Dry Land Fish

Perspectives from the misplaced.

A Jump the Shark Moment for Obesity Science

The construction of the "metabolically obese thin person"

People who talk about and study television shows often discuss shows having a “jump the shark” moment. The phrase comes from a Happy Days episode where the Fonz, during a waterski show, defies death by jumping a shark. For many people, that moment represented the show’s demise, a point when the show had clearly passed its prime and was engaging in desperate tactics to hold onto an audience.

A few weeks ago, I was reading an article in The New York Times about the “obesity paradox,” which is basically that research suggests that thin people can be unhealthy and that fat people may be healthy. I realized while reading that piece that obesity science may have very well have had its jump the shark moment—without many people actually noticing—with a phrase from 1981: “metabolically obese normal weight person.”

The phrase “metabolically obese normal weight person” comes from Dr. Neil Ruderman, who was the first to identify and name this “condition.” The construction of “metabolically obese normal weight person,” tangled as the language might be, relies on the simple, reductionist idea that everyone who is obese has a certain metabolic profile and that normal weight people do not have that metabolic profile.

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As the New York Times article reports, there is now ample data to suggest that the formula of fat=unhealthy and thin=healthy may not be accurate, especially when looking at the longevity of people suffering from conditions such as heart failure, heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, and high blood pressure. While both fat and thin people develop these conditions, data point to overweight and even obese people living longer with these conditions. Why overweight and obese people sometimes fare better remains unclear, but we can certainly draw from this that the “war on obesity” may not give us the easy route to having a healthier population.

In spite of these data, a phrase like “metabolically obese normal weight person” showcases how very far some people in the medical field will go to classify obesity as a problem in and of itself and avoid having to refer to anyone as “an unhealthy thin person.” In short, Dr. Ruderman jumped the shark to avoid saying that a person’s metabolic profile may have very little to do with his or her weight. Dr. Ruderman isn’t alone of course; many of our medical and cultural narratives about fatness and health work very hard to construct the two as mutually exclusive.

Thirty years after the Fonz jumped that shark, people are still arguing about whether or not the plotline was so convoluted and ridiculous that it represented the demise of the show. I hope that we’re not still arguing about the “obesity paradox” thirty years from now. I hope, instead, that we can start to accept that convoluted constructions and phrases to avoid admitting what the data now seem to overwhelmingly support—that fatness or thinness alone tell us very little about a person’s health—aren’t helping anyone be healthier.

 

Dr. April M. Herndon has a Ph.D. in American Studies and is an Associate Professor of English at Winona State University.

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