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Fat Rights/Gay Rights

[ 0 ] July 31, 2009 |

Reading through the comments here and here and here I’m reminded of the many suggestive parallels between arguments about body diversity and those regarding sexual orientation.

To simplify a great deal, I’d say fat rights are where gay rights were at 30 or 40 years ago. Elaborating:

(1) Pathological disease/syndrome versus natural non-pathological (“healthy”) variation. As most people know, a generation ago same-sex sexual orientation was treated by much of mainstream psychology and psychiatry as a mental disorder, and was formally defined as such. Similarly, at present any variation outside a narrow range of body mass is formally defined as pathological.

The claim that a normal body mass is between 18.5 and 24.9 (this is the official position of the public health establishment) could be analogized to the claim that normal sexual relations consist of heterosexual vaginal intercourse, and that variations from this norm are pathological perversions/diseases of increasing severity. A loose analogy: you can imagine spectrum in which non-vaginal heterosexual sex = “overweight” (BMI 25-29.9), while drag queens = “morbid obesity” (BMI 40+). In this schema, a closeted GOP senator is mildly obese (In other words Larry Craig has a sexual orientation BMI of 32).

The fat rights movement wants people to recognize that body diversity is every bit as natural, inevitable, and desirable as diversity in sexual desire/orientation. From this perspective, the labeling of a narrow range of body mass as normal and the pathologizing of everyone outside of it as involuntarily sick or voluntarily deviant is completely arbitrary and unscientific, and does a great deal of unnecessary damage.

(2) Temporary state versus fundamental identity. In the traditional model, and still today for most cultural conservatives, many or most gay people choose to be gay, and therefore could choose not to be. The analogy with fat prejudice is obvious: the present climate of fat hatred depends in good part on the assumption, often rising to the level of an evidence-proof axiomatic act of faith, that fat people choose to be fat. The arguments in this area almost couldn’t be more parallel. “Everyone knows” how to stop being gay: Stop having gay sex. Everyone also knows how to stop being fat: restrict caloric intake and increase activity levels, forever. In both cases, you see, it’s a simple matter of a “lifestyle change.” And of course both arguments are correct: It’s perfectly possible, in theory, for people who strongly prefer to have sex with other people of the same gender to stop doing so, and become “normal.” It’s perfectly possible, in theory, for fat people to eat less, increase activity levels, become thin, and stay that way (become “normal,” i.e., thin). It’s perfectly possible in theory, but in practice almost no one in either category stays straight or thin, because it’s extremely difficult for gay people to limit themselves to either straight sex or abstinence, and it’s extremely difficult for fat people to transform their bodies into thin bodies and keep them that way.

Here is where the distinction between a temporary state and a fundamental identity is crucial. In a deeply homophobic society, you’ll have a certain number of gay people who, usually temporarily, but sometimes for long stretches and even for entire lifetimes, limit themselves to straight sex. In a deeply fat-hating society, you’ll have a certain number of fat people who, usually temporarily but sometimes for long stretches or even entire lifetimes, inhabit thin bodies. Are such people not “really” gay or fat?

(3) The possibility of transformation varies greatly among individuals. The extent to which sexual behavior and even sexual desire can be transformed falls along a wide spectrum, as does the the extent to which body mass can be transformed. It’s safe to say there’s a vastly higher amount of same-sex behavior in an all-male American prison than there is in an Afghani village controlled by the Taliban. There are per capita, vastly more upper class fat women in west Africa, where fatness is prized as a sign of social status, than in the USA, where it’s despised as a sign of poverty (the reverse is equally true — there are far more poor fat people in America than in west Africa. As several commentators have pointed out, famines are an effective cure for “obesity.”). The protests of many a liberal regarding how fat people can be cured of fatness with the right combination of willpower and sensitive interventions sound quite similar to the protests of many a cultural conservative that gay people can be cured of gayness with the right combination of willpower and sensitive interventions.

(4) People living in the fat closet tend to react very strongly when anyone tries to open the door. How many upper-middle class and upper class American women maintain a size 4 or 6 when, in a less fat-phobic society, they would be a size 10 or 12? For such people, the idea that the fantastic amounts of time, money, and most of all mental and emotional energy they’ve devoted to conforming to an arbitrary cultural norm must be justified by a socially respectable reason. In this case, the secular god of “a healthy lifestyle” does the work performed by the Book of Leviticus for the closeted gay cultural conservative.

It’s my belief that, in another generation or two or three, the casual fat hatred now flaunted by many an otherwise doubleplusgood-thinking liberal will look as shameful as the casual fag-bashing engaged in by his predecessors a generation ago.

Update: As several commentators note, many of the responses illustrate the thesis of the post well. Such responses evince levels of fear, hatred, wilful misreading, and sheer incomprehension which are characteristic of these types of social prejudices.

I’ve never denied the existence of a relationship between weight and health. This absurd strawman is thrown up by people who don’t want to engage with the claim that the extent to which higher than average weight has been shown to be an independent health risk has been grossly exaggerated. Indeed, given the level of fat hatred in our society at present, it would be remarkable if such exaggerations weren’t commonplace.

Nor have I ever said anything but good things about physical activity and healthy eating habits. I’m all for encouraging both of these, but it’s also remarkable the extent to which people believe that encouraging weight loss and encouraging healthy habits are actually identical activities, when in many ways these two things are often in pragmatic tension (many people improve their health habits and lose little or no weight, while many people have, as one commentator notes about himself, terrible health habits while remaining “ideally” thin. And many people pursue weight loss by very unhealthy means). The benefits of good lifestyle habits seem to be almost completely independent of whether these habits produce weight loss. Meanwhile, the bad effects of focusing on the supposed desirability of thinness are acknowledged by all but the most hopeless fatphobes.

In short, in an ideal world we would pursue public health initiatives to improve lifestyle without any reference to weight or weight loss. Yet given a choice between public health programs that demonize fatness as a strategy for improving nutrition and physical activity, and doing nothing, I believe the latter is preferable.

One basis of this post’s original analogy is my belief — and it’s shared by a growing number of academics and other critics — that supposed concerns about the health risks of higher than average weight are often proxies for aesthetic digust, moral disapproval, and class anxiety. (Not to mention the financial interests of the nation’s $50 billion a year weight loss industry). In other words, we’ve seen this moral panic movie before, with an ever-changing cast of characters playing the role of the folk devils of the moment.

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