I can honestly say I’m sick of hearing about, talking about and thinking about fat. And yet it’s everywhere – whether it’s the fear-mongering headlines that claim our country has been consumed by an obesity epidemic or if it’s the innumerable magazine articles written on the newest get-thin-quick scheme, it’s undeniable that over the years, our society has become obsessed with fat. But despite the often one-sided, overwhelmingly negative attitude our country has towards fat, the question remains: what is the true nature of fat as an issue of health?
As a feminist, I’ve always felt that the way our society views fat on the individual level is seriously messed up (i.e. unrealistic standards set for women’s bodies) But I’d never spent much time thinking about how fat is framed as an actual medical illness, nor had I heard much detail about fat as a health-related issue other than the headlines claiming we’re all obese. So I decided to look into it. It turns out that that debate is pretty messed up, too.
The debate over obesity in this country has largely been split into two parties: those who caution against the evils of obesity (the Anti-Obesity Movement) and those who claim that fat is not inherently evil, but rather a natural body type for some people (the Fat Acceptance Movement). The Anti-Obesity movement generally argues that obesity is detrimental to one’s health and is a preventable illness. The Fat Acceptance Movement, on the other hand, claims that fatness is a form of body diversity, and should be respected in the same way that identifiers like race or sexual preference are (ideally) respected. There are also those who fall somewhere in between the two movements, who argue that obesity is a disease. However, these arguments essentially boil down to two concepts: control and blame. Anti-obesity activists argue that weight loss is within the realm of an individual’s control and that they should be blamed for what they see as unhealthy bodies that need remedying, whereas Fat Acceptance activists argue that it is not a matter of control for myriad (often socially based) reasons and that those individuals should not be directly blamed.
From a biomedical standpoint, there has been much argument over the true medical cause of obesity and many theories have been posited. In her groundbreaking book Fat Is A Feminist Issue, Susie Orbach outlines five major causal theories. These theories range from claims that fat is genetic, that it is based on the number of fat cells that exist in one’s body from a young age, and that it’s related to a delay onset of the satiation center in the hypothalamus. But the ultimate point Orbach makes in her book is that none of these medical theories can fully explain somebody’s obesity: there are too many other emotional, psychological and social factors that contribute to the issue.
This was just the basis of my research, but it was apparent to me as I read through existing health-based research of fat, we’re doing the same thing with this issue that we do with so many other pressing issues: trying to cleanly explain away something that is born from myriad causes, many of which are deeply embedded within our very society, as the source of a single causal factor. Is obesity a serious health concern for many people? I would say yes. But I think to leave the discussion there, to try to shame people into “fixing” a problem that is positioned as their own making, is ignoring a lot of complex factors that contribute to somebody’s weight and moreover isn’t doing anything to stop this so-called “epidemic.”
Now, I’m not a medical professional in any way, shape or form. But it seems to me that the best way to cure a health issue is to focus on eradicating its causes rather than treating (or, really, shaming) the final product. It seems to me, when we talk about fat we need to consider things like the role gender plays in a person’s weight – for example, as Orbach states, “compulsive eating in women is a response to their social position,” in that women use compulsive eating as an emotional reaction to many of the issues and stressors they face in their lives.
We also need to consider race. As Byllye Y. Avery notes in her article Breathing Life into Ourselves: The Evolution of the National Black Women’s Health Project, the roots of why women of color may be prone to obesity are complex, and can exist on a very personal level in accordance to the individual and unique experiences of those women are not paralleled in their counterparts of other races. For example, Avery, in an attempt to educate a group of obese black women about their weight, found that they all knew about dieting, that they had all been to Weight Watchers multiple times, but they would tell her things like: “Things are not well with me. The one thing I know I can do when I come home is cook me a pot of food and sit down in front of the TV and eat it. And you can’t take that away from me until you’re ready to give me something in its place.”
Until we finally recognize that there are a ton of factors that play into the greater picture of an “obesity epidemic” – not just unhealthy eating habits, lack of exercise, or ignorance about health and nutritional (although those are real factors as well) – I think we’ll be hard pressed to comprehensively understand this issue. Until we incorporate a feminist lens into our attempts to understand it, I think we’ll make little progress.
About Julie Zeilinger:
Julie Zeilinger is an American blogger and feminist writer, known for having founded the feminist blog The F Bomb in 2009. She is the author of the book A Little F'd Up: Why Feminism is Not a Dirty Word.