The Obesity Debate: What’s It Really About?

Having listened to yet another radio programme that brainstorms ways to tackle the ‘obesity epidemic’ I decided it was time for a little Fat Hatred 101. I argue that our ‘concern’ about fat on our own and other people’s bodies has nothing to do with caring for anyone’s health. It’s about a system that deliberately fosters self-hatred in women.

I just listened to a recent Freakonomics podcast, ‘100 Ways to Fight Obesity.’ Listeners eavesdrop on a think tank, made up of field ‘experts’ who take as a given that obesity is unhealthy and think up ways to discourage unhealthy eating.

I guess it will come as no surprise to regular readers that this really pissed me off. The participants of the think tank and the creators of the podcast were well-intentioned. But when discussion of obesity spends so much time discussing ways to prevent eating – such as bottling the smell of human vomit to sniff when you are hungry – and none discussing the meaning of cultural attitudes towards fat, it becomes problematic.

My own attitude towards obesity is complicated. I don’t believe our societal concern with obesity has anything to do with concern for the health of our fellow humans, but everything to do with trying to control the bodies of our renegade citizens. I believe that, as this study shows, obesity as a concept affects women more than men. When fat women are afraid to eat in public because we think we will be judged, we are being denied our right to pleasure and to public space. When fat women spend more energy on trying to control our rebellious bodies that we do on pursuing our dreams, we are living less full lives.

Me being fat and awesome with my zine and vulva cupcakes at Berlin Zinefest.
Me being fat and awesome with my zine and vulva cupcakes at Berlin Zinefest.

Obesity rhetoric and fat shaming are two of the most effective ways to control women’s mind and bodies. Get us to spend our energy chasing a skinny pot of gold (beauty) and we won’t have enough calories to work up the physical or mental energy to rebel. Diet not riot, baby.

My argument here is not so much whether or not the obesity epidemic exists, which I am sceptical about, or even if being fat is unhealthy. I argue that we, as a fat-fearing society, aren’t actually concerned with the health status of our fellow citizens. Our aversion to fat doesn’t come from a desire to be healthier. We don’t care if we are healthy. We care if we are pretty. That is, we care if we are thin.

Fear of being fat is misdirected self-hatred

Now, of course, I realise I am referring more to the reality of food- and fat- fearing women than the experiences of fat kids or fat men. While both children and men are undoubtedly concerned with how they look, fat hatred is targeted at and affects women more than men. It is fat hatred directed at and internalised by women that I want to think about here.

Now for the hard truth. When we say that we think we are unlovable because we are fat, we are deliberately misdirecting our energy. Let’s face it: this isn’t about being loved by others, this is about loving yourself. The reality of the world is that we are all beautiful and your boyfriend will love you if you are size 10 or size 24 because he loves you, as you are, in your body. It’s not your boyfriend who finds it hard to look square at your naked body. It’s you.

Quite frankly, I don’t think my boyfriend gives a fuck that I am a size 16-18. He thinks I’m hot and he loves me just as I am. This is about how hot I think I am and how much I love myself. He’s not the one who has a problem making love to me. I do. I’m the one who hides under the covers and imagines I have a thinner, more ‘Hollywood’ body when I jerk off.

This isn’t about being considered attractive, getting a lover or even getting laid. This is about low self-esteem. This is about not being able to love ourselves and blaming it on our fat. Fat women get laid less, not because we are less sexy, but because we think we are.

This is about a billion-pound dieting industry of slimline food, shakes, and ‘slimming medication’ that profits from your unhappiness. This is about you being able to live your life to its full potential without being haunted, every hour of every day, by eating or not eating food. This is about not feeling shame or guilt every time you eat something fatty and pride when you don’t. This is about breaking the cycle of public food denial and private bingeing that sustains the myth that not eating is virtuous and eating is bad and shameful.

Charlotte Cooper: swimming in activism
Charlotte Cooper: swimming in activism

Fat hatred isn’t actually about what we look like. Fat hatred doesn’t concern itself with our health. Fat hatred is about cultural attitudes. It is, simply, that we think the fat on women’s bodies is disgusting. When we see a fat person we don’t worry for their health, we react with disgust to their overflowing body. Fat hatred uses the idea of health to legitimise its hatred of women’s bodies and the consequent cruelty it enacts on us.

You don’t need to be a doctor or a health expert to see that fear of fat and its expression in dieting behaviour is the opposite of healthy. And even if you do believe that public health campaigns will affect the ‘obesity epidemic’ (which I don’t), you have to acknowledge that the perceived solution to obesity for many women and men – dieting – so often leads to more obesity. Dieting fucks the body up and makes you fatter.

So, whose fault is this epidemic of fat hatred? Who can we blame for the proliferation of eating disorders and low self-esteem and what can we do to stop it? Unfortunately, when a prejudice becomes so widespread that it’s part of our culture, we can’t blame it on one person. There’s no such thing as a point of patriarchal origin.

Luckily though grassroots activism and re-education works! Although I doubt I will ever have a 100% healthy relationship with eating, reading and learning from awesome fat activists has taught me how to deconstruct some of the self-hating bullshit I’ve learnt.

To that end, below I have compiled a list of fat resources I have come across doing my research for this article. Thank you so much to all my friends who have provided me with these links and the bloggers who put their kick-ass opinions out there. If you haven’t already, also click on the links in the post because they are the bestest. Lastly, you can also find more about my thoughts on fat by clicking on the ‘fat’ category in the toolbar.

FAT STUFF:

The. Best. Fat. Myth. Busting. Resource. List. Ever.

Blaming weight for differences in mortality isn’t scientifically supportable.

Being fat can have some health benefits

Unhealthy as well as healthy people deserve access to civil rights

Everyone deserves to be treated like a human and, yes, you can be healthy and fat!

Assigning blame and fault has no place in healthcare 

But you have such a pretty face!

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5 thoughts on “The Obesity Debate: What’s It Really About?

  1. noonie

    People often like to be cruel, and if there is a culturally sanctioned way for them to slag people off, then they will. But it is just plain nastiness and we should call it when we see it.

  2. wow what a wonderful analogy of the situation, I never thought of it this way (tho i did have a hankering that some of it was just hating fat woman, men too sometimes, because fat looks ugly and is associated with moral failing) but your right, it is about control,some experts and nannyiers really hate to see people happy no matter what they look like and yes they have to find a moral justification for harping and picking on obese people ‘for there own good of course’. if they didnt have this they would find some other way to oppress others in mass especially people considered beneath them.

    1. Lipstick Terrorist

      Thank you for the amazing compliment of offering me this award Jenness! I am truly touched. It’s inspired me to get back online in a time when I am finding it hard to commit to blogging. It is so lovely to feel appreciated and read. I accept and I will be posting tomorrow with my own 10 nominations.

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