Fat Justice workshop degrades women, stretches truth

Having thought that the Fat Liberation Movement and its battle cry of “check your thin privilege” was the stuff of myth, legend, and Tumblr, my ears naturally perked up when I heard that two “feminist organizers” were coming to campus to lead a workshop on “fat justice.” The March 20 workshop, which sought to address “the ongoing exploitation and oppression of fat people” was funded by the Women’s Resource Center, Dean Karen Henry, History Department, Gender and Sexuality Studies,  Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Interpretation Theory and—most curiously—Worth Health Center. It proved to be a disappointing learning experience.

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I took the opportunity to listen to Nicole Sullivan and Cora Segal for two hours because one stands to gain from hearing how experiences and setbacks form perspectives. I agree with Sullivan and Segel that our media and pop culture presents unrealistic and damaging standards of beauty to women, and that we should each find meaningful ways to encourage women’s self acceptance. However, I have serious qualms with their overall approach. It is one thing to ask us to rethink body image issues; it is quite another to intersperse the terms “patriarchy” and “white supremacy” throughout a decidedly unscientific lecture that claimed to be about health.

I did not appreciate their specious claims that every physician is bought off by lobbyists and the “diet industry.” Most of all, I resented their litany of straw man arguments.

What follows are a few of their most questionable statements and points:

  • Body Mass Index (BMI) is an entirely erroneous and useless metric, as it was invented by a “white, male, French astronomer,” Adolphe Quetelet. Thus BMI has “direct links to a white supremacist, patriarchal, colonizing, exploitative force.”  [Quetelet was actually a Belgian mathematician – but a man responsible for evilness of this degree merits having his experience diminished and inaccurately represented, fair representation of facts be damned].
  • We should stop celebrating the heroes of women’s suffrage, because they “threw everyone else under the bus” in the name of their own social prestige. Many first-wave feminists had ties to flapper culture, but, (according to Segal and Sullivan), far from being courageous and rebellious young women demonstrating their fortitude and independence in a male-dominated social scene, the flappers of the 1920s ought to be chided for a style that de-emphasized their distinctly feminine attributes, as it somehow, (deliberately, of course!) reflected poorly on larger women with large breasts.
  • For Segal and Sullivan, the 1960s and 1970s were notable because they welcomed “communism and socialism as viable alternatives to capitalism and exploitation.” [No mention was made of the large-scale human exploitation experienced in the Soviet Union and China during these exact decades under Communist regimes]
  • Ronald Reagan is partially responsible for all suffering of fat people, as he “f*cked everything up.” [No specific evidence about Reagan’s perverse policies or animosity toward obese people was offered.]
  • One of the main problems with the “war” against obesity is that doctors did not start addressing the issue as a major health crisis until the 1990s. This demonstrates that it was not a threat to American public health until lobbyists in the “medical-industrial complex” infiltrated every doctor’s office in the country.
  • “There is no scientific consensus whatsoever that fat people need to exercise more, or that fat is unhealthy. There is no evidence that [being] fat causes diabetes. Medical professionals are informed of this so-called knowledge by lobbying groups.” [A quick glance at virtually any reputable medical source such as the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute lists demonstrates the increased risk to obese people of Coronary Heart Disease, Hypertension, Stroke, and a number of other life threatening conditions]
  • “Overweight people live longer. They’re better protected from heart disease.” [By using the term “overweight,” they skirted the fact that this does not apply to obese people; rather, it refers to those slightly overweight as opposed to extremely thin.]
  • Obese people who undergo gastric bypass surgery are “reduced to involuntary anorexia and bulimia.” Moreover, “every hospital in the country has a bariatric [surgery] unit.” Segal and Sullivan are also convinced that anesthesiologists lack the expertise to calculate anesthesia doses for larger patients and therefore purposely deny obese women’s access to late-term abortions by lying and saying they don’t have “enough anesthesia.”
  • “The problem with [people who say] ‘all bodies are good bodies’ doesn’t address power dynamics.”

Such eager and emotionally-charged denial of facts reminded me of people who argue that evolution is a myth. In fact, I found it hard to believe that people like Segal and Sullivan—who made clear they were involved in other movements against police brutality, oil pipelines, and abortion regulations (Sullivan self-identified as an “angry, man-hating lesbian”)—would present their message with such vehement denial of evidence. Somehow, I doubt that the Swarthmore students who frequently mock scientific ignorance among conservatives will hold Segal and Sullivan to the same standard.

I was disappointed that Segal and Sullivan employed the tiresome approach that says if you attach accusations of “oppression” to a cause, the cis-gendered white male capitalist patriarchy should automatically begin self-flagellation for its role in orchestrating lifelong misery. Because I am familiar with the scientific evidence that obesity does indeed cause serious health problems, it is apparently my fault that the equipment Sullivan was hoping to use to help blockade a tar sands pipeline was too small for her.

Moreover, I found it depressing that the speakers were so eager to write-off programs urging young people to eat healthfully and exercise as “oppression” on the part of “patriarchy, white supremacists, and capitalism.” Such programs have been the centerpiece of Michelle Obama’s activity as First Lady. As far as I know, Michelle Obama could not accurately be described as a patriarchal white supremacist. The heavy use of leftist jargon weakened Segal and Sullivan’s argument by lowering it to shock value and finger-pointing. Additionally, it disturbs me that the “fat justice” movement channels its energy toward blaming others for the discomfort and inconvenience experienced by obese individuals, instead of empowering overweight people to work toward good health. The lack of healthful, affordable food available in underprivileged areas is one of the most significant causes of obesity, yet Segal and Sullivan decided, instead, to blame supermarkets for urban “gentrification” and offered no solutions for increasing access to wholesome food.

Physicians are well aware of the myriad problems caused by childhood obesity. When they express concern toward severely overweight children, they are doing their jobs, not oppressing people. Health professionals should obviously be sensitive about weight issues, and I am sympathetic to the poor treatment that Sullivan and Segal say they have experienced at the doctor’s office. But their attacks on all American physicians, the National Institute of Health, and the entire “medical-industrial complex” were unproductive.

In my mind, what constitutions true oppression was that the room was, tellingly, filled with thin, well-educated Swarthmore students. It is ironic that those with tremendous access to healthful food and medical treatment would voice support for the “fat acceptance” movement and its reluctance to rally behind solutions that could realistically reduce large scale suffering. Whom exactly is helped by this sort of blind solidarity?

Because Segal and Sullivan insisted on finger-pointing and name-calling, I gleaned no new information for how I can help my female peers to empower themselves—via a healthful body or, arguably more importantly, through their personality and intellect. That struck me as odd too: the speakers claimed to be ardent feminists, yet who exactly finds it empowering to be reduced wholly to her physical body? The two speakers insisted that patriarchal and capitalist systems reduce them to bodily stereotypes that fat people are unhealthy and stupid. So why, in turn, rally behind a movement that spotlights larger people’s fatness as their foremost quality? The lack of satisfying logic was exactly what made this “workshop” so underwhelming. I’ll hold off from supporting the “fat justice” movement in favor of encouraging good health and body image, self-esteem, and rational argument.

24 comments

  1. “For Segal and Sullivan, the 1960s and 1970s were notable because they welcomed ‘communism and socialism as viable alternatives to capitalism and exploitation.’ ”

    “Ronald Reagan is partially responsible for all suffering of fat people, as he ‘f*cked everything up.'”

    It’s very simple.

    They hate him because he swung the country back towards individualism and capitalism.

  2. Well thought out analysis. I do wonder how the speakers feel about obesity or morbid obesity as
    disability that merits reasonable accommodations in education and the workplace? I personally think that it should be, so that adequately proportioned equipment must be available to obese people who cannot do their jobs using the equipment that is sized for average people. Also with regard to bariatric surgery I am under the impression that one of the big
    motivators of an individual to get the surgery is a friend or relative who has had the surgery and it is healthier and more comfortable as a result.

  3. “In my mind, what constitutions true oppression was that the room was, tellingly, filled with thin, well-educated Swarthmore students. It is ironic that those with tremendous access to healthful food and medical treatment would voice support for the “fat acceptance” movement and its reluctance to rally behind solutions that could realistically reduce large scale suffering. Whom exactly is helped by this sort of blind solidarity?”

    This helps me. As a thin person who has struggled with an eating disorder for 10 years, I can tell you that I need the fat acceptance movement. I need it to be true that if I stop starving myself that I will still be considered a worthwhile human being. I need to know that if I gain 20 lbs and enter into the slightly “overweight” category, that I won’t be denigrated as lazy and worthless. I need people to know that just because I’m think does NOT mean I’m healthy. The malnutrition, esophageal damage, arthritis, hair loss, and hormonal problems were caused by my attempts to be thin. I would be FAR healthier not engaging in these behaviors and being 20 lbs over weight. Hell even 50 lbs overweight. Being underweight is actually FAR more dangerous than being overweight.

    Your analysis is on a whole totally off base. They aren’t remotely arguing that fatness is their foremost quality, but like other identities, it’s an important part of who they are in a society that cares SO MUCH about the size of women’s bodies.

    To argue that fat shaming and fat phobia isn’t directly related to misogyny is just ignorant. Even people totally uneducated on these issues know that women face heightened scrutiny about their bodies because they are treated like objects.

    I agree that their scientific analyses are a bit dubious or at least oversimplified. But there is justification for quite a lot of what they’re saying. BMI is not a good measure of health. Weight isn’t a good measure of health. These are all trying to go after a measurement of “fat.” Weight and BMI just aren’t the best proxies for that. And ultimately, fat isn’t the best proxy health. It is A proxy but not the very best one. Like I said, I’m thin. I also have three autoimmune conditions, malnutrition, horrific tooth decay, hypoglycemia, an anxiety disorder, and many other health issues. These are directly related to my thinness. So yeah…

    Interesting that you were so passionate at the eating disorder panel but then you write shaming things like this. Feels a little disingenuous.

  4. Swarthmore College should be ashamed of this, honestly, it sounds like a couple of middle school girls who dislike thin women put this together. I cannot believe this is considered higher education. Exactly what makes them experts….nothing except some very biased opinions which anyone can have. No real research … nothing. I agree that overweight people are discriminated against but they lost all credibility with made up nonsense.

  5. There are so many “obese” people out there whose risk of heart disease and diabetes is lower than that of people who are ‘thin’. We can talk as much as we want about what our bodies can do, and eating healthy, and having positive self-image and self-esteem, but that does not address the society-wide discrimination against fat and overweight people. Overweight and obese people are less likely to be hired, even if they have the same or better qualifications. Until the ACA, obesity was a chronic conditions and so they had to pay more for health care. Sometimes fatness is not owed to poor habits only, but also to genetics. There is something to be said about our social mores that tie thinness to health, and to happiness. Many people are very happy with their overweight and obese bodies, but they are still oppressed. We have to stop and look at the social structures that many in our society face

  6. This article was beyond foolish.
    You completely miss the point. Why do we objectify and shame people who don’t fit today’s standards of beauty?
    Why do we all of a sudden attach arbitrary importance to the BMI, which many doctors DO NOT use because a) it ignores waist size b) Quetelet altered the formula because it wouldn’t work unless a person’s height was squared (again, zero evidence) c) read more here: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=106268439
    Why can’t they rightfully name their oppressors without you accusing them of being like fundamentalist finger-pointing Christians? I have seen their lecture and I know for a FACT they pass out sheets of relevant literature for you to read full of the “science” and “logic” you claim to hold in high esteem.
    There is no straw man. You just chose not to listen to their arguments.

  7. ..◾One of the main problems with the “war” against obesity is that doctors did not start addressing the issue as a major health crisis until the 1990s. This demonstrates that it was not a threat to American public health until lobbyists in the “medical-industrial complex” infiltrated every doctor’s office in the country.

    That is not completely accurate. Many a young woman received diet pills prescribed by doctors back in the 1970s. These were biphetamines (a version of speed), and used as appetite suppressants. They were perhaps doled out on the sly, but the consumer (mothers and daughters) wanted them, and the providers obliged.

    Nowadays the whole business of pharmaceuticals is to generate income by hyping drugs that no one needs or should be using. This is not, properly speaking, the work of the “medical-industrial complex” –the United States, weaker and weakened, does not have much industry and no doubt much of this medicine is manufactured outside the States) — but of the “medical-oligarchical complex” (the rich folks running the government and nation, including many of the parents of the Swarthmoreans in attendance).

    There is no substitute for a healthy lifestyle involving proper food choices and exercise When did this ever become a “no brainer”? Even the Europeans know this and can’t believe how Americans line up at the trough. I lose five lbs. every time I spend two weeks in Northern Italy, and this includes enjoying dessert and wine everyday.

    This pair should take up arms against the corn-based diet we Americans vacuum into our mouths. Programs like Weight Watchers are about “lifestyle” change, not dieting, so there can be a common sense approach to such programs as well.

    Issues they have with men, or the need to wear combat boots vs. high heels should be put to the side. Who wants to listen to a virago or be cursed by a termagent? 😉

  8. Excellent article. It’s pretty tiresome when people eschew facts in favour of a string of ‘oppressive’ qualities. Ad hominems do nothing to further a cause, however admirable its intent.

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