Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Whetting The Appetite

I'm closing in on being finished my MA thesis and a few people have expressed interest in reading it; others have expressed that its topic of inquiry is ridiculous or otherwise worthless. Soon both will be able to judge for themselves whether or not my argument - that fat people experience oppression in contemporary Western society - holds water. In the meantime, I felt I would post the introduction as an appetizer of the work to come. Every time I edited the intro it became more politically pointed - spicy, just the way I like it.

Let me know via facebook or email if you have any feedback - positive or negative. I'm all ears.


The Fat Liberation Manifesto, 1973 

In January 2012, Toronto mayor Rob Ford announced that he and his brother, city councillor Doug Ford, would both be publicly dieting together in order to kick off a city-wide weight loss challenge. The mayor, by his own admission, weighed well over 300 pounds, and his brother clocked in somewhere in the ballpark of 275. Both pledged to drop 50 pounds each by the middle of June, with periodic public weigh-ins to mark their progress towards this goal. Ostensibly, both were motivated by health concerns; Doug explained to a radio show at the outset of the diet that:
Rob has two young kids and I have four girls. We want to be around to watch them get married and be grandparents. If you're carrying this extra weight... it's not healthy. And we know that. (Bolen, 2012) 
But while concerns about their health were no doubt a motivating factor, there was definitely something else behind the two brothers' decision to make a public spectacle out of their weight loss: it was as much a political act as a personal one.

Since becoming mayor, Rob Ford has received a lot of criticism from the Canadian left (most of it valid, I would argue). But beneath many of the partisan disagreements over municipal policy, it was never hard to discern a deeper and more damning denunciation: Rob Ford is a bad mayor (and a bad person) because he is fat. Obviously Doug Ford and his brother could more readily locate nearby Tim Horton's outlets than local public libraries; their priorities (donuts) are painfully clear. Their fat, bloated bodies are physical manifestations of the conservative, corporatist political agenda they represent; the irony of a fat man like Rob Ford talking about 'halting the gravy train' of municipal spending is about as thick as the plaque inevitably clogging his arteries. Of course Rob Ford hates cyclists and pedestrians; he clearly hates all forms of exercise (Horel, 2011). In one of the more scathing indictments of Rob Ford's fat body, Toronto writer Ben Johnson declared “I believe that the fact that our mayor is fat is actually relevant to the debate about his competency to do his duties (...) [and] I think it speaks to a level of personal irresponsibility and short-sightedness” (Johnson, 2011).

Presumably, Mr. Johnson and his colleagues have felt their opinions vindicated now that Ford's highly public diet has concluded; a few weeks before he was due to weigh in for the final time on June 18th, Ford openly conceded on a radio program that he had quit his diet (a month earlier, he had been caught on camera entering a Kentucky Fried Chicken). In the end, Ford only lost about 17 pounds over the six-month period; his brother Doug managed to lose 35 pounds after reportedly dropping a 3-litre-a-day chocolate milk habit. Predictably[1], Ford's failed diet has again served as proof for his critics that he is incompetent both personally and politically, and that this incompetency has visibly manifested itself on his body. How can Rob Ford take care of Toronto, one wonders, if he can't even take care of himself?

The obscene fascination of many self-identified “progressives” with the size of Rob Ford's abdomen highlights an interesting phenomenon. I would wager that very few of the people who regularly use Ford's weight as a reason to question his competency as mayor would point to, say, former Alaskan governor Sarah Palin's personal (and political) ignorance as a symptom of her gender. Nor would they, I imagine, attempt to argue that Ottawa MP John Baird's abrasive performances in the federal cabinet are reducible (or even related) to his sexual orientation, or that any of Labrador MP Peter Penashue's political gaffes have occurred because he is Aboriginal. That many individuals who would otherwise not hesitate to denounce sexism, racism, classism, and homophobia have no problem explicitly and unabashedly claiming that Rob Ford is a bad person because he is a fat person speaks to just how powerful and pervasive the societal prejudices against fat people really are in the early 21st century. So powerful and pervasive, in fact, that they constitute nothing less than one of the many forms of oppression that fat people, collectively, experience in contemporary Western society.

'Fat people are oppressed' – that is the central argument of this treatise. Few people would argue that fat people can sometimes be treated poorly or otherwise stigmatized because of their size, but oppression? Public health officials have been warning us for over a decade that obesity is a deadly disease; media commentators remind us regularly that rising global obesity rates will take a terrible economic cost on our nation; popular culture buttresses both by portraying the fat body as repulsive and absurd (if they even portray it at all). The global obesity crisis mandates that although we might love the fat person, we must hate the fat.

 Against this received wisdom, I submit that the very notion of the 'obesity epidemic' is both a factor in, and product of, this oppression. The contemporary moral panic about obesity is the outgrowth of very old prejudices in Western thought against the 'horrors' of the flesh itself, translated now into the post-modern discourses of consumer capitalism and the biomedicalization of our society. It is also serves as the implicit intellectual legitimation for much of the exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural denigration, and violence to which fat people – in particular, fat women and minorities – are regularly subjected. Above all else, it is overblown; a critical reading of the medical literature on obesity suggests that the negative health risks associated with being overweight or even moderately obese are often greatly exaggerated.

These are radical claims for a fat-hating society, but – as I will argue – they are legitimate. Fat people, as a group, are regularly subjected to social, institutional, and cultural structures and power relations which adversely impact their quality of life and personal development. Fat children are, on the whole, subjected to more bullying than their thinner peers, and many are even ridiculed by their gym teachers (Rimm and Rimm, 2004); average-weight children who fear becoming fat may eat too little, become malnourished, and delay the onset of puberty (Pugliese et al., 1983). Fat teenagers are more likely to face humiliating and shaming experiences that can lead to depression (Sjöberg et al., 2005), teens who think they're not the “right” weight are more likely to contemplate or attempt suicide (Eaton et al., 2005), and disordered relationships with food are distressingly common among young women (Polivy and Herman, 1987). When it comes to higher education, high school counsellors are less likely to encourage fat students to apply for colleges, colleges are less likely to admit equally qualified fat applicants, and parents are less likely to pay a fat daughter's college tuition (Crandall, 1995).

Fat people do not fare much better in the workplace. In one survey, 93% of human resources professionals admitted they would hire a “normal weight” applicant over an equally qualified fat applicant, 15% said they would not promote a fat employee, and one in ten claimed it was acceptable to fire an employee for being fat (Wann, 2010). Fat women earn up to one-fourth less than their thinner co-workers (Cawley, 2000), and fat employees are regularly denied health insurance benefits and are pressured to resign or are fired for being fat (Rothblum et al., 1990). It is also more difficult for fat people to find housing – landlords are 50% less likely to rent to an equally qualified fat person (Karris, 1977). Perhaps most insidiously of all, anti-fat attitudes are often most deeply internalized (and most intensely expressed) by fat people themselves; in one psychological study of weight bias, fat people expressed significantly harsher judgements upon viewing an image of a thin man with a fat woman than average-weight people did (Gallagher et al., 2003). These are just a few of the concrete instances of fat oppression commonplace in Western society.

The social ontology of Iris Marion Young broadly encapsulates the systemic and structural processes which characterize fat oppression. Young's conceptualization of oppression – a multi-faceted phenomenon comprised of a complex set of historically situated, systematically reproduced social, economic, cultural and institutional power relationships – is brilliant; straightforward, expansive, and nuanced. Oppression occurs when relationships between social groups are characterized by exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism, and violence These are clear criteria for determining whether individuals and groups are oppressed; any claim of oppression can be assessed through “observable behaviour, status relationships, [economic] distributions, (…) and other cultural artifacts” (Young, 1990: 64). In this sense, they are 'objective' criteria and measurements of social oppression and injustice. The breadth of Young's theory makes it possible to evaluate the situations of various social groups, and makes it possible to compare different group oppressions without reducing them to a common essence, or claiming that one form of oppression is more 'fundamental' than another.

The presence of any of these five conditions is sufficient for calling a group oppressed. Different groups are subject to different combinations of these forms of oppression, as are different individuals within the groups themselves. And while these are general categories of oppression, causal explanations of a group's oppressions will always be particular and historical; “an explanatory account of why a particular group is oppressed in the ways that it is must trace the history and current structure of particular social relations” (ibid.: 65). Young's theory works because it builds on the insights of several important theoretical traditions in the study of oppression and ontology; namely, feminism, Marxism, psychoanalysis, critical race studies, and post-structuralism. The first chapter of this work will delineate the contours and import of Young's theory; specifically, how it explains the formation and dynamics of social groups, why oppression is best conceptualized at the level of social groups, and why these theories are indispensible for making and evaluating claims of social justice.

Once this basic intellectual foundation has been laid, the second chapter provides a historical overview of cultural and aesthetic conceptions of the fat body through Western history, the way in which fear and hatred of the fat body – that is, so-called 'fatphobia' – has come to be the dominant cultural attitude towards fat bodies in the contemporary period, and the implications of a fat-hating society for the very ontology of fat people. To be sure, one of the most important aspects of a study on fat oppression is that it exposes new dimensions in the central human question of embodiment; that is, the relationship of human subjectivity to the material body it inhabits. This question warrants recourse to psychoanalytic theory; I am in solidarity with philosopher Slavoj Žižek when he declares that “it is only psychoanalysis that can disclose the full contours of the shattering impact of modernity – that is, capitalism combined with the hegemony of scientific discourse – on the way our identity is grounded in symbolic identifications” (Žižek, 2006: 82). Here, I have deployed psychoanalysis to disclose the way subjectivity arises at the juncture of the human body and human socialization; it exposes the ontological trauma that comes with inhabiting a fat body in a culture that reduces it to a piece of abject trash.

The astute reader may have noticed by now that I have shown an unsettling deference to the term 'fat' ahead of 'obese' or any other euphemism. This choice of language is deliberate. There is nothing inherently bad about the word 'fat', and the extent to which 'fat person' (or especially 'fat woman') is read as a pejorative or offensive moniker is an index of cultural fatphobia. The word fat in common parlance is loaded down with moral signification: to be fat is to be lazy, sloppy, ugly, stupid, irresponsible, greedy, unhealthy, and wrong; it has become much more an accusation (or confession) of moral wickedness than a simple physical description. To use any of the assorted 'neutral' euphemisms commonly substituted in place of 'fat' (e.g. 'bigger', 'larger', 'person of size', 'curvy', etc.) would be to implicitly accept (and perpetuate) these fatphobic connotations. Similarly, to use the medical term 'obese' in its stead would be surrendering the ontological terrain to those who would argue that the fat body (and the fat person) is inherently a pathology, a clinical (and social) disease for which we must find a cure. Given that this work outlines and directly challenges societal fatphobia, my unabashed employment of the word 'fat' here is thoroughly political. Just as LGBT activists and intellectuals over the past twenty years have had considerable success in re-appropriating and transforming the term 'queer' from a homophobic slur into a positive and proud statement of subjectivity, I align myself with those fat activists (see; Braziel and Lebesco, 2001; Lebesco, 2004; Solovay and Rothblum, 2010; Bacon, 2010; Farrell, 2011) who would reclaim the word as a point of positive identification. If nothing else, the word's jarring appearance here underscores how deeply politicized and contentious the fat body is even at the level of basic semantic representation.

Much of the theoretical arsenal I wield in this analysis is greatly indebted to feminist theory. Recognition of the way that the female body (and the female subject) has historically been contorted and subordinated to oppressive, patriarchal power relationships is clearly one of the intellectual starting points for broader analyses into the way bodies and subjects are positioned and oppressed by social relationships; indeed, most of the early investigations into fat oppression come from feminists. This is because, as I will explore in the third chapter of this work, the experience of fat oppression is overwhelmingly gendered. Fear and hatred of the fat body has been inextricably linked to fear and hatred of the female body since the dawn of Western reason; fat women are in a particularly painful double-bind. Many feminists have argued that as restrictions have been lifted on what women are allowed to do, more constraints have been imposed on what women are allowed to look like. Fat women, by failing to make their bodies into objects of aesthetic and sexual pleasure, defy their gender roles; their occupation of public space puts them at odds with social conventions that mandate women make room for men. Even if they are not fat, women suffer the effects of fat oppression acutely. At its most benign, the fear of becoming fat locks many women into an endless repetition of self-monitoring and self-depreciation in the service of fatphobic beauty norms; at its most malignant, these misogynistic and fatphobic cultural norms converge in the explosion of eating disorders that has occurred across the West since the early 1980s. One need look no further than the emaciated body of the anorexic to see the obscene mirror image of contemporary femininity.

Certainly, no one would argue that anorexia and bulimia are not serious health concerns; but is not the larger epidemic of obesity an equally (if not more) serious problem? The last chapter in this work brings us to the question of the so-called obesity epidemic. Drawing on extensive reviews and critiques of the empirical research on obesity, it can be demonstrated that the dire pronouncements around the obesity crisis are largely overblown; the contemporary 'war on fat' has less to do with the strength of medical evidence and more to do with longstanding cultural prejudices against the fat body. Taken in historical perspective, contemporary hand-wringing about obesity is just the latest expression of very old fears about the decline of Western civilization; a century before opinion columnists would lament how televisions, computers, and fast food are making us lazy, fat, and decadent, commentators were regularly warning that telephones and elevators were having much the same effect. What is unique about the current moral panic surrounding obesity is the way that these cultural and medical prejudices have been transformed by the social forces of biomedicalization which permeate the late capitalist mode of production. Human health is now a commodity, and the value of your body (and your life) is measured with the Body Mass Index. In a consumerist society where everyone is always 'at risk' of succumbing to the “scourge” of obesity, it is ironically the dieter that turns out to be the consuming subject par excellence. As a matter of history, there are fat profits to be made from fat oppression.

These are bold claims; many of them are also moral. I take for granted the normative proposition that every human being should be equal in their basic life situation; I also take it for granted that many structures of oppression wrongfully permeate our society because of the ongoing stigmatization of human difference, and that these injustices are physically, psychically, and ontologically damaging. I would expect that these commitments are broadly shared by all political theorists insofar as they are committed to a vision of social justice signified by liberté, egalité, solidarité. As Young aptly formulates in Justice and the Politics of Difference, to the extent a society is divided by oppression, as theorists, we either reinforce or resist them; insofar as we allow oppressions to persist unexamined and unchallenged, our own freedoms are diminished.

I understand that this may be a lot to digest all at once; the “roast pigeons of absolute knowledge” (Marx, 1843) rarely go down easy, and in this instance, they are scandalously fattening. I can only hope that the intellectual feast I have prepared here will leave the reader satisfied.

Bon appétit.


[1] Despite the fact that up to 95% of all diets fail and that even successful weight-loss programs only produce, on average, a sustained (i.e. lasting more than five years) reduction of less than 3% of body weight (Anderson et al., 2001).

No comments: