant body culture. Living an identity that is on the margins of said culture might give a person more reason to question these assumptions and stereotypes, but even that is far from universal. And maybe some lesbians are self-accepting of their fat bodies as a conscious social and political resistance against the impositions of straight-female conditioning that privileges pleasing men over pleasing themselves.
Simpler explanation? Participation in straight-lady culture sometimes involves lots of dieting, talking about dieting, and thinking about dieting. Participation in gay male culture sometimes involves an appreciation for muscular dude-bodies. Participation in lesbian culture sometimes involves the the lengthy processing of feelings, and also owning cats. But it also sometimes involves lots of dieting. And gay men sometimes like cats and fat bodies. And some straight ladies also enjoy lengthy feelings-processing sessions. Lesbians as a group overall might experience less social pressure to diet and match a certain slender ideal, but that doesn’t mean they don’t feel it at all -- nor, I should add, does it mean they need to be brought back into the mainstream body-loathing fold as a solution (this is not to suggest that making lesbians hate themselves is part of some nefarious plan, but this tends to be the direction these conversations travel in a broader cultural context once covered by the media).
Unfortunately, this study does not seem to be analyzing actual behavior, self-reported or otherwise. Sure, 75% of lesbians may be overweight or obese, but in my anecdotal experience at least 90% are also vegans, so how are those broads getting so fat on quinoa and nutritional yeast? Not to mention that all that Uhaul-loading has got to be good for a few calories, right?
6. Just out of curiosity, what else could three million dollars have paid for?
According to Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks, that money could have bought 27 million meals for hungry kids, seniors, and families. As of 2012, 49 million Americans were living in a state of food insecurity -- that’s 15% of all American households, and 8% of all seniors. The US Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as a “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.” This includes people and families who experience difficulty paying for food, as well as those who do not have access to food, as happens in “food deserts,” areas of the US in which supermarket-level food options for people without transportation are extremely limited. Food deserts tend to cluster in low-income and rural areas.
And to tie this back to the research in question, lesbian women in particular are at an increased rate of poverty -- according to a 2009 report on the subject, "Gay men are sometimes poorer and sometimes less poor than heterosexual men, but stunning findings show that lesbian women across data sets are consistently poorer than their heterosexual counterparts," in part probably because of the wage gap in earnings between working men and women. Furthermore, a study published in June of 2013 found that:
Plenty of factors other than gender play a part in poverty. The study finds that African-American same-sex couples have a poverty rate more than twice that of heterosexual married African-American couples. Same-sex black male couples have a poverty rate of nearly 19 percent, with a poverty rate of nearly 18 percent for same-sex black female couples, compared to just 8 percent for married heterosexual couples.
Poverty not only affects those couples but their children as well. Over half – 52.3 percent – of children of gay black male couples live under the poverty line, compared to just over 15 percent for children of married heterosexual black couples. That astoundingly high rate is a result of "a confluence of racial disadvantages and the sexual orientation disadvantage," says Badgett.
Obesity, like public health in general, is not a simple matter, but one with numerous intersecting factors, despite the popular insistence that it is the straightforward result of gluttonous overeating by people too stupid to understand thermodynamics. Three million dollars could have funded further study examining the correlation between poverty, food insecurity, and public health, research that is sorely needed, but which gets less attention when it fails to namecheck obesity and stir the fat-panic pot.
The truth is, people and kids who are food-insecure and/or primarily feeding themselves with heavily processed food obtained from convenience stores may be fat, or they may be thin, or they may be somewhere in between, but their overall health is certainly suffering no matter their weight. So long as we unquestioningly persist in our cultural obsession with fatness as a primary predictor of health, we will continue to overlook broader institutional issues having negative effects on the public health of all individuals, no matter what they weigh.