Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Another piece in the puzzle of the obesity panic

There is a national - nay, international - panic in the offing about the weight and size of people. Using the medical term "obesity," the press and public policy makers are violently attacking people on account of their size. You may think this is hyperbolic, and in some senses it is. Not that much more hyperbolic, though, than the terms that are being used to describe the way in which people who fall outside a "normal" range of body size are targeted. "The War on Obesity," "the battle of the bulge," "burning fat" are just a few of the terms that direct violent terminology at people who don't conform to an imposed norm.

In addition to the angry words that are thrown at fat people (because let's be clear, Obesity means fat people. It's not a nebulous concept that defies embodiment. It's a dehumanising term for people), there is a whole moral component to the treatment of anyone who falls outside the so-called normal range of body size. 

Issa at LiveLoveGrow wrote 21 Things To Stop Saying Unless You Hate Fat People Unfortunately many (I am almost tempted to say most) people hate fat people at some level. This is usually due to the way in which fat people are portrayed in the media, by the kind of rhetoric from governments and reinforced in daily discourse. In her list, Issa set out a range of body policing, health-trolling and pseudo-moralistic things people tend to trot out when discussing people who are fat.

One of the things on her list is "childhood obesity." As I said above, obesity as a collective term rather than a specific medical state is one that's aimed at dehumanising people. With childhood obesity, society has a way to express its moral outrage at the idea that kids are fat. She puts the point across much more eloquently than I could, so I have lifted the section from her blog.

“Childhood obesity” is a political buzzword. When you say those two words it doesn’t just mean “fat kids”. (It does mean at least that. Every time you hear “childhood obesity” replace it in the sentence with “fat kids” and see what that reveals about the agenda.) “Childhood obesity” is a shorthand for a moral and political platform that spans food morality/policing, issues of class warfare, and pathologizing more bodies for profit.
Here’s the bottom line: we don’t know exactly what makes kids fat or whether it’s a problem that they are and we definitely don’t have any idea whatsoever how to make a fat kid into a thin kid. Anytime you hear people (that includes you!) blaming childhood obesity on something, they are talking out of their asses. What I can tell you is that turning on the news and hearing that there’s a war on your body type sucks for adults and double sucks for kids. Stop saying “childhood obesity” as if it has anything to do with caring about fat kids.
Today, Leeds Met University has shown, contrary to political rhetoric and public moralising, that the poorest kids aren't always the fattest kids. There is a public expectation, largely built up by library footage showing headless fat people in tatty clothes going about their daily business, that poor people will be fat and all fat people are poor. This is largely because we think that poor people have lower morals than those in the higher class echelons of society and fat is a moral issue. From this piece in the New Scientist, in which the letter writer says that people who "eat and eat and eat" are amoral (thereby assuming that the only way one can be fat is by overeating to excess) through to Naomi Wolf's assertion that "fat [as] a moral issue is articulated with words like 'good' and 'bad'," the fact that fat is more than just weight or size is inescapable. 

The likelihood of this piece of research reaching a wide audience is low because it jars with public expectations, government proselytation and the message pumped out by the multi-billion pound weight-loss and "beauty" industry. This view of fat as being something that "happens" to the middle classes is not what the population wants to hear. They want to characterise fatness as a moral failing and affliction of the poor so they can distance themselves from it. They don't want to be chased down and captured by "obesity" because, in our society, there are few things more terrifying and socially repugnant than being fat.

Keep an eye on your news outlets and see if any of this message leaks through. I'll be surprised if it does but if it doesn't, know that it's not because the research isn't good. It's because the odds are stacked against the acceptance of any view of fat people as anything other than morally repugnant individuals who should be distanced from society or forced to comply with a narrow expectation of body type in order to be treated with basic dignity and respect.

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