Glass Onion —
Only seniors wrote for our high school paper, which made the editorial room primarily their domain. But as a freshman on the yearbook staff and the youngest brother of a senior on the newspaper, I spent a lot of time there. So it was my freshman year of high school in 1994 that I first found and fell in love with The Onion.
When I discovered the first one, I pored over it, cackling at every absurd claim made in starch-stiff journalistic prose. I instantly fell in love with every single person who contributed to that alternate reality, which became increasingly intuitive over the years.
In my opinion, The Onion has become a sort comedic conscience for the nation, particularly following its coverage of the September 11th attacks:
More recently, The Onion has provided a sorely-needed respite from the sorrow following the Colorado and Newtown mass shootings, including headlines that expressed our disbelief at this new American reality and our outrage at ongoing political inaction. But most of the time, when The Onion isn’t responding to overwhelming tragedy, it’s just plain funny.
Of course, everyone finds different things funny, and sometimes you find yourself laughing despite knowing that you’re going to hell. My senior year of high school, The Onion posted a headline that I’m equal parts offended by and tickled by to this day: “Alzheimer’s Sufferers Demand Cure For Pancakes.”
Two of my grandparents suffered from Alzheimer’s, and one had a particularly intense end-of-life struggle with reality, but our family coped with the grief by laughing about some of the most bizarre claims she made, like how the staff chased her around the nursing home with dogs at night after we left. That headline always reminds me of her and although I know I should be offended, I can’t help but feel they captured something that families of those with Alzheimer’s have lived through.
But that’s me. I realize others believe that headline mocks those with Alzheimer’s and that there’s nothing funny about it, which is what makes humor such a tricky area to debate: one man’s punchline is another man’s punch in the gut.
So when it comes to The Onion, I’ve learned to accept the good with the bad when it comes to fat jokes. And there’s been a lot of bad, like “Michelle Obama Shutters ‘Let’s Move!’ Program After Failed 3-Year Run”:
“Though I had hoped ‘Let’s Move!’ would promote healthier habits among America’s children, it turns out our young people simply aren’t interested in moving—at all,” the first lady told reporters. “Seriously, not even a little. When I visit these schools and talk about exercise, most of the kids look back at me with blank stares. And the ones who do attempt to exercise clearly do not like it and stop almost immediately.” Obama added that she expects to achieve far more success with her forthcoming “Fine, Let’s Just Sit Here Stuffing Our Faces Until We Drop Dead!” campaign.
And that’s just one of many, many headlines:
- “Report: Majority Of Americans Now Answering To Name ‘Lardface'”
- “Mississippi Bans Soft Drinks Smaller Than 20 Ounces”
- “Paula Deen Sponsors .05K Walk For Diabetes Research”
- “Department Of Health And Human Services Recommends Standing At Least Once A Day”
- “New Obesity Drug Delicious”
Rarely, there’s a fat-related story that satirizes the culture’s contempt for fatties, rather than the fatties themselves, like “Should We Be Shaming Obese Children More?” or “Diet Book Author Advocates New ‘No Food Diet’.”
Currently, this is what you get with most fat jokes: 95% mocking fat people and 5% mocking the culture’s response to them. But it’s much easier to mock the gluttonous sloths than to take a step back and observe the cultural climate that fat people have to deal with. A lot of it has to do with the lack of empathy in general toward fat people, since they are always, ALWAYS responsible for their body size and shape.
Which is why it should come to no surprise when I saw the following front page on The Onion‘s website the other day:
The story basically mocks the idea that losing weight is more complex than calories in/calories out.
The study, conducted by scientists at The National Weight Control Registry, determined conclusively that shedding excess weight has never occurred, changing your appearance is impossible, and that it actually feels “pretty nice” to just give up and realize that you’re powerless to alter your body mass index in any way, shape, or form.
When I first saw this article, I immediately began to wonder which member of Fitness Circlejerk was a staffer at The Onion. It’s the kind of strawman that concern trolls love to knock down while grunting around the weight rack. Their interpretation of Health at Every Size® says that caloric restriction will never, ever, ever lead to weight loss, which is not what any educated proponent of HAES has ever said.
Yeah, you can diet and exercise your way to a smaller size, but most weight loss research defines “clinically significant weight loss” as between 5% and 10% of their starting weight. Let’s say that guy in The Onion photo lost 10% of his body weight… assuming he’s the same size as me (265 pounds), that means that he’ll still weigh 238 pounds, which isn’t that impressive.
The Onion article mentions The National Weight Control Registry (NWCR) in an attempt to subtly undermine the satirical claims made in the article. Except you have to keep in mind that the NWCR is a self-selecting group of 10,000 successful dieters who have lost at least 30 pounds and kept it off for over a year. That seems like a fairly low bar for “success” in a country where tens of millions of people attempt to lose weight every year.
That’s why there’s one thing that separates Strawman HAES from Real HAES: long-term weight loss research.
Strawman HAES claims that “running on a treadmill every morning at 6 a.m. will not help anyone lose weight, and neither will cutting carbohydrates from one’s diet, eating smaller portions throughout the day, doing yoga, or hiring a personal trainer.”
Real HAES claims that while those things may lead to some weight loss, the vast majority of people who do so won’t lose much and most of those who do will ultimately regain the weight within five years. The difference between Strawman HAES and Real HAES is that Strawman HAES says it’s impossible, while Real HAES says it’s unsustainable for most people, according to the overwhelming body of long-term research.
Which brings us to the most interesting part of the article, where The Onion cites Rena Wing, who founded the NWCR with James Hill:
“Our findings indicate that if you’re trying to lose weight, you will fail — and that’s because you can’t, no one has, and you need to stop trying because it will never happen,” said Dr. Rena Wing, lead author of the report. “You could work out every day and eat nothing, and you still wouldn’t lose an ounce. And the sooner you throw up your hands and make peace with that fact, the better off you’ll be.”
The reason I find it so interesting is that the concern trolls I’ve argued with recently have cited Wing’s research to “prove” that long-term weight loss is possible. In this comment, I explain why Wing’s research is inadequate to this troll. In a nutshell, Wing’s proof relies almost entirely on phone surveys, which are notoriously unreliable compared to randomized, controlled trials where the subjects are actually weighed and measured. Also, Wing uses a five-year study to prove long-term efficacy, but only cites the results from the first year as evidence.
To a certain extent, comedy isn’t always about truth or nuance, it’s about saying what everyone else is thinking in a way that makes them laugh in recognition. In our culture, HAES is misrepresented as saying diets don’t work because of some mystical violation of the laws of thermodynamics.
In fact, even brilliant minds that are typically capable of nuance and understanding find this oversimplification easier to mock than the truth. Imagine my surprise when astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson wrote the following tweet:
It was refreshing to see a sizable pushback from people who questioned his false equivalency to physics and his claim that the human body responds to fluctuations in energy predictably. Yet it still hurt to see one of my contemporary icons toss off such a glib and unsubstantiated “joke.”
Even the terms are troubling. As I responded to Neil, you can have two people who weigh 200 pounds and are technically overweight, but one has had a stable weight their entire adult life (let’s call him Bob) and the other could have lost 100 pounds in the last year (let’s call him Jim). Jim will have to eat significantly fewer calories just to maintain his 200 pound weight due to a process called adaptive thermogenesis, which I explain in detail here.
Now, if Jim eats the same amount of calories as Bob, he will put on weight. So who is “overeating”? Concern trolls would say, of course, that they both are because 200 pounds is too fat. Okay then, let’s have Bob and Jim restrict even further and get to 150 pounds, the same as Sam. Just to maintain their weight, Sam eats 2,500 calories, Bob eats 2,000 calories, and Jim eats 1,500 calories. Who’s “overeating” now?
These are the kinds of details that get lost in the gross oversimplification necessary to make jokes. But those jokes, whether from a satirical newspaper or a renowned astrophysicist, contribute to the public’s perception that anyone can lose as much weight as they want and keep it off indefinitely with enough willpower.
This is part of the reason why researchers have been attempting to dial down expectations for weight loss to no avail, as captured in this study from the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, which has the greatest title ever: “Great expectations: ‘I’m losing 25% of my weight no matter what you say.'”
Facts like this explain why you’ll never see The Onion make a nuanced joke about weight loss: the reality is far too depressing for those who depend upon the illusion for hope.