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!

Who Cares That Lady Gaga’s Fat? Apparently, we do.

Since the revelation that Lady Gaga has put on weight, it seems like everybody has had something to say about her body. From the Daily Mail calling her “meaty” to feminists’ response to this fat shaming. It seems that Lady Gaga’s body is not her own. She is either so skinny it’s worrying, or fat enough to be laughed at. The media has been called out for fat-shaming a woman who has a history of eating disorders and feminists have jumped up in defence of Gaga’s extra pounds. I agree wholeheartedly with Jezebel that we should not criticise Lady Gaga’s body. But what right do we have to talk about it at all?

It’s true that I have been critical of Lady Gaga’s weight in the past. I thought that, amazing as she is, her super skinniness was not a good role model for the women who admire her. If even Lady Gaga has to be emaciated to be successful, what hope is there for the rest of us? I agreed with some of my friends’ celebration of her new, fatter figure. It’s great to see a curvier woman out there, kicking pop butt. But now, I am wondering, what right do I have to criticise Lady Gaga’s body at all?

Lady Gaga’s response to fat shaming, posted on her website, Little Monsters

It’s a sad fact that a woman’s body is not her own. It is never just the body of an individual, it always means something else. We scrutinise women’s bodies and attach values to their every (fat and thin) part. A woman’s body always has social meaning.

A woman is not only judged when she puts on weight, but also when she loses it. It’s not only emotionally unhealthy to force women to meet a super skinny ideal of beauty, but also to comment on her fat, or lack of, or eating habits at all.

As Ilona Burton said in the Independent, who cares about Lady Gaga’s fat? But the problem is, we all care, of course we do. Fat is a feminist issue. (Damn right Susie Orbach.) And it’s not only fat, dear readers. That’s fat, lack of it and the arbitrary rules we use to categorise each other as ‘fat’ or ‘thin.’

Let’s face it, this whole Lady Gaga scandal has nothing to do with the shape of her thighs. It’s about a successful woman. It’s about a 26-year-old woman who is one of the richest and most influential people in the world. Fat and beauty shaming are the most effective controls we have to keep women down. How many of us wouldn’t cry if we were told we looked fat in that outfit?

I can’t help but admire Gaga’s response to this outcry. On Tuesday, she came out as a recovering bulimic and anorexic and posted pictures of her in bra and pants on her website.  She then started a page on her site called Body Revolution (you need to sign up) and encouraged her fans to “post a photo of you that shows your triumph over insecurities”.  Gaga is now, along with Ashley Judd, one of my fave female celebs. To use this criticism as an opportunity to encourage us all to celebrate our freaky, beautiful bodies is wonderful. (You’ll probably never read me being so mushy again.) It brings a tear to this fatty’s eye.

an apology

In my post Burlesque: Sexy or Sexist? I made the argument that the pressure to be thin and its resultant effects on women’s bodies was similar to the experiences of a body in the Holocaust. That the anorexic body and the body in a concentration camp experienced a similar kind of starvation. Some of you guys found this comparison insensitive to those affected by and killed during the Holocaust, and argued that comparing anything with that genocide is inexcusable.

Rereading that article, I can see how phrasing this argument using the words ‘fun fact’ was insensitive and seemed to belittle the Holocaust. This was never my intention and the words were meant to be sarcastic, but they were a bad choice of words. As a non-Jewish person I can also accept that it’s not my place to use the Holocaust as an analogy in my contemporary feminist argument. I sincerely apologise for any pain caused.

I would also like to draw your attention to The Beauty Myth, the original source of this argument which I replicated. While I take full responsibility for my use of this argument in my own writing, I think Naomi Wolf addresses the history of starvation in a far more eloquent and sensitive way. As an American of Jewish descent, maybe she has more right to this language and history than I do.

On a slightly lighter note, I would like to draw attention to a video by one of my favourite male feminists, Jay Smooth which partly convinced me I should apologise. Y’all should check it out!