Panther Responds ~ Fatness as a Feminist Issue

Why is the fat all that we are?

The funnest bit about writing the Monday Round up is that I get to rant about a lot of things. The annoying bit is that I can’t rant for very long. So welcome to the first of a (hopefully) regular event; Panther Responds, in which I write a response to something I linked on Monday.

This past Monday, I linked to a a particularly awesome post by Skeptifem on weight loss surgery (WLS) as a feminist issue, and it got me thinking about how we understand fat in our modern culture. I find this a complex issue, for several reasons. I am on the heavier side myself, so occasionally this stuff can feel a little too close to home for me; more than that, however, the aim of feminism should be to give women and men space to make decisions for themselves in all areas of their life, including appearance. To this end, I feel uncomfortable commenting on something that I traditionally understand as totally private – if it makes someone feel better, be healthier and look snazzy in a skirt, why not have surgeries do it? Or starve for a year? Or work out for 8 hours a day?

So I hesitate to wade into the area of weight loss surgery because I have no right to tell ‘you’ what to do with your body, your self-esteem, or your pot belly. I have felt those pressures to eradicate my fat, to fit into smaller jeans, and indeed, been told that my breasts are too big (that was an interesting one. Luckily my anxiety passed pretty quickly, cos, seriously, boobs are awesome. Big, small, wonky, veiny, they are just awesome). But it’s a completely crap feeling that other people are allowed to tell you what to do, that your fat is a public issue that others are qualified to pass moral judgment on. It is cloaked in ‘good meaning’, and comes with love – fat makes your life harder, Panther, so fix it up and you’ll get a better job/partner/dress/system of government (hang on…..). But in the end it is a judgment about your value and it never feels good; which leads me to the question, why the hell do we feel we are able to make comments on others fatness? Why do we let people make these comments?

I thought then that I would not write this article about whether individuals should or should not get weight loss surgery, or try and lose weight by going to the gym seven days a week for 5 hours, or celebrate their stretch marks. Rather, I would write about how I understand the way we treat and conceptualize fat in Australia today, that is, fatness as a social and cultural phenomenon.  A decision about whether or not to lose weight, and how to do that, is a personal one, and I make no moral judgment about that nor offer advice.

But I’ll be honest; the facts in Skeptifem’s article really freaked me out. Skeptifem points out that 80% of all WSL is performed on women, yet throughout the west men are more often overweight, and by a higher margin than women. There are few long-term studies on the outcome of such surgeries; studies on the outcomes rarely acknowledge the consequences of such surgeries. Finally, such surgeries are sold as solutions to health problems, but how the hell can this be? The point of such invasive surgeries is to alter the size of the stomach to ensure that people can eat as little as half a cup of food in one sitting, aiming for a cup a day. The post-surgery guides suggest that people aim to eat less than 1000 calories a day, far below the 1500-2000 that is recommended for women. Patients eat handfuls of vitamins everyday, as they can often not eat meat or carbs (especially concerning considering that it is yet to be positively proven that vitamins taken in pill form actually enter your system!) (Also concerning cos carbs and proteins are really yummy).

So lets be absolutely clear here; there are much more effective ways to fight the ill-health that comes with an unhealthy lifestyle than cutting into you and rearranging your internal organs. Obesity is a symptom of a sedentary lifestyle, and overindulgence in fatty and sugary foods that is bad; ill-health, in other words, is the cause of obesity not a consequence of it.  Eating healthier foods, taking regular exercise, are proven ways to alleviate diabetes, heart disease and significantly, depression. In fact some studies are now suggesting that regular, moderate exercise is as if not more effective than antidepressants. It’s a sad and boring truth; eat a range of foods in moderation and exercise regularity and you will be healthy. NOT thin necessarily, but healthy.

Artificially induced thinness brought on by extreme measures, on the other hand, may not make you healthy. Skeptifem outlines the problems of WLS. The Biggest Loser, on the other hand, does seem to emphasize healthy eating and exercise on first glance, until you start to pay attention; basically no carbs, a daily calorific intake sufficient to keep a 50 kilogram sedentary woman functioning, up to eight hours a day of working out. Weight loss is a competition, indeed a spectacle – let’s laugh and be moved as the fatties run a marathon. Let’s be grateful we aren’t them. Where is the focus on health here?

The constant of weight loss is the revulsion we attached to the overweight, a revulsion that is obvious from the advertisements for WLS to the entire 50 minutes of the Biggest Loser. Contestants on The Biggest Loser talk about wanting to be happier and healthier, but the key to winning isn’t health, or a race, or in fact any act of healthy achievement – it’s the ability to starve and lose weight. They are to weigh in in skintight spandex, forced to expose the rolls of fat that have been called disgusting and the thing that is stopping these individuals from living their lives. They are high fived for losing 10 kilos a week; if they can lift more, run faster, sleep better? Sorry but if you didn’t lose weight, that was all for naught. This show is about punishment, being screamed at by trainers who sprout nutritional nonsense, eating nothing, regarding bread as the enemy, all wrapped up in bullshit about health and happiness.

Why endure this punishment? Because from this, these individuals are meant to achieve redemption from the sin of obesity, the sin of inducing revulsion in other people. The Biggest Loser contestants have sweated out their sins; those undergoing WLS are now unable to eat, a fitting punishment for having dared to overindulge. The outcome is not health; it is the ability to not eat.

And we women – and increasingly men – are encouraged to reproduce this revulsion in our daily lives, peering at ourselves in the mirror and poking out tummy, our thighs, our double chins as if that fat is alien – as if it is a cover of the ‘real’ Panther who dwells beneath.  Who cares that I can run 5 kilometers without stopping? I’ve got a potbelly, how DARE I wear a tight top? I am not worthy.

We connect ‘fatness’ with personal failings and mental disturbance. We are fat because we can’t control our appetite, or because of a previous trauma that causes us to turn to food rather than being brave enough to deal with it.  Who hasn’t seen a Dr Phil where an overweight woman cries about previous abuse or challenges that she has dealt with by turning to food? I should be clear, I am NOT suggesting that this is false, I am merely pointing out that we always connect fatness with trauma, mental issues, and cowardice, a lack of personal strength.  This equation of is why Dr Phil or whoever offers a treatment – deal with the underlying issues and the weight will be gone. NOT deal with the underlying issues and you will have dealt with the underlying issues, but rather, you will ‘recover’ from this fat phase and reemerge. You will be redeemed.

There is a certain kind of religious logic here – the sin is the fat; confession is made to the priest (doctor?) and the penance is set. Instead of hail Mary’s, we are to eat minimal calories to keep our bodies functioning, spend six hours in the gym, reject cake at family gatherings. And we are washed clean of our sins, emerging again as a pure, thin, acceptable member of society. This is not about health, it is about punishment. Individuals are punished for the temerity of being overweight and obese. Skeptifem writes:

“Women have their bodies operated on instead of having their heads examined when they pay thousands for someone to physically force starvation on them”.

But I have to disagree: in such a society, the solutions of the Biggest Loser and WSL ARE THE RATIONAL REACTION. If fatness is a moral failing, a lack of personal worth, then of course, do what you have to do to recover! Cut open your healthy body; don’t eat for a week; run on a treadmill for two hours. Being slim is not just useful; it is proof positive that you are in control, that you are strong, that you are good and a worthy member of society.

This is why we must understand that our framing of ‘fat’ is a cultural construct, not something inherent to my fat cells. We focus on fat as a kind of physical representation of something unacceptable, some failing, that must be redeemed, rectified through punishment.

But you know what? I have more fat cells than some others. Because I eat more energy than I expend. That’s it. I mean it, that’s it. You want to be healthier? I’m 100% with you – go for a run, walk in the sun, play a sport, eat broccoli. You want to be thinner? Well I think you should probably aim for health rather than thinness, but ok, up to you.But we should continue to question why we want to be thin – is it because we want to be healthy? Or is it because we want to be seen as worthy?

As for me, I’ll continue to choose cake over skinny jeans, continue to jog occasionally, and continue to refuse to equate my personal worth with the size of my potbelly.

Photo taken from Flickr user graham99 under the CreativeCommons License.

10 thoughts on “Panther Responds ~ Fatness as a Feminist Issue

  1. Hm neat analysis, I am glad my post got you thinking.

    I have to let you know that my conclusion is somewhat based upon my work in health care. Working in hospitals alerted me to what a physician’s role is in patient care, and it is really hard to understand why they don’t send people to psychiatric help rather than surgery when they aren’t seriously disabled by obesity (which is pretty damn rare) and request dangerous surgery by name. Doctors are supposed to be patient advocates who take the course of least harm when recommending patient treatment. I shoulda mentioned that though, because you’re right; the solutions make sense to women in our culture. In fact, the weight loss seminars hint at the idea that weight isn’t generally the patients fault at all (which is true), but then tells them that it means their bodies need radical modification in order to achieve health (generally false). It appeals to people who have beaten themselves up about their weight for years and years, and like all good lies there is a nugget of truth in the pitch.

    I don’t know if I linked to these interviews from Kai from The Biggest Loser, but they may be relevant to your interests (part 1 doesn’t seem to contain any interview, for some reason):

    http://www.bodylovewellness.com/2010/06/16/kai-hibbard-biggest-loser-finalist-part-2-of-3/

    • Thanks for reading my response! I had read some of the interviews with Kai a while ago and was just amazed at the tricks they learnt to lose weight before the weight-ins. I don’t have a background in health care, and I thought you covered all that pretty effectively, so I tried not to comment on that too much. I was more trying to consider the cultural basis that lies behind our tendency to see some added body fat as a reason to completely freak out immediately. I really enjoyed your article ☺

    • Hmmmm, I think I’ve got a new topic for the next Panther Responds! Thanks for reading Scarlett, I’ve been really enjoying The Early Bird.

    • Ohhh, thanks for the links! I’ve been reading a few of the US fat acceptance blogs, but hadn’t discovered many Australian ones! Yay for more things to read as opposed to actually working!!

  2. Panther, there is now an extensive literature examining the effects of bariatric surgery on the medical comorbidities associated with class II (BMI>35kg/m2) and class III (BMI>40kg/m2) obesity. This literature now includes multiple studies which follow patients for 10 years or more. Here is a link to a comprehensive review and meta analysis of over 14,000 bariatric patients and 29,000 matched controls, studied over an average of 7.5 years. The review concludes that bariatric surgery significantly reduces all cause mortality, and increase life expectancy:

    http://www.medicina.unimi.it/img/common/obeso_2011.pdf

    • Thanks for the link, Michael! and thanks for the response. Medical articles are in no way a strong suit of mine, but I think I managed to decipher bits of it, and I know that meta-analysis can reveal statistical trends that aren’t always clear in the individual studies.

      What I could have made clearer in this column was that I’m NOT a health expert, and would not offer health advice. I was trying more to discuss how in order to bring themselves to consider surgery as an approach to weight loss, it seems to me that individuals must have a very high level of hatred and repulsion for their own body. The aim of such surgeries often seems (again, to me) to be about the eradication of fat, rather than regaining health.
      Skeptifem’s article that I linked above is much more knowledgeable about the health side than me!

      • Most doctors won’t perform invasive surgeries unless they believe it will assist in the patients health.

  3. Pingback: On the (Rest of the) Net. « The Early Bird Catches the Worm

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