Friday 5 August 2011

Five Fat Facts


Posted by Sebastienne

I thought it was time to unpack some of the assumptions behind our RENT filk, "Fat". (Lyrics)

1. "Fat" is a neutral descriptive term. It describes the way that a person's body carries adipose tissue, and says precisely nothing about their moral character, their health, their lifestyle, or their attractiveness. It is not offensive to call me fat - but it is offensive to assume that using the term to describe me is in some way insulting. And as for "but you're not fat - you're gorgeous!" - care to elaborate on what your problem is with my being both of these things?

Now - of course - as with any self-identification, there are going to be people who disagree with me here. Fat is a descriptive term with a nasty history - like "queer" or "dyke" - and there are going to be people who won't want to apply it to themselves under any circumstances; we have to respect that.

But I have very little time for the cultural narrative that casts me as "curvy" and "voluptuous", and even less for the one that uses "obese" or "overweight". The former tries to play "good fatty/bad fatty" - it implies that my fat is the good, sensuous kind, carries class implications, and distances me from fat people who are not shaped like some hourglass ideal. The latter medicalises, a modern-day "homosexual", pathologising natural diversity. These terms also make absolutely no sense - check out Kate Harding's Illustrated BMI Project.

2. "Obesity" is not a medical condition. I know, I know - medical professionals are saying this all the time, so surely I must be deluded to question their Scientific Facts with my silly-girl politics? But in fact, it is my grasp of the scientific method which forces me to draw this conclusion.

Weight is easy to measure in an experimental context - just stand somebody on a scale; neat, empirical, unfalsifiable. It is much harder to measure lifestyle factors like diet or activity levels - a researcher must either rely on self-report (which is prone to all kinds of biasing factors) or carry out a much more invasive programme of observation. There's also a large class element as well; people on lower incomes are more likely to work long hours, have little scope for recreational gym-going, and need to consume food with the greatest calorie-per-penny content.

So we end up in a situation where weight (or, worse, the useless BMI scale) is used as a proxy for these harder-to-measure factors. Where mere correlations between weight and disease rates (many of which are not even validated in repeated studies) are reified as omens of an "obesity epidemic", rather than interrogated until any mechanisms of causation can be demonstrated. And once such weak studies are reported in the media as Hard Fact, which the public are all-too-willing to accept due to general prejudices against fat people, critical thinking has left the building - healthcare policy is based on public opinion, rather than evidence.

And then confirmation bias leads to the media reporting everything anti-fat - up to and including press releases from diet-pill companies - and completely ignoring evidence like the fact that fat people have better survival rates in all sorts of disease studies. The actual evidence here is conflicted at best, people - meta-analyses do not yield strong results for or against any particular body type.

And even if the data pointed strongly towards thin people being healthier than fat people (which it doesn't), what would you propose we do about it? Because there's something that a lot of fat people know, that a lot of thin people assume the opposite of (because they've never had to try)..

3. It is not possible to make a fat person thin. In fact, dieting increases a person's average weight across their lifetime, due to the deregulation of biological processes around food and hunger. Of course, the entire diet industry is built on the idea of permanent weight loss; but how much more sense it makes in the context of late capitalism when we realise that it's selling aspirations rather than results! The diet industry sells us the idea of control over our bodies, then damages our metabolisms, causing weight cycling and a greater sense of loss of control - so we crave the "control" of weight loss products and programs even more fervently. We buy them more and more and we never stop. It's practically textbook. When we fail, we blame ourselves for our weakness; but the shame and the guilt and the blame really belong with the people who sell us this bullshit.

4. It is not possible to hate people for their own good (HT Marilyn Wann). Even if fat were an illness (which it's not), and even if diets did work (which they don't), shame would still be a shitty motivator. When 'comedian' Frank Skinner went on record as saying that kids wouldn't grow up fat if only they were bullied more at school (no, really), I will admit I did laugh - but probably not how he meant me to. Does he really think that it is possible to grow up in this society and not internalise the idea that to be fat is to not be a full human being? If shame worked to turn fat people into thin people, there would be no fat people. Just check out the "Things Fat People Are Told" twitter hashtag.

5. Your body is beautiful. Yes, even yours. And this has nothing to do with "real women have curves" - that's just a different kind of body fascism, demonising a different group of bodies. Fat acceptance is not about recalibrating social norms around body size slightly towards the larger end, leaving thinner people out in the cold; it's not even about expanding our category of acceptability to take in the moderately "plus-sized". It's about overwhelming those borders and radically re-conceptualising our relationships with our own physicality.

We cannot win this war we are waging against our bodies - we are our bodies. Late capitalism has set us to self-destruct, because of how profitable it is for us to hate ourselves. But it is possible to deprogramme yourself - replace Cosmo with a fatshion tumblr. Read blogs by awesome fat people. Get yourself an adipositivity calendar. Watch feminist burlesque artists sing songs about fat (lyrics).

Don't change how you look, change how you see.


  1. If shame worked to turn fat people into thin people, there would be no fat people.

    Oh hell yes. The number of cyclical arguments I've had with my mother after her constant well-meaning suggestions for me to "get fit" (lose weight), I boggle at her inability to understand the simple fact that: your approach is a logical fallacy. If nagging worked, I would already be a size 8!

  2. It goes the other way too as well, thin people can be called anorexic and constantly bullied for being the size they are. Why can't everyone just be happy being the size they are?

  3. I come back to this post often. I really love it.