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.
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.