Tuesday, May 15, 2012

What Has Fatphobia Done For Us Lately?

Have you heard about HBO's new documentary series "The Weight of the Nation?" I feel like I'm hearing about it every where this week. The marketing fairies are out in full force for this one.

Unfortunately, I don't have HBO so I didn't get to catch it (the four part series ran last night and today.) So far, however, I am deeply concerned about the marketing for the film, which displays it at yet another voice telling fat people we are the enemy.

From the film's website, here is a rundown of what is covered:
The first film, CONSEQUENCES, examines the scope of the obesity epidemic and explores the serious health consequences of being overweight or obese. The second, CHOICES, offers viewers the skinny on fat, revealing what science has shown about how to lose weight, maintain weight loss and prevent weight gain. The third, CHILDREN IN CRISIS, documents the damage obesity is doing to our nation’s children. Through individual stories, this film describes how the strong forces at work in our society are causing children to consume too many calories and expend too little energy; tackling subjects from school lunches to the decline of physical education, the demise of school recess and the marketing of unhealthy food to children. The fourth film, CHALLENGES, examines the major driving forces causing the obesity epidemic, including agriculture, economics, evolutionary biology, food marketing, racial and socioeconomic disparities, physical inactivity, American food culture, and the strong influence of the food and beverage industry.
Truthfully, there are some topics of this series which I am concerned about. I really do care about "agriculture, economics, evolutionary biology, food marketing, racial and socioeconomic disparities, physical inactivity, American food culture, and the strong influence of the food and beverage industry" but I refuse to unduly focus this attention on fat people. As I've argued what feels like a bazillion times, fat doesn't automatically mean unhealthy and thin doesn't automatically mean healthy. If we want to examine these very real problems in our society, we do ourselves a big injustice by placing almost all of the attention on body size.

Yesterday, I caught one of the filmmakers giving an NPR interview. He was discussing how he wants to raise awareness about the "epidemic of obesity" just like the campaigns which raised awareness of the problem of smoking or breast cancer. The problem with this comparison, however, is that calling out the habit of smoking or the disease of breast cancer is not at all similar the disparagement and othering of an entire body type.

As Ragen Chastain wrote about the documentary:
Let’s be clear -  they are pathologizing a body size. It doesn’t matter if they say that we need to seek solutions environmentally instead of at the individual level, or if they say that we should have “compassion” for fat people – they are still telling people that is is not ok to exist in fat bodies and that they should see fat bodies as a threat to America. There are tons of thin people who eat unhealthy foods and are sedentary (which is completely their right), but as far as the government is concerned, as long as you are thin you’re part of the “solution,” feel free to do whatever you want. They want people to look at me (and you, if you’re fat) and think “She is part of a catastrophe.  She is threatening almost every aspect of our lives. The first step toward ending the damage is learning how to fight back against her.”
I can't help but feel similar to Chastain. All of this truly feels like an attack on bigger people.

And so I ask this genuinely: what has fat phobia done for us lately?

We know that contemporary American society has always hated fat people. We know this because they are the butt of jokes. They are associated with laziness, ugliness, undesirability, disgust, gluttony, and sloth. They are sneered at with contempt. They are nearly invisible in the mainstream media. Already thin women are photoshopped to near nothingness in magazines and on billboards. Celebrities who gain weight are endlessly mocked. We're all marketed billions of dollars in weight loss pills, TV shows, books, diets, etc. under the premise that bigger bodies are wrong. I could go on and on and on and on.

...and yet, we are still an extremely unhealthy nation. It seems to me that we haven't shamed away fatness despite our best efforts at that heinous task. So could it be that bigger bodies are just a normal variation of human size?

Here's the key: we absolutely must separate fatness and unhealthiness and not talk about them as  synonymous if we want to really get at the root of what's going on. And we've got to try something new. I mean, seriously? How long will we bang our heads against the wall?

I want to talk about the importance of physical activity, the problem of food deserts, the intersection of poverty and poor health, the control wielded by companies which market highly processed foods. I really do. But I don't want that discussion to operate under a counterproductive backdrop of "fat people are the problem." So I'm going to watch the documentary. (ETA: I just realized I can stream it online!) I'm going to take it in and think about it and I hope I will learn something from it. But I will reject any argument which is based in fat stigma. I will always reject arguments which operate from the perspective that there's a wrong way to have a body. There's no wrong way to have a body.

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