Sydney Fat Studies Conference

Wow, that was AMAZING!  It was an extraordinary couple of days, incredibly nourishing intellectually, emotionally, and physically (all those fatty hugs)!

It was wonderful to hang out with a bunch of awesome fats and allies, some of whom I knew already, some of whom I knew on the internets, some of whom I’ve been admiring from afar, and some who I met for the first time.  I now have a bunch of new friends on facebook and twitter and in real life.

It was a little scary to give my first conference paper outside of my uni, and to chair panels for the first time, but I think it went well.  It was fantastic to hear other papers which connect with my work and inspire me in new directions.  I want to post a write-up in the next couple of days, but we’ll see how that goes time-wise.  There’s so much I really do want to say, though!

The Bodies Abound art and performance night was completely, utterly, unbelievably amazing.  There was a bunch of beautiful fatty art on the walls, and some great spoken word performances.  Jenny Lee’s memoir piece had me crying and unable to stop.  I even read a story I wrote a couple of years ago, which was heaps of fun – it’s been so long since I’ve done anything ‘creative’ (not that academic work isn’t creative, or isn’t at least as invested with my identity, but it is different).

It was extraordinary to hang out in fat space for what I realised was the first time.  I’ve come back inspired, energised, excited.

One of the things that was most inspiring was the Fat Femme Front/Aquaporko panel, which has me wanting to start a Melbourne chapter of Aquaporko (fat femme synchronised swimming).  It will be FABULOUS!  If you’re interested in being part of it, comment or email me, and I’ll let you know the deets – once they get worked out.  Natalie is starting up the Brisbane chapter, so if you’re in Brisbane, you should totes get in contact with her.  Also, no matter where you are, hop on over and have a look at her fabulous photos of Aquaporko and other fab fatties from the conference.

Fats in a magazine

Last Sunday, News Ltd’s Sunday Magazine ran an article on fat stigma and fat acceptance, with interviews with Frances and Sam and Bri and…me!  (Hello and welcome to all the new people who found me via the article.)

It’s a great, positive article, and I think the writer, Jane Hutchinson, really ‘gets it’ with regard to fat stigmatisation.  It’s so encouraging to see these ideas being aired in mainstream media in Australia.

Click through for higher res files (look at that picture of Frances! Isn’t she incredible?! Also: So much yellow dress envy!)

It’s been really interesting for me being involved in this story (which is the first bit of media I’ve done).

One of the things I’ve been teaching my students at the moment is the idea of ‘framing’ – that is, what gets selected for show, what gets left out of view, what gets put around it.  We’ve been talking about it in regards to images, but it’s even more relevant to the construction of stories (and blog posts, for that matter).  I’m fascinated, both intellectually and, in this case, personally, by the way an hour and a half of conversation gets condensed to three or four quotes, and also by what kinds of quotes get selected.  I’m pretty sure I said some Deep and Fascinating and Profoundly Insightful things about fat stigma, but it’s the personal – and especially the emotional – bits which made it in.

Also, I think it’s hilarious that I’ve been quoted saying why I prefer the word ‘fat’ to ‘overweight’ or ‘obese’ and the very next paragraph talks about how many overweight and obese people there are in Australia.  It seems terribly apt that we’ve been talking about irony in class today.

This isn’t a criticism of the story or the process or anyone involved – I think it’s a really great and positive piece, and the quotes were selected because they serve the story and the angle.  But deconstructing media is kinda what I do, and it’s completely irresistible given something I was actually there for.

ETA:  I also meant to address the whole “last acceptable prejudice” thing.  I talked to Jane during the interview about how I think it’s a bogus claim – there’s all sorts of prejudice which is enshrined in legislation, used for political gain, and casually bandied about.

I’m also amused that the headline on the cover reads “Proud to be fat: The women who say bigger is better”.   Pretty sure the message wasn’t about being ‘better’ so much as not being worse.

I do, however, think Jane’s analysis of the photos used to illustrate the Christine Nixon stories is very astute, particulary when she says:

…the implied message behind the photo was clear: this woman is obviously unable to manage her appetite and body weight.  how can she be trusted to manage anything else?

Now that’s the kind of analysis of framing I hope my students will make!

Fat Pig

I haven’t posted anything here in a while.  Partly that’s down to plain old busy-ness.  Partly – and probably a more significant part – is that I’m grappling with the fact that this tiny little anonymous blog of mine is changing.  Specifically, it’s becoming more and more identifiable with me and my academic pursuits.  Which poses a problem for me re how to manage what has so far been an essentially-personal-if-somewhat-theoretically-inclined style of writing in light of possible recognition by colleagues and even future employers.  On the one hand, I’m feeling that the essentially personal is now too personal.  On the other, I think the personal is absolutely central to the (or at least my) project of fat studies.  It is quite blatantly because I live a fat body that I am doing this work, that I am interested in this research, these conversations, these experiences.  My academic pursuits are about my body; they could not be more personal.  My thesis research is directly motivated by my experiences of sexuality as a fat subject; it could not be more intimate.  The reality of this is blatantly apparent every time I stand in front of an audience and give a paper, and as much as academic language can provide a sort of distance, the material fact of my body refuses any attempt to hide.

I think the personal is important, is a real a proper subject of inquiry.  I think auto-ethnography can be a wonderfully illuminating methodology (see Sam Murray’s work for an example of just how brilliant and important it can be).  I’m not doing auto-ethnographic research for my thesis (though in many ways, I might as well be), but I do use this blog to connect my personal experiences with theory (though not always explicitly, and not always successfully).

There’s a wonderful quote I came across in an undergrad creative writing class, which sums up what I’m trying to say:

“There is no theory that is not a fragment, carefully preserved, of some autobiography”
 – Paul Valéry

All of which is to preface another essentially personal entry that I’ve had a hard time coming to write.

Two weeks ago, The Socialist and I headed up to Brisbane.  The impetus for the trip was to see the Queensland Theatre Company’s production of Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig, which I’m thesising about.  I also had the pleasure of (briefly) meeting Natalie, Nick, Sonya, Janey, and Zoe, who just happened to be going to the same performance.  You can read Natalie’s thoughts about the play here.

[I’m going to warn for spoilers, even though the production run has finished now.]

I saw another production of Fat Pig by the Sydney Theatre Company back in 2006, and it was a markedly different production, which leads me to a slightly different reading of the production.  I think Natalie makes some excellent points, particularly that, this production especially, is essentially “a story about how terribly hard it is for hetero men to select partners and play mates alike when there are only thin, shrieking women and fat pigs on offer”.  As Natalie says,  Jeanie is a horrible caricature of all the worst traits misogynist culture assigns to women – she’s shrill, shallow, posey, emotionally unstable, insecure, needy, obsessed with finding a husband, manipulative, aggressive but essentially powerless, uses her physical beauty to get what she wants . . . she’s a walking stereotype.  Jeanie’s opposite, Helen (the eponymous ‘fat pig’) is much more appealing – she’s funny, smart, self-deprecating, and genuine.  She’s probably the only likeable character in the play.  A generous interpretation of the direction might assume that playing Jeanie as hyper-shrill and completely obnoxious was an attempt to show Helen as even more sympathetic, and more desirable.  For me, though, it was simply shrieking misogyny.  It leaves no options for women – you can either be a lovely person but a fat pig who will end up alone; or you can be a shrill bitch but beautiful, and end up with an equally obnoxious and shallow male counterpart (Carter).

To be fair, the men fare little better.  Tom, the supposed ‘nice guy’, is an emotional coward.  The play’s central conflict is his inability to be honest with his friends (‘friends’), his paralysing fear of judgement.  He won’t admit to being with Helen because he fears being mocked and ridiculed – and when Tom and Helen are outed as a couple, that’s exactly what happens.  He won’t tell Jeanie honestly and straight-forwardly that he doesn’t want to see her anymore.  He won’t tell Carter that he doesn’t really like him or want him around.  It’s telling that all Tom’s ‘friends’ are actually workmates.  It’s telling that he doesn’t really enjoy their company, but that he is nonetheless completely beholden to their opinions.  The play doesn’t leave any options for men, either – you can either be a complete, unapologetic douchebag, and end up with a shrieking-but-skinny girlfriend; or you can try to be genuine and find something that actually makes you happy, but be unable to bear the judgement and end up alone.

The STC production was a lot more subtle.  It was still the same story, of course, and the same bleak ending (it’s Neil LaBute, after all).  But Carter was not quite so purely douchey, and Jeanie was actually relateable as a character.  I won’t say likeable, or even sympathetic, but she was played in a way that made you understand that the culture at large manoeuvres women into just these sorts of roles.  Helen (played by the divinely gorgeous Katrina Milosevic, who I once had the pleasure of serving when I worked at My Size and was completely smitten with her) was a slightly more subdued character.  Tom was . . . still an emotional coward.

The QTC also made some interesting choices in the mis-en-scene, most specifically the inter-titles.  Each scene in the play text is titled, and QTC chose to display these titles on a screen which provided the backdrop for the stage.  The first title “That First Meeting With Her” was displayed in yellow, san serif text on a red background.  Sound familiar?  Yep, just like a McDonald’s ad.  The title for “A Surprising Night Out Together” was a Japanese-inspired background, which made sense given they were at a Japanese restaurant.  The decision to add the word ‘Sumo’ to the background (presumably to indicate the name of the restaurant), however, was entirely unnecessary, and confirms my sneaking suspicion that the production was trying to have it both ways – playing up (and even creating) fat jokes for cheap laughs*, at the same time as telling a story about the incredibly destructive effects of fat hatred.

And fat hatred is incredibly destructive.  Unlike Natalie, I have dated people who’ve given in to societal pressure rather than admit they were attracted to a fat girl.  My First Really Bad Relationship was kept secret because of the shame and disgust around fat sex.  I saw the 2006 STC production with an ex-lover who had a declared preference for fat girls.  After the show, he talked about how closeting sucks, how in the past he’d dated thinner girls than what he was really attracted to because of that social pressure.   Hanne Blanke also has a great section on ‘the case of the closeted fat admirer’ in her excellent book Big Big Love.  This shit is, unfortunately, real.  And it’s really, really painful.

I saw the play this time with a current lover who was saddened and appalled by what happens.  When we talked about it afterwards, he admitted that there was a time when he might have been more concerned about other people’s judgement about having a fat lover (although The Socialist is technically obese according to BMI, I wouldn’t exactly call him ‘fat’).  I admit that I’m still concerned about other people’s judgements of who I’m with, not least because I have a culturally-conditioned fear of judgement along the lines of  “Oh, she’s so fat, that’s the best she can do” (which is something the play talks about, too).

Official, scholarly research-y reasons aside, the trip to Brisbane was also a slightly early anniversary celebration for The Socialist and I.  (Huh. Almost a year. And I thought this would just be brief fling.)  We stayed in a fancy hotel with a view of the river and a pool and motherfucking king sized beds and a two-person bathtub and a tv in the goddamn bathroom and we got room service breakfast and played at being rich for the weekend.  Hell yeah it was awesome.  It’s also far beyond anything I could have afforded as a single traveller.  It was more fun and more relaxing than most of the travel I’ve done previously, which has been almost exclusively travelling on my own.  It brought home to me, once again, just how much privilege is involved in coupledom – not only in terms of finances, but also in terms of emotional resources.  To not have to psych myself up to go out for dinner alone, to not have to deal with a stranger’s resentment at my hip encroaching on their plane seat, to not feel sad that I was there alone with all the attendant cultural baggage, was a huge relief.  And that’s why the personal matters, because it tells me about the cultural, the theoretical, the political.

__________________

*Check out Fat Heffalump’s ‘Debrief’ for more evidence of this.  Thankfully, the audience was not so vile the night I went.

my body and bodies like mine

So I presented my paper a couple of days ago and the world didn’t end.  As far as I can tell, it actually went quite well.  People asked questions, and came up to me afterwards to say they liked my work.  Someone even remembered me from my last presentation and said they were looking forward to hearing my paper.  Let me tell you, that blew my tiny little mind.  I’ve long thought that I was pretty much invisible (I’m can be terribly shy and a bit of a wallflower), so it’s always surprising when someone sees me, let along remembers me.

It’s good to get some outsider perspective sometimes, too – a lot of my academic angst comes from knowing how far my work is from what I really want to say, how far I have to go (which is objectively a fine position to be in, that’s why the process of writing a thesis takes years and not hours).  For a lot of people, though, it’s the first time they’ve been exposed to these ideas, and that’s a good reminder that what I’m doing – what we’re doing as a community – is both new and important.  I’m still a little…anxious? awkward? embarrassed? about my paper.  I can’t tell if it’s because I’m talking about such a daggy film (Shallow Hal), or because I’m talking about sex with bodies like mine, which is, well, an awkward thing to talk about in front of an audience.  I’m pretty sure there’s a bit of that internalised shame about how ridiculous it is for a fat girl to ever think anyone would want to fuck her (a la every teen sex romp film ever made) – which is ironic, because that’s one of the main things I talk about in my paper.

Anyway, it was also fabulous to hear about the work other people are doing – there’s all sorts of fantastically interesting stuff to think about, and I’m feeling energised and full of purpose and direction.  Engaging with community is good for that.  So is socialising with other students, despite feeling awkward and out of my depth, and then tipsy and over-disclosing.  That’s kind of how it goes.

When I’m talking to new people socially about my research, there’s a lot of different reactions, but two stand out for sheer frequency.  When I say “fat embodiment and sexual subjectivity”, the most common response is “Oh, you mean like feeders and fetishism and stuff?”  The answer to that is now yes, I will be devoting a chapter to that, mainly because that’s the most common thing people ask me about which seems to warrant further investigation.  My chapter will be focussed on the reactions of the ‘general population’ more than fetish practices, though.

The second is a hushed, confessional “You know, I used to be big too”.  Followed by a difficult-to-divert disclosure of the hows and whys and whens and whats.  I don’t want to dismiss people’s experiences, and I think there’s all sorts of ways of managing one’s embodiment which are completely valid.  But I don’t want to talk about weight loss uncritically – which doesn’t mean I want to condemn it, but I do want to question, not so much a particular individual choice as paradigm which makes that choice mandatory.

(That said, we are all endlessly engaged in choices which, if not mandatory, are almost always highly constrained.  Which is to say, I think it’s important to understand that ‘choices’ are often compelled, that we’re not exactly the freely self-determining agents of our own individuality as neoliberal ideology would have us believe.  But then what?  I’m not sure where that line takes me, except to further individualisation, which is not quite where I want to go…)

The fact that the ‘choice’ to loose weight is socioculturally compelled is very high on the list of reasons why I try to avert these conversations.  Because as much as someone might genuinely be talking about their own, individual experience, as much as they might not be trying to imply “I did it so you can too” (and I believe this person really wasn’t doing that), the culture at large has had its metaphorical boot on my metaphorical neck trying to stop me from swallowing any metaphorical food since I was literally four fucking years old.  It’s also why I find the impulse toward a ‘good fatty’ defence so strong, even though I know it’s feeding into the same thinking which hierarchises certain bodies over others, which says this way of being is better than that way.  Even though I know it buys into the individualisation which I find so problematic.  It’s why health discourse about obesity is deeply fucking personal even though I’m in perfect health – because health discourse is mobilised against all fat bodies, healthy or not; because it is used to compel, if not change, then certain modes of embodiment and subjectivity, certain ways of being and being seen.

It’s hard not to take it personally when it’s about my body and bodies like mine.

the uses of social media, or, another navel-gazing post

I’ve been thinking a lot about how social media is, by definition, social.  I mean, obviously.  But in some ways the implications of that have not been something I’ve really come to grips with.  I get upset when I’m misunderstood on the internet, which, I mean, it’s the internet, that’s what happens here.

Obviously not the only thing that happens here, but to expect that I should be able to expound my ideas with such perfect clarity that no one will ever mistake my meaning is frankly absurd.  Yes, I have thought I should be able to do that.  And no, I’m not a perfectionist; I never do anything perfectly.

One of my main aims with this blog is to share ideas that are beyond the 101-type posts.  There are plenty of people doing that already, with far greater patience and clarity than me.  I have enormous respect for that work and the people doing it, but it’s not the work I’m interested in doing here.  I want to get past the normal structures of thinking around this stuff to something new.  When I talk about fat sexuality, I want to get at more than the same tired discourses of ‘body image’.  I’m not interested in claiming that every body is beautiful, but looking at why beauty has come to stand in for worth, at what the idea of beauty does.  I think fat acceptance is far more radical and fundamental than the vague, insipid blathering about ‘self esteem’ that goes on in ladymags and self-help books.  To me, fat acceptance is about the management of bodies and the body politic.  It’s about the production and regulation of identities and subject positions.  It’s about class and gender and race and citizenship and labour and capitalism and power.

Actually, what I’m talking about is probably more fat studies than fat acceptance.  While the two are by no means separate, there is a difference, and it’s that difference which draws me to academia despite the angst it sometimes (often!) induces.  Trying to push past the normal structures of thinking is always going to be a difficult thing, but I think it’s necessary.  More than that, I find it thrilling.  New ways of thinking are exciting, dammit.

Ok, now I really have to finish up that paper I’m presenting tomorrow.  (Yeah, it’s mostly angst at the moment).

Body Image is a Furphy

ETA: Even though it was prompted by last week’s events, this post isn’t about Mia Freedman so much as it is about the position she represents.  And while I think she was a little disingenuous in some of her comments, I’m inclined to believe that she didn’t see fat hate on her blog – not because it wasn’t there, but because it’s so naturalised as to be invisible.

This post is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time now, and the recent Mamamia furore has prompted me to finally post about it.  My argument in a nutshell is this: Positive body image has never been for fat girls.  It’s true that a lot of FA discourse focusses on body image and self-esteem – I think these things are valuable, and I’m not dismissing them when I say that positive body image has never been for fat girls.

The definition of ‘fat’ I’m talking about here is a bit contentious.  For the sake of clarifying what I’m talking about when I talk about fat, here’s a definition from a paper I gave last year:

The fat bodies I seek to address are those that are ‘fat enough’ to be visibly marked as ‘different’, and that are consequently routinely excluded in ways thinner bodies aren’t.  An arbitrary measure would be those bodies which are ‘too fat’ to find clothes in straight-size stores.  I’ve used this measure because fashion and shopping are closely aligned with normative femininity in consumerist culture, and because this provides a clear material example of the ways in which fat bodies are excluded from particular spaces, practices, and modes of being.  This definition is not intended to ‘police the boundaries’ of fat identity, but to insist on the centrality of the corpulent body which is otherwise marginalised.  I also use this measure to differentiate between the normative idea that ‘all women think they’re fat’ and those whose bodies mark them as always already ‘abnormal’.

That’s what I mean when I talk about fat.  And when I talk about body image, I’m talking about the mainstream discourse on body image (for which Mia Freedman is a prominent spokesperson).

Mainstream body image discourse has never had a place for fat girls.  While it may claim to empower women of ‘all shapes and sizes,’ in reality, it only includes bodies which fit into straight-sized fashion.  Freedman’s famous ‘Body Love Policy’ at Cosmo featured bodies ‘sized 6-16’.  The Dove ‘real beauty’ adds are similarly limited in the size (and shape and age and skin tone and ability and other ‘deviations’ from beauty norms) of the women they feature.  And The Proposed National Strategy on Body Image report which Freedman co-authored specifically excludes fat bodies:

When seeking to demonstrate good practice in their choice of models, organisations are encouraged to use models that are a healthy weight and shape (p40).

On p41, the report suggests that ‘for guidance on what is a healthy weight, organisations are encouraged to refer to the guidelines put forward by the National Health and Medical Research Council’ and provides two links (now broken, but I checked when the report was first published and can confirm that the documents referred to can now be found here) to the Australian Government ‘Obesity Guidelines’.  The document to which the report refers is Part 3 – Measuring Overweight and Obesity (PDF), which opens with this sentence:

Obesity, or even overweight, in a person is generally not difficult to recognise.

So, we can tell which bodies are a healthy weight just by looking?  It then goes on to detail different ways of measuring obesity, including BMI.  The discussion of the problems in using BMI as a measure of someone’s body fat is actually quite good, but nevertheless, the purpose of the paper is to classify bodies as ‘healthy and good’ or ‘unhealthy and bad’ on the basis of size alone.  The bodies which fall into the ‘healthy weight’ range by these measures are even less diverse than Cosmo’s 6-16.  The recommendation to use ‘healthy weight’ models according to these guidelines hardly constitutes a call for true diversity in representation.

I remember being a size 20 Cosmo-reading teenager, and being so hopeful whenever the ‘perfect jeans for every size’ features came out.  I desperately wanted a perfect pair of jeans to fit my body, and there were none to be found in my small country town.  I was so hopeful, then so disappointed – and then so ashamed – that bodies like mine were still too big to be included.  ‘Every size’ was never my size.  I lived a body that was too fat even for recuperative ‘every body deserves self esteem’.

The body image discourse also serves to reify the exclusion of certain types of (even straight-sized) bodies from ideas of glamour and desire.  To quote Rachael Kendrick (another scholar who is looking at fat, albeit in a very different way to me):

Rather than bring more varied bodies into the aspirational economy, through the ‘real woman’ tactic ladymags assume that the reader must be educated in how to read texts, specifically how to read images of slim women as ‘unreal,’ and that the reader must be taught how to apply good, prophylactic doses of self-acceptance to their own arse and thighs.  ‘Real woman’ is a nasty sort of consolation prize; the ‘real woman’ isn’t fashionable or desirable, she’s just morally upright, emotionally hygienic.

While I’ve no doubt that positive body image discourses and concomitant representational strategies do, in fact, assist some women in some ways, they also actively exclude other bodies, and in a way that can be more marginalising than standard representational practices.  We all know that images of models are idealised and unattainable (even for models themselves), but when your body is excluded from ‘inclusive’ representation, what then?

Mainstream body image discourse seeks to redress (but at the same time, serves to reinforce) the normative idea that ‘all women think they’re fat’.   To quote myself again:

I am explicitly not interested in discussions of “body image” which focus on how the idealisation of an unattainable standard produces a dysmorphic self-image – the tragedy of thin girls thinking they’re fat – but has nothing to say about those whose fat self-image is not delusional.  In these discussions, actual fat bodies cease to exist.

Except we do exist, and we continue to exist, and to work towards much greater goals than a compensatory ‘positive body image’.

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.

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’.

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*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.