Food has been the plight of the fat since fat went out of fashion towards the end of World War I due to tough economic times and the thinning of incomes and food, thus it was considered patriotic to be thinner. It seems like a commonly agreed upon notion that fat people become fat because we indulge whenever we want to and have no self control. This presumed lack of control has resulted in a national cultural aversion to fat as something that needs taming and that can’t be normal or healthy. From this standpoint, it’s easy to point the finger of blame at the fat as deviant epicurians who have failed to maintain control of themselves. This is not a new, ground-shattering thought. “What’s remarkable is how little general cultural explanation there is for this national revulsion toward fat.”[i]
It’s an agreed-upon notion that the slender body signals a life well managed: nothing in excess, proper diet and exercise habits, and strong will power. But as for the aversion to fat, we seem to have two answers. Firstly, health. The medical community is constantly bombarding us with the idea that all fat is unhealthy; that everyone who carries around extra weight is subject to suffering a heart attack, stroke, or having diabetes. The medical explanation – which is not false, but is also not entirely true – leads to cultural stereotypes like all fat people are lazy, lack will power, and simply sit around and eat all the time. The second explanation for our cultural aversion to fat is that it isn’t aesthetic. Why isn’t it aesthetic? Because we’ve been told so and repeatedly shown media images of beautiful thin women, feeding visual taste for thinness. This taste “far preceded current medical notions about fat: medical ideology followed fashion rather than vice versa.” [ii]
Medical experts now agree that every individual has a genetically determined weight range, spanning about thirty pounds.[iii] When people exceed that range, their bodies become less functional, averse to food, and metabolizes faster and when people drop below that range, their bodies become less functional, hungrier, and metabolize slower. Not that this research has done anything to help the plight of America’s fat.
In fact, the obesity science schandefreude has great stakes in promoting the fat – particularly the obese – as some othered being, unworthy of respect, but needing of our pity and harsh criticisms.
The medical terminologies surrounding obesity research – words like obesogenic and infectobesity – are further problematic because they reinforce the false idea that fat is a pathology. This pathology, in turn, automatically pair fatness and poor health, seeking ways to ultimately obliterate it. This pathology fails to recognize, nevermind address the infastructures that influence health: poverty, stress, behavior, etc. Instead, it raises as its emblem against obesity a photograph of a burger wrapped in measuring tape.
The burger has become the scarlet letter the fat wear, broadcasting their bodies for passersby to inflict whatever judgements they may carry about the fat and whatever assumptions they procure from the extra flesh, the double chin, the thighs that rub together.
[i] Laura Kipnis, “Life in the Fat Lane,” Bound and Gagged, (New York, NY: Grove Press, 1996), p. 97.
[ii] Laura Kipnis, “Life in the Fat Lane,” Bound and Gagged, (New York, NY: Grove Press, 1996), p. 98.
[iii] Gina Kolata, “For the Overweight, Bad Advice by the Spoonful,” The New York Times, (30 August 2007).