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What fatphobia tells us about our fear of death

You can’t go two steps in London without seeing Cancer Research UK’s (CRUK) controversial, ubiquitous and hypocritical ‘Obesity is a cause of cancer too’ cigarette comparison campaign. Apparently, we all have collectively forgotten this message from the last time they ran a similar campaign and were heavily criticised for it.

Rather than focusing on all of the reasons why this campaign is a horrible idea, because that has been covered at length by multiple experts in the METRO, on Medium, and on Twitter — instead, I want to highlight the reasons why these types of campaigns and everything the diet industry throws at us sometimes sticks so well — it’s our fear of death.

Obviously a charity that devotes it’s time to ending deaths by cancer is going to be motivated to… well, not talk about death in a positive way and seek to prevent it. Breaking the taboo around talking about death, being more comfortable discussing it, and actively planning for death doesn’t mean thinking cancer is a good thing.

But one cannot deny that we’re a society obsessed with mitigating our risk of death so as to have the longest life possible without really thinking or understanding what that really means.We take it for granted that the idea of a long life is ideal — not because we have any guarantee of our quality of life as we age but because we’re so eager to prolong the confrontation of our own mortality, we can only assume a long life is a happy one.

This isn’t to say that a short life is a better one, that ‘only the good die young’ or any other hatcheted cliche people use to placate those who lose someone well before what feels like their time is valid. It’s to say that, when we all want to live until 100, we’re making a massive assumption of what our lives will be when we do reach that age.

Anyone who experiences fatphobic harassment can tell you how often fat people are told that they are digging themselves into an early grave and objections to their public existence are all about ‘health’ — both reasonings leading to the idea that it’s an moral offense to be ‘morbidly’ obese and thus so close to death.

Such an offense requires immediate social punishment. CRUK’s own research with UCL in 2014 proved that ‘fat shaming’ doesn’t inspire people to be healthy. But there is something that’s not being explored about people’s visceral reaction to someone they believe is willingly barrelling towards death.

The consequence of fatphobia is the idea that people deserve public shame for a lack of ‘health’ and very few people seem to disagree with this and even fewer people seem to understand what that means for disabled people. My own disability causes a lack of cortisol, the body’s stress hormone, among other things. This means that, if I were to get in an accident most people could survive, without emergency medication administered at the right time, I could easily die. I carry emergency medication with me everywhere, but it’s no guarantee. With me I also carry the constant reminder that, despite the amount of exercise I get or vegetables I eat, I cannot prevent death. And although that is more true for me in certain circumstances, it’s still nonetheless true of everyone.

My disorder is part of many aspects of myself that have encouraged me to be death positive. Part of that journey has been considering what types of death I might have, especially with my condition and it’s been difficult to get loved ones on board. My disability reminds them of death. And they don’t see it because it’s invisible. If ‘Me Before You’ is an indication, as a society we tend to think that death is preferable to being alive and disabled — and I wonder if that’s because we would then remind others of their tenable link to ‘health’.

Drinking celery juice. Getting your blood tested for inherited conditions. Taking an endless array of supplements. Meticulously counting calories and steps. Drinking 7 glasses of water. The ‘health’ and ‘wellness’ industry is not always about actual health and wellness but about preventing sickness, disease and death — all of which are politically tied into fatness and according to Statistica, they made of 23 billion Euros in 2018 helping us avoid the Reaper. Being fat to people is being preventably sick. And you might be saying to yourself, well of course! Who wants to be sick? Who wants to be diseased? Who wants to be dead?

According to the IPSO Perennial report, by 2050, one in 5 people in the UK will live to be 100 and yet, according to the same report, we vastly underestimate how much we need to save in a private pension plan to get an income of £25k per year in retirement. Most people today guess you need £124k saved when the actual figure is close to £315k. Under 30s estimate they need even less to retire. And those are figures based upon the world as we know it, not the world we will face in 20 years that will be suffering under the ravages of climate change.

Being older doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be fragile and weak, but no amount of celery juice I drink now is going to change the fact that the social care sector is already, before I find myself in need of care, at a breaking point. We’re so focused on living longer, preventing disease, and trying to become some cleansed, idealised version of ourselves that runs marathons in our 90s without considering what that might look like for our lives or our bank accounts.

Alua Arthur, a death doula in the US who works with dying people, posted a video challenging people on their assumptions that living to 100 was inherently a good thing. We forget that living to 100, whether you’re ‘healthy’ or not, doesn’t come without facing a large amount of grief. If only one in 5 people will live to be 100, you may be mourning the ones who haven’t lived. And if we’re incapable of facing our own mortality and what it means when our bodies naturally decline, it doesn’t bode well for facing other deaths.

We enjoy the rhetoric of a ‘wellness’ that encourages us to believe we can prevent our deaths by eating the right foods and doing the right exercises. And while I’m not saying that there isn’t sound nutritional science in the benefits of eating more vegetables and moving more often, our willingness to assume judging health is as easy as looking at someone makes us feel comfortable because it means that it is easy for us to judge our own health. We don’t want it to be complicated. We want it to be as simple as eating carrots and living to be 100 without ever facing the reality of the inherent financial, logistical and physical ramifications of that.

Fatphobia and ableism aren’t just about our fear of death, but I do think it plays a large part in it. Unlike the simplistic “link” between “obesity” and cancer, there are very clear and obvious links between our unwillingness to prepare for death, our unwillingness to fund the social care industry, our unwillingness to address climate change, our inability to properly save for retirement and the inevitable crash we’ll face.

Perhaps instead of being reminded of what the causes of cancer are or aren’t, we should remind ourselves that none of us can actually avoid dying and, while cancer may only affect some of us, the fear and silence around this topic affects us all.

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