I’m not astonished by the hatred of fatness currently present in our culture, or by the extent to which it has intensified over the past few decades. Cultures go through phases and cycles, and there are always scapegoats and victims of shame and blame. What shocks me is how fully this hatred has been adopted into public discourse.
I’m not going to rehearse the critique of anti-fat discourse in any depth here. Suffice it to say that statistical correlations between fatness and illness have nothing to say about the causes of such illness or how about how to avoid it. It is impossible to isolate the health effects of fatness in a context of rampant dieting, since dieting itself seems to be very unhealthy. Even if fatness were shown to be a predictor of certain kinds of illness, losing weight wouldn’t necessarily be a solution. And even if it were, a predisposition to illness is the last thing in the world that ought to provoke anger or scorn.
At this point, none of us can tease the scientific or medical facts apart from the cultural revulsion attached to fatness. The assumed link between health and fatness is so strong that in many cases people don’t even draw a distinction. Again, what shocks me is when this takes place not among individuals or corporations looking to sell products but in the context of public “health” discourses. For example, the discourse of the “obesity epidemic” has gone so far beyond the realm of reasonable medical science that it has begun to resemble more and more terrifying forms of oppression. (Weight loss camps and the notion of a “fat tax” are among the worst examples I can think of, really starting to border on the fascist—and I do not use that word lightly.)
I now see posters on the subway from the New York City Department of Health that refer to drinking sugary sodas as “pouring on the pounds” and “drinking yourself fat.” This is an incredibly twisted message, a truly horrific counterexample to everything for which “communication” should stand. By equating sugar with pounds, these posters offer dangerous misinformation: If you drink lots of sugary soda but you’re not fat, your probably healthy; likewise, if you don’t drink soda but you’re still fat, you’re probably sick. Wrong. If there is a health-related problem with the carbonated sugar water so many people drink, it’s about sugar, not fat. And even if it were about fat, the type of tissue, it would not have any bearing on fat people. And even if it did have some relevance to fat people, that relevance would be at a social/statistical level and not an individual one.
Another extremely misleading poster from several years ago showed a photo of a starving African child next to that of a fat white man, presumably American. The notion of the “fat cat” exploiter goes back a long time, but in today’s world it’s completely incorrect. Fatness in the United States is correlated with low incomes, so this poster is actually pitting two iconic victims of capitalism against each other! Way to foster more unjustified hatred of fat bodies! And I wonder who is not in this picture?
Many people have pointed out that it’s senseless to rank prejudices or to try and figure out which is the “worst” or the “most acceptable” prejudice, since racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and other forms of violent intolerance are all linked together in complex ways. But it is useful to notice how prejudices move from one type of manifestation to another. As this recently popular image shows, there used to be protests against inter-racial marriage; now there are protests against gay marriage. Similarly, it used to be unthinkable to see a person of color in a fashion advertisement; now it’s unthinkable to see a fat person. Racism hasn’t gone away, but it has gone underground, stepped out of the public limelight, at least in its most explicit forms. Meanwhile, at this particularly moment in time, fat hatred is not only visible, it is proud of itself.
The movement to reclaim the concept of health—as distinct from an absence of bodyfat—is called health at every size or HAES. One way to visualize this is in the following image of world-class athletes. Each of these women is extraordinarily powerful and capable in a particular way. So why do most women in advertising and television look like the gymnasts and not the weightlifters? Something is being communicated here, but it’s not about health!
This is a great and useful image, but I want to add a further clarification: Athleticism is not health. The debate about what exactly health means goes back to ancient Greece. Does health just mean living a long time? Does it mean feeling strong? Are athletes the epitomy of health? In fact, athletes suffer more injuries and illnesses than the rest of the population because they push themselves so hard. So who represents health? What about spiritual health? Ethical health? It’s amazing how much we project onto body type these days, through our grossly oversimplified idea of health.
Let’s try a simple thought exercise: Have you ever eaten some food and then suddenly felt “fat”? Notice the fact that this actually has nothing to do with fatness. The food you just ate does not instantly become fat. You do not actually weigh appreciably more. You may be feeling bloated or lethargic—neither of which has anything to do with fat. Try labeling this feeling for what it is: You ate too much, or you ate something that didn’t agree with you. It has nothing to do with fatness. Now try noticing the same thing about exercise. When I exercise, I notice that I feel better physically. Exercise changes my posture and my sense of well-being. It also changes my appetite in various ways. None of this has anything to do with becoming skinny. I might feel “light,” but I might equally feel “strong” when I exercise. It also depends what kind of exercise, and not everybody reacts the same way to the same practices.
Eating food that makes your body feel good, and exercising in ways that make your body feel good, are important aspects of health. If we extend this idea of “feeling good” into the long-term, it becomes possible to talk about healthy diet (in the sense of food choices, not food reduction) and healthy exercise. None of this has anything to do with fatness. None of it is “guaranteed” to people who are not fat and none of it is inaccessible to people who are fat. So let’s stop talking about fat and let’s stop spreading fat hatred propaganda all over our cities and televisions. Until we do that, we can’t have a real, meaningful conversation about health.