Obesity and Naturalness

High profile anti-obesity activist Meme Roth writes on her blog: “Let’s finally recognize obesity as abuse—abuse of our children, abuse of ourselves—and together take action.” Roth has recently trademarked the term “second-hand obesity”, playing on “second-hand smoke.” She writes that second-hand obesity is passed along from parent to child and from citizen to citizen. Roth makes numerous television appearances every year and continually underlines the association of fat with sickness, death, and unnaturalness.

New research by Dr. Arya Sharma is beginning to break the elision of fat and sickness with his new research:

“The back-to-back studies come as more evidence emerges that a significant proportion of overweight people are metabolically healthy and that the risks associated with obesity do not make for a one-size-fits-all formula.” More can be found here: http://www.canada.com/health/Heavy+healthy+formula+slims+down+definition+dangerously+obese/5257089/story.html

If the risks associated with obesity are less dramatic than once believed, then what is feeding this culture of obesity panic that aims to “blast away fat” and “burn belly fat” away in 10 days or less?

What surprises me about much of the writing on obesity, like Roth’s and Richard Carmona, the Surgeon general of the United States who compared the obesity epidemic to terrorism, is that it seems to operate under two very mistaken assumptions—that obesity is “unnatural” and that obesity is historically “new.”

First, there is a lovely new book out by Sander Gilman Obesity: The Biography (New York, NY: Oxford UP, 2010) wherein he tracks the historical meanings and classifications of obesity and shows that there have been obese people in all cultures and in all historical epochs.  Much like mental illnesses, obesity was not divvied up into multiple medical categories in ways that could resemble an epidemic until our present and constantly changing classificatory systems. Much anti-obesity rhetoric assumes that the body’s natural state is thin and that through mass agriculture, poor food choices, high stress, and so on we “make” our bodies fat.  This preserves the nature/culture divide by attributing the fat on fat bodies to over-industrialization and Western excesses.

To deal with the second assumption—that obesity is historically “new” we can look at the term “globesity,” which is largely defined as the exportation of obesity from the West to other countries.  Globesity maintains and exacerbates racist imaginings about Eastern cultures; that they don’t get fat, that they are pre-Western excess, or, paradoxically that what occurs in their culture is due to Western influence (if they have fat people, it must be because of Western exports; KFC, McDonalds, et. al.).  This Western-centric worldview imagines Western expansion and American exceptionalism by painting progress into the future as decidedly Western and white. The assumption that Eastern parts of the globe don’t have fat people because they do not suffer Western excess maintains the racist assumptions that the East is closer to nature, simple, and living in the past.

Self-help literature on fat tends to perpetuate the assumption that the natural body is the thin body as well by arguing that if fat people listen to their body’s “natural hunger cues” that they will naturally lose weight and find their “natural” and much smaller weight.  With sympathetic intentions, self-help literature perpetuates the idea that fat on fat bodies is unnatural and by extension unhealthy.

As I’m sure many of the readers of this blog are aware, the terms “health” and “natural” are used in so many ways to mobilize the kinds of people we are supposed to be.  Dr. Sharma’s new research allows that there can be fat bodies that is healthy, which will perhaps expand what is thought of as a natural and normal body. This is what makes his research so radical.

Dr. Jennifer Kuk, a researcher applying Dr. Sharma’s new research said; “Just because you’re normal weight doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re healthy..You can still have high blood pressure, you can still have diabetes, you can have a poor lifestyle — and all of these contribute to obviously negative health and early mortality risk…You really need to take the emphasis off trying to attain this normal body weight, because lifestyle practices are equally, if not more important.”

There is much more to discuss pertaining the assault on fat people via obesity panic, but I hope to have shown the problematic associations of the thin body with nature because the fat on fat bodies is just as “natural” as lesser amounts of it on thin bodies. Gilman, in his history of obesity has argued convincingly that obesity is no crisis, but rather the “most recent version of an obsession with bodily control in society and the promise of universal health through all forms of medicine” (2010, xiv).


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9 thoughts on “Obesity and Naturalness

  1. I totally agree; obesity is not only abusive, it’s also an addiction that needs to be looked into more. Great post and I look forward to sharing more with you:))

  2. I quote Meme Roth because she is a perpetrator of “obesity panic”, something that I think should be ended. I’m sorry if it wasn’t clear. I do not think that obesity is an addiction or abusive.

  3. Thanks for your skepticism about the currently popular and profitable weight-related panic! I hope you’re looking at fat studies scholars, too. Gilman and Sharma don’t really have weight politics that do much for social justice (or health).

  4. Of course! Glad to have a hero of mine post on here! I am researching many aspects of “the obesity crisis” and may guest blog on this site more often. (I will also be presenting at Fat Studies in Boston in April!) I have so much to say but I am trying to partition my thoughts into smaller segments.
    What I do like about Dr. Sharma is that he is advocating for the Stage 0 obesity, which is a step in the right direction–though of course it still contributes to obesity rhetoric. I still think it is pretty radical for a health professional with his clout to say that losing weight itself isn’t necessarily a health promotion tactic–something that I know, but having a specialist say it lends credibility.
    Gilman is a historian and to my mind history can be political because one of the worst ways that we do our present a disservice is to have historical amnesia, which I think leads to the formulation of a “crisis” in the present.
    Thanks for your comment!

  5. What a FANTASTIC post (and thanks Marilyn, for pointing me to it!) – I would love to get you, Kirstin, on my fat positive radio show, Friend of Marilyn!

  6. Very nice post! I think one of the biggest problems here is the medicalization/turn of obesity into its own disease (disease as the very antithesis of naturalness, of course!). Once it gets labeled a (deadly) disease at the level of the CDC and NIH, attempts to naturalize weight variations gets to be such an uphill battle. Self-help lit is one thing, but federal institutions with funding power…

  7. Thank you for your skepticism! I think we should all regard Meme Roth as a performance artist, perfectly embodying the putrid mix of moral disapproval and displaced panic of our time.

    People think we are in a crisis because they don’t stop to think about the actual data. The data show us that our weights went up from 1980 to 2000 by an average of 15 pounds. That is it. In 2007, the authorities decided that “overweight” for kids should start at the 85th percentile rather than the 95th, and doubled the kids they considered “overweight” overnight. Doctors are saying they are seeing Type II diabetes in kids and teens but they did not look for it before, so we will know know for sure what the change in prevalence is. It probably is going up in frequency, but is still so rare that the CDC site says they don’t have enough documented cases to say so far. Whatever the frequency, the bigger problem is whether those youth have access to good medical care to manage their health.

    When we see a “headless fatty” in the photo accompanying a headline about “two-thirds of the adults are overweight or obese,” that person is usually only representative of less than 2% of the population. But that wouldn’t be a very scary headline, particularly because many of those people are having just fine lives, thank you very much. Actual people in the overweight and mildly obese ranges, which are the majority of people, may not even have an average amount of body fat (for whatever that’s worth), and would not appear to be “fat” in the photo. Remember that weight and height is all you have with BMI – you can square it or translate it into metric or divide and it is still just weight and height. People in the “overweight” range live the longest of anyone, and mortality does not begin to rise until BMI > 35. Here are children in the 95th percentile deemed “obese”: http://health.msn.co.nz/healthnews/8425452/healthy-active-boy-labelled-obese-by-nurse

    Now there is a panic among the public health authorities (usually white, with funding interests in the “war on obesity”) about the parents (usually poor and/or of color) who “don’t get it” that their kids are fat – i.e., they are not in a suitable panic about it. Perhaps the reason that parents are not labeling their children the way the BMI cutoffs label them, is that the BMI cutoffs are wrong. I find it curious that the rest of us seem to think the public health authorities must be right. Why would any of us be more willing to trust an arbitrary formula that was never meant to screen individuals, over the knowledge parents have of their own children’s well being?

  8. Thanks tons, Kristin! I’m glad you’ll present at PCA! I recognize the angles you describe. It’s not my role to be grateful for anything I consider hateful, but there are all sorts of ways to agitate for social justice! Mine’s just one way. Rock on!

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