against a cause: the (mostly) quotes edition

ETA: Apparently my efforts to block spambots have unintentionally stopped all comments.  Um, yeah, technology fail.  Should be all fixed up now, but drop me a note at hello@fatuosity.net if you’re having problems.

I’ve been toying with a post about eating histories.  About my eating history.  I think it’s an interesting thing to reflect on (for me, anyway).  And I’m interested in food, in how people eat, in the development of tastes and habits and patterns.  I’ve been noticing lately how differently everyone cooks, and I find it fascinating.  But I’ve been reluctant to make that post because … well, it seems too personal.  More than that, it seems too diagnosable.  Oh, you were neglected as a child and didn’t get regular meals?  That probably messed with your metabolism and that’s why you’re fat.  You probably think food is love.  You probably binged as compensation.

Yeah. Not where I want to go.

Instead, I’m going back to the first fat studies work I ever came across, Kathleen LeBesco’s Revolting Bodies: The Struggle To Redefine Fat Identity.  I first read it in 2005 when I was in third year, and I devoured it in three days (unheard of for an academic book!).  It crystallised all these things that had been going around in my head at that time, that I hadn’t even been able to properly identify let alone articulate.  It enabled me to see, to say, after all those years in classes about ‘the body’, that fat mattered.  That fatness was an embodied difference.  A socially dis-empowered identity.  And that it was a valid object of scholarly enquiry.  It gave me the way forward for my honours thesis, which led into the research I’m doing now.  It literally changed my life.

When I read back over the book now, I don’t have quite the same breathless excitement about it.  But I keep going back to it, and I keep quoting from it, and it falls open at my favourite passages.  Like this (all emphasis mine):

An essentialist position on fat identity can take a biological or sociocultural perspective; the common theme is the idea that the condition of fatness is necessary, could not be otherwise, or is the outcome of some essential (usually failure-related) cause.  Whether tracing along a biological path to bad genes or hormones, or along a social path to traumatic childhood experience, proponents of essentialiat positions argue that fat identity is the unfortunately inevitable outcome of a causal relationship with some original variable cone awry… In contrast, an anti-essentialist position on fat identity does not attempt to reveal causal factors; instead it focusses on the ability of human actors to participate in the creation of meaning (including the meaning of material bodies) through the discursive processes of communication and politics (p14).

And:

We’ve heard about genes, hormones, fear of being sexually attractive, and dozens of other causes for fatness … each one advanced with the understanding that finding a remedy would be a financially rewarding proposition.  Why, though, do we need to explain (away) these modes of being, when few scientists are hard at work on finding the cause for slenderness … When we engage in cause-seeking rhetoric, we presume that some intervention into the ‘problem’ is necessary (p85).

And the bit I quote again and again, from the chapter ‘Fat Politics and the Will to Innocence’:

Fat is treated as volitional – “a choice made out of laziness, hostility, social disdain, or other moral shortcomings like lack of willpower, failure of motivation, greed and dependence” – so the tendency when dealing with this regressive attitude is to suggest that fatness cannot be helped.  I wonder what would happen if, instead of giving up our volition, we worked to alter the terms of the choice, to emphasize that subjectivity mustn’t be predicated on perception of innocence (P117).

I wonder, too.  I recognise the impulse to explain (away) my fatness.  How could I not – the idea that bodies are ‘naturally’ thin, that fatness is the result of something going wrong*, is central to this culture’s understanding of bodies, to the hysteria of ‘obesity epidemic’ discourse, to fat hatred.  I’m aware that an eating history could be so easily co-opted into this framework of causation, even if that was never the intention in telling it.  I’m all too aware of the easy equation of eating (especially women’s eating) with pathology.  I know that the current meaning of material bodies which are fat lends itself to a pathologisation of eating habits and histories, no matter what those habit and histories are.

I love food. I love cooking and I love eating and I love sharing meals.  Sometimes I am greedy.  Maybe that contributes to my fat, maybe it doesn’t.  Like LeBesco, I think cause-seeking is a limited political strategy.  And I don’t want innocence.  I want a different choice.

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*Of course, there are all sorts of reasons why body size changes, and all sorts of very valid reasons for intervention.  But I’m talking about the idea that all fatness is cause by something going wrong, and should therefore always be ‘cured’.

Why I’m not against dieting

ETA: This post has been forming for a long, long time now, but was triggered by a number of comments I’ve read recently.  I’m not going to link to those comments for a variety of reasons (semi-private sources being the main one), but I take on board the comments which suggest that I’m generalising in a less-then-helpful way.  I do not mean to imply in any way that the attitude I’m critiquing is the only attitude or approach in FA, which is a movement with a varied membership and a number of more nuanced approaches.

ETA 2: Comments are now closed.

I feel a bit like I’m going to be kicked out of the club for saying it, but I’m saying it because I think it’s important:  I’m not against dieting. Or body building, for that matter.  Or gaining.  Or tattooing, or make-up, or any of the other thousands of body projects that people engage in every day.  I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically wrong with deliberately changing your weight or modifying your body in any way.

This is a bit of a follow-up to my post on my There’s no such thing as a ‘natural’ body post.  It’s also a response to a related idea which seems to be prevalent in FA, that any kind of intentional weight change is Bad, and that people Should Not Do That.  I’m going to talk mainly about weight-loss dieting because it’s the practice that receives the most attention, but it’s also applicable to deliberate weight gain, body building, and other technologies of the body.

There’s a giant anti-dieting streak to fat acceptance.  I understand why, and I (mostly) totally agree with it.  I agree that diets don’t work (for most people in the long term).  I agree that dieting as an activity that’s culturally positioned as intrinsic to female/feminine identity is seriously fucked-up.  I hate the social currency of diet talk, I hate body-criticism as a form of bonding.  I hate the diet industry and the beauty industry and the media industry and the medical industry that all tell us that we’re not good enough, not worthy enough, not anything enough unless we’re thin, or at least working really hard to get there.

I don’t hate people who diet.  I don’t particularly want to talk to them about their diet (NB: this post is NOT a green light to discuss dieting here – this blog remains a diet-talk free zone).  I certainly don’t want to join them.  There’s a good chance I don’t want to be around them, since people on diets often talk at length about their diets (then again, I’ve been known to talk at length about what I’m eating, too).  But I don’t necessarily think that they shouldn’t diet.  Ok, I do actually think that they shouldn’t, but I don’t have the hubris to proclaim that I know what’s best for anyone.

One of the main tenets of fat acceptance, one of the ideas that is repeated over and over again is that ‘my body is none of your business’.  It’s an important idea.  And I think it’s important that it applies not only to fat bodies, but to all bodies, regardless of how they eat.  Another idea crucial to fat acceptance and HAES is that no one else can tell me what’s best for me – I get to make decisions about how I eat and what I want to do for my physical and mental health.  Leaving aside the fraught question of how much ‘freedom’ anyone actually has, it is, again, a really important idea.

I don’t get to tell people they have to eat undressed iceberg lettuce for every meal any more that I get to tell them that they can’t.  Because I don’t know what’s best for them.  And even if I (believe I) do, I don’t get to make that choice on their behalf.

People work to maintain or change their bodies for all sorts of reasons.  Maybe it has to do with health (I am NOT saying that weight-loss dieting improves health; I believe quite the opposite).  Maybe it has to do with their career, or income, or status, or sexuality.  Maybe it’s about identity – my fatness is certainly an intrinsic part of who I am.  I’m not saying that any of these are necessarily ‘good’ things (or that everything has to fall into ‘good’ or ‘bad’ reasons or practices).  I’m saying they’re things that I don’t get to make decisions on for anyone but me.  I’m saying that berating people for dieting, or declaring that slender models ‘look like starvation victims’ does nothing to challenge the idea that other people have a right to judge you and me on our bodies and our eating.

I really can’t see how ‘though shalt not diet’  is any more useful an edict that any of the other things we’re constantly told we should and should not do with our bodies.  I believe in HAES and I understand why not deliberately trying to change the size of one’s body is important to fat acceptance, but I can’t help but feel like a rigid adhesion to these principles risks turning into another form of body policing.

on couple privilege

There’s a post that went up over at Shakesville a few of days ago about the consequences of authorites refusing to recognise the validity of gay relationships.  It’s an awful story, and I entirely agree with the statement in the title: This Should Not Happen.  Ever.

There’s a trigger warning up which says:

This story is potentially extremely distressing to people who are not protected by the privileges of legally recognized marriage, i.e. unmarried partners, especially gay partners, who have done everything in their power to protect their legal rights as partners, yet remain at the mercy of bureaucrats when they become elderly and/or in need of medical care because of disease or disability.

Again, I agree.  But there’s something missing from that definition of “people who are not protected by the privileges of legally recognized marriage”.  Something really, really glaringly obvious.  A whole huge group of people who, regardless of law or orientation “are not protected by the privileges of legally recognized marriage“.  Have you guessed it yet?  That’s right: single people.  People who do not have partners.  There are lots and lots of people who don’t have partners*, who are categorically excluded from “the privileges of legally recognized marriage”.

Now, it’s absolutely not my intention to have a go at the Shakesville post – I think it’s an excellent piece and Shaker Maud makes a really, really important argument.  I’m using the story because it’s a great illustration of the point I want to make.  The point is this (if you haven’t already guessed):

WHY SHOULD ONLY COUPLED PEOPLE BE AFFORDED RIGHTS AND PROTECTION?

No, I don’t think that the post is actually arguing that only couples should be afforded rights an protection.  But I do think that it shouldn’t matter if Clay and Harold were “just” room-mates – their relationship, their (legally documented!) wishes, their basic dignity, should still be respected.  Regardless of weather they were sexually and romantically involved.

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* Roughly 30-ish percent!  A third of the adult population!

CFP DEADLINE EXTENDED

** Following several requests, viagra the deadline for abstracts has been extended until 30 April 2010 **

Conference Call For Papers

Fat Studies: A Critical Dialogue

To be held 10 – 11 September, ailment 2010
Macquarie University, rx Sydney, Australia

While cultural anxieties about fatness and stigmatisation of fat bodies in Western cultures have been central to dominant discourses about bodily ‘propriety’ since the early twentieth century, the rise of the ‘disease’ category of obesity and the moral panic over an alleged global ‘obesity epidemic’ has lent a medical authority and legitimacy to what can be described as ‘fat-phobia’. Against the backdrop of the ever-growing medicalisation and pathologisation of fatness, the field of Fat Studies has emerged in recent years to offer an interdisciplinary critical interrogation of the dominant medical models of health, to give voice to the lived experience of fat bodies, and to offer critical insights into, and investigations of, the ethico-political implications of the cultural meanings that have come to be attached to fat bodies.

This two-day event will put Australasian Fat Studies into conversation with critical fat scholarship from around the globe by gathering together scholars from across a spectrum of disciplinary backgrounds, as well as activists, health care professionals, performers and artists. This conference seeks to open a dialogue between scholars, health care professionals and activists about the productive and enabling critical possibilities Fat Studies offers for rethinking dominant notions about health and pathology, gender and bodily aesthetics, political interventions, and beyond.

Confirmed keynote speakers:

* Charlotte Cooper
(Department of Sociology, University of Limerick)

* Karen Throsby
(Department of Sociology, University of Warwick)

Abstracts are sought that engage with topics such as (but not limited to):

* Interventions to normalise fat bodies (such as diet regimes, exercise programs, weight loss pharmaceuticals and bariatric surgeries);

* The ethico-political implications of the medicalisation of ‘obesity’;

* Constructions of the ‘fat child’ in childhood obesity media reportage;

* Representations of fat bodies in film, television, literature or art;

* Intersections of medical discourse and morality around ‘obesity’;

* The somatechnics of fatness;

* Fat performance art, fat positive performance troupes;

* Histories of fat activism and/or strategies for political intervention;

* Fat and queer histories/identities;

* Fat embodiment online, the Fat-O-Sphere;

* Feminist responses to fatness;

* Constructions of fatness in a range of cultural contexts;

* Systems of body quantification, measurement, and conceptualizations of (in)appropriate ‘size’;

* Fat as it intersects with race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, gender, disability and/or ageing.

Please send abstracts of 300 words, or panel proposals, to Dr Samantha Murray via email at Samantha.murray@mq.edu.au by Friday, 30 April 2010.

Sponsored and hosted by the Somatechnics Research Centre, Macquarie University, Australia.

on being fat and in love

When I started writing this post, I thought it was going to be about coupledom and privilege.  It hasn’t turn out that way – it’s turned out as a post on my history of dating while fat.  I still intend to write that post on couple privilege, but I think this is important background.

I have some strange ideas about my relationship history.  Up to nine months ago, I claimed that I’d never had a ‘real’ relationship in my life.  I also claimed that all my relationships were bad relationships.  (See the strange yet?)  I’ve always been convinced that both of these things were because I was fat.  But NONE of these things are true.  I’ve had relationships, I’ve had good relationships, and I’ve had relationships both because of and regardless of my fat.

It is true that I’ve spent a lot of my life as a single person.  And it’s true that I’ve broken my heart a helluva lot.  But I have dated a respectable number of people (for some values of ‘respectable’, anyway).  And I’ve actually only had two truly bad relationships.  Only two.  Other relationships may not have gone the way I wanted them to, but there’s only two that have been really bad -  by which I mean emotionally or psychologically damaging.

The first of my bad relationships was in my late teens and early twenties. It lasted just over two years and is the longest relationship I’ve ever had.  We were never officially a couple, and the whole affair was kept secret, even when we lived together (twice!) – partly because we worked together, partly because he didn’t want the fact that he had a lover to interfere with picking up other girls, and mostly  because he didn’t want anyone to know that he was fucking a fat girl.  I’m not making that up, or extrapolating from anything – he told me straight out that if anyone found out he was it would be over (people found out, it wasn’t over, we just continued to deny it).  He also told me once that if I were thin, “we’d be married by now.”  I’m counting that as a lucky escape.

I accepted the lying, the secrecy, the other women because I thought I didn’t deserve any better.  Because I thought that I was so incredibly hideous that no one would ever want to be with me ‘properly’ and so this was the best that I could get.  I’m pretty sure there was also a bit of the myth that a bad boy will come good with the love of a good woman at work in there.  Romantic comedies have a lot to answer for.  I eventually met some new friends who made me feel like I wasn’t the most hideous person in the world and finally had the courage to leave.  I was heartbroken for years after.  I really and truly believed that no one could ever love me because I was fat.

The second really bad relationship was in my late twenties, and quite short (three months or so).  We started going out because she chased me.  My interest in being with her was primarily my interest in being pursued (even though she’s one of the most conventionally attractive people I’ve dated).  The sex was absolutely minimal (once) and absolutely non-reciprocal.  (Incidentally, sleeping with her made me very aware that fat bodies and thin bodies are incredibly, radically, different.  It was kind of shocking to be confronted with a body so different from mine when, both being girl bodies, they were ‘supposed’ to be so much the same.)  I raised the no-sex issue, but never pushed it because, well, who’d want to fuck a fat girl?  Even though at that stage I was well and truly into fat acceptance.  Even though I’d had experience of dating people who loved fucking fat girls, who only wanted to fuck fat girls, or who really liked fucking this particular fat girl, I was so indoctrinated with the idea that fat girls are unfuckable that I couldn’t actually stand my ground and say “This is not ok”.  There was, of course, more to the story: I was trying to do-things-differently from the past and not instigate a pre-emptive break-up; I told her that I was not going to break up with her and that if that’s what she wanted, she’d have to do it herself.  She kept reassuring me she really did like me but had “issues”.  After three months of this, I decided that doing-things-differently-be-damned, it wasn’t ok.  She had decided the same thing at the same time.

The way she told me was to say: “I was only pretending to like you”.

I wasn’t heartbroken, but I was psychologically devastated.  This was my secret paranoia in every relationship (which she knew, because I’d told her in order to reassure her that “everyone has issues”).  “Only pretending” has been my secret paranoia since year seven when Ben Richardson used to shout across the schoolyard, “Sizeoftheocean, you give me orgasms!” Since year seven means every single relationship I have ever had. EVER.  I always “knew” that anyone expressing interest in me was probably doing it to mock me.  To set me up as a punch-line. AND: She knew this.  SHE KNEW THIS.  Yes, I am still angry.  It was a cruel and deliberate thing to say (looking back, there were plenty of clues to this tendency, but I ignored them because, well, I’m fat and she’s not and surely I should just shut up and be grateful for the attention).

But back to the point: I’ve had two terrible and devastating relationships.  Hardly every relationship I’ve ever had.  I’ve actually had some quite wonderful relationships, even if they mostly haven’t gone the way I’d like them to.  But I always believed that I hadn’t had – and couldn’t have – the kind of relationship I wanted because I was fat.

I know fat acceptance as a movement works pretty hard to dispel the idea that fat women will accept anything just to get sexual and romantic attention. But at a certain time in my life, this was absolutely true for me, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that.  I think it’s also important to acknowledge that being fat does actually make it likely you’ll encounter extra challenges in dating (because there aren’t enough challenges already), even if it’s just in the constant, endless, relentless message that no one will ever want a fat girl.  A message which is rubbish, by the way, but still extremely powerful.  A message which taught me to put up with being mistreated.  A message which taught me to pre-emptively reject myself before anyone else could, which became a self-fulfilling prophecy because I foreclosed any possibility before it could become a reality. A message that brought with it the nagging idea that because being fat precluded me from having a “real” relationship (despite ample evidence to the contrary), it meant that I was precluded from being a worthwhile person, someone who really mattered.  Romantic love and coupling-off are culturally positioned as profoundly desirable, deeply necessary, and ultimately validating. “You’re no one until somebody loves you” and all that.  A message which taught me to negate my personality and desires in order to become what someone else wanted (yeah, that worked out real well).  A message which has been the hardest thing about fat acceptance that I’ve dealt with, because it’s necessarily completely wrapped up with other people’s opinions and desires.

For the last nine months I’ve been dating a boy (let’s  call him ‘The Socialist’).  I wouldn’t say our relationship is perfect by any stretch, but it’s good.  We have fun together.  I’m completely myself around him, which is a revelation.  I don’t feel the immanent threat of being dumped for someone else, someone thinner, someone more interesting (it’s amazing how trying to be what someone else wants actually makes you incredibly dull).  More importantly is that I’ve started to seriously deconstruct the ideology of romance and coupledom, and what exactly a ‘real relationship’ is anyway.

I think there are a lot of reasons for wanting the kind of relationship privileged by the dominant culture. Primarily, that is THE ONLY KIND OF RELATIONSHIP that is ever depicted as valid in the dominant culture.  I think this message is much stronger for women, but men certainly don’t escape it. There are all sorts of privileges which accrue to couples – economic, social, and cultural privileges. There’s the incredible benefit of emotional support and knowing that someone’s on your side and always having a friendly face at parties, of not having to go it on your own all the damn time*. Of knowing that you’re loved. Of having visible social approval in the form of someone who loves you and publicly acknowledges that fact.

The privileges and social validation that comes along with coupledom have become more and more blatant the longer I’ve been seeing The Socialist.  And that will be the subject of another post.

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*I am, of course, speaking only of functional relationships, where there are tangible emotional benefits. Obviously not all relationships are like that, and sometimes being in a relationship can actually be emotionally damaging rather than nurturing. I also realise that this is a bit idealistic even for good relationships.