I almost feel bad giving this attention, but I’m really not in the school of “ignore wingnuts who have audiences of millions of people and they’ll just go away”, so I’m blogging it. As noted before on this blog, Rush Limbaugh has declared holy war on Michelle Obama for what is largely an uncontroversial First Lady project of trying to promote good nutrition and exercise. Limbaugh clearly has deep-set mommy issues, and believes his audience does as well, because for him, someone gently suggesting that you eat more fiber is tantamount to tyranny. He literally refuses to see the difference between giving advice and forcing someone at gunpoint, though I do imagine he’s continuing to eat all the crap he wants without going to jail, so I’m not sure how he figures out that has happened if we really do have a Food Police. Maybe he figures his wealth guards him like it guards him from doing time for drug use.
Anyway, now he’s decided, in his desperation to tell Mommy that he’ll eat what he wants, wah, he’s gone and called Michelle Obama fat.
She is a hypocrite. Leaders are supposed to be leaders. If we’re supposed to go out and eat nothing — if we’re supposed to eat roots, and berries and tree bark and so show us how. And if it’s supposed to make us fit, if it’s supposed to make us healthier, show us how.
The problem is — and dare I say this — it doesn’t look like Michelle Obama follows her own nutritionary, dietary advice.
He then goes on to whine that she had a single meal that was kind of junky. Of course, those of us who are actually about nutrition and exercise as lifestyle choices instead of dieting will be the first to tell you that you should allow yourself treats, because if you don’t, then what happens is you “fall off the wagon” one time, and decide you’ve failed, and then eat nothing but junk. But it’s in Limbaugh’s interest to push this all-or-nothing mentality; he’s deep into defending the worst aspects of American culture, especially those that keep people in a state of perpetual insecurity (which helps keep his audience restless and easy to drum up into a state of resentment), and boy the binge-and-starve cycle Americans are encouraged to live in sure is that.
The all-or-nothing mentality really amps up with Limbaugh here:
What is it – no, I’m trying to say that our First Lady does not project the image of women that you might see on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, or of a woman Alex Rodriguez might date every six months or what have you. I mean, women are under constant pressure to look lithe, and Michelle My Belle is out there saying if you eat the roots and tree bark and the berries and all this cardboard stuff you will live longer, be healthier and you won’t be obese. Okay, fine, show us.
So, basically Limbaugh is saying that women fall into two categories: underweight and obese. And that’s it. If you’re not a size 0, you’re fat.
I’m not noting this to fat-bash, and in fact the opposite. I’m with fat acceptance people on accepting that there’s a broad range of human bodies and body sizes, and that health is about more than being just stick-thin. I do think it’s interesting that Michelle Obama was criticized by fat activists for starting this campaign as a non-fat person, which created concerns that she would come across as a thin person shaming the fat kids. Obviously, fat activists are right—Obama is not fat. She’s what you’d call stately.
But this is a reminder that, in a patriarchy, the word “fat” has two meanings. The most obvious is that it’s a word that’s applied to people who actually are fat, and this is the sense that it’s being reclaimed by fat activists, who insist it should be just a descriptor and not a loaded word. (I agree with them.)
But then there’s the other way the term is used, and that’s as a free-floating insult that can be applied to any woman at any point in time, regardless of her actual body fat percentage. In a patriarchy, all women are “fat”, i.e. they take up too much space and have physical bodies that are coded as Other and therefore disgusting.* I would argue—though this isn’t original to me but something I’ve picked up from fat activists—that this is part of the reason that “fat” is so stigmatized. There’s a continuum between the “all women are fat” mentality and the “fat people are disgusting” mentality. I’ll leave that to more thorough thinkers on this to discuss, but this here is a prime example of it. I’ve even seen women who are world class athletes and probably have like 5% body fat called “fat”. Anorexia has many causes that are complicated, but the dysfunction certainly latches onto this notion that any flesh at all makes one “fat”.
I’ll point out that none of this has anything to do with Michelle Obama’s stated goals for her campaign, which are about health, and getting kids eating right and exercising young to build lifelong habits. The framing is around obesity, and that’s controversial on the left, but the goal—to teach health as a lifestyle choice, and to keep kids from falling into the gain-weight-diet-lose-weight-go-off-diet-gain-it-back vicious cycle—is one I think we all agree on.
I do think that while Obama is indifferent to the more radical politics of fat activists, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that a woman of an Amazonian build is taking a leadership role as a preventive health activist, because it does destabilize the all-or-nothing mentality around diet and weight in America, at least to a degree. Most mainstream discourse around nutrition is about losing weight, and it takes as a given that all weight loss is good, and that there is no such thing as a person (especially a woman) who doesn’t need to lose weight or that there’s a weight loss plan that’s bad for you. Nor is there ever much indication that you can’t diet yourself into tininess—every woman is presented with basically the same goal, to get to a lithe shape that her genetics may not actually allow for. That Michelle Obama is out there saying you can eat right and be healthy and still weigh more than 100 pounds isn’t radical, but it’s a difference in the mainstream media where actual eating disorders are promoted as “healthy” and yo-yo dieting is taken as the norm.
I think that Obama’s ability to move people to thinking of food outside of the binge-and-starve cycle, and to think of bodies as being healthy even if they aren’t emaciated is what threatens Limbaugh, and why he’s obsessed. Because he needs, as noted before, his audience in an all-or-nothing, constantly destabilized mentality.
*But, but, but Amanda! Straight men who make the rules also crave women’s bodies, and claim to think they’re beautiful, so there can’t actually be a disgust reaction, right? Wrong. In reality, the line between disgust and attraction is thin indeed, and if you don’t think so, consider how a side of raw meat can, depending on the context, be the grossest thing in the world (road kill, human body opened up at an autopsy) or make people’s mouths water with desire (steak), even though they functionally look the same and are the same. Women’s bodies—secondary sex characteristics in particular—fall into the same trap, and it’s made worse by cultural misogyny. Most women grasp early on that extremely minor differences in adherence to social norms will render a body part that’s considered exotic/beautiful/desirable into something that’s considered disgusting. A breast can be the pinnacle of beauty, or it can cause massive disgust reactions, depending on if you pull it out for a man or for a baby. A vulva is considered so desirable that entire magazines are dedicated just to showing it, but if it has a stray hair or labia that aren’t the exact required size, it suddenly becomes culturally designated as disgusting and women are coached to feel so ashamed they should spend tons of money waxing and even getting surgery to “fix” it.