To this day, the CDC continues to refer to “obesity” as an epidemic, and has even gone as far as to say that fat people are at “higher risk” of contracting and dying from COVID-19.
CW: This essay explores anti-fatness and eugenics, and mentions death, medical genocide, and more.
Towards the end of February, many of us in america had become aware of the glaring virus we now know as COVID-19. In panic, people took to their local grocery stores and stocked up on all household essentials—most notably, face masks, hand sanitizer, and toilet paper. While information about the effects of COVID-19 were mixed, as the virus is so new, one thing that scientists and all government officials seemed to be clear about was that “face masks were ineffective against the virus.” At the beginning of March, people were being instructed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to not wear face masks to prevent the spread of the virus. The U.S. Surgeon General made a public statement via Twitter demanding that everyone “stop buying masks” as they were “ineffective” against the spread of the virus. It was not clear how the very tools that were being used to protect our medical and healthcare providers from this virus were suddenly ineffective when it came time to protect those of us who were “civilians.” As such, many continued to buy masks in bulk, rapidly creating a shortage of face masks for the aforementioned.
Just days ago, the CDC released a public statement stating that they do, in fact, recommend that everyone wear a face mask in public—as up to 25% of people diagnosed with COVID-19 may be asymptomatic, according to the CDC.
Weeks before this discovery, I made a statement via Twitter wherein I named my distrust of the CDC, other medical officials, and the list of (contradictory) instructions they were releasing to the public in the wake of what feels like one of the most vicious pandemics we have experienced in modern history. The CDC has been at the epicenter of the war waged against my body and other bodies like mine, and this is the basis for my lack of trust in their efforts.
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In March 2004, during a highly publicized news conference, the CDC published a report claiming that “obesity” was “killing 400,000 Americans a year” and that it was becoming america’s “number one preventable death”, outnumbering tobacco. The report was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA)—which, at least at the time, was the most prestigious medical journal in the nation. One of the authors of the report was the head of the CDC. Because of this, the report had the credibility it needed and would lead to egregious and violent headlines across the nation about fat people, our bodies, and the alarming rate at which we were allegedly dying from “obesity.”
From that moment forward, throughout the rest of that year, public officials and other media platforms used that report as evidence that obesity was the greatest threat facing the american people, and as justification for what would eventually become a forceful and strapping diet industrial complex. Thus creating “The Obesity Epidemic.”
However, according to J. Eric Oliver in his book Fat Politics: The Real Story Behind America’s Obesity Epidemic (2006), a more intentional look at the numbers from which the CDC was using indicates that the numbers were far from accurate—something the CDC would later admit to. The numbers were inflated. In his book, Oliver says:
“… the CDC researchers did not calculate the 400,000 deaths by checking to see if the weight of each person was a factor in his or her [or their] death. Rather, they estimated a figure by comparing the death rates of thin and heavy people using data that were nearly thirty years old. Although heavier people tend to die more frequently than people in mid-range weights, it is by no means clear that their weight is the cause of their higher death rates. It is far more likely that their weight is simply a proxy for other, more important factors such as their diet, exercise, or family medical history. The researchers, however, simply assumed that obesity was the primary cause of death, even though there was no clear scientific rationale for this supposition.”
In other words, the CDC contrived this number from an estimation after reviewing data that was thirty years old. It was never a calculated number concluded from their own intense research; it was a scientific guess made with hopes to punish fat people for our bodies. And it worked. As Oliver names, fat people do tend to die at higher rates than our thin counterparts, but it isn’t because of our weight. We tend to die at higher rates than thin people because doctors misdiagnose us, or refuse to treat us, due to our fatness.
A year after they published the report, in April 2005, the CDC released another report—also through JAMA—wherein they not only offered a much smaller number of deaths per year due to obesity—less than 26,000, to be exact—but also claimed that “moderately overweight people” live longer than people at a “normal weight.” But the damage had already been done. Around the world, people were using the CDC’s original numbers as fuel for the war waged on fat people. And I would wager that the damage is still being done. No one is dying from being obese. Full stop. Fat people are dying because of a medical industrial complex committed to seeing our fatness as death; we are dying because we lack proper resources—like housing and employment—that would provide us with money, healthcare, and a roof to protect us; fat Black people in particular are dying, I argue, because of an inherently anti-Black system of policing that sees us as deadly beasts that need to be put down.
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What is happening to fat people, the societal and systemic bias and marginalization we have to navigate, is in large part due to the one CDC report heard around the world. And to this day, the CDC continues to refer to “obesity” as an epidemic, and have even gone as far as to say that fat people are at “higher risk” of contracting and dying from COVID-19.
Some may argue that the CDC originally claimed that masks were ineffective as a way to retain the already-small supply of masks for healthcare providers and medical officials. Others may argue that the CDC made this claim due to ever-developing research around the virus. I am arguing, however, that the CDC made the claim that masks are ineffective because the CDC’s sole purpose is to provide scientific legitimation of the U.S. as a eugenicist project through medical genocide. As outlined in this essay, the CDC has a history of releasing deadly information and later backtracking on it when the damage has already been done.
Choosing to tell the public that supplies that could benefit everyone is ineffective, rather than calling for more supplies to be created—in the midst of a global pandemic, no less—is eugenics. Making the conscious decision to tell the general public that something is ineffective when you have not done all of the necessary research, especially when medical officials are using the very same equipment, is medical and scientific genocide.
Scientists, researchers, and medical professionals can make mistakes. They are human, after all. As a fat person whose daily reality has in large part been warped by the violent report the CDC released over ten years ago, however, I am not convinced that any of this is a mistake. This feels far too intentional and far too familiar. In the midst of a very real pandemic, the CDC is handling it precisely the same as they did a false pandemic which they helped to create. For this reason, along with the fact that they’ve been radio silent about the way COVID-19 has impacted Black communities especially, I have very little trust in the CDC, as I have no room in my politic for anti-fat science, eugenics, or medical genocide. I hope we choose to make a collective push for a more ethical research organization to lead on these issues soon. Lest we wait for thousands of more lives to be lost due to the CDC’s incompetence.