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Paunch, pay and patriarchy

I had this op-ed in The Christchurch Press last week. I doesn’t seem to be online anywhere so I’m posting the text here for linking purposes!

Paunch, pay and patriarchy

I read with a twist of humour and trauma the results from the University of Otago’s Christchurch Health and Development Study reported recently in many media outlets. Apparently your body mass index is related to related to your pay.

It’s actually not that surprising a result, in fact it’s one that social scientists have known about for quite a while. Fortunately (for some of us) it seems that if you are a man then you need not worry. Obese men like me with a body mass index number above 30 actually earn a fair chunk more than men with a supposed ‘healthy’ BMI. Naturally I immediately emailed Human Resources and asked for my ‘large human bearing phallus’ bonus (they never replied).

Ok, so that’s the humour, now the trauma. There is no doubt that it is an interesting finding – and certainly one that is worth bringing to the public’s attention. But what worries me is the explanation.

I am going to give Associate Professor John Horwood the benefit of the doubt and a fair hearing here – he was obviously asked to provide some sort of explanation as to why this kind of specific inequality exists – and he clarified his response as “conjecture”. In relation to women, he is quoted as saying, “Not only is there more stigma attached to weight and body composition for women but they may also be more likely to perceive being overweight or obese as a source of stress or adversity.”

Fair point – but this is not conjecture, there is evidence in the social science domain to back this up (in fact, there is plenty of evidence). In relation to men he is not quoted directly but suggested that they may earn more because of a supposed link between body size and status and/or that the busy schedules of the important well-paid men resulted in ‘poor eating’, thus they got larger. This second point is certainly conjecture – and the benign rationale given for this significant finding hides the far more insidious reality at play here: patriarchy.

Simply put, large men are not punished financially like large women because men live protected from judgment in so many aspects of their lives – including judgment by body mass.

This is particularly evident in John Horwood’s response to the reporter. He hits the nail on the head with regard to subjugation of women – we all know this to be the case, and here is more evidence. But he glosses over the weird male result, and chalks it down to either a tired anthropological relationship between body size and social status or a functionalist relationship between busy schedules and bad habits.

What the article misses is the far more insidious and prevalent power relation that our society is built on. This is the reality of the experience of the two dominant genders in the New Zealand workplace (not to mention the myriad of other genders). Women are not treated as equal to men, in terms of pay, in conditions and in representation in management positions. We can now nuance that already well-established list with the different impacts of body mass – unsurprisingly.

The task before us as a society is a complex one – when we encounter these disparities we need to see (and understand) patriarchy first, and make every attempt to call it that. What the researchers have not done in this case is to develop a suitable explanatory framework, based in established social theory to contextualize the results of their study.

So when John Horwood is ‘put on the spot’ by the reporter he reverts back to the latent patriarchy that the vast majority of us (including me) reproduce in our everyday speech. Thus the obese men in the study are represented as hard working and successful, their mass testament to their struggles for the good of the company, while the women are relegated to sad, desperate, stressed-out, low-paid fatties.

The academic community needs to do better than this – I could easily name ten critical social scientists in New Zealand who could have provided a theoretical explanation of this ‘surprising’ finding, most in less then three sentences. I am certainly not against this type of research being conducted, in fact I will likely use these data in my own work. But I would implore my academic colleagues to be very careful with their conjecture – patriarchy does not need to work in mysterious ways.

Pay, paunch and patriarchy_Page_1 Pay, paunch and patriarchy_Page_2 Pay, paunch and patriarchy_Page_3

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Fat taunts and the difference between men and women

Gotta admit that this article really resonated with me. Having been running ‘large’ for close to 10 years now I’ve had lots of comments – though never from a dude hanging out of his white van! For me mostly it has related to people giving me little comments of encouragement – here are a selection:

Keep it up buddy.

Well done, I don’t know if I could keep up that pace.

I didn’t think I’d see a big bloke running this (while running the Kepler Challenge)

That’s a big frame!

These comments don’t have the down right shitty nastiness that Lindsey Swift had to deal with from the tosser in his white van – which points to the simply massive difference between men and women in our society of white male privilege. But it does point to the research question that i’ve been asking for decade: Why are we so fascinated with the size of the Other?

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Public Health / Individual Health

For a few years now I’ve been thinking really seriously about the future of public health. Particularly about what strategies might be both useful and reasonable in helping to bring about a ‘more healthy’ population. One thing that is hard to get past in these thoughts is what exactly would a ‘more healthy’ population be? I think in previous decades the answers to these questions have been quite apparent, via science, even if industry worked hard to avoid the realities. So things like reducing smoking and vilifying drunk driving have been clear wins for public health campaigns, as the State became cognisant of its role in protecting its citizens.

But thinking about the ‘now’ now is always much more difficult than hindsight. Now, people commenting in the popular press focus on the things that are most easy to quantify – almost always using ‘obesity’ as a proxy for unhealthy for instance and focusing specifically on diet and exercise as the mainstays of future public health policy direction. Here the commenters attempt to leverage individual health behaviours and extrapolate these to public health strategies.There is a good example of this here in the NZ Herald, from Niki Bezzant. Entitled ‘You can’t run off a bad diet’ the article’s main premise revolves around the public health campaign to ‘combat obesity’ and is generally an attack on the non-interventional strategy of this government towards things like taxing sugar (which I have written about with the economist Dr Bill Kaye-Blake here) and fat. Overall I completely agree with Niki Bezzant that our government is not working hard enough with regard to public health, but I do not agree with her conclusion:

So as with our national strategy, our personal strategy needs to include changes to diet and exercise.

You may be thinking: Huh? What planet are you on Andrew? – this statement is so darn reasonable, of course it is right! But I would urge you to think a little deeper here, the reasoning that Niki Bezzant (and most others to be fair) are using here is that ‘the public’ is made up of a collection of individuals. Thus the start point is targeting individual behaviour change as opposed to thinking about ‘the public’ as an entity in its own right, a level of analysis all on its own. So what are the effects of this line of reasoning? One that Bill Kaye-Blake and I drew out (here again) is that any State tax on sugary drinks would likely to measured in terms of success by its change (or not) on Body Mass Index, rather than say its impact on dental decay in kids or type 2 diabetes rates across the population. We argued that this is fantasy, not illness and is one impact of measuring individual behaviour change not population level trends. The tendency to lean on individual change as the answer takes us as a society away from the requirement of the State to provide the conditions for health.

This brings us to a difficult point – what can we do differently that doesn’t fall immediately into the trap of individualism that the neoliberal State promotes? Well as it happens Dr Anastasia Boulais and I are going to present a possibility at the Social Movements, Resistance and Social Change II Conference in Auckland September 2-4. Our presentation titled ‘Towards an ancestral public health: Exploring the interstices between science, knowledge and truth in public health nutritionism’ will paint a picture of an alternative public health, one that respects the rights of citizens to health from birth. This presentation will be expanded on in a range of areas by Anastasia and I and a whole variety of International and local speakers at the Ancestral Health Society Conference ‘Looking Back, Moving Forward’ in Queenstown 23-25th October. We warmly welcome you to both.

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A detox detour

I just read this great post by Yoni Freedhoff on the ludicrous detox diets that abound and thought I’d add a couple of points from the social/psych side around my thoughts on why people are sold on the promise of detox.

I think it all starts from the threat of contamination – that somehow we are ‘supposed’ to be pure, clean, non-toxic beings. As I see it this belief comes from a misunderstanding of the relationship between the human body and the environment within which it exists. Essentially because we have this physical boundary (skin and clothes and more insidiously – ‘mind’) it seems that we are separate from the environment. But we are not, the environment is in us and we are in it – so our bodies evolved the ability to deal with (most of) the supposed toxins we deal with – hence the function of our internal organs, which is why Yoni Freedhoff says don’t believe detox unless you are in the ER – because if you are in the ER your body is probably not dealing with a toxin or two and you need medical help.

So this is fairly simple medical science, why on earth is there such a massive market for detox systems? Here we can turn to look at the psychosocial conditions of western life – and particularly the sanitisation that is now rampant in all life – air conditioning, humidity regulation, packaging etc… this exacerbates the idea you can eradicate contamination from toxins and reinstate your ‘pure’ body. This is pure fantasy! So my advice, like Yoni’s is to ignore the detox lunacy in favour of scientific rationality – good luck 🙂

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What a fantastic post Anastasia!


This morning I had the unfortunate experience of watching a particularly vile video. This was brought to my attention by Dr Yoni Freedhoff and I have to say that I share his outrage. The video is supposed to be a “satirical representation” of a typical encounter between a doctor and an overweight patient. It was published on a popular medical website Kevin MD, the “social media’s leading physician’s voice”.

“This is the video which will make you feel sorry for doctors treating obesity”. 

Please watch.

My first inclination after watching this was to smash my computer screen. My second inclination was to write a post. If you are reading this I chose the second. There are many MANY features of this video which are both disturbing and revealing of our current public health system and societal attitudes to obesity.

Let’s start with the title of the article: THIS IS THE…

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Increasing fascination with Men’s bodies #dadbod

After a hiatus I am going to be posting a little more here – and in bigger news I’ll be starting a Facebook page soon that revolves around a book I am working on – but more on this later.

So we have seen an increasing fascination with men’s bodies over the past decades, an unveiling of the invisible fat man that a couple of nifty Australia-based sociologists wrote about in 2007. Surprisingly this isn’t actually that new – there was a bit of concern over the expanding waistlines of men post WWII for instance.

What is really obvious is how these changing attitudes preserve the dignity of the fat male body in ways that doesn’t happen so readily with women. The #dadbod meme seems to be another example of this, basically men posting pictures of their post-kids bodies in retaliation at the ridiculous requirement to be ‘buff’.

The has this article today reporting research that claims to have found empirical evidence for #dadbod, and I quote:

Weight gain differed for dads who lived with their children (“resident dads”) and those who didn’t. First-time resident dads experienced an average 2.6 per cent increase in their BMIs over the study period. Non-resident dads experienced 2 per cent increase. That translates to nearly a 2kg weight gain for a 1.8m tall dad who lives with his child and a 1.5kg gain for a non-resident dad. Meanwhile, a similar 1.8m man who had no kids? He lost 600g.

No shit. So the baby turns up and suddenly you have a whole truckload of stuff to do that isn’t pumping iron, flexing in mirrors or puffing through 20km runs and so your body increases slightly in size. Who gives a shit? seriously? The smoking gun in the research is this:

The findings underscore the need to focus on preventive strategies for new dads, especially since a father’s weight can also influence children’s health outcomes, researchers write.

Huh? If a 2.6% increase in BMI is all the researchers found then that calls for absolutely no need for preventative strategies at all – it calls for a round of applause for the dads who realise what is important and what is not AND a round of applause for the fact that men’s bodies that are not ‘buff’ are still celebrated in the mainstream and not yet villainised like women’s bodies.

In sum: Celebrate #dadbod!


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My Recent Presentation at the AHSNZ Conference Wanaka October 2014

Hi all – very sorry for the lack of recent posts. Busy teaching this semester!

Recently I participated in a very cool conference hosted by the Ancestral Health Society of New Zealand. As well as being in Wanaka (the best place in NZ, except for Palmy of course ;-)) it was literally teeming with interesting presentations on all sorts of subjects, from fascia (Matthew Stewart) to mental health (Dr Greg Brown) to the intricacies of endurance training (Jamie Scott). Here I post the slides and text from my presentation – please feel free to share widely.



I don’t need to tell you where we have got to with regard to body image and the current ‘acceptable’ images of body in New Zealand.

This recent example of the clothing company Glasson’s using a mannequin with visible ribs highlights the body goal of the fashion and diet industries. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing inherently problematic with ribs – I love ribs. But the imagery and the impact are wholly understated given the context of the population frequenting the store.

In this presentation I want to talk about body mass and endurance athletes, specifically I want to trouble our society’s current understanding of the relationship between mass and endurance within the context of an ancestral understanding of body. However I want to read the term ‘ancestral’ fairly broadly. I’ll start by explaining what I mean by this…


A discontent of our current society is the tendency to read biomedical science as ‘Truth’ with a capital T (that is the only possible truth.). This naturalistic perspective privileges some things at the expense of others. For instance it privileges conscious thought over Unconscious thought. And it privileges the individual (and here I am referring to the molecular individual) over the collective. But perhaps most importantly for our concern is that it privileges biomedical scientific knowledge over what I’ll term philosophical knowledge. So, if we read this quote from a naturalistic perspective we understand certain things about our ancestors – what they ate, how they moved, what their environmental conditions were and the like. To take the ‘thinking critically’ aspect here seriously I believe it is incumbent on us to also respect our ancestor’s philosophy – their understanding of their bodies in context, as devices of physical labour, as Mothers, as leaders, as mystics and others. This vicissitude, this distinction, that sees biomedical and NOT philosophical bodies, is artificial, and in my opinion risks a simplification that threatens to undermine the emergent radical potentiality within the ‘ancestral health’ movement by sucking it into line with the ‘diet’ industry – i.e. just another fad. Which would be a tragedy. So in some ways what I have to say here is rather political, as a strident critic of the wider diet industry it is very exciting for me to be involved with a theorization of health that doesn’t want me to be losing weight.


Ok – so just one more theoretical spiel before I’ll cut to the fun bit. So what are these critical philosophical concepts that I see underpinning the ancestral movement – well thankfully, only one. This comes via Nietzsche and then Foucault – this is the concept of genealogy. Which is not the study of one’s ancestry but a form of enquiry that, and I’m quoting here “seeks to show the plural and sometimes contradictory past that reveals traces of the influence that power has had on truth”. Specifically here I present some ideas on a geneology of the BMI measure, how has this become the ‘truth’ – and what are the facets of this truth, how does it work as a device of power? I do this via what distance runners say about body size.


It isn’t difficult to find bloggers and others promoting the exploits of Scottish highland warriors (I’m not talking specifically about Braveheart here – but you get my drift!). But plumbing my own Scottish ancestry seems like a useful beginning, and a necessary intrusion, to considering what has changed in the last few hundred years with regard to perceptions of body mass.

My entire heritage is Scottish, except perhaps for a little northern English infiltration. And in my family runs a heavy mass set of genes (I say ‘set’ on purpose because so far at least ‘science’ is pretty rubbish when it comes to figuring body mass genetically). Thus I have a set of cousins and others who are all ‘of mass’ and a set who are a little littler (including my brother). Losing weight has always been a problem for this segment of my family, though it’s fair to say that I’m pretty good at it. Top weight ~140kg, lightest around 88kg now somewhere in the vicinity of 105kg (if you want to read lots about my personal experiences I’ve published three journal articles so far that tackle different aspects of this)

The odd thing about the bulky line in my family is our relative sporting prowess at least in distance running, peculiarly. My last half marathon was 1:45:00 at 107kg and 180cm.


So the science is pretty definitive on endurance running performance. The number one factor that impacts on performance (as measured by speed) is body size. The larger you are the slower you run. In fact the physics are pretty simple (read the papers if you want the detail). Age has an effect also – but it isn’t as pronounced and there are some oddities, like men often get faster between the ages of 30-50 (which tends to piss off the young men!).

Now the scientists behind this research have developed a calculator whereby you can adjust your running performance based on your body size age to allow accurate comparisons.


So here you can witness my failure. My PB half marathon is 1:35:55 posted in Manawatu in 2006 when I was 88kg or so and 30 years old – when calculated for size and age my adjusted time is 1:24:26. Fast forward 7 years, one master’s degree, one PhD, two kids including one with rare genetic disease and birth trauma, and no less than 10 fairly awesome running injuries and I run again in Manawatu and cross the line in 1:45:flat (10 mins slower, sigh). But I’m saved by the calculator – when adjusted for my then 107kg mass: 1:23:05.

Ok – so theatrics aside, what this data proves (and my two times are simply two examples of thousands used by the researchers) is that body weight makes a difference – My guess right now is that no one in this room is even remotely surprised, right?

So what happens when we asked 1000 NZ marathon runners whether they thought that endurance races should have weight divisions?


75% unsupportive or very unsupportive

10% are ambivalent

15% supportive

Ok – so the assumption must be that the 15% in support are the big heavier runners?


Yes, this is exactly what we see – as body weight increases so does support for weight categories, the correlation is 80%, which is strong.


But when we run those figures by Body Mass instead the correlation disappears, in fact it disappears because this very significant drop from generally supportive to generally unsupportive between the categories of ‘overweight’ and ‘obese’. Now please remember that those runners in the ‘obese’ category still can run 42.2km in one go – nothing to be sneezed at, they are very fit, very dedicated people, just larger than average people.

So what exactly is going on? We have this anomaly – larger people with BMIs over 30 don’t support weight divisions, whilst larger people with BMIs between 25 and 30 generally do. It seems for runners we can ignore ‘overweight’ mass but not ‘obese’ mass. In fact here we can see the power of the BMI as it determines how people understand the ‘truth’ of their bodies, regardless of how they consciously reject it.

So in the next two slides I’m going to show you two small pieces of data, separated by 20 years or so that provide a snapshot from the perspective of the endurance runner on body weight.


I’ll leave you alone to read this quietly – written in the early 1990s ‘Oversized oafs’… ‘blubberous blimps’… ‘hefty hippos’ which is your favourite alliterative genius?

In fact this type of vitriolic reaction is totally common in road running events (not in mountain running interestingly – I have a pet theory on this – but no time now to explore it). Laura Chase, a U.S. based academic interested in weight divisions in running even uncovered this as a factor in the suicide of one of the first proponents of this idea. This is what NZ runners said.


The first ‘camp’ of reasoning (and I hesitate to call this reasoning) suggests that there is a significant danger within the recognition of weight divisions, as it apparently ‘sends the wrong message’; after all we wouldn’t want them to belong!

The second ‘camp’ presents the sport as an individual enterprise, in fact so individualized that there is no competition except competing against your-self.

The third ‘camp’ recognizes that larger runners “should be allowed” (which is actually fairly representative, in fact quite a few suggest there should be checks in place to prevent larger runners from participating – due to their supposed risk profile). But that they themselves would react very very badly by being classified by weight – this is more prevalent among women, because heaven forbid there is ever an official public record of the number on the scales!!

Ok… so what how can I theorise this reaction within the philosophy of genealogy in ancestral health? More interestingly – how can a philosophy of ancestral health, or perhaps more fittingly ancestral hauora become a kaupapa for re-thinking body mass in endurance running. I have only two slides left – I’ll first tackle the theory-side and then some learnings.


So the problem with the Other is actually a feel simple one – and an ancient one. Philosophically this dates back as far as we care to go, Plato’s cave for instance. The issue that confronts us is that the Other lives in us – we are constructed from it, via the twists and turns of language acquisition. The things we fear the most are habitually part of us.

This results in people habitually resisting any mechanism which grants legitimacy to something that might empower the Other, despite their desire. The irony is that this resistance is one side of a coin – it ‘simply’ needs a flip to become reality. That flip is the movement from fundamentalism to pluralism.


What is the utility of a body? What is the function of a body? – Here we can take a steer from the demands of the environment. Having a body ‘fit’ to work is a functional demand, and one that is very easy to moralize into a particular physical environment. We also need bodies that have utility socially – what does that look like now? (I acknowledge my new found colleague Adele Hite for the image on your right – her presentation to the Ancestral Society in the U.S. in 2013 is fascinating!)

Size does not equal health. Skinny is a modern (or perhaps a post-modern) neurosis. This does not mean that skinny people are neurotic, but that the overwhelming desire for skinny creates neurotic behaviour. Thus the meme that follows Kate Moss around “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” is in fact representative of our society’s discontent with body size. My challenge to that, aside from the obvious challenge posed by bacon, is a challenge for all those who think ancestrally to think in plural and allow contradiction to exist without seeking to placate this with some sort of overarching truth, a fundamentalist truth. Instead work with people, of any size, to recognize their utility and function – whatever that might be.

One thing that Adele Hite has suggested is whether this could take the form of an alliance or relationship to the Health At Every Size (HAES) movement, which seeks above all body acceptance. Now, while very supportive of the respect of all bodies, I’m also cautious – due in part to some significant concerns raised by a sociologist colleague Deborah Lupton, for instance she states that HAES “reproduces the classic Cartesian duality of the mind/self as separate from the body/flesh and turns it on its head. Instead of the rational mind positioned as superior to the fleshly body, here the body is represented as ‘wise’ and all-knowing, to which the mind/self should relinquish control. Yet as theorists such as Merleau-Ponty have argued, we cannot separate ‘self’ from ‘body’: we always and inevitably experience the world as embodied selves”. But on balance I think it is a good idea. However what about an alliance with desire? A most ancient driving force I’m sure you would agree? For me at least a tenet of ancestral health involves respecting desire – which I think seems very logical within the philosophy? And certainly a significant point of departure from the diet industry.



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