Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Paula Deen, Shame, and Concern Trolling

This post is a part of my “Out of the Kitchen” weekly column at The Progressive Playbook in which various news and pop culture items will be examined through a feminist lens.

Hey y'all! Guess what! Paula Deen has diabetes.

In general, it makes me upset when this type of story makes the news. I'm not super concerned about people's personal health issues--I feel they are just that: personal. I think that an argument can be made that the timing of Deen's announcement is suspicious if her apparent partnership with a drug company proves to be true. And perhaps she is unethically marketing and branding her diabetes for profit. However, I'm not here to make those cases. In fact, I don't even want to delve into the particulars of Ms. Deen's disease. But I would like to use this as an opportunity to examine how we discuss when people in general, and fat women in specific, encounter a health issue.

To frame this discussion, I'd like to open with a tweet from Melissa McEwan. She said:
It might be worth considering that Paula Deen didn't disclose having diabetes b/c fat ppl who disclose "fat diseases" are viciously mock[ed].
Think about that for a moment. I have a feeling that any fat person can probably relate to this sentiment. If you are larger than what is considered a "normal" body weight, anything connected to your food consumption carries stigma in the public sphere. You begin to worry that you'll be judged for eating cake at a friend's birthday party or taking the elevator instead of the stairs, even when your thinner cohorts engage in those very things without a thought. Similarly, if you  actually do encounter any health issues, you are blamed for them (under the idea that all fat people are unhealthy.) This blame can take the form of our right mocking and fat shaming, as McEwan said. I did a quick Twitter search of "Paula Deen" to see what is being said. Here's a sampling of some Tweets I found:
  • "Everybody has something to say about Paula Deen. So she has diabetus, big deal. Breaking news: Fat people get fat people diseases."
  • "Paula Deen ate herself sick with all that fatty food."
  • "Paula Deen is a 64 year-old woman that eats loads of sugar and fat; it's sort of impressive she only got diabetes recently."
  • "paula deen is so gross."
  • "The first thing I see on tv today is Paula Deen's gross face. Ugh. Wish someone would throw a ham at her again."
  • "Paula Deen is a disgusting pig, so no wonder she turns her years of harming others into a business venture."
These Tweets fit into two camps, the first being that Deen got diabetes because she is fat, the second being that she is so gross. As for the first point, I've written numerous times about how someone's size is not a sole predictor of their health status. (If you care to read more on that subject, you can here or here.) Furthermore, Deen's personal eating habits are not public knowledge. While she does obviously profit off of comfort foods and caloric indulgences, there's no actual evidence that she eats those dishes on a regular basis. Do we assume that Rachael Ray eats only 30 minute meals?

But the other type of Tweet here (the "she is so gross" variety) makes it clearly evident that McEwan is right. A consequence of Deen's sharing is mockery. Buzzfeed is even showcasing 25 reasons why they're "not surprised" she has diabetes.  All of it just comes across as, "HAHA NASTY, FAT LADY. You got what your gluttonous ass deserves!"

This type of fat shaming is explicit. However, there are actually much more covert ways that people, like Deen, are shamed in these instances, and it comes in the form of concern trolling. As according to the Geek Feminism Wiki, a concern troll is "a person who participates in a debate posing as an actual or potential ally who simply has some concerns they need answered before they will ally themselves with a cause. In reality they are a critic."

Concern trolls love fat people! They always show up to throw in the assertion that they're just "worried" about someone's health in order to justify stereotypical beliefs about fat people or to make fat shaming comments. (For a great read with more information on the topic, check out Sleepydumpling's recent post on the difference between genuine concern and concern trolling.) Concern trolling is the type of mentality that is behind the controversial ads in Georgia which proclaim to be for healthy kids, but really just bully fat children.

However, it's obvious that it's important to create a culture which promotes health. To that end, I agree with Renee Martin over at Womanist Musings when she said:
I further believe that lecturing people about what they consume, either through choice or necessity, does not actually solve a damn thing.  The appropriate method is to ensure that healthy options are available and to educate people about the food they consume.  There is also the fact that even people who are aware and would choose healthier options don't have the time to cook.  This issue is so much more complex than Paula Deen and all of this shame and finger pointing does nothing to create a positive change.
(Emphasis mine.)

Listen, there are important discussions to be had about childhood health, proper nutrition, public health policy, and ethical eating. However, we are not going to get anywhere by continuing the discourse on health in a manner which shames fat people. We've been trying that for years, and where has it taken us?

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