Re-Post: "Getting to the Heart of Body Politics"
I know very little about New Jersey governor Chris Christie, and from what I do know I have no interest in defending his politics. But back when he first ran for governor there was a nasty smear campaign from his opposition that essentially suggested that he was too fat to govern. Now that he is (I guess) a potential GOP presidential candidate, his size is back under scrutiny, thanks to articles like this condescending piece by Eugene Robinson in the Washington Post and this agonizingly self-righteous piece by Michael Kinsley at Bloomberg.com.
Kinsley even "saves us the trouble" of articulating what's wrong with his position:
That's not a very liberal attitude. It's discriminatory. It's patronizing. It's coercive. What business is it of ours whether Christie weighs too much (and who gets to define "too much")? Why should we even care, as long as we like his policies? These points will all be made by political commentators if word goes out to the vast right-wing conspiracy that it's time to get behind Christie.
Let me save you the trouble, boys and girls. I can write that column myself: "Liberals, who embrace diversity of all other kinds -- who demand quotas for transgender kindergarten teachers in public schools -- these selfsame liberals have the unmitigated gall to encourage discrimination against a truly oppressed group: people of weight."
And after that, he doesn't address it again. Yep: Any suggestion that self-styled liberals or progressives might be hypocritical when it comes to their views on fat people is easily dismissed as right-wing nonsense. Fat people are "oppressed?" How absurd!
So absurd it's not even worth remarking on beyond an obligatory eye-roll before he starts moralizing about the "obesity epidemic." That's where Robinson and Kinsley try to make their points, and both of them base their arguments on the same old hysteria and folk-wisdom that have been the hallmark of mainstream rhetoric about fatness for decades (if not longer.) The "obesity epidemic" is "real and dangerous." Obesity is the culprit for rising healthcare costs. "Blame is not the point," but let's play the blame game anyway: fat people like Christie set a bad example because they can't control themselves. They could lose weight if they just buckled down and tried. They eat too much, consume too much, cost too much. Even if we like their politics and views, they need to show some discipline and "get their appetites under control" before they can be good, responsible Americans. I mean we need to. Look at that: being identified as fat (or overweight or obese) is so undesirable that I started dissociating myself from a group that I'm part of even as I'm trying to point out how we're unfairly stereotyped and, yes, oppressed.
Does the rhetoric of excess sound kind of familiar? Who else gets constructed as needy and expensive? Oh right: Disabled people. Blogger and writer s.e. smith often remarks that the fat and disabled communities are closely connected and ought to act in solidarity with each other. Many other writers and activists from both communities share the sentiment, but there is also some resistance from within those same groups. There is a significant intersection between fatness and disability, and substantial variety and nuance within that intersection. But there is a particular kind of body within the overlap between fatness and disability that I believe is the locus of discomfort for both groups: the very fat body, the body that is medically termed "super obese."
Recently, during a casual discussion over lunch, a co-worker of mine declared "There is no such thing as a six-hundred pound person who isn't unhealthy." I don't believe that statement to be true (I believe in the principles of "Health at Every Size"), but it made me think. There is and always has been a sub-population for whom fatness becomes disability in itself, and for whom body size directly precipitates health problems. The rhetoric of "Health at Every Size" does break down at the upper limits of human size, but it is extremely fat people against whom fat-hatred is directed most visibly and violently, especially against women.
I'm sure many people recall the brief flurry of media attention given to Donna Simpson, a very fat woman who (supposedly) publicly declared that she intended to keep gaining weight with the goal of eventually weighing one thousand pounds. Her declaration turned out to be a publicity stunt, and a pretty successful one at that because it generated a lot of very real outrage. The public was aghast because Simpson is a mother. American culture's profoundly ableist construction of motherhood reared its head: If she weighs a thousand pounds she won't be able to move, right? If she can't move how can she take care of her kids? Won't she be unhealthy then? Won't that kill her? How DARE she die and leave her children?
The public's ire was fanned by the fact that Simpson's fictional weight gain was to be undertaken deliberately, but the suspicion that weight gain and fatness are volitional is leveled at all very fat people. The exact same questions given as examples above would be asked of any woman who happened to weigh a thousand pounds and who also happened to be a mother. How could anyone get that fat without trying? The logical rebuttal is: Why would anyone choose to become very fat in a culture where extremely fat people are reduced to burdensome objects of revulsion and pity? The more radical response would be: So what if someone did choose to become extremely fat, or at least chose not to resist growing fatter? What makes that anyone else's business?
Extremely fat people are featured as abject spectacles in news specials and in numerous "educational" television series, such as Big Medicine and 600 Pound Mom, where their images are used to titillate and frighten the audience and to hawk physically devastating weight-loss surgeries. The spectre of "super obesity" aggressively haunts the American consciousness. So where are the first-person accounts and voices of fat people whose weight places them near those uppermost possibilities of human size, and why aren't they more visible within the fat acceptance movement itself? I would venture to guess that some of them have things to say that some fat activists might not like to hear: that there are some fat people who want to lose weight and who won't be told that they have to be satisfied with their bodies as they are; that binge eating or compulsive eating are actual problems, and that for some people "excess" and a lack of control are real and pressing concerns, et cetera. I think these are important issues to address and to work out within the movement, but even as I acknowledge that I want to make it clear that I don't believe that any fat person, no matter how fat, necessarily must be dissatisfied with her body or must make an effort to "control" her eating habits.
My point is that people who eat compulsively or who binge do exist. Some of those people may want to change or adjust their behavior, some may not. People who are so fat that their size impairs their mobility, their self-care, and/or their physical health do exist. Some of those people might want to lost weight, some might not. If the goal is to ensure that no one is devalued or shamed because of her body and how she chooses to live in it, how do we ensure that both the fat acceptance and disability rights movements-and by extension all progressive social movements-include and respect the dignity of everyone?
We could start with a very radical proposition: Deconstruct and de-center "health." Question "health." Interrogate it. What exactly does it mean to be "healthy?" What makes that ideal of "health" useful or desirable in our cultural context? How is any person's health anyone else's business? Who is allowed to be "healthy?" Why do we feel personally and socially obligated to be "healthy?"
Of course I'm hardly the first person to ever suggest this idea, but it remains a rather fringe and radical notion even within progressive social movements like fat acceptance and disability rights. Embracing it, and asking tough questions about this deeply entrenched concept, is an essential step toward creating discourses and building a society where everyone-every body-is safe and valued. To echo a powerful sentiment that I heard expressed once by well-known fat activist Marilyn Wann:
If we can't feel at home in our own bodies, where are we supposed to go?