This is a follow-up to my post on fat jokes in the liberal blogosphere, in which I shamelessly ripped off the far more eloquent Chris Clarke. But I only addressed part of Chris’s post; the rest I will discuss here. In the beginning of the post, Chris slammed those in the liberal blogosphere who will attack a conservative opponent’s weight or other physical characteristics as a cheap shot rather than the rather more satisfying target of their politics or shit-stupid ideas. Such focus is counterproductive, Chris argued, not only because it provides them with a legitimate complaint against the tolerance of liberals, but also because it alienates those of us who are also struggling with our weight. Our allies would never dream of making cracks about, say, Jewishness or blackness, but fatness? Fair game.
But here’s where Chris’s post switched gears, and because of that, I wanted to address it in a separate post:
Besides which, the anti-fat bigotry is at least out in the open and obviously vile. It’s some of the well-intended rhetoric of the fat acceptance movement by which I feel the most threatened.
Lemme say that I completely support the goals of the fat acceptance movement, without hesitation. The cruel jokes and insults should stop. Discrimination in the workplace should stop. Looksism is offensive, and not just because it’s a clumsy-ass word. The current skeletal ideal body image kills girls and women, and some men. The Body Mass Index is best suited to guide the fitness plans of some other species with more uniform physiques. Flatworms, maybe. Physicians should be more careful to restrict their recommendations to actual medical issues associated with obesity rather than esthetic value judgments. The diet industry should be made illegal. Women suffer the brunt of prejudice against the fat. Agreed, one hundred percent.
Being fat is rarely a sign of moral defect. I will venture that it is rarely a sign of inherent laziness, of particular gluttony, or of lack of willpower too far from the American median.
Yes, yes, YES. All of this is true. The issue of doctors attributing any and all problems to weight and not even bothering to look for the actual cause was illustrated by some of the comments to my post on my trip to the doctor for my immigration physical; my favorite was the advice Magis got to lose weight when he went in for an ear infection — and then finding out later his insurance denied coverage for the appointment, because they don’t cover weight-loss programs and the doctor had put down the reason for the visit being “weight-related.”
Health issues are a particular minefield when discussing weight and weight discrimination. On the one hand, you have situations like Magis’s, where the medical default is weight, and you also have a lot of anti-fat prejudice cloaked in “concern” for the “health” of fat people and the “obesity crisis.” And then there’s the fact that, for the most part, weight alone is not the cause of various ailments. But on the other hand, you have the fat acceptance stance that any discussion of health and weight is necessarily inherently anti-fat, a stance that tends to shut down discussion of larger issues.
But having made these assertions, some fat acceptance activists go on to claim that being obese is perfectly healthy. That I have problems with. I’m not talking about having a healthy and fleshy body mass whose existence is at odds with our anorexiophilic culture. I’m not talking about weighing twenty pounds more than you did on your wedding day.
I’m talking about obesity, the condition in which I found myself until this spring. Sometimes it’s a result of disability that prevents exercise, or other associated physical ailments. But for many, perhaps most of us obese people in the US, the condition is in large part the result of damage we suffer as the result of the structure of American society. We have been victimized, and to the degree the fat acceptance movement ignores the circumstances of that victimization while framing the damage it causes as “just fine,” that movement itself does further damage to people like me.
Shutting down discussion of obesity and health by insisting that it’s perfectly fine, there is no such thing as a healthy weight, etc., shuts down discussion of the factors that encourage people to be fat in the first place. Factors that tend to conceal societal problems that need to be addressed on a macro level rather than on an individual level, which is how they are now. Sheelzebub wrote about this last week in a terrific post in response to the infamous “pre-pregnant” federal health guidelines:
A friend of mine, a pediatrician who works in the inner-city, shocked a bunch of us when she told us about the morbidly obese kids she treated. Young kids in danger of developing, or already coping with, Type 2 diabetes.
The reaction was fairly typical. How can parents let their kids get like that? How can people make such awful choices? Maybe if they stopped eating McDonald’s all the time and move around more, they’d lose weight.
Then she pointed something out. “There are no grocery stores for my patients to get to,” she said. “Not unless the single mom wants to take her kids on a bus trip with two connections for an hour, get the groceries, and bring them back home on the bus, with her two kids.”
Oh, hey. Do that and buy milk and eggs. And maybe some meat, or frozen foods. Juggle those bags with a couple of restless kids in tow. On a bus, a transfer, and another bus.
Couple this with the lack of open and safe space for kids to play. No safe parks. Nada. Where are these kids going to run around? The hallways of their housing projects? The street?
These are societal problems, not individual ones. Yet the blame is usually placed not on the businesses that refuse to open in “inner-city” neighborhoods, or the governments that don’t provide sufficient public transportation to these neighborhoods, or the banks that redline these neighborhoods so that new businesses have a hard time opening, or the convenience stores that charge several times more for wilted produce in these neighborhoods than Whole Foods does in more affluent areas, but on the families themselves, or the individuals. Resorting to McDonald’s when McDonald’s is about the only business that will come into your area that sells food is seen as a moral failing, not a hard choice that must be made.
And we hear a lot about “sugary soft drinks” at public schools. Well, we didn’t have soda machines or candy machines accessible to students when I was a kid. Why are they there now? Because school funding has been slashed and corporations swooped in offering a cut of the profits from the soda and candy sales. And what cash-strapped school district could really turn that — or advertising for such products during educational TV programming shown in schools — down? Hell, many school districts, even relatively affluent ones, are canceling recess and cutting gym classes out. Kids don’t seem to have unsupervised play time like they did when I was a kid (get offa my lawn!). Not that I spend much time in the suburbs, but the suburban neighborhoods I’ve seen seem strangely devoid of kids, even when I know they’re there.
It doesn’t take much to get fat, just a hundred or so extra calories a day in excess of what you burn over a period of time will do the trick. And there are a hundred or so extra calories in a can of soda. It’s easier to blame the kid for drinking the soda or the school for selling the soda than it is to take a hard look at the underlying problem — the school isn’t getting enough funding.
In the same way, it’s easier for the fat acceptance movement to insist that being fat is just fine than to admit that there are health problems that are related to obesity and diet and that there needs to be honest discussion about the issue so that the moralizing is stripped from the picture and the systemic problems can be addressed rather than the individual ones. Chris again:
Every person is different, so every fat person is different. One man’s forty-pound beergut might be carried sustainably, while another’s might kill him in the medium term. There are no easy generalizations to make about those of us whose bodies tend toward roundness, some of whom are not even fat by any medical standard.
But for many of us, being obese is harmful. If a person might be hemorrhaging as a result of being stabbed in a mugging, the proper response is not to endorse the notion of Internal Bleeding Acceptance. The proper response is to determine whether the victim is in danger, correct that danger if it exists, and apprehend the assailant so that he can do no further damage. What I prefer instead is the notion of fat people’s liberation, addressing the social constructs that induce obesity in people like me, and providing ways to correct or counteract them. And if those methods also liberate some of us from obesity itself, so much the better. For me, accepting the blandishments of some in the Fat Acceptance Movement means accepting the damage that is done to me, and others like me, as inevitable and beyond criticism, and that I cannot do.
I said yesterday in my Fat Jokes post that we cannot exempt our friends and allies from criticism when they give voice to unexamined prejudices about weight or sex or queerness or what have you. The fat acceptance movement is no different. Some of the reaction to the “pre-pregnant” guidelines by people in the fat acceptance movement focused on the granting that all the guidelines in themselves were fine, including maintaining a healthy weight, but the idea of only addressing them because of potential pregnancy was infuriating. The reaction was one of outrage that the notion of a “healthy weight” should be accepted, not one of outrage that any health advice should focus on reproductive potential. But that outrage (and even the outrage over being treated as vessels waiting to be filled by a baby) was somewhat misplaced, and prevented the kind of examination of the root causes of health issues that Chris describes above and that Sheelzebub addressed here:
It’s one of the things that struck me about the now infamous WaPo article on “pre-pregnancy” care (their words) or “pre-conception care” (the CDC’s words). Women of childbearing age were advised to control their diabetes and asthma. Sure, it’s great advice, and more healthcare would certainly help those who have these illnesses. And so would decent living conditions–something no one likes to acknowledge. It’s so very un-American, actually admitting that some things are out of people’s control, that some things can’t be blamed on people, and that the blessed middle- and upper-classes aren’t paragons of virtue and self-discipline.
Anti-fat prejudice is real, and pervasive, but the answer is not to insist that being obese is always perfectly healthy. The answer is to insist on the provision of better health care and to address, honestly, the societal factors that lead to obesity as well as those that make the problem out to be one of individual choice and moral failing rather than a failure of many levels of society to address inequities in housing, health care, school funding and other issues. If we can’t even describe the problem, how can we find the solution?
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