Rights without perfection
Jezebel reprinted this blog post by Tasha Fierce called “As Fat As I Wanna Be”. It’s more of a rant than a tightly argued analysis, but I think the gist of her argument is a critical one. She’s questioning the centrality of the “Health At Every Size(HAES)” philosophy to the fat acceptance movement. She comes out of the closet as a fat person who eats too much junk food and doesn’t exercise, and asks why it is that fat people insisting they have the health habits of long distance runners has become the centerpiece of the fat acceptance movement.
And really, if it’s unacceptable to be a non-HAES fat then how can we say we’re accepting fat? We’re only accepting it if you make sure to do everything right but are still fat? We say fat isn’t a choice. Is it wrong if it is? I’ve gained roughly 10 pounds or so (I’m guessing by the way my clothes fit) since my surgery simply because I’ve chosen to not follow the rules. But that’s my choice and I am sure as shit not going to be shamed by either HAES enthusiasts or bigoted fatphobes.
It seems like whenever a fat person is included in a discussion in the media about the health risks of being fat they have to show their “I really do have healthy habits” card. I’m waiting for a fat person to sit there and be like, yeah, I have shitty eating habits, so what. Because really, it’s none of anyone’s business why I’m fat or what steps I take to “counteract” the fat with healthy choices.
I tend to think that much of HAES tends to be an albatross around the necks of the fat acceptance movement. Some of the claims are perfectly scientific and useful, such as pointing out that dieting doesn’t work because the vast majority of dieters gain all the weight back that they lose, mainly because they return to their old habits as soon as they lose the weight. Or pointing out that it’s actually really difficult and miserable to lose weight, and losing a lot of weight rapidly can be its own health hazard. But where they lose people is when they start edging into denialist territory, denying or minimizing the link between obesity and health issues like diabetes and heart disease. It’s true that thin people can develop these diseases through bad nutritional habits—I’ve known a couple who have!—but that just means the situation is complex, not that there’s no link. The flip side of the “skinny person who got diabetes from inhaling sweets 24/7” is the uncomfortable reality the drastic and controversial measures like bariatric surgery often “cure diabetes, sometimes instantly.” (Lest this seem far-fetched, this actually happened to the author who wrote this piece, Marc Ambinder. It seems he’s still diabetic, but much less severely.) And the interest HAES has in establishing that weight is a matter of genetics and not health habits will always butt up against the statistical reality that obesity is rising while American genetics stay the same, but American calorie consumption has risen to an average 2,700 calories a day, up from 2,200 40 years ago. This, despite the fact that Americans are more sedentary than ever.
I get why HAES has become such a centerpiece. A lot of people use faux concerns about “health” as an excuse to bash people for being fat, and often it’s so transparent as to be comical. For instance, there’s a certain cadre of male body nazis out there that are basically anorexia supporters, and whenever the disease they love so well is being discussed on a feminist blog, they swoop in and start trying to distract everyone by screaming about obesity, as if the only option besides starving yourself until you die of a heart attack is being fat. (These guys creep me out, in case you can’t tell. I hope/pray they don’t have partners, because no matter how thin said partners get, I imagine it’s not good enough. Sadly, many of them seem to have positions of power in Hollywood, which is why I think some shows have the “incredible shrinking actress” problem worse than others—rumor is that David E. Kelley, for instance, slaps the food out of the hands of his actresses.) Or, I recall reading a music blog awhile ago and there was a thread about a Gossip show, and even though it had nothing to do with anything, a bunch of dudes showed up to express their “concern” over Beth Ditto’s “health”—concerns that rose dramatically if Ditto did her old schtick of stripping down to her underwear on stage. Is she less healthy with fewer clothes on?, I’d think to myself. Imagine if someone had half as many “concerns” if someone was a suspected smoker! If you think there would be, let’s compare the number of cheeseburger jokes that were made about Bill Clinton to the number of jokes about Barack Obama’s smoking—yeah, they don’t even compare.
So, I get it. And I agree 100%. But I don’t think the way to push back against this is to tear at the link between obesity and poor health outcomes or tear at the link between calorie consumption/exercise and obesity. That’s really a sideshow and doesn’t strike at the heart of the bigotry against fat people that’s so pervasive. It doesn’t do much to stop the injustices of shaming fat people in public places, the problem of there not being enough clothing options for fat people, the ugly assumptions that fat people aren’t sexual beings, or the discrimination against fat people in hiring.
That said, until recently I had a pretty mellow attitude about HAES, even though it nibbled at my pet peeve, which is cherry-picking scientific evidence to fit an agenda. It did seem like it had a lot of potential to help fat people overcome prejudices that really do harm their health. HAES seems like a tool that’s being used by fat people to advocate for themselves at the doctor’s office and to enter spaces like gyms that they may otherwise feel are unwelcoming. But unfortunately, it’s a double-edged sword, and it’s also used in service of tearing at public health initiatives like Michelle Obama’s initiative to fight childhood obesity. The initiative was developed because of a scientific reality that fat acceptance has championed (rightfully so)—diets don’t turn fat people into thin people. Faced with this reality, public health advocates are putting all their attention on prevention, which should be considered a public good, but since it runs into more dubious claims of HAES about how obesity is genetic and not a matter of diet and exercise, there’s been pushback. I suppose in a way it doesn’t matter, because fat acceptance is a small movement with very little influence and there’s exactly zero chance they’re going to be successful in rolling back a program that is, at its core, about creating more access to exercise and healthy food for people with little access. But that’s a problem, because I do think that fat acceptance should be a bigger, more influential movement. And that’s being stymied by claims that obesity doesn’t have much to do with calorie consumption.
I think there’s room in our culture to believe both that obesity is a public health concern that should be addressed through public health initiatives and that fat people should be treated with dignity and as full human beings, instead of being reduced to their fatness. And that treating people with dignity should be automatic, not contingent on their eating habits, whether they’re good or not. I think the Marc Ambinder piece I linked strikes this place very well. He doesn’t just focus on obesity as a public health problem, but also on discrimination against fat people as a human rights issue.
For the average fat person, life can be an endless chain of humiliating experiences. On a flight to Denver not too long ago, I watched as a very large woman struggled to settle into her seat. Next to her, a much skinnier man curled his lip in disgust. The woman softly asked a passing flight attendant for a seat-belt extender. The flight attendant didn’t hear her over the roar of the engines, so the woman had to ask again, and this time, everyone looked at her. Grocery shopping, eating at restaurants, going to the movies, having drinks at a crowded bar—for the fat person, these are situations to be negotiated and survived, not enjoyed…..
Unfortunately, our culture reinforces this anxiety by turning obesity into pornography. This is not surprising. Obesity has become not just a scientific fad of sorts, generating intense research, curiosity, and public concern, but also a commercial gold mine that draws on the same kind of audiences that used to go to circus carnivals a century ago to peer at freakishly obese men and women.
All decent people should really be horrified by shows like “The Biggest Loser”, which engage in just the sort of objectification that he’s talking about.
And really, at the end of the day, believing that it’s irrelevant how someone got fat is not only more secure ground to argue from, it’s more politically radical. America is sliding perilously towards a place where perfection is expected of people, especially if they’re in a traditionally oppressed group, in order for those people to feel entitled to their full human rights. It’s the model minority problem. It’s the reason that we have “perfect girl” syndrome, where young women who have a lot of privilege and success feel that the bare minimum for their acceptance into their world is effortless perfection. Can we really say that human rights have been achieved if you have to meet unrealistically high standards to get them?