Cultural histories of fat and fat phobia | Daily News

Cultural histories of fat and fat phobia

In recent decades, the British population has grown in girth. The NHS England obesity report for 2017 found that 58 per cent of women and 68 per cent of the men were overweight or obese, as well as one in five children aged three to four, and more than one in three children aged ten to eleven. These weight issues are thus broadly in line with a perturbing global trend. The majority of the world’s population now lives in countries where obesity kills more people than does being underweight. Worldwide, obesity – defined as having a Body Mass Index (BMI) of more than 30 – has nearly tripled since 1975.

Yet in spite of their steadily growing numbers, the overweight are still subject to contempt and discrimination. Notwithstanding concerted attempts to change latent or blatant anti-fat bias, fat-shaming remains the most widespread and socially acceptable form of discrimination based on appearance. Alarmist newspaper articles about the global obesity “epidemic” have contributed to the problem, creating the impression that our weightier peers are about to drag us all into a biopolitical apocalypse.

Food resources

In 2015, a particularly cruel fat-shaming initiative made headlines. A group calling itself “Overweight Haters Ltd” distributed cards to unsuspecting victims on the London Underground, bearing the following message:

It’s really not glandular, it’s your gluttony … Our organisation hates and resents fat people. We object to the enormous amount of food resources you consume while half the world starves. We disapprove of your wasting NHS money to treat your selfish greed … We also object that the beatiful [sic] pig is used as an insult. You are not a pig. You are a fat, ugly human.

Although there was a collective outcry about this callous stunt, the card neatly sums up the key assumptions that, in the popular imagination, legitimize fat-shaming. Being overweight is frequently associated with disagreeable personality traits (greed, weakness, lack of self-control); the selfish wasting of resources (of food and precious NHS capacity); and an anti-social assault on the health, gene pool and future of the nation. It is also deemed an aesthetic attack on our visual sensibilities. Overweight people, the card suggests, provoke a disgust so profound that a derogatory animal metaphor cannot capture it. Not merely sub-human, their wobbly bodies are sub-animal, thus approximating the condition of abjection.

Common contempt for the fat rests on the assumption that being obese is a voluntary and deliberate lifestyle choice, and that slimming is nothing but a question of willpower. The willpower über alles narrative has of course been challenged, most effectively by psychologists, epidemiologists and sociologists.

The former have suggested that overeating may be related to trauma and loss, with excessive consumption providing a buffer against repressed conflicts and anxieties, while the latter have identified a statistical correlation between obesity and poverty. Michael Marmot, in The Health Gap (2015), showed that the prevalence of obese women in the least deprived areas in the UK is 21.7 per cent, rising to 35 per cent in the most deprived areas. The statistical difference is even more extreme in the case of children. At the age of ten, 11.5 per cent of children are obese in the least deprived areas, while in the poorest it more than doubles to 25 per cent. Why should that be the case?

Chronic stress

Research suggests that those in low socio-economic income brackets tend to focus more on short-term pleasures, wherever they can be found. One hypothesis (advanced by G. E. Miller, E. Chen and J. Parker in 2011) proposes that the chronic stress that goes hand in hand with poverty affects hormone levels and reward circuits in the brain so that the individual becomes predisposed to prioritize easier, immediate gratification. High stress levels are also linked to poor dietary choices. Yet Anthony Warner, known for his “Angry Chef” persona and his popular eponymous blog, which exposes pseudo-scientific claims about “super-foods” and diet fads, offers an even more troubling explanation for the link between obesity and poverty. People live for today, privileging often damaging short-term behaviours over long-term planning, he argues, because the prospect of endless tomorrows “is too much to bear”. “As the connection between poverty and obesity has strengthened, fatness has become a signifier of social class”, as well as a sign of moral failing, Warner suggests.

Written in the sharp and irate debunking-of-bad-science mode that has become his stock-in-trade, Warner’s book The Truth About Fat reveals that many of the most widely accepted views on the causes of obesity are simplistic, scientifically unsound or immoral. The book is a thought-provoking corrective to the idea that obesity is simply the result of eating too much and moving too little, which puts the blame squarely on the obese. With verve, mastery of the available data, and a gripping narrative, Warner demonstrates that obesity is a highly complicated problem that requires intricate strategies if it is to be addressed effectively. Books that take a complexity-theory approach are not normally an easy sell, given that they refuse to provide neat solutions to pressing problems, and Warner’s certainly pulls the rug of comforting certainties from under the reader’s feet. Almost all existing strategies in the fight against obesity are flawed and inefficient at best, he says, and may even be making things worse.

Ideological battleground

One of the merits of Warner’s book is that it shows obesity to be not only a scientific minefield – experts working in the same disciplines often profoundly disagree with one another, especially nutritionists – but also an ideological battleground. According to the “healthist”, and quintessentially neoliberal, assumption that we are all equally able to mobilize willpower to self-improve, those who do not manage to master their own health problems are deemed to be solely responsible for what are viewed as bad and entirely voluntary behaviours. Obesity seen through this prism is the result of moral weakness. By living primarily on junk food, the obese put a heavy strain on health services. From there it is a small step to denying the severely overweight health care, a policy that some NHS trusts in Britain are already practising. The NHS Herts Valley Clinical Commissioning Group and the NHS East and North Hertfordshire Group, for example, have attracted much criticism for their decision in 2017 to deny routine surgery to patients with a BMI above 40.

By analysing data on the roles of socio- economic background, stress, genetic disposition, hormonal imbalances, metabolic differences, sleeping problems, personality type, loneliness, the effects of social stigmatization and, paradoxically, constant dieting, Warner successfully challenges the ideological foundations on which the healthist view of obesity is based. Many factors that contribute to obesity are simply beyond the control of the individual.

He also throws into question the data on which the popular narrative of an obesity “epidemic”, with its connotations of disease and contagion, is habitually based. BMI calculations are, he argues, inaccurate indicators of healthy weight in proportion to height, and have, in recent decades, been weaponized to create a moral panic.

He also punctures the health and weight-loss claims of virtually every known diet – from low-fat to low-carb, Paleo, Ketogenic, South Beach to gluten-free – showing that not one of them works in the long term for the vast majority of people.

- Times Literary Supplement


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