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).