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 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).


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.


*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’.

3 Replies to “against a cause: the (mostly) quotes edition”

  1. We’ve heard about genes, hormones, fear of being sexually attractive, and dozens of other causes for fatness . . . 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

    YES. And also almost directly relatable to transness (replace fatness with transness, slenderness with cis-ness, et voila!) . . . Unfortunately, I think I *just then* said what amounts to “T made me fatter” to someone, which – you and LeBesco are absolutely right – does play into the “we can’t help it, so don’t pick on us” vibe. I swears, it was not my intention! Whups.

    1. Haha! In that passage, LeBesco is making and analogy to queerness. I agonized over whether to leave that in and risk distracting from the point/inviting Oppression Olympics, or take it out and “erase” the queerness. I think fat politics has also started to move on from needing draw comparisons with other oppressions in order to legitimate its (our) claims (which doesn’t mean comparisons aren’t legitimate).

      I don’t think there’s necessarily a problem with acknowledging things that make us fatter (or thinner, or muscly-er, or whatever). There’s lots of things that change bodies in all sorts of ways – hormones, medication, aging, and yes, food and movement (just not as simply or completely as popular belief would have it). I find those changes fascinating, and I think they’re important to acknowledge, at least as far as self-awareness goes. I agree with LeBesco that “I can’t help it” is a fairly limited and limiting political strategy. I don’t think acknowledging x thing influences my/your body in a particular way is the same as claiming “innocence”, but it can be a fuzzy line.

  2. Thanks for championing Le Besco, you’ve reminded me of her. I won’t be able to read the book right now, in full. But from what I can see, she has something interesting to say, whether I can agree with a lot of it.

    Where I do agree, if I’m getting her correctly, is I can’t get on with FA being crowbarred into a simplistic oppression narrative. I’ve said from the start, let us describe fatness as it is and see where it takes us, rather than behaving as if only others have meaning or credibility and apeing them.

    I feel like I’ve spent long enough bearing the burden of blame at it’s acme of harshness-“it’s your fault your fat”. I took that really seriously, to heart. It hurt. But what it also did is to get my mind used to the idea of taking the full blame, no excuses. I’m not trying any conservative bootstraps, bullshit, but I do feel slightly seperate from others who haven’t been subject to this conditioning. And I don’t feel like expending any energy getting back into club of there’s alawys mitigation.

    I feel that would be a loss without gaining anything.

    Too much FA response just allows fat hate to set the terms of discussion, that is like shooting ourselves in both feet, because fat hate etc, is designed to exclude and erase our sentience totally.

    I do not see FA as in opposition to weight loss dieting/ the obesity crusade that would be meaningless, I see it as for something, another way of looking at things, not a mere counter to the status quo. It becomes the latter because it is the former-not the other way around.

    It’s not just about rights for me-although that’s important- it’s an opportunity to divest the mind not only of the passive mindset developed by acquiring such a thing as the obesity persona, but also to go further and divest myself of the kind of generalised obesience that makes it so easy to sell haters hate.

    In that sense, it’s more than about being fat, it’s about being human, full stop.

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