Contempt for fat people - not only wrong, but ignorant

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A recent WalletPop post about PETA's ill-considered decision to buy billboard space to ridicule overweight women has generated a huge amount of discussion among AOL readers on our comments board. Many commenters have equated overeating to moral weakness. As an overly buoyant American, I'm convinced this attitude is not just wrong, it demonstrates a fundamental misconception about human beings.

If eight out of ten Americans over 25 are overweight or obese, I don't believe it's because 80% of Americans are weak willed, or innocent victims of irresistible marketing programs. Just a few hundred thousand years ago (creationists should stop reading here and move along to the next post) our species lived in small tribes, at any time only a drought or blizzard or plague away from starvation. Our survival instinct told us to eat when food was plentiful. Like bears, this extra fat could keep us alive when the food sources dried up or migrated away.

Instincts die hard, even when they no longer serve our best interests. For example, we've had the devil's time overcoming the fear that led us to kill other people that might compete for the same food supply. Although the Earth is straining to feed the billions of humans, we continue to reproduce above replacement rate. Is it any wonder that in a time when a virtually unlimited abundance of food is available to us, our ancient instincts continue to drive us to eat as if it could all disappear tomorrow?Just because overeating is instinctual doesn't mean it's in our best interests today, obviously. It does mean, however, that changing this behavior requires acting contrary to deeply ingrained motivation, and for most of us this is as difficult as fighting off the instinct to take a breath while trapped underwater. The low number of people who have successfully changed their eating patterns for more than a short time show just how difficult this change can be.

And the desire to change is not lacking in most overweight Americans. We spend a fortune on any product or service that promises to help us shave pounds, from pharmaceuticals, bariatric surgery and psychotherapy all the way to scam products such as acai berries.

My point? Obese Americans are not bad people, or morally corrupt, or contemptible, or weak. We, 66% of the nation's population, are struggling to overcome an instinct that once served to improve our odds of survival, but now threatens to kill us before our time. For most of us, our human instincts have not kept up with changes in the environment in which we live. We need to reprogram ourselves to live in a world of abundance.

Obesity is not the only health challenge we face. Those born without this eating instinct may well have other problems to deal with, some organic, some stemming from other, no-longer-appropriate instincts.

None of our struggles with personal challenges are made easier by name-calling and ridicule, imho. Compassion and encouragement are two instincts that serve to strengthen the bond within a tribe or a society. We should act on these instincts as we try to help one another learn to live according to our best interests rather than outmoded survival instincts.

My impression is that those who hate people they've never even met that they feel the need to express this hatred in an internet blog comment, don't like themselves very much either. I'm pulling for them to learn how to love themselves. Hate breeds hate. Love breeds love. And the world is already fat with hate.
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