A Public Feud Over Obesity


In certain literary and media circles, the friction between writer Lindy West and editor Dan Savage generated a lot of attention. In the mid-2000s, Savage wrote some columns that drew hostile reactions from the public. (Salty language warning.)

In response to readers who hated the direction he was going in, Savage wrote:

I’ve received exactly 10,547 pieces of e-mail — yes, that’s the actual tally — complaining that my refusal to take the self-esteem-boosting/public-health-shredding position that you can be obese and healthy, somehow oppresses women. I am thoroughly annoyed at having my tame statements of fact — being heavy is a health risk; rolls of exposed flesh are unsightly — characterized as “hate speech.”

When Ira Glass later interviewed West for This American Life,
he made the case for empathy by citing a few facts as they were known at the time:

According to the National Institutes of Health, they include physiological, metabolic, genetic, psychological, social, and cultural factors. Also, we haven’t invented a way to make fat people thin long term. Fewer than 1 in 100 obese people get thin and keep it off, according to one recent study, which tracked over a quarter million people for nine years.

But although editor Savage is known for his empathy toward many aspects of the human condition, he did not back down when criticized for a lack of it in this particular area. And since he was in a position of authority at West’s place of employment, it would be understandable if his anti-obesity rants were interpreted, accurately or mistakenly, as fat-shaming “sub-tweets” aimed at her.

Although West took issue with many of the things he said, she ignored the Savage writings until, in her words,she “finally foamed up and spilled over.” Late in 2009 she fired off a private email to Savage. Some sentences didn’t have any cuss words:

Just curious. Who are these hordes of fat people chasing you around, insisting that eating pot pies all day is awesome and good for your health? […] And I know some of your best friends are fat or whatever, but you sound like a bigot… I’d just rather not be abused on the internet from inside my own workplace.

She also pointed out that Savage had broken no original new ground, and was in fact doing work that didn’t need to be done because “Everyone in the world already thinks fat people are lazy and gross.” Apparently, the two talked it out and remained friends. More than a year later, West was first to go public with their disagreement, although even that assertion could be nitpicked, since Savage had not moderated his opinion, and used his broad media platform to express it.

Early in 2011, West published a “scorched-earth essay” calling out what her fans characterize as anti-feminist trolls. Reflecting on it later, she said:

It’s really easy to separate fat people from their bodies. You either accept fat people’s humanity and right to dignity and autonomy, or you don’t. You can’t put qualifications on people’s humanity.

Around the same time, regarding her relationship with Savage, she told a Mother Jones writer:

I’m actually grateful for the way that he writes about fat people now. These tough conversations are how we move forward and make progress.

Formerly a brunette wearer of glasses, at some point Lindy West got a complete makeover, emerging as a peroxide-blonde, blood-red lipped vamp — of the type who in the 1930s was called a “hard-as-nails broad” — a rather dangerous look that conveys her unwillingness to pull punches.

Always a polarizing figure, she (in the words of Kristen Evans) “treats feminism, fatness and social change with rigorous attention without losing any of her signature humor.” Along with appearing on TV comedy shows, West has contended in the rough-and-tumble world of standup comedy and debated the raunchy Jim Norton. Last summer, West published Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman, a book of essays described by Becca Andrews of MotherJones.com as “an emotional roller coaster.”

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Savage Love,” TheStranger.com, 05/27/04
Source: “Tell Me I’m Fat,” ThisAmericanLife.org, 06/17/16
Source: “Lindy West is the troll-fighting feminist warrior you’ve been waiting for,” LATimes.com, 05/20/16
Source: “How to Fight Fat Shaming, Internet Trolls, and Rape Culture,” MotherJones.com, 05/23/16
Photo credit: Sharon Mollerus via Visualhunt/CC BY

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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