Friday, September 2, 2011

Obesity, Health, and Oppression: What -isms Lie in Wait?

I'd be lying if I said that I never have concerns over what I look like. I'd also be lying if I said that didn't extend to body size. I've struggled with weight, and--even though I'm now probably in the healthiest mind frame I've ever been about the connection between my personal weight and health--I'd also be lying if I said I'm not excited about the numbers dropping on the scale and my clothes getting looser. My main concern is health. I want to be healthy. I want to be able to run a few miles without passing out. I want to feel strong and capable. But I can't pretend like I don't also take a glance at the way my clothes fit in the mirror and feel good about that, too.

Many, many women in my family struggle with their weight. There have been surgeries. There have been diets. There has been yo-yoing and self-shaming and group-shaming and pain over weight.

From my personal experience with weight, weight loss, and health concerns, I approached an article posted on Shakesville  with a particular lens, and as I read that lens got . . . well foggy. [Edit: This was the first time I had visited Shakesville, and it will be the last. People have the right to run their blogs however they want, but this site is a little too totalitarian for my tastes. With that in mind, I removed the link because I'd rather not send traffic there. You can search for it if you'd like to read the article, as I still think that the points raised are interesting and worth discussing.]

The author, Melissa McEwan, takes a well-argued and eloquent stance against a celebrity-backed petition calling for initiatives to fight against obesity. Her issue is primarily with the underlying principle that "OBESITY IS PREVENTABLE," which is key to the petition. To this, she responds:
It's always nice to see wealthy people with access to the best food, comprehensive healthcare, personal trainers, private chefs, and individual nutritional plans put their names to a petition admonishing the fatties that OBESITY IS PREVENTABLE.

She goes on to say that she will always be obese, and that campaigning to eliminate obesity is the same as campaigning to eliminate her. Finally, she says that fat acceptance in the future will make us embarassed by the intolerance we currently display, that "one day, people will look back at this revolting petition and wonder how the fuck such unapologetic hatred was popular enough that celebrities were tripping over each other to sign their names to it."

I think that her points are valid, and I'm especially convinced that there are other -isms tied up in the imagism we use to denigrate overweight and obese people. She mentions that not all people have access to healthy food, and this brings up both classism and racism (and there's an interesting piece about trying to eat healthy on food stamps from Civil Eats here). Weight loss is often hindered by limited mobility, so ableism comes into play. And, of course, women are particularly prone to imagist attacks, so sexism factors in as well.

But I still feel conflicted. While trying to figure out why I felt conflicted, I remembered this article from a recent Glamour magazine. In it, Jess Weiner, an advocate for body acceptance and a plus-sized woman who authored books about the topic, tells her story of being heckled by an audience member at a book reading. The woman asked "How can you honestly tell us that you love your body?” she asked. “You are obese.” While the audience shunned the woman and her rudness, Weiner says it was an eye-opening moment that motivated her to go to a doctor for a check-up. There, she learned that she weighed 250 pounds and nearly every test (from cholesterol to triglycerides) showed up as at-risk health factors. She was categorized as prediabetic and told to lose weight for the sake of her health.

And she did. She lost 25 pounds, an amount she wished was bigger until her doctor pointed out that it had been enough to bring all of her numbers into normal ranges. She ends with this:

I understand why women are so fed up with being told by society (and doctors) that they need to get to some “ideal” size. I get why they’d want to rebel and no longer care about weight—I’ve been there too. But we also can’t pretend illness doesn’t happen to us. Health matters, and paying attention to markers like your cholesterol, blood pressure and, yes, your weight doesn’t mean you’re giving in to some societal ideal. It means that you’re listening to your body on the inside, which is a crucial part of loving yourself completely.
I don't want to be dismissive of McEwan's viewpoints, as I see her points, but I also don't want to be dismissive of very real health risks associated with obesity. Being in tune with these risks does not in any way give people the right to shame or hate a person over his/her body. And painting with a broad brush that claims obesity is preventable ignores the diversity that makes us human beings and alienates people for whom it truly is not preventable. At the end of the day, I hope that we can separate out a message that says self-worth is tied to body size from one that says that self-respect is tied to being as healthy as you can be.

Finally, if I take McEwan's viewpoints to heart, does that mean that feeling good about losing weight and getting fit makes me complicit in a system of oppression? It feel paradoxical that taking pride in my own weight loss accomplishments could be tied up in eliminationism for other women.


  1. Oh, excellent post. I feel your confusion. I have felt so many of the same conflicts. Post-baby, I'm sure I'm in an obese BMI and I'd rather not look like this, and yet I've had a health-at-every-size approach to my body that was tough to learn and now makes me reluctant to address weight loss. I also feel a sense of betrayal for wanting my body to be slimmer. I dont think there is an easy answer.

    PS I enjoyed being able to read all of this post in my reader!

  2. Weiner's article is extremely problematic for a variety of reasons and was extensively critiqued throughout the fatosphere if you want to google it. I am 300lb plus and all my numbers are in the best range possible. My doctor has no issue with my weight because weight does not denote health. I dont think there is any issue with you getting fit, fat acceptance as a movment has nothing against people getting fit. we do have a problem with people assuming fat people can't be fit, that we do nothing and eat crap all the time (I am not saying you are saying this, I am saying that is society's view in general). We also need to remember that health is not a moral imperative. An individual's health is no one else's business but their own.

  3. I just went and checked out some of the critiques, and I found the one on the Rotund made some great points (Weiner uses body acceptance as a scapegoat for ignoring her health, the argument is alarmist and hyperbolic).

    I also agree with you, Bri, that the assumptions that fat people can't be fit and that fitness/health is a moral imperative are troublesome and tied up in a lot of negative stereotypes and prejudices.

    I guess the problem I'm having trouble with is that this conversation brings up personal performance in oppressive systems. As you point out, a person's personal decision to lose weight or not is only the business of that individual, and I agree. However, that individual is still making decisions that reflect on the way the systems in society work as a whole.

    So, for instance, it makes me sad to hear that a person of color is using skin lightening cream or that a gay person is undergoing reparative therapy because I think that those personal decisions (which they have the right to make) are indicative of larger societal systems of oppression.

    If I work out with the intention to lose weight, or cut out refined grains from my diet and then get happy if I see the numbers on the scale drop am I doing the same thing?

    It may be that the answer is "yes," but I am having a hard time making the jump.