I’ve been following the latest “My god, people are fat!” debate in the feminist blogosphere with interest. For those of you not up to speed, it started here at Feministe. I’ll say, as a brief side note that, as much as this post sucked, I agree with Maia that the comments were, for the most part, heartening. This is a big change from even a few years ago, to see people have the courage to speak passionately and intelligently about their position. But I also think it’s in the comments where you get a good idea of where the tension is. The comments, though there are many to get through, over at Pandagon are illustrative.
So, I have two things I want to get at. One, I wish we as feminists would do a better job of the ways “obese” and “poor” overlap as social constructs and how one word can often stand for the other group. Now, there are obese people and there are poor people, obviously. And there is a great overlap in those groups. But I’m trying to get not at the actual groups, but at the social constructs and how we talk about obese people having no self-control or being too stupid to know what to put in their bodies or lacking access to experts who could tell them what to do with themselves; the narrative is all about how obese people put all kinds of things they shouldn’t in their bodies because they are too stupid (or uneducated to know better) and they thus have really negative life outcomes. Now, read that same sentence and swap out “obese” for “poor.”
It works just the same.
I find that interesting. In both cases, it’s about a group that has too many people in it, who need education and expertise and guidance, and who are deemed failures or troublemakers if they resist efforts from the outside to improve them.
The word “class” doesn’t quite fit, but I think it has to do with demanding people want to strive to remove evidence of what has been deemed their shitty circumstances. Yes, of course, you will be punished for striving. But you will be punished worse for not striving.
It’s almost as if the problem is that the obese/the poor, by their very existence, insult their “betters” for not recognizing and properly responding to their “betters'” expertise on how best to live life.
That’s the dynamic I keep seeing play out in these comment threads–“I have expertise. You must recognize it.” “I know my own body. I am the expert on my own life. Fuck off.”
And this is where it gets tricky for feminists to talk about, right? Because, often, we don’t have expertise about our own bodies. Shoot, for 20 years I didn’t know I had PCOS, and I was glad for the doctor that has the expertise to tell me what was going on with my body. Plus, we are often lied to about our bodies–that masturbating can make you crazy or that sleeping with people outside of marriage will somehow ruin your body, etc. You live here on Earth, I don’t have to tell you. Our Bodies, Ourselves exists for a reason, and it’s not so that we can all laugh that someone would think we’d need to be told that stuff.
But, and this is a big BUT, it is also true that “I know better than you what you should do with your body and I insist on the socially-sanctioned right to tell you (and to enforce it)” is a fundamental strategy for controlling women. Make our bodies fair game for public discussion and public worry and public scrutiny and you can keep us in line.
That’s why I find it so weird and disconcerting that feminists want to sit around and talk about fat as a problem. You can’t talk about fat separate from bodies. (Well, you could, but a glob of fat in a bowl isn’t a health issue.) Female bodies, in fact. I mean, even when we talk about fat men, it’s about their moobs, like being fat is feminizing them in some terrible way.
Is it really not clear to feminists how the “obesity epidemic” is about reasserting the right to police women’s bodies? Except now, we’re doing it for your health! When people talk wistfully about how “nobody cooks at home anymore” who do you think that “nobody” used to be? When people talk about how kids don’t get the same free reign of the neighborhoods they used to have, who is the unspoken monitor of all that free time?
Who has, supposedly, fallen down on the job causing us all to be fat?
How is this not prime meat for feminists to sink their teeth into?
If I can pick up a guy I don’t know at a bar and take him into the bathroom and fuck him silly and feminists can see how that’s my business, even if I might get a disease or get pregnant or slip and throw out my hip or some other outcome that would affect my health, why can’t I pick up a burger at a bar and not have it become cause for public fretting, especially by feminists?
I think, at least in part, it’s because we have been trained by society since we were born to dominate those we can, or to put it in more familiar terms, to exert privilege when we have it, and to insist on our privilege being recognize or we will punish those who don’t.
And a lot of us are very good about understanding how that dynamic plays out in certain situations, about how tempting it can be to go ahead and insist on our privilege in certain situations, even if it’s wrong.
A lot of social justice movements have done a lot of work and made a lot of gains to make that happen.
But the impulse to dominate is just as thoroughly taught as our desire for justice is. So, we work for justice in realms in which we can see injustice.
But we don’t bother to try to check our bullshit in realms where we don’t see injustice.
And a lot of folks don’t see any injustice in the “obesity epidemic” and so they feel free to go ahead and stretch their “I will make you do what I think is best for you” muscles.
I think that’s what makes these discussions in feminist circles especially problematic, because this is a topic upon which people feel like it’s okay to go ahead and indulge their impulse to police women, because obesity isn’t an injustice, and they think they know more than those poor stupid people who just don’t yet recognize their expertise.
But I just don’t see how any discussion that involves people policing women’s bodies and trying to dictate what women do with them can ever be feminist.
“Weight can signal a lack of activity or too many donuts, and that shouldn’t irk anyone,” Monica says. But that’s not a cultural critique. That’s an invitation to stick our noses into the business of women who are somehow “signaling” by being fat.
Again, I feel like this is a point that feminists would mull over–does a body, merely by being a body, signal anything? If my having big boobs tells you nothing about whether I’m a slut, why are you so sure it tells you anything about whether I’ve had too many donuts?
Are we sure we’ve actually given up the desire to scrutinize women’s bodies and tell them what to do with them?
Because these discussions make me feel like some folks need to think more about why they’re so excited to jump into these discussions in order to tell people how unhealthy they are.
Anyway, feminist blog fight. I should stay out of it, but I can’t resist. I think we can all guess I may regret it.