Wednesday, June 22, 2011

fat acceptance and political theory

Okay! This is the text of an email I sent to my supervisor outlining literally all of my thoughts on approaching the Fat Acceptance movement as a question of critical political theory. Obviously this is a work in progress (I have yet to hear back from him telling me I'm full of shit, etc.) so the way this topic gets discussed is subject to change (I'll be really surprised if I can keep all the 'wacky' Lacanian theory in there). But I personally think it's pretty good, at least as a really broad outline based on reading 1.5 books, haha.

The subject of 'fat acceptance' is an increasingly prevalent question within identity politics circles and I think it definitely warrants some attention from the field of political theory. Is this really just a question of healthcare policy and the administration of a public health crisis, or does it really make sense to think of fat people as a social group subject to its own oppressions and in need of some particular political or legal protections?

I feel like this is the foundational question for any investigation into the subject.

First, I feel like it is important to address the question of whether or not obesity is a 'disease' (that is, accepting it as a medical condition/problem), or whether fatness should be considered as just one other largely aesthetic difference between human bodies. Obviously where one falls on this question will play a major part in determining how political theory can deal with the fat acceptance movement.

Gard and Wright (2008) provide an excellent overview of this question. They have a very comprehensive survey of the established empirical research on the relationship between obesity, weight loss, physical activity, and overall health; based on their overview[1], the current state of obesity science is, at best, significantly more ambiguous, inconclusive, and generally counter-intuitive than the layperson might assume and, at worst, a (Foucauldian) discourse perforated with unfounded normative and aesthetic biases.

According to Gard and Wright, while there is a connection between general well-being and physical activity, the relationship between these two factors and obesity is generally overblown; while obesity does correlate with the presence of heart disease, diabetes, and other medical problems, there is little or no evidence to indicate that obesity is a causal factor for these diseases (that is, 'obesity' is a spurious variable). Empirically, there are no conclusive links between physical activity (or lack thereof) and obesity/weight loss, nor between obesity and overeating; moreover, the risk of mortality associated with obesity appears to be minimal at best. In all, their research would indicate that the medical concern over obesity is substantially overblown, and that instead our popular thinking about the 'obesity epidemic' is ultimately just a moral panic. Based on their work, 'obesity' appears to be as much a pathological disease as shortness or homosexuality.

While Gard's and Wrights' conclusions are important to the discussion on whether or not fat people (as a social group) suffer discrimination, I think the best way to proceed with elaborating this argument is to return to this later and instead focus on exactly how fatness could be an identity in the political sense. Specifically, this will fall back on a more abstract discussion on the very nature of identity (especially when conceived socio-politically), human subjectivity and what 'identity politics' might entail from a critical perspective.

In particular (off the top of my head), I will be engaging with Iris Young's definition of a social group (from Justice and the Politics of Difference, 1990), as well as the Lacanian-Marxist conceptions of human agency and subjectivity made famous by Slavoj Zizek. Although coming from very different intellectual backgrounds, it is my wager that there is substantial common ground between the critical strain of Anglo-American political philosophy and the critical Continental traditions of psychoanalysis and Marxist social thought, and that establishing this intellectual dialogue is one of the urgent tasks of contemporary political philosophy. Above all, I believe that both these overarching conceptual apparatuses bring useful intellectual tools for thinking about fatness as an identity, and in elaborating the theoretical and practical consequences of this position.

At the outset, I think 'fat people' as a social group is a tenable position – it fits Young's criteria (ontologically prior to an individual in a way which 'defines' parts of that individual to a greater or lesser extent, an effect of social relations, subject to a calculus of privilege/oppression, etc.)[2]. Not only that, but 'fatness' as a social identity intersects with other loaded forms of social identity – particularly gender and class – to add new dimensions to already existing forms of oppression[3].

Obviously, the discussion won't be quite so straightforward when it is actually put together. In order to elucidate both the foundational theory of identity and each particular form of oppression being discussed, and to connect both into a very tight understanding of the totality of the issue, I will need to build on everything dialectically. Having first outlined how fatness can be conceptualised as a social identity (as opposed to being 'diseased'), the first logical step is to define oppression, and how a social group can be oppressed. Young (1990) again provides a good starting point here with a very systematic and rigorous definition of oppression; from the perspective of the fat acceptance movement, there is definitely an element of marginalisation (e.g. Schwartz et al. (2003) confirm a prevalence of both implicit and explicit “weight prejudice” among many health professionals, etc.), some 'lighter' forms of violence[4] as she defines it (verbal abuse, etc.), and what she calls 'cultural imperialism' (although the colloquial term 'shaming' might fit better in this particular case) in the sense of being subjected to cultural norms that are demeaning or otherwise damaging or oppressive, etc. There is also definitely a case to be made for something resembling exploitation as Young (following Marx) defines it, but with a specifically Lacanian twist; that is, the manipulation of jouissance (Enjoyment), driven by the processes of the accumulation of Capital. This last argument is fairly complex, and in order to get to that point I will have to steadily build up to it, starting first by analyzing the most well-documented case of fat prejudice: the intersection of fatness and femininity.

There is (comparatively) an extensive literature on the stigmatization of fatness as a feminist issue. Indeed, most of the forms of oppression related to fatness have traditionally been almost primarily borne by fat women (although increasingly men are also beginning to experience many of the same problems). A major theme here is the way stigmatizing fatness is one of the most effective means of policing (or disciplining, in the Foucauldian sense) the feminine body; and, considering the scientific categorization of fatness qua 'obesity epidemic', this disciplinary power is only expanding. So both the liberal (body image, self-respect, etc.) and radical (obesity science as a Foucauldian discourse for reproducing sexist social norms, etc.) feminist critiques will be engaged here.

I think there is room here also to discuss these feminist critiques in light of the particular focus on childhood obesity, as it serves as a good illustration for many of the arguments introduced up to now. First and foremost, the survey of the literature provided by Gard and Wright (2008) indicates a tendency among many academic researchers (as well as popular authors) to pin responsibility for this 'health crisis' on parents – specifically, mothers (the 'single working mother' is the target of a number of polemics against childhood obesity), which is the touchstone of a number of feminist critiques. Moreover, many anti-obesity measures enacted in schools ('public weighings' during physical education classes, barring obese students from purchasing food at the cafeteria, etc.) have particularly perverse effects; not only are larger students alienated from their peers, but it serves to integrate young children (especially girls) into the disciplinary practice of policing the body[5].

This emphasis on the control, monitoring, and disciplining of the fat body leads to the next discussion about the political economy of Enjoyment and desire in the liberal democracies of late capitalism. This is a lot to unpack, but necessary to understand all the implications of considering fatness politically; ultimately, I will argue that it is the link between the current 'obesity epidemic' mania and the (Capital-structured) administration of Enjoyment that elevates fatness from being just another contingent, “identifying” feature of a human being (e.g. baldness, height, etc.) to a fully politicized social identity.

Much of the discursive practices surrounding fat people (women, in particular) centres on notions of enjoyment; most people intuitively 'know' that obesity is the result of 'over-indulgence', a fat person is seen to have 'let themselves go', etc. Correspondingly, much of the more 'orthodox' liberal strain of fat activism is dedicated to fighting the negative stereotypes of fat people as lazy, gluttonous, unhygienic, etc.; for some, the message of fat acceptance is 'accept those of us who are trying to lose weight/'live a healthy lifestyle' – who do not enjoy their fatness – but for whatever reason (genetics, etc.) cannot.'[6]

Framing this all in terms of the politics of jouissance highlights that this is a pathological position to adopt; subdividing 'fat people' into 'good' and 'bad' only perpetuates the cycles of oppression described earlier – it leads to an acceptance of 'fat people' insofar as they are not responsible for their fatness and, if given the opportunity, would not be fat. In this way, the normative and aesthetic bias against the fat body is actually reinforced; following Alain Badiou (2001), if fat acceptance is to mean anything at all (hence my preference for the term 'liberation' above 'acceptance'), it must include the acceptance of those who do explicitly Enjoy their fatness in contravention of social norms.

This leads into a broader discussion about the ways jouissance is ordered and structured through social relations in the parliamentary democracies of late modern capitalism. This will entail a discussion of the way in which Slavoj Zizek has meshed 'traditional' Marxist political economy with Lacanian psychoanalysis in a way that allows us to outline the general theory of a dialectical relationship between human subjectivity and the accumulation of Capital.

The policing of the fat body has its own role(s) to play in the reproduction of capitalist social relations. The elevation of fatness into an object of significant libidinal investment for many people (possibly the vast majority, at least among women) subjects the individuals to the logic of the 'superego injunction to enjoy', generating not only vast amounts of anxiety but also an endless pursuit of some way – any way – to successfully lose or keep off weight that is an increasingly lucrative market[7]. Moreover, there is an established link between fatness and social class; most empirical studies demonstrate that more affluent individuals are thinner and that obesity rates are higher among the working class[8]. The larger implications of this intersection of fatness and class is something that warrants an investigation, particularly in this discussion on the role of fat stigma in the reproduction of capitalism.

This would basically wrap up the discussion on oppression. By this point I will hope to have established a firm ontology of the human subject and the logic of identification, as well as a thorough social ontology for life in late capitalism. I also hope that this theory will demonstrate that analytic and Continental political philosophy are basically commensurable, and that establishing this connection produces invaluable new ways of conceptualizing political problems.

I would like at this point to address some of those problems, and start thinking about some solutions. This section is sort of ambiguous now, but I imagine that once I spend some time extensively thinking about the problems, some sense of practical policy should emerge. Already there are a few off the top of my head (including weight/size in anti-discrimination legislation, cultural/aesthetic movements to show the fat body in a positive light, etc.) and I am confident that after a more thorough review of the literature there will be something a little more concrete here.

In all, this is the rough outline of my thoughts on this topic going forward. I think 'fat liberation' definitely works as a good, practical political problem which can be addressed concisely by political theory; I believe a convincing case can be made that this involves instances of legitimate oppression and affronts to justice and liberty. Obviously while the specific details of the argument remain to be hammered out, I think the general thrust I have outlined here is a good rough guide for writing this thesis.


[1] The primary sources of which will admittedly need to be verified, but methodologically their book is sound, they are both academics working in the field of health science and human kinetics, and it is extremely well-sourced.
[2] And I feel the impact of these points are all better elucidated through recourse to Lacanian psychoanalysis...
[3] The intersection of fatness and gender is already well documented by a number of feminists, for instance.
[4] A recourse to Zizek (2006) here is useful. He highlights three distinct forms violence can take: subjective, objective, and symbolic. For the purposes of this discussion, we would be mostly dealing with the latter two.
[5] It is worth noting here that a recent study of young students in Taiwan found that almost 16% of children aged 10-12 had used self-induced vomiting as a weight loss method (Mei Liou, 2011).
[6] This is presumably to address the criticism that 'fat acceptance' represents a social danger – encouraging people to live unhealthy/'unfulfilled' lives, etc.
[7] Paul Campos (2003) estimates the value of the diet industry to be in the ballpark of $40 billion (US) a year in the United States alone; it is worth noting also that a lot of research in the field of obesity science is funded by companies with a vested interest in the weight-loss industry. This, of course, is to say nothing of the rise in increasingly invasive (and dangerous) private weight-loss surgeries...
[8] Again, the 'single working parent [mother] and her [neglected] obese children' emerges as a demonized figure here.

1 comment:

DRT said...

Nice! You should present this to the reading group!! YEAH!