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Confronting Capitalism through Feminist Fat Acceptance

September 8, 2010

Despite being a longtime denizen of the feminist blogosphere, it wasn’t til last year that I learned about the Fat Acceptance (FA) movement. (Also called Health At Every Size (HAES) or Fat Liberation. Fat Fu, The Fat Nutritionist, Fatshionista, and Shapely Prose are good places to start if you’re unfamiliar.)

The connection clicked immediately.  In our society, fat people get discriminated against (and dehumanized) in ways that intersect with gender and other dimensions of body politics.  Duh.  Bonus: the fatosphere bloggers I’ve come across are funny and really good writers.

And today, thanks to a post by wickedday, a guest blogger at Feministe, I made another big thinky-type connection: this time between fat-shaming and capitalism.

Basically, what the fat-shaming helps to do is obscure the bald hypocrisy of a capitalist society that claims to care about people’s dietary health (e.g. fighting “the obesity epidemic” on the level of ‘education’ and personal lifestyle choices), while generating enormous profits from food industries that are fundamentally health-hazardous, environmentally devastating, and/or horribly inhumane (processed and genetically modified foods; hormone-filled factory meats; subsidized corn for corn syrup, etc. etc. etc.).  And using super-exploited immigrant labor to do a lot of it.

Now, this isn’t a new argument among FA feminists, but my perspective extends wickedday’s outline of the parallels between slut-shaming and fat-shaming, placing a greater emphasis on the historical and material basis for both.  By most FA accounts I’ve read, fatphobia comes from some combination of hatred, thin privilege, and jealousy: as wickedday puts it, the idea that “it is agonising to look at someone ignoring the rules that you punish yourself with, and still being happy.”

At the moment I’m more curious about bigger-picture causes.  The macro-relationships.  Because, as I say in my comment (copied below), as much as we might argue that our bodies are none of their business, as long as we live under capitalism, their business is precisely what our bodies are.

kloncke 9.7.2010 at 5:31 pm

Loving this post, and wondering if anyone else is interested in bringing the analysis toward the realm of political economy? I’m trying to figure out plausible, material reasons *why* the hegemonic discourse is so concerned with fat-shaming and slut-shaming.

Because on one hand, from an ethical perspective, “my body” (in terms of its size and sexual activity) is none of “your business.”

But from a point of view of class struggle in a capitalist context, “my body” as a vehicle for the commodity of labor-power (and/or the reproduction of labor-power; i.e. childbearing and domestic work) is *precisely* “your business” (“you,” the capitalist class) — in the sense that it is the source of the surplus value that capitalists (who are almost entirely men) extract as profit. No wonder the state (largely synonymous with the capitalist class) monitors the bodies of its labor force a.k.a. profit machine.

From a Marxist-feminist perspective, the ruling class under capitalism has a vested interest in regulating the reproduction of labor-power (in other words, the babymaking of future workers of all genders) by controlling the bodies of childbearers (historically, women). Capitalism itself requires this subjugation in order to maintain a wage-based system propped up by unwaged, naturalized domestic work (“the second shift”).

So, that might be one angle on a materialist explanation for slut-shaming under capitalism: as one of many tools for regulating the production of labor-power.

And again, on a bigger-picture scale, we can notice the discursive and legal differences between interpersonal slut-shaming in the white middle- and upper-classes of dominant capitalist states (more individualized, personal, or classist), versus the whole-cloth patriarchal bigotry against women of color, queer people, and immigrant women as immoral, hedonistic, irresponsible, sex-obsessed, devious, and culpable for global overpopulation and the dissolution of “The Traditional Family”— as a group.

Now, one question is: if the capitalists want more labor-power (which starts out in the form of baby workers-to-be), then why would they disproportionately slut-shame people of color, who reproduce the majority of the super-exploited labor-power in the world?

During colonial expansion, capitalists and aspiring capitalists forcibly bred people of color in order to expand commodity production capacities.

But maybe under today’s neo-colonialism, since the dominant world commodities are no longer material products but fictive capital (i.e. debt, investments, and other financial stuff), slut-shaming is evolving out of the racist patriarchal discourse that justified white-supremacist rape. Whereas before, painting non-white women as lustful justified raping and breeding them, now in many contexts it justifies deporting, sterilizing, and de-funding them (through stereotypes like the welfare queen that rationalize cutting away at the social safety net).

So if we take this type of materialist (and class-struggle-based), feminist perspective on slut-shaming, how do we see fat-shaming as similar and/or different?

To offer one idea, I don’t think it has to do with regulating labor-power or its reproduction in any meaningful way. First of all, being fat doesn’t necessarily mean being less productive as a worker. Also, with outsourcing and globalization, the dominant capitalist nations increasingly rely on commodity production from Global South/ThirdWorld countries, where, as far as I understand, fat-shaming is less of an issue, especially compared to malnutrition. (Please correct me if I’m wrong on that.)

In the countries where fat-shaming is rampant, I suspect it might have more to do with justifying the internal contradictions of capitalism itself: i.e., making it about why are people fat or thin, versus why do some people have access to healthy foods and environments, while others are deprived of them through structural violence.

Silvia Federici has a good quote on this general idea in her Introduction to Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation:

For capitalism must justify and mystify the contradictions built into its social relations — the promise of freedom vs. the reality of widespread coercion, and the promise of prosperity vs. the reality of widespread penury — by denigrating the ‘nature’ of those it exploits: women, colonial subjects, the descendants of African slaves, the immigrants displaced by globalization.

And fat people!

Denigrating people through their fatness — painting fatness as primarily a personal choice or failing (in classic neoliberal fashion) — helps to obscure, as others have said in the thread, the classist structural violence of of food deserts, a for-profit medical industry, environmental degradation, dangerous working conditions, and most of all the basic reality that the ruling classes profit from the exploitation of labor, while all other classes must either work or starve.

So, in longwinded conclusion (sorry! :), I totally empathize with the desire to reclaim body size and sexuality as private issues — as spaces for personal expression, taste, and fulfillment, that are none of anyone else’s business. But at the same time, I feel like there are historical and material reasons, not just arbitrary aesthetic/ideological ones, why that’s not the current cultural reality. So the more we understand those material reasons, the better we can contend with them and transform some shit! Yay. :)

Thanks again to Atheling for the bad-ass and hilarious post, and to everyone for all the wonderful insights and food for thought! This has really helped me out in a major way with the HAES feminism.

21 Comments leave one →
  1. September 8, 2010 5:41 am

    This is an amzing post and it brings a lot of key points in fatphobia and how it plays in our society. Love it!!!

  2. nathan permalink
    September 8, 2010 8:10 am

    Hi Katie,

    The connections you’ve made here are totally fascinating, and make a lot of sense. I have to say I’ve been struggling with the posts I have seen on these issues, and can’t quite pinpoint what exactly it is that gets under my skin exactly. I’ll try and put what I have now out there because as someone who has long had an interest in food and health, I think it’s imperative I figure some of this stuff out.

    In the Fat Acceptance posts I have seen on Feministe, for example, there seems to be a highly individualistic strand running throughout. It doesn’t control the whole narrative, but certainly disrupts it in ways that perhaps undermines the liberating potential. The post by Monica was almost all about individuals, and certainly had it’s share of stereotypically shoddy lines (such as the fat runners line). I’m not terribly interested in that post actually, but wanted to bring it up as a contrast to Zuzu’s post, which has a lot of good stuff in it, but still pushed a few buttons for me.

    “Now, given that my weight tends to rise when I’m not in a healthy place, am I unhealthy because I’m gaining weight, or am I gaining weight because I’m doing unhealthy things?

    And more to the point: what does it really matter? In other words, what’s it to you?”

    What’s it to me? Well, in a lot of ways, it is none of my business. However, this what’s it to you attitude has an underlying tension to it. First off, if it’s ok to let your health go to shit, then what about the expensive, potentially unpayable medical bills, or the adding to the high cost health insurance rates? These are definitely systemic, capitalist issues and blaming any one individual isn’t gonna change them. But if we agree that the system is shit, and needs to be changed, then what? And where does individual responsibility lie? That’s the rub for because I get really wary when arguments slide 100% towards the system or society being the issue. We are all part of the society or system in some manner or another, and thus have a piece of responsibility for it in some fashion.

    The second rub with the same argument is if a person has 100% freedom to let their health go to shit (and I see this really as beyond the thin-fat paradigm because drug addicts, for example, often use similar arguments), then what about one’s relationships to others? What about connections to family, friends, co-workers? There’s something a bit self-absorbed about saying I’m free to fuck myself up, thank you very much. It just doesn’t jibe, for example, with what I’ve learned in Buddhism.

    I’m willing to admit that I could be reading all of this the wrong way. I’m well aware of the efforts being made by fat folks to, for example, reclaim their bodies from the gawking, judgmental public at large, and in the case of both of the posts in question, from medical professionals who have swallowed a very narrow view of what a healthy body looks like.

    Another struggle along these lines is the tension between fat and obese. We don’t, as a society, seem to have a good read on this. What I see are two extremes. On the one hand, you have the “Obesity crisis” folks who are pinching every last pound on people, trying to say that only the thin and average could possibly be healthy. On the other hand, you have some of the Fat Acceptance crowd saying anything goes, and how dare anyone question that. (I’ve read academic essays by a few people in the Fat Acceptance field that are basically saying this.) Neither of these views seems healthy to me.

    Finally, there is the point you made about the Global South – and really, I’ve seen little analysis about issues of wealth and privilege, and how the very possibility of becoming a fat person is privileged, no matter where one lives.

    So, I guess I really struggle with how to balance for example, the prevalence of “food deserts” in major U.S. cities with both the individual privilege I see , as well as the collective and largely unexamined food wealth in nations like the U.S. – which is directly linked to food poverty in other nations, given our reliance on imported food and also imported corn/soy/etc for fuel and livestock feed.

    Thanks for listening.

    Nathan

  3. September 8, 2010 12:37 pm

    Hey boo, this is hella interesting! I think it’s very clear, especially this:

    “But from a point of view of class struggle in a capitalist context, “my body” as a vehicle for the commodity of labor-power (and/or the reproduction of labor-power; i.e. childbearing and domestic work) is *precisely* “your business” (“you,” the capitalist class) — in the sense that it is the source of the surplus value that capitalists (who are almost entirely men) extract as profit. No wonder the state (largely synonymous with the capitalist class) monitors the bodies of its labor force a.k.a. profit machine.
    From a Marxist-feminist perspective, the ruling class under capitalism has a vested interest in regulating the reproduction of labor-power (in other words, the babymaking of future workers of all genders) by controlling the bodies of childbearers (historically, women). Capitalism itself requires this subjugation in order to maintain a wage-based system propped up by unwaged, naturalized domestic work (“the second shift”).”

    Totally right on.

    This though I have some reservations about:

    “But maybe under today’s neo-colonialism, since the dominant world commodities are no longer material products but fictive capital (i.e. debt, investments, and other financial stuff), slut-shaming is evolving out of the racist patriarchal discourse that justified white-supremacist rape. Whereas before, painting non-white women as lustful justified raping and breeding them, now in many contexts it justifies deporting, sterilizing, and de-funding them (through stereotypes like the welfare queen that rationalize cutting away at the social safety net).”

    Hmm. So I think it’s true that fictitious capital (I think that’s the right term although I don’t know much about this) plays a dominant role in the world economy…..this is basically a complex science with the goal of manipulating the relationship between money and real value to the benefit of different sectors of the global capitalist class. It’s unclear to me, and incredibly complicated, how that actually shakes out.

    But, there still is a real economy (i.e. actual services and commodities) of people producing value through work that underlies the “fictitious” financial sector. The capitalist class are always trying to make people useful to capital in some way (sometimes by killing them). Somewhere in Caliban (I think) Federici examines how in the US South their policy towards slave women changed with changing labor needs. In times when the slave trade was going strong, women were provided birth control, given forced abortions etc. etc…..I think because birthing a kid was a huge waste of labor for an investment that would take too long and not have very good chances of maturity. After the slave trade was cut off though, slave breeding became very important, and abortions for slaves were outlawed. I think modern variations in kinds of slut-shaming, like variations in immigration policy and enforcement, might track to:

    1) Changes in the needs of the labor market in particular places.

    2) The patriarchal capitalist need to terrorize and discipline women (immigrants) to not struggle and submit to home and work discipline

    3) Also being a slut is (often) a nonconsuming form of human relations, and an implicit challenge to patriarchal domination of women, which is a whole nother political-economic question.

    Work is heating up so I gotta go, but really interested in this discussion, thanks to all the feminists who’ve started it, and Katie for continuing. <3

  4. September 8, 2010 2:50 pm

    @heatheraurelia13: Thanks! :)

    @nathan: Thanks for these questions — my own grasp on all this stuff is not terrific yet, so these kinds of conversations really help me think through my own stuff. Gracias!

    Ok, so. I think two of the important things to keep in mind through all of this are that (1) A fat appearance is a magnet for prejudice and abuse that is largely condoned in society. And (2) Being fat and being unhealthy are two different things.

    So on the individual responsibility versus critiquing the system: Fat and thin people, and people of all levels of health and unhealth, can take responsibility by organizing strategically and effectively against the system. Synthesis!

    When this starts happening in a deeper way, it frees us up to put the individual diet-and-exercise stuff in proper perspective: as complex personal processes in the quest for joy and fulfillment.

    Part of what I take from Buddhism is that shaming other people is harmful not only to them, but to ourselves. That’s why the area of sila, or morality, is not about condemning people for doing things wrong, but simply noticing for ourselves — noticing deeply — what are the mental and physical consequences when we perform different types of behaviors.

    So when I hear FA folks saying “It’s my body to fuck up if I want to,” I don’t see that at odds with a dhammic view that says everyone must live out the consequences of their own actions.

    Does this mean we can’t be compassionate toward others? Concerned about their welfare! Of course not! And nobody in HAES is saying that. The point is, there’s a big difference between looking at someone fat and assuming that because they are fat, they are unhealthy, undisciplined, depressed, etc. So instead of looking at fat and body size as an indicator of how someone is doing, we learn to compassionately inquire.

    How are you? How’s your health?

    Fat people as well as thin people go through different phases of healthy and unhealthy behaviors. My best friend is fat by some social standards, but when we talk about our health with each other, it’s a two-way, mutual question. Because we’re friends.

    It’s never about body size. (Unless we’re talking about body insecurities, which is different from physical health.) Instead, it’s about, “I’ve been eating delicious vegetables lately;” “I’ve been riding my bike a lot more/less;” “I’ve been eating a ton of dairy and getting lots of stomachaches;” “I need to go get a PAP smear;” “I’ve been feeling sluggish all month and I’m thinking of seeing an acupuncturist.”

    When we get down to health specifics, delving deeply and compassionately into each other’s lived experiences, fatness and thinness just become less important.

    Does that make sense? I could be mischaracterizing the FA line, but that’s basically how it’s worked out for me in my own life.

    @Ryan: I love thinking through these things with you. Thanks for bringing it from the email to the blog realm. ♥

    I wonder whether, with the change in policies toward slave reproduction, there was a corresponding change in “slut-shaming.” I mean, the term is hardly even applicable in that context, I’m realizing, because were they being intentionally “shamed” or just described in a way that was shameful? But anyhow, I have a feeling that the rhetoric probably stayed fairly constant even as the policies toward it shifted — i.e., during the time for limiting reproduction, the idea being to shut down the voracious and disgusting sexuality of the slave (like putting a cap on a gushing fire hydrant), and during a time for increased breeding, to simply make productive use of that same voracious and animalistic sexuality. Same slut, same shame, different orientations toward it?

    What do you think?

    Anyone else have insights on this?

    Thanks again, everyone, and to everyone who’s reading! I’d love to hear your thoughts!

  5. nathan permalink
    September 8, 2010 3:49 pm

    “I think two of the important things to keep in mind through all of this are that (1) A fat appearance is a magnet for prejudice and abuse that is largely condoned in society. And (2) Being fat and being unhealthy are two different things.” Right on. I’m right with you on both of these.

    “Part of what I take from Buddhism is that shaming other people is harmful not only to them, but to ourselves. That’s why the area of sila, or morality, is not about condemning people for doing things wrong, but simply noticing for ourselves — noticing deeply — what are the mental and physical consequences when we perform different types of behaviors.” I’m right there with you on shaming being harmful. In fact, it doesn’t really produce the kind of changes people want to see anyway. Someone might act differently in the short term, but the core struggles aren’t addressed because they are just reacting to the shame, and not seeing into the nature of things.

    I do think the sila teachings can lead to condemning certain actions though. Certainly, it begins with deep noticing in your own life, but I do think it goes out from there. Such as the BART work you all have been doing. But it’s never about condemning a whole person – anyone still has a chance to be liberated, no matter how much they have messed up in the past.

    “Does this mean we can’t be compassionate toward others? Concerned about their welfare! Of course not! And nobody in HAES is saying that.” This is where I’m not sure. I get the sense from some of the commenters on the blogs that showing concern isn’t wanted. In fact, for some, showing concern is probably going to trigger, no matter how careful and respectful someone is. Obviously, this brings us back to your point about being in relationship with someone, and from that place of understanding each other and listening, such concern can manifest on its own.

    I think part of what I was reacting to in that post with regards to the “I can do what I want with my body” viewpoint is that what’s missing, clearly, is a lack of elaboration on that. I saw someone in the comments speaking about how the frustration of frequently having to deal with criticism and unwarranted “interventions” can lead people to just say “I’ll do what I fucking want.” I understand that – it gives some context that I lacked before.

    I’ve been checking out this national website. http://www.naafaonline.com/dev2/about/index.html Definitely lots of interesting reading to be had.

    Still, I find myself wondering about the wealth and privilege issues – the Global North/South divide – and also where the line might actually fall between fat and obese (the naafa website says 65 million Americans are considered obese – that certainly seems faulty to me. Or it shows that the word has no useful meaning because it should be indicating diminishing health – but clearly 65 million Americans are not in diminishing health primarily because of their weight.)

    Anyway, I need to look into this more I think. Thanks for your comments.

    Nathan

  6. John permalink
    September 8, 2010 4:26 pm

    A very interesting read, though I’m not at all sure I agree with the thrust of it. I’m stuck in class, so I’ll write out a reply, which you’re of course more than welcome to ignore. Just my $0.02. The points about low-income communities having bad access to good food are very valid (when I lived on the Rez, fresh veggies were basically nonexistant). As to the feminist angle, I don’t really know enough to comment, so I’m happy to defer to your judgment. However, with respect to the entire notion of “fat acceptance,” I have fairly serious reservations.

    Inasmuch as the Fat Acceptance movement advocates that (1.) someone else’s weight isn’t any of my business and (2.) I have no right to tell someone how they should loook, I am in complete agreement. I would even go further and agree with the claim that there is no moral imperative to be thin, just as there’s no moral imperative not to smoke cigarettes and there’s no moral imperative to see a doctor when you’re sick (though of course our loved ones, who presumably want to see us stick around as long as possible, might disagree, but that’s another point and one with which I don’t really agree). So in that sense, the Fat Acceptance movement is A-OK. And if I fundamentally misunderstand their mission and that’s all their advocating, then I genuinely have no reservations about their movement, fairly serious or otherwise.

    However, I think any ideology we promote should first and foremost do no harm. The Fat Acceptance movement tends to completely forget (or sometimes outright obfuscate with bad science) the fact that being fat seriously literally definitely is profoundly unhealthy. When we encourage people to disregard their health and eat what they like, we’re not, in my opinion at least, doing them any favors, and–and this is where I get back to a point you made in your post–we quite possibly end up enabling the toxic food profiteers (McDonalds et al) with whom you have some very valid points of contention.

    Further, I’m about confused by the implication that only some people are entitled to their subjective aesthetic preferences. Those who view fat people as attractive (a view to which anyone is obviously entitled, of course) are open-minded, a part of the solution, whereas those who propagate the majority view that more fit people are more attractive are somehow narrow-minded, oppressive, the source of the problem. I find this, at least if my interpretation of their position is correct, to be hypocritical. We’re all entitled to like that we like. If you’re into men, women, tall, short, fat, thin, blond, bald, you name it, that’s your right. Just because your preferences align with the majority doesn’t mean you aren’t entitled to them.

    Anyhow, I enjoy reading your blog. It’s always thought provoking. Cheers.

  7. Cat permalink
    September 8, 2010 10:43 pm

    I’ve done a bit of reading of the Fat Acceptance movement, and here are my thoughts:

    1. Yes, people can do whatever they want with their bodies. It is their right to pursue what they like, even if it puts them at certain risks.
    2. Yes, many arguments around being fat tend to devolve into personal responsibility and ignore the larger structural/systemic forces at work.
    3. Yes, some of the current ways to measure obesity are flawed and may incorrectly categorize some people as unhealthy when in fact they are healthy.

    That being said, I have many grave reservations about fat acceptance, my biggest being that several threads of the movement refuse to acknowledge obesity is an epidemic and there is no other way to describe it. Obese and overweight population is increasing so quickly over the past 2 decades, across all populations. At the same time we have seen rises in chronic (often fatal) conditions that have been associated with obesity. The fact that you carry extra fat on your body causes stress on basically every system of your body as it has to work over time to metabolize food intake, regulate pressure, etc. And the fact that obese people tend to have multiple of these conditions at once is damning evidence. Being obese has clear serious health consequences that cannot be ignored or minimized.

    I agree that people who are obese should not face discrimination or shame for their body size. At the same time, a discussion of their health problem should not be compromised or shut down because it seems to signify some kind of unacceptance. I feel like this is one of the implicit arguments of the fat acceptance movement—any mention of the real health consequences are decried as some kind of shame-inducing stunt. It isn’t—facing the health consequences is facing reality—that one’s weight can be imperiling one’s life. There is no such thing as a healthy obese person. The trend in this movement for obese people to instead call themselves fat, in it of itself, is a refusal to accept the health realities of their body. For this reason, more than any, I find this movement to be very troubling because it avoids, evades or derides these basic facts.

    I know it’s complicated because many people come in different shapes and sizes that do not conform to the stick-thin model pushed in our sizes. It’s also complicated because I’m someone who believes that you should love your body. I also know that the state of people’s bodies are more often the product of their overall environment than their personal choices. But a spade is a spade. If someone is obese, they’re obese and it has consequences. It is a public health issue. It’s painful, but it’s honest.

  8. Cat permalink
    September 8, 2010 10:46 pm

    *pushed in our society. Sorry about that typo.

  9. September 9, 2010 12:15 am

    Hey y’all, good to see you John! And Cat, as always. And nathan, thanks again for your thoughts.

    I’m super-exhausted from a long day but I wanted to just clarify a couple of points before I head to bed.

    Actually, I’ll try clarifying a couple, and then let meowser from Fat Fu do the rest.

    So John, I hear where you’re coming from, and I appreciate that you’re trying to bring balance to the issues.

    But when you say, “being fat seriously literally definitely is profoundly unhealthy,” that’s just not true. Like I say in basic point #2 to nathan, being fat and being unhealthy are two different things. And you can be fat and unhealthy, or fat and healthy, or even fat and fit. Similarly, you can be thin and unhealthy, or neither-thin-nor-fat and healthy, etc. etc.

    Here’s a good illustrating anecdote from zuzu at Feministe:

    This doctor took one look at me and decided I was going to drop dead on the spot. She took the suggestion on the form that she could run any other health checks she deemed necessary beyond the minimum required, and she ordered every possible test she could. She was convinced, absolutely convinced, I was in terrible health because of my weight. EVERYTHING was brought back to my weight. She blamed my hay fever on my weight. When she told me — not asked me, told me — that I was short of breath while climbing stairs and I responded that I was a runner, so no, she told me running was bad for me at my weight. I found myself getting angrier and angrier with her as the exam went on, and feeling more and more humiliated.

    If Dr. McJudgypants was typical these days, I didn’t want to go back to a doctor at all.

    I did have to go back, though, since she kept the form and wouldn’t release it to me until the test results came in. That’s when the tables were turned. She actually looked visibly angry as she went through my results, which were absolutely perfect for Every. Single. Test.

    The point is, on an individual level, we should not be talking about fat as measured by the BMI. We should be talking about health! Because that’s what we care about!

    Similarly, on the national level, why are we talking about an “obesity epidemic” and not a “corn subsidy public poisoning programme“? Or a “fast-food plague”? Or a “food desert crisis”? Or an “exercise deprivation emergency”? Or an inexcusable inequality and poverty problem? Or the fact that US companies are destroying ecosystems and food cultures all over the globe, devastating people’s health because they can’t afford to buy the very foods they grow (or the water in their springs), and are stuck with Coca-Cola and packaged white bread? (My boss just told me that exact Coke-and-bread story from the years she lived in Nicaragua.)

    The reason, I argue, is that it’s in the interest of the capitalists (and therefore the state) to blame working-class and poor individuals for their own health problems as much as possible, and especially to claim that those self-inflicted problems are 100% legible on the body.

    It’s a convincing, if superficial argument.

    I think you’re right, and Cat’s right, and nathan’s right, that sometimes FA writing might come off as a giant “Fuck you” that renders all talk about fat taboo.

    But in my experience, the good FA writing explicitly and self-consciously and sophisticatedly avoids that tact. Or at least saves it for special occasions. ;)

    F’rinstance meowser has this really good post up recently, and I think I’ll just quote a bit of it here since it speaks directly to debunking certain myths around the FA position. Her post is titled: “All We Are Saying….Is Not What You’re Saying We Said.”

    We say, “Weight is, for the most part, not a very good proxy for health, and there are much better ones, like socioeconomic status.” They hear, “Being dozens of pounds over (or under) your baseline weight is just ginchy for you, and your doctor should never bring it up with you ever.” (So there’s a right way to bring it up, and a wrong way? And the wrong way involves the shame finger and accusations of lying and denial? Who knew?)

    [Emphasis mine.]

    We say, “What causes people to weigh what they do is complex and multifactorial, and varies a lot from one person to another — and you can’t tell what people’s habits are by their pants size.” They hear, “Weight is purely inherited and has nothing whatsoever to do with behavior.” (Uh, no. Try the behavioral factors have been played to fucking death in the media, and we really, really don’t need to flog them yet again. Also, try dieting is a behavior too, and it makes most people who try it fatter, not thinner, especially if they take it up in childhood.)

    [“Behavioral factors” as opposed to structural factors, is how I read that.]

    We say, “Adults have a perfect right to have other priorities besides being a perfect goody-twelve-shoes about exercise and diet, and they’re still worthy of respect if they do.” (I mean, really, is this such a radical statement? If it is, then I am O-L-D; I can remember when admitting you liked bean sprouts would get you laughed at by everyone except ultrahippies.) They hear, “You must fuck fat chicks or you are a sociopath.”

    [Does that last part address your last question, John?]

    So Cat, I do hear you on the concern with euphemizing obesity to the point that we can’t talk about health. I think the issue, though, is that we talk about obesity so much that we hardly ever talk about health. Certainly not in a holistic way.

    Interestingly, among women, significant fat accumulation on certain parts of the body can lead to decreased health risk in some factors. And there’s also evidence like this (quoted from a comment thread on Feministe):

    BMI and mortality: results from a national longitudinal study of Canadian adults.: “A significant increased risk of mortality over the 12 years of follow-up was observed for underweight (BMI <18.5; relative risk (RR) = 1.73, P 35; RR = 1.36, P <0.05). Overweight (BMI 25 to <30) was associated with a significantly decreased risk of death (RR = 0.83, P 0.05). Our results are similar to those from other recent studies, confirming that underweight and obesity class II+ are clear risk factors for mortality, and showing that when compared to the acceptable BMI category, overweight appears to be protective against mortality. Obesity class I was not associated with an increased risk of mortality.”

    That’s the kind of scientific nuance that gets lost when we imagine a *perfectly smooth* Bell curve of health with respect to weight.

    Anyway, I don’t think we actually disagree about much. Obesity may be an easy or obvious-seeming entry point for public health discussions, but in my opinion the many scientific and social problems with fatness discourse mean that we should be taking a different, more structural and class-focused angle on the whole business.

    ‘Night, friends! Thanks again! I like thinking with you guys.

  10. John permalink
    September 9, 2010 1:00 am

    (John, logged into my account)

    I still have my reservations vis-a-vis the connetions between obesity and health (I’m totally convinced anyone could be, say, 20 lbs overweight and healthy as all get out… but show me someone 100 lbs overweight in perfect health, and I’m willing to bet you’re looking at the exception and not the rule). That said, I think you’re 100% right that we’re engaging in victim-blaming here, and we’d be FOOLS not to think capitalism was related. If we really wanted to fight obesity (and fund schools, and health care, and parks, etc. etc. etc. etc.), we’d have levied the same sorts of taxes on fast food we did on cigarettes a LONG time ago. But of course we don’t, and that shows who pulls the strings, no matter how much noise public health figures make about an obesity epidemic. I LOVE the idea of calling it a “corn syrup crisis” or a “Cheap crappy meat” crisis. Because it is. That’s a profoundly effective rhetorical device, and I wish it caught on so we could point more of the blame for this crisis where it belongs.

    I guess after reading your reply, I’m not quite willing to say that I’m wrong, but I’m more than willing to say you’re right. Like I said, I’ve really come to enjoy your blogging. I have over the years crystalized into a painfully mainstream, common-law-loving, stodgy old Obama Democrat, so an injection of interesting and cerebral radicalism into my reading diet, while probably not congruent with my own views, is a great look at a viewpoint that one just doesn’t often come across. Reading other news and politics blogs, I never have to actually stop and digest what’s been said–my response was always generally pre-formed. So even if I come across as a cranky contrarian, keep up the good work. Cheers.

  11. September 9, 2010 4:12 am

    Good post with lots of excellent points. I agree enthusiastically that we need a more structural and class-based analysis of the problem. That’s also what I’m seeing in the post from FatFu you quoted, and there’s nothing I disagree with there. The feministe posts, really not so much, mainly for the reasons Nathan already mentioned.

    My reservations on ‘fat acceptance’ revolve around the whole idea of ‘acceptance’ – and of ‘fat’ as an identity category. So, really, they might not be actually saying what that FA blogger says they aren’t, but it’s already implied by ‘fat acceptance’. I really don’t see, and I think we all agree here, that focusing on ‘fat’ is incredibly useful here, except that, obviously, fat people are entitled to the same common decency as everyone else. That said, I think it becomes central issue because body size is very sensitive. I know that ‘what’s it to you!’ reaction well: I had it towards family when I was getting close to 50 pounds overweight, then when I lost a whole bunch, wheeled round to the feminist community and pre-emptively boomed out the same to them too.

    I say pre-emptively, but that’s not entirely true. The feminist tradition I’ve been used to has been altogether more thatcherite than what I’m seeing here. For a start, there’s a tendency to treat one’s body as a piece of real estate (I furnish it how I choose, reserve the right to shoot trespassers, or rent it out, etc.) that, okay, throws a blanket over a lot of painful problems. I also remember one ‘body politics’ meeting, and first of all, it got divided into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ image, a problem in itself. There was also a distinct ‘fat=good and thin=normative’ aspect: I mean, there was noway an art gallery photo of a nude fat woman with a masrectomy would be seen as exploitative, whereas some chick in a negligee was always going to be shouldering a certain burden of proof (actually, one better that the fat chick since the artist gets the credit for celebrating her beauty

  12. September 9, 2010 4:39 am

    (sorry, have to do this in two bits).

    I didn’t like it back then when I was fat enough that it affected my health (the link isn’t simple or direct, but it exists) and appearance (size 18 primark dresses, ick). And I don’t like it now that I frequently read my exact dimensions linked to (a) horrid collaborators or (b) blissfully unaware idiots who apparently support patriarchy and make young women want to cut themselves. So far, so self-centred. From a feminist point of view, I don’t think any woman’s relationship to her own body should involve guilt, burden of proof, or comparisons to real estate, whatever she looks like or whether she was born or not with said body parts. In this, clearly, I’m with the FA people – except, why fat? Because, as long as you’re a woman, the guilt and the burden of proof and real estate still apply. Yes, my market value, my’capital beaute’ as L’Oreal would say, has increased since losing weight. So maybe I can put a pool on my ass and get some tenants in there and graze some dude’s cattle on my head, or sell my body at a higher price, but that still doesn’t make me a person. Plus, this then supposes a ‘me’ separate from this lovely spacious property, which is a whole other can of worms.

    So, structural approach – certainly. And, rather than focusing on fat, focusing on eradicating poverty and inequality, of which ill-health is a symptom, and fat is sometimes a symptom of this. Hence my problems with ‘acceptance’ – which Iwent into on my blog.

    Anyway, thanks for the great read,and sorry to take up 2 comments with my rambling!

  13. nathan permalink
    September 9, 2010 8:42 am

    A few comments. John, your point about taxing unhealthy food/fast food sounds good, but actually won’t make much of a dent. In fact, it probably will add economic stress to communities of people already under great stresses. One of the largest issues facing poor and low income communities (in the U.S. at least) is lack of access to healthy, affordable food. The concept of a “food desert” speaks to this, and I’ve spent some time in a few areas like this, due to my work with recent immigrants. The characteristics of these places usually include crappy public transit, little or no grocery store presence, lack of access to land to grow food, and lots of fast food places. Taxing fast food and white bread at corner stores doesn’t address the systemic de-investment that occurred in these places, and only makes people pay more for food they’re still going to buy. Some of the best grassroots food programs going on these days are tied to developing farmer’s markets, community gardens, and other localized food resources that provide people both access to good food, but also some empowerment over their situations. But it’s usually tenuous – land gets taken away frequently for “development”, maintaining good leadership for these programs is really difficult when funding is unstable, and the lure of the ease of fast food is strong for people who slave at 1,2, sometimes 3 jobs a day, and also have family to take care of. So, the way I see it, we have to collectively put more energy, more money, and more political power into grassroots groups doing work counter to “Big, Corporate Food.”

    Second, one of the issues that I have been trying to address, and which almost everyone has brought up in some way, is the sloppiness of the terms “fat” and “obese” as they have been used in popular discourse. I think it’s essential that we can have discussions about health and trends in health, and that such discussions are shut down by fears of offending people. And yet, how these discussions occur, what words are used, and what intentions are behind said discussions, plays a large role in how much offense, shame, and blame are felt. One thing I get from the FA folks is that the rest of us could do a better job of paying attention to what we are saying and why. And we also could do a better job of listening first, before assuming we know what’s going on. Point taken.

    I still think there is a problem with obesity in this country, but focusing on weight alone doesn’t get at what’s going on because it’s more than a weight issue. In fact, thinking about the ways in which bodies work and don’t work, how we only control so much when it comes to our health no matter what we do – when you look at it that way, you can see how the popularized view of emphasizing individual behavior actually turns us, collectively, away from the things that we can have more control over (i.e. food production, community building, law changes, etc). It’s a doubly dis-empowering act – buying into and reproducing a narrative that downplays the things we can be active agents in, while overemphasizing something (the body) that we can change, but which ultimately is fickle and does it’s own thing for the most part. I say this as someone who is big into preventative care, big into eating medicinal foods, and big into daily exercise. It’s not that we don’t have some control over our bodies, it’s that we tend to way overemphasize the level of control. Hence things like crash diets, that take off weight in the short term, but which usually lead to more weight in the long term.

    Gotta run. Maybe I’ll add more later. Good discussion everyone.

  14. Kate permalink
    September 10, 2010 1:01 pm

    I’ve been struggling with addiction to food like so many people I know (esp female-bodied folks). Overeating or unhealthy eating shows on some people’s bodies more than others. Fatphobia is not just hurtful to fat people but to those who fear fat. This prejudice distracts us from the true extent and sources of oppression as it relates to food and health.

    Food is a drug that can cause foggy brain, sleepy, and sad — effective at keeping people stuck in unhappy lives and boring jobs. Eating sugary and starchy foods makes the body crave more. People can express discontent, guilt or fear by eating. Capital surely has an interest in keeping folks distracted and doped up on processed food and blaming us for lacking self control.

  15. azinyk permalink
    September 10, 2010 2:17 pm

    There is a lot to criticize about the beauty/vanity/insecurity industries, especially as regards advertising and overconsumption, but I disagree that capitalism has a strong interest in the health of workers. If a worker is not healthy enough to perform, a capitalist can just fire them and hire someone else. If a whole nation is unhealthy, a capitalist can outsource to another.

    What you are suggesting is far more likely to happen in other political or economic systems. Consider authoritarian environments: why do you think the military forces you to do all those push-ups? They consider that your body belongs to them, not to you. Likewise slave societies. If you own a slave, you have a strong interest in making sure that they aren’t unable to work because they’re drunk or pregnant. You can’t just fire them because they are a valuable asset.

    Consider also command economies. People are doing mandatory, mass calisthenics in Beijing right now (well not right now, it’s the middle of the night there). That’s because those bodies are considered the property of the state. Likewise Japan, which is far more like a command economy than America’s. Since many Japanese companies offer lifetime employment, they have to take care of “their” workers. Under capitalism, there’s no such stewardship over people, since they don’t belong to the company.

    I would say that capitalism is among the most liberal, individualistic of economic systems, which gives people the most choice over how they use or abuse their bodies. That’s because most other economic systems own people, while capitalism merely rents them.

  16. azinyk permalink
    September 10, 2010 3:38 pm

    I forgot to mention theocracies and religion-tinged democracies, which have supported things like the temperance movement, abstinence-only, self-denial and clean living, because your body belongs to God, not to you, and the church knows what’s best.

    Even under democracy, the majority can make decisions about what drugs you’re allowed to put in your body and who you’re allowed to have sex with, which helmets and seat belts you’ll be forced to wear, while under libertarian capitalism, you can make your own decisions.

  17. September 10, 2010 4:13 pm

    Still really enjoying the convo, thanks everyone! (And John, thank you for the kind comments on the radical perspective — your thoughtful and balanced contributions are welcome around here anytime. I really enjoy and benefit from them, and appreciate you taking the time to engage.)

    Kate, your holistic, practical, alternative, and rigorous approach to well-being always inspires me. And your comment makes me reflect on the conscious-consumption and health-affirming elements in some radical/revolutionary movements, like some parts of the heretic movement in Europe, or the Rastafari, as I understand. It’s easy, with an excessive individualism, to substitute a healthy lifestyle for structural change work, but I resonate with your point about the link between food-as-sedative/painkiller and personal-stasis-that-naturalizes-capitalism. I know that when I try to consume in a mindful way, I have lots more energy for social-transformation work.

    Not that that’s directly related to fat, but this is the point — for those of us who have some say over our intakes, it’s much more productive to talk about the effects of starch and sugar, eating quickly/slowly, paying attention to hunger and fullness, paying attention to mental factors and their relationship to our consumption, including tobacco and alcohol, not just food. Obesity and fat don’t so much need to be in the picture.

    Jen, I love the body-as-real-estate metaphor. And I think I hear what you’re saying about fat acceptance and fat as identity. But my sense of it is (a) fat is an identity not in an essentialist way but because fat people face discrimination *as fat people*; and (b) “acceptance” has more to do with respect and proper perspective than apathy or permissiveness.

    nathan, could you elaborate more on the Global North/South wealth and privilege issues that were on your mind earlier? I realize I skipped over that. I’m curious to know what you mean there.

    azinyk, when you say,

    What you are suggesting is far more likely to happen in other political or economic systems.

    could you say which specific suggestions of mine you’re referring to? I don’t quite understand where your comment is coming from.

    I made a specific distinction between the kind of capitalist project that regulates bodies in order to produce more/better available labor-power (this kind would involve slut-shaming), versus the kind that isn’t focused on the quality of labor-power, whether rented or bought, but does care about justifying its own internal contradictions (‘prosperity and penury’) by denigrating the nature of certain bodies (e.g. fat bodies).

    Maybe we’re having a definition disagreement? The way I understand it, you can have free-market capitalism, state capitalism, industrial capitalism, capitalism based on slavery, capitalism not based on slavery, capitalism with day-laborers, capitalism with lifetime employees…but the unifying factor is that the means of production are privately owned and operated for profit chiefly by a capitalist class (which, in the case of state capitalism, is simply synonymous with the state, even though it might claim to be a socialist or communist society).

    But I’d like to understand more about how capitalism shakes out differently in different contexts, like Japan versus the U.S., or Japan over time, based on more centralized or decentralized economic planning, fluidity of employment, etc. So thanks for sharing your knowledge on that! And thanks in advance for the clarification.

  18. nathan permalink
    September 11, 2010 1:01 pm

    “nathan, could you elaborate more on the Global North/South wealth and privilege issues that were on your mind earlier? ”

    Here are a few of the issues I see with this. First off, much of big food (i.e. corporate farms/ranches) in wealthy nations like the U.S. are subsidized by food products grown in poorer nations. In order to have cheap fruit, soybeans, or feed for animals that will be slaughtered, U.S. companies are making deals with farmers in Global South nations to grow food for them or they’re just buying up (and in some cases outright stealing) the land, and then running the growing operations themselves. Not only does this reduce the amount of food for the local people, but it often is also a key contributor to environmental destruction due to mono-cropping and other miserable farming techniques. What’s that got to do with this discussion? Well, what I have learned from my ESL students from places like Thailand, Somalia, Kenya, El Salvador, and border regions of Mexico is that it’s a rarity to find fat people in places of extreme poverty – where food is sometimes impossible to find due to desertification, warfare destruction, military dictatorship, etc. There are plenty of unhealthy folks, but they are mostly underweight, malnurished, or suffering from commonplace diseases like TB and Malaria, which are easily treated in wealthy nations.

    My point being that what I have seen in the reactions of my students to coming to U.S. is that they almost universally regard fatness, or even average weight people, as being privileged. And it’s hard to argue with that, even if there are lots of other issues that complicate this, including the very real discrimination towards fat people.

    The second issue I see is that the same systems causing trouble here in the U.S. are being implemented in Global south nations as well. Companies like Coca Cola, McDonalds, Pepsi, etc. are changing the face of diets, and getting in cozy with the local government and leaders, so that the power balance is shifting away from locally produced food, and more towards fast food and highly processed foods. What’s this have to do with the Fat Acceptance movement? Well, the impact of eating these diets is different in different locales, and yet all of these people are tied together by the same globalized system of exploitation and de-nutrition. And yet, I don’t see these kinds of connections being readily made out of a movement that focuses on accepting different body shapes and sizes. It feels individualistic, and sounds individualistic, even if some of the writers and supporters involved are talking about systemic issues.

    Those are a few ideas I have about all that.

  19. September 12, 2010 5:00 am

    Kloncke – I think we agree, from what I can tell, that it’s the marginalisation that creates the identity. Yet much of what I’ve read from the FA movement tends to celebrate that identity. That’s what I’m getting from ‘acceptance’ – not so much permissiveness, almost a kind of masochism. Or maybe it’s the same thing. But generally, identity is a symptom of marginalisation. And yes, fat people should be treated as people, but that is true of everyone, and has nothing to do with being fat.

    I think in light of what Nathan says, we need to look at – in the West, fatness is often a sign of poverty. In the West, we’re generally not the ones producing the food, also. If you’re rich over here, you can consume without visible effevts on your health – you have a consumer’s choice to be healthy. If you’re poor, not so much, ‘choice’ being a very nebulous area, of course. I mean, there’s whatKate says, and eating pizza might genuinely be one of the few sources of pleasure – but you’re still buying stuff and shop staff still treat you like you’respecial – as long as you can pay. Then they take their paycheck home and they get made to feel special for buying pudding, and so on. Whereas people in the countries producing the food are not in that position. So with feminism and FA, it’s still viewing the problem from a consumer’spoint of view.

    Another alarm bell for me is that – among consumers- it’s easier for a fat woman to get a job than a fat man. A man will be seen to be wasting a potential that a woman just doesn’t have: she just likes her chocolate, as long as she’s fit to type it’s not a problem.

    It’s interesting, too, the relationship between that woman and images in advertising or magazines. Now, in feminism, we spend ages talking about how men want to turn us into those images, the better to grope us on public transport, which is a very simplistic way oflooking at it. Of course, those pictures are meant to represent us, they’re more than asprational even…

  20. September 12, 2010 5:20 am

    …as evidenced bythe fact that the words in the articles speak on ou behalf, as do the slogans, it’s all ‘we girls’ this and… well, more subtle than that even. So one way to go about it is to say ‘not me!’, eat burgers, put on weight, wear stripey jumpers – which is what the fat aceptance movement does, at least from what I’ve seen. That way, though, you create a mirror image. Or, seeing those magazines or adverts for what they are – speech – all you basically do that way is read it out, nothing more. Any confrontation of capitalism there is illusory and identity-based.

    Now, you bring up radical religious dietary practices (I would have thought buddhism too?). Isn’t that a far better confrontation? Namely, it serves a practical purpose: combine it with what Kate said. And of course, in te West, athletic prowess and intellectual prowess are separated, and – in light of what I said earlier about getting jobs – athleticism is strongly segregated along gender lines.This means that because women are primarily targeted as consumers (feminists often say that consumer goods are aimed at men – not true), we’re less fit to fight back, or just fulfill our potential. I lft weights so I can read hegel – and read hegel so I can lift weights, otherwise you just crash in front of the TV. In the West, particularly in protestantism, dietary rules are there for the purpose of deprivation (and what the FA movement is requiring is a kindof anti-deprivation), for self-denial. Not so, for instance, in Islam: I’ve been getting a bunch of facebook status updates through muslim friends that, if you don’t pray during ramadan, you may as well be eating: the fasting serves a practical purpose (plus I’m sure this poses problems for muslim women in femnist activist groups).

    To conclude on an anecdote – having lived some time in a working class area with a large proportion of hindus, sikhs, and muslims, I remember when a feminist anarchist group set up shop set up with a combination…

  21. September 12, 2010 5:35 am

    … of (fucking nintendo ds!) veganism and fat-acceptance, exhorting locals to come and take part in vegan fry-ups, abandon their capitalist meat-eating ways and patriachal views of the body, and so on (plus they scrawled slogans all over the place, but were essentially okay with the property development downtown). I remember thinking how bloody rude that was, especially as, had any working class, muslim, sikh or hindu people showed up, they would have been treated as identities – not people. Then again, we’re talking about a group who thought their own identities were enough to smash capitalism, their ‘personal brands’, as it were.

    And yes, body as real-estate – pretty absurd, then again, how do we relate to that thing, ourbodies? There’s something a little jarring about “I own my body”, isn’t there? It is absurd, in the end – women, particularly, have an alienated relationship to our bodies. The women toiling in sweatshops and farms may be someone else’sequipment -which, without labour rights, is indeed the case – but all we’ve done (and feminism and the beauty industry mirror each other exactly in this) is reattribute the property to women, while not changing this alenated, fucked- up relationship to ourselves. Isn’t it striking, how diet books say stuff like ‘happy new you’?But the feminusm I know is identical to this, even if the participants are sagely nodding over cake and agreeing that property is theft (and conflate that with anti-rape activism also, the implications are pretty staggering).

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