There is no such thing as a ‘natural’ body

This is my response to Donna Simpson aiming to become the ‘world’s fattest woman’.  Actually, no, this is my response to other people’s responses to the story.  The horrified, the disgusted, the morally outraged, the pitying.  The responses from fat-haters and fat-accepters.  Almost all of them are pissing me off (check out Charlotte Cooper’s take for the one thing I’ve read that hasn’t made me shouty; check out the comments for an example of the things that have).

One things that almost all of these responses have in common (and that Cooper’s take doesn’t) is that they’re all resting on an unexamined idea of a ‘natural body’.  AND THERE IS NO SUCH THING.  There, I said it.  I know this is an unpopular notion in Fat Acceptance.  Set point theory has been incredibly useful for many people in re-conceptualising fatness as genetically determined rather than the result of gluttony, sloth, a lack of self-will, a moral deficit.  I’m not coming out for or against the theory – I’m rather decidedly not interested in engaging with the statistics wrangling that characterises so much of these debates around fat.  The theory seems to make a lot of sense in a lot of cases, though I’m not sure it can account for everything.  But beyond the question of veracity, there are political implications to the idea of a ‘natural’, pre-determined fatness, and that is that “moral protection is founded on a loss of political control” (I’m quoting from my favourite chapter of Kathleen LeBesco’s wonderful Revolting Bodies: The Struggle to Redefine Fat Identity).  As LeBesco says:

While I understand the impulse to contravene declarations that fat folk are voracious, eating-obsessed pigs … I believe that allowing oneself to engage in such a debate drains pro-fat rhetoric of its power.  Saying “I don’t eat any more than anyone else” basically says, “I can’t help it – I’m not fat because of anything I did – so leave me along”.  It also says, “I will allow my right to exist as a subject (reflective, reasonable, with power to act) to be predicated upon how much I eat or don’t eat” – and this is ultimately a self-defeating move.

Again, this isn’t an argument for or against set point theory (which was never the point of this post anyway – how did I end up here?); it’s an argument against the political usefulness of the idea of the ‘natural body’.  Lesley at Fatsionista recently posted a take-down of the nature argument, and even though my argument is slightly different, I still recommend reading it (and not just because, despite my profound disagreement on the matter of Gaga, Lesley is one of my favourite fat bloggers).

One of the points Lesley makes is that the idea of ‘nature’ is actually a cultural construct.  What do we mean when we say something is ‘natural’?  I think that, in general, we mean that it hasn’t been altered or intervened with in anyway.  Which is completely impossible.  Everything we do changes our body in some way.  Not doing something changes our body in some other way.  Everything you eat becomes a part of you.  And if you don’t eat, well, that has other implications.  Breathing air, drinking water, wearing clothes, walking, driving, sitting, standing, sleeping, all of these things alter the body in some way.  The body is always in flux, and we can’t live without taking in things from our environment, things which change us.  An unaltered body is, by definition, not alive.  (This is highly influenced by a presentation I recently attended by Rachael Kendrick on metabolism, and while I’m sure I’m this is an obscene misappropriation of her argument, I found it very interesting.  Kendrick isn’t always entirely fat-positive, but she does an excellent critique of medial science and obesity epidemic discourse.)

The ideal ‘natural’ body is also frequently invoked in anti-fat rhetoric, particularly in the figure of the ‘caveman’.  In fact, some people call for a return to this way of eating (if not this way of living).  The idea is that the human body is ideally suited to a palaeolithic lifestyle and that our digestive systems work best if we eat only foods that were around 2 million years ago, and avoid all that new-fangled stuff like ‘grains’ and ‘beans’.  This idea basically harnesses the discourse of evolution in the service of what amounts to a creationist argument.  It posits that the ideal human design was arrived at somewhere in the deep and distant past, and has remained constant ever since.  It denies evolution as an ongoing process, and most importantly, ignores the fact that the caveman body was as much a product of its environment as the modern human body is.

Again, this post isn’t really about evolution vs creationism.  It’s about the idea that there’s a perfect, or ideal, or just pre-determined way that the human body should be, and that any deviation from that is a sign that there’s something wrong. In anti-fat discourse, fatness is seen as a deviation from the ‘naturally’ thin body.  In fat-acceptance, dieting or otherwise deliberately changing the body is also seen as a deviation from the ‘natural’ body.  Neither of these positions interrogates the ‘should’.  Neither of them adequately accounts for the interactions of the body with the world.  Neither of them acknowledge that the body is always being altered, is always changing, adapting, becoming.  That the raw biological material of the body does not exists apart from the culture, the environment, their interactions.  That there is no unaltered, unmodified, unchanged, ‘natural’ body.

Now, I get why people are reacting strongly to the Donna Simpson story.  It’s confronting.  She’s already a fat woman and she wants to get fatter.  It’s almost incomprehensible.  And there’s the feederism aspect, which understandably draws some concern and criticism.*  There’s the question of weather her weight gain is ‘freely chosen’ (I have issues with the idea of ‘freely chosen’ anyway, but that’s a whole other post) or directly coerced or something she’s had to resort to.  There’s the predictable fat-bashing rhetoric about health, mothering, responsibility, and being a burden on society, which doesn’t actually bother me all that much because, predictable.  What bothers me is the claim that any deliberate modification of the body is ‘bad’ and ‘wrong’ and ‘unnatural’.  Is ‘bad’ and ‘wrong’ because it is ‘unnatural’.

Nobody’s – NOBODY’S – body is ‘natural’.

____________________________

*I am, however, really keen for a re-thinking of the automatic and outright condemnation of feederism.  I think that yes, it is undeniably problematic, but I suspect it’s not a straightforward as the “No! Bad! Wrong!” responses claim.  I think the responses to feederism need to be understood within the context of fat-hatred, especially since it’s so easily posed in opposition to dieting, which may draw criticism but not the same level of disgust and outrage.  I also think it needs to be re-thought in terms of fetishism; I think that the idea of sexual attraction to fat bodies is still so taboo, that the desire for a fatter body is seen as reprehensible.  Similarly, taking pleasure in fat embodiment is inconceivable, so getting fatter could never be ‘freely chosen’.  ALL of this rests on a bed of fat hate, which is why it attracts much more vicious reactions than many other fetishes.  It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if I were to tie up my boyfriend and spank him for his/my/our sexual gratification, it would draw much less criticism and condemnation than if I were to deliberately gain weight for his/my/our sexual gratification.  And before anyone asks, no, I’m not going to do that, I’m just illustrating a point.

18 Replies to “There is no such thing as a ‘natural’ body”

  1. Yes. This. Thank you.

    Like you, I found Charlotte’s post to be the only one that didn’t make me need to walk away gritting my teeth.

    The feederism thing does need a rethink. We don’t see nearly this outrage at the notion that a woman should diet for her husband. In fact, MeMe Roth centers at least some of her fat hate on the notion that it’s a woman’s obligation to remain thin enough to forever fit into her wedding dress (assuming she was ever thin to begin with). She even has a “Wedding Gown Challenge.”

    Most of us are familiar with diet ads using the, “Look hot this summer” campaign, always with the presumption of heteronormativity (I’ve yet to see an ad featuring a lesbian). And it’s quite common for women to use botox and get breast implants for men (sometimes with men explicitly paying for cosmetic surgery for their wives).

    While FA folks may well critique “diet for him” as problematic, I see this more often argued in terms of “Because it won’t work and will hurt you” rather than the argument coming from a position of feminist critique about women’s empowerment.

    I suspect this is partly because so many women rationalize anything they do as an example of their exercising free choice. (The Sexist has a great article about bedazzled vulvas that looks at the question of body mods and bodily autonomy here: http://tinyurl.com/yagjtpf)

    I think there is a feminist critique to be made in terms of feederism as *potentially* a way of controlling and/or debilitating a woman or motivated by a desire to see her seem less attractive to others, but I don’t think is is necessarily always the case.

    In fact, women’s appetites for food are conflated with desire for sex (it’s no accident one euphemism for cunnilingus is “eating someone out”) and both are considered inherently dangerous (men can be hungry but women should be restrained in their eating, and women have vagina dentatas that, even when toothless, are said to be too large and irregular and need to be tightened, made smaller, and trimmed, shaped, and bejeweled for male consumption).

    So it’s not surprising that some men get off on women eating–and particularly on feeding women.

    Female actors and models regularly make a living by controlling their appetites and manipulating their bodies to extreme thinness, and many of those women are mothers.

    So I have real issues with the condemnation of a woman who is a mother who is fat and wants to get fatter and who is going to be paid to do so.

    I’m seeing a lot of unexamined fat-hatred at work in the FA and not enough rigorous feminist thinking on this, and it’s disappointing.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Miriam. I have nearly a whole new post worth of things to say in response, but I’ll try to keep on point.

      I think there is a feminist critique of deliberate weight change in FA (at least, the bits I spend most time in), but I think it tends to over-simplify. The basis for it seems to be that deliberately modifying your body in any way is bad and unnatural and a sign of some sort of mental/emotional/psychological weakness (oh, wow, that argument sounds familiar!). It fails to account for the fact that pretty much everything anyone does is always already a compromise between what they ‘really’ want and what someone else/the dominant culture/their subculture/etc wants of them. (And that’s without even taking into the constructivist position that ‘what they “really” want is culturally produced anyway – which I do).

      The Vajazzeling article you linked to is a great example of this. (Ha! Vajazzeling. I’ve been horrified, fascinated, and highly amused since I heard of it.) I think it’s a really great analysis of the problems with the ‘It’s my choice’ argument. But at the same time, there’s a couple of other things going on in there. While the article points out that ‘choice’ is complicated by socially mandatory gender norms, it doesn’t really get past the feminine norms = bad, and it’s quite explicit that those norms are bad because they’re ‘unnatural’ (whereas the ‘natural’ masculine norms mentioned are left unremarked). I think it’s a really important point that femininity is ‘produced’, but I think leaving it there also perpetuates the elevation of masculinity over femininity, of ‘natural’ over ‘altered’ (or faked).

      I think the same tension is apparent in the article’s critique of capitalism. The author conflates capitalism with consumerism (which is coded as feminine), but leaves the (masculine) power structures untouched. No, not untouched – praised. She argues – and I agree – that it’s a good thing that women can now be CEOs and senators, but completely missed the fact that CEOs and senators are just as much an integral part of the machinery of capitalism as consumption. That the jobs and ‘real power’ which the labour of feminine production apparently distracts us from are a part of the same system. That capitalism needs our waged labour as much as our consumption. To make a straightforward argument that the ‘feminine’ aspects are bad while the ‘masculine’ aspects should be aspired to not only misses the point but reinscribes misogyny into feminist critique.

      I’m not saying this to dismiss the critique – I think the points she makes are extremely valid and important. But I also think it’s much, much more complicated than that.

      But yes, I agree, feederism can be – often is – about control of women and women’s bodies, much like weightloss dieting can be and often is. And I think, as you say (and as the bejazzling article says), it is about fear of women’s bodies, sexuality, and – my goodness! – vaginas.

  2. I’ve been disturbed as well by the negativity from the fat rights community toward the gainer. I’m not a feeder, but I’ve been around enough to wonder (1) if the same people are against all fetishes, or just feederism, and (2) if somehow owning the stereotype of “the glutton” can be a positive thing in the same way that “the sissy” can sometimes be for the queer community.

    1. Bill, I think you might be on to something with owning the stereotype of ‘the glutton’. It reminds me of another thing Charlotte Cooper said (in her excellent book, Fat and Proud), that fat people “have as much right to be greedy, lazy, unfit or smelly as thinner people”.

  3. I’m finding the analysis of Simpson’s story (like this one, and Charlotte Cooper’s) far more interesting than the story itself, or at least, as the story was originally reported by the media.

    To be perfectly honest, my only reaction to the media story was, “…so?” It’s her body; she can do with it what she likes.

    Anyway, I’m glad other people are taking up the issue with a bit more complexity of analysis, because otherwise I’d be left scratching my head, still thinking, “…so?”

    1. I pretty much thing that, without access to Simpson herself, commentary on the reasons for her choice, her mental state, capacity to parent, etc, are all pretty spurious.

      On a cultural level, though, I think it’s an interesting body project, but I think the collective responses are much more interesting than the individual motivations.

      (Also, I’m having a total fangirl squee moment that The Fat Nutritionist is commenting on my blog!)

  4. Well said, especially about the “natural” body! My reaction is that Donna Simpson into body modification, and of course she can do that if she wants. Is she promoting an image of fat women as people who sit around eat vast amounts of food (not that I care if they do, but this is a stereotype that has some serious consequences)? Yes, she is. But she’s just one person, and compared to all the other harms heaped on women and fat people, Donna Simpson is really just a drop in the ocean. More harm is done by piling judgement on her, than by her behaviour.

    And yes, I think feederism (like many behaviours) can be a very bad thing that feeds (lol) into men wanting to control women – but it’s not OMG SO MUCH WORSE than very many other, more accepted, behaviours, as you point out.

    1. I think the things is, is that we’re all subject to all sorts of control all the time. Which is absolutely NOT to say that makes it ok, but that it’s complicated. Sometimes I think that the political goals of ‘freedom’ or ‘self-determination’ are hopelessly naive. But I also think that they’re absolutely critically important to have as goals.

      Hmmm, maybe I should re-tagged this blog as ‘It’s more complicated than that’?

  5. Thank you for this excellent discussion of the natural body. I agree that there is no such thing, at least as it is popularly understood. It is silly to imagine that the ideal body is one that is not “interfered with” or whatever. But that is not a justification for any particular kind of “interference”, either. There may be no “natural” body, either for humanity as a whole or for each individual, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter what kind of body you have. There are ways we can modify our own bodies and the bodies of others such as to limit our/their horizons and possibilities, and I would suggest that such ‘limiting’ modifications are, other things being equal, not good.

    There’s a parallel point to be made about choice (as you indicate in your post). All our choices are conditioned by outside factors, but some choices realize our freedom and humanity while others don’t (or do so much less). Thus, while it’s perfectly true that feederism is not that different than, say, losing weight for your husband, that’s not any kind of defense of feederism. It’s true that there may be no such thing as free choice in the traditional sense, but that doesn’t mean we can’t critique choices by some other standard.

    I don’t think I’m contradicting anything you said here, by the way, just piggy-backing on your argument. Thanks for a brilliant post.

    1. Yeah, I’m not saying that all choices are neutral, or empowering, or beyond critique. Though I am less interested in condemning or praising individual choices than I am in looking at the ideology surrounding them.

  6. I’m not trying to be a pain, but an anorexic could argue that her eating to change her body is also a choice. I can’t figure out why it would be more of a choice for someone to eat unusually large amounts to change her body than unusually small ones.

    1. Lil, I think you’re missing the point of the post. For one, I’m saying that the whole idea of ‘choice’ is complicated, and justifying anything on the grounds that ‘It’s my choice’ is inherently dangerous. More specifically than that, though, I’m not really approving or condemning any individual choice, be it weight loss, weight gain, or weight maintenance. What I’m doing is deconstructing the idea of the ‘natural body’ that most approval or condemnation rests on. Donna Simpson’s story has provoked a lot of reactions, and it’s the reactions I’m interested in, much more than the story itself.

  7. Thank you for such an interesting post.

    In the 1980s/90s (mostly), the various corporeal feminisms both explored the perceived extremes of the importance of a sexed embodiment as lived, and deconstructed the body until it became devoid of meaning as a point of reference at all.

    In ‘Imaginary Bodies'(1996) for example, Moira Gatens proposes that the body has lost its meaning as a point of reference at all because, much as you suggest above, there is not one body norm and all bodies are different and therefore are “unrepresentable”.

    The one point I would make concerning your post is that – whether or not it is still the case in 2010 (and I believe it is), the idealised male body is still the ‘normative’ in western cultures – even if not as a conscious reference point but an internalised one. And how far removed is fat, and a fat female body from that norm? Very, very far indeed.

    This notion, of how there may be a male body ideal, and therefore the further one moves from that ideal, the more one is ‘punished’ is a rich field of work. One example of this exploration, also from a feminist perspective, is that of Elizabeth Grosz who states:
    “Feminists have increasingly realised that there is no monolithic category, ‘the body’. There are only particular kinds of bodies. Where one (the youthful, white, middle-class male body) functions as a representative of all bodies…It may turn out that a subversion is accomplished by the proliferation of a number of different types of ideals or representatives for the range and type of bodies”. (Grosz 1987)

    Or none at all?

    Gatens, M. 1996, Imaginary Bodies: Ethics, Power and Corporeality, Routledge, London.

    Grosz, E. 1987, ‘Notes towards a corporeal feminism’, Australian Feminist Studies 5, PP 1-16.

    Grosz, E. 1994, Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism, Allen & Unwin, Sydney.

    Grosz, E. 1995, Space, Time and Perversion: The Politics of Bodies, Allen & Unwin, Sydney.

    1. Hi Kerri! Thanks for your comment – I’m really glad you mentioned Elizabeth Grosz, because I think her work is really wonderful, and Volatile Bodies is one of the key texts I’m drawing from in my thesis. I find it really interesting, though, that in that whole swag of work on embodiment which came out in the 90s, there’s very little mention of weight or size, and I’ve not been able to find anything from that work which has dealt specifically with fat embodiment – if you know something I’m missing, please let me know!

  8. This is great — so many intersections here. It’s interesting to see where people set their limits for constructivism, to see how quickly we start to justify something as innate and inevitable, how easily we relinquish (or fail to claim) the right to decide. “Moral protection is founded on a loss of political control” — yes: you can only be fat (or queer, or deaf, or a single mother, &c.) if you can’t be otherwise. You can only choose to become the norm, and if that becoming requires surgery or electro-shock therapy or whatever else, the process is still positioned as a (perhaps arduous) return to the natural.

    1. Hi Lia, and welcome! Thanks for your thoughtful comment – you make a really good point about the work, the active intervention that goes into the ‘restoration’ of the ‘natural’ – I hadn’t thought of it like that before, I think it’s an important insight.

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