Shortly after Barack Obama took office in 2009, first lady Michelle Obama kicked off the national slimming program “Let’s Move” and inaugurated an escalation of America’s already deeply entrenched “war on obesity,” seeming to interpret her husband’s campaign messages of “Hope” and “Change” in a manner fortuitous to our country’s $60-billion-per-year weight-loss industry.
As with the metaphorical wars that came before it (against “drugs” and on “terror”), in the battle against fatness it’s difficult to discern the heroes from the villains—or, in terms made famous by the punitive yet highly popular reality TV program, to distinguish the biggest winners from the “biggest losers.” Those who soldier on in the war against “obesity” are at times ambiguous about precisely what (pounds of flesh?) or who (fat people captured on television eating fries?) are its intended targets. “Love the sinner, hate the sin” could be the rallying cry for America’s fight against the putative vice of fatness. The consistent butt of jokes, a handy icon of “unhealthiness” and loss of self-control, that which we feel we must protect our children from becoming—is “fat” what “queer” was a generation ago?
Ever since radical feminists Judy Freespirit and Aldebaran founded the Fat Underground in 1973, fat activists have worked to make visible the inseparability of homophobia and anti-fat prejudice. Today, a thriving fat and queer community is foregrounding similar intersections. But queer communities more broadly have not yet embraced the cause of fat liberation. “I don’t think that, in general, gay and lesbian attitudes about body size make fat people feel accepted,” queer fat activist Julia McCrossin remarks.
As an example, she points to weight-loss programs promoted by the Mautner Project (the National Lesbian Health Organization) that are premised on the belief that being fat is unhealthy. This is the first parallel between fat oppression and homophobia: the widely accepted cultural assumption that we’re dealing with a dangerous disease.
In 1966, Time magazine described homosexuality as a “pernicious sickness.” Today, “a deadly epidemic” is the cliché about “obesity.” The terms “obese” and “overweight”—favored by a medical establishment that receives generous endowments from the pharmaceutical industry (makers of weight-loss drugs) and the diet industry (funders of most major studies on “obesity”), and which itself has much to gain from the pathologization of fatness (bariatric surgery is big business)—give the impression that higher-than-average body weight is an illness. But the correlation between body size and health is actually minimal. Risks associated with being “morbidly obese” are no greater than that of being male, and “overweight” people live longer than people of “normal” weight. What’s more, the claim that fatness is a health risk ignores a basic principle of statistical analysis: Correlation is not causation. The small differences in life expectancies between average-size and very large people are most likely not caused by being fat but are instead the result of factors correlated with fatness: social stigma, economic discrimination, and the harmful effects of weight-loss dieting and diet drugs.
Conservatives blame the media-hyped “epidemic of obesity” on failures of individual will, while liberals point to McDonalds, high-calorie school lunches, and sedentary jobs. But it’s unlikely that any of these factors is making us fat. After all, thin people watch television and eat fast food, too, and fat people have never been proven to consume more calories, or more “junk food,” than others. And as numerous excellent books have demonstrated (see Paul Campos’s The Diet Myth and Gina Kolata’s Rethinking Thin for detailed explications of some of the scientific information presented in this article), we are not in the midst of an “epidemic” of fatness. Since 1990, Americans have experienced an average weight gain of about 15 pounds. Hardly cause for alarm, especially since this modest increase in our collective size may be a good thing: A decline in smoking rates could be a factor (quitting smoking typically results in weight gain), as could the increased popularity of weight-lifting and other muscle-building exercise (statistics on “obesity” are based on BMI charts, which classify Matt Damon as “overweight” and Tom Cruise as “obese”).
Nor is fatness, as conservatives often claim about homosexuality, a “lifestyle.” Body size is determined primarily by genetics, and while diets and exercise programs may produce short-term weight loss, they have a 95 percent failure rate over the long term. Yet like queer people living with HIV or AIDS, fat people are stigmatized for a condition that is imagined to be their fault. They are hectored by conservatives such as Mike Huckabee, mocked by liberals like Jon Stewart (who, of course, would never dream of making lesbians or gay men the butt of his jokes), harangued about their weight by medical professionals, and subjected to a barrage of advertisements promising “cures” for their supposed disorder.
Does this sound familiar? Remember psychiatry’s attempts to cure homosexuality? Our culture’s hand-wringing over the “obesity epidemic,” its hawking of one breakthrough diet or miracle weight-loss product after another, and its moralistic shaming of those it deems “too fat” are as conducive to self-hatred as “gay conversion therapy.” But while the harmful conversion therapy that religious conservatives practice on LGBTQ people has rightly been the target of political protest and legal intervention, the medically sanctioned use of weight conversion therapy (a.k.a. dieting) has provoked far less outrage on the Left. Let’s Move, as McCrossin observes, is essentially “a child-focused, government-sponsored fat version of conversion therapy.” If we would ban the use of gay conversion therapy on children (a practice now condemned by the American Psychiatric Association), then why do we foist similar programs on fat children—subjecting adolescents, most recently, to the humiliation and health risks of vying for the title of the Biggest Loser?
Is it that our collective psyche needs a scapegoat? Perhaps as LGBTQ people are beginning to gain legitimacy, a fill-in must be found, and fat people (along with other “outsiders,” such as Muslims, immigrants, the homeless, and the mentally ill) fit the bill. If there is a deeply rooted psychic urge within us all that impels us to make a disempowered “other” the object of our anger and dissatisfactions, then how can we resist acting on this impulse? These are questions we should be asking ourselves; but instead, it seems, we prefer to make psychological pronouncements about fat people’s supposed inability to resist their urges. We speak confidently about the causes of overeating (which, we readily assume, fat people must engage in): “emotional eating,” “food addiction,” fatness as a “shield” against “normal” sexuality, food as a “substitute for love.”
These pop-psychology explanations are as specious as past theories about “overbearing mothers” and “distant fathers” as the causes of male homosexuality, or “bad experiences with men” as typical precursors to lesbian identity. Yet they have the status of accepted truth, even among many feminists and queer activists. Fat, we have long known, is a feminist issue; but Susie Orbach’s bestselling 1978 book of that title has a decidedly fatphobic thesis. Readers are invited to achieve “permanent weight loss” by learning to “conquer compulsive eating.” Queer theorist Lauren Berlant also contributes to the stigma of fatness—and perhaps, inadvertently, to race and class prejudice as well—as she worries over “subproletarian Americans” and people of color succumbing to a “slow death” from obesity.
Death, slow or fast, is what we are really afraid of when we obsess about the “obesity epidemic.” As the liberal, gay rights–supporting columnist Leonard Pitts puts it, “We are a lard butt nation waddling toward demise.” Besides being cruel, this statement is inaccurate: Americans are living longer than ever before. However, Pitts’s remark is valuable in that it clarifies the function of the concept of obesity in our culture today. Obesity parallels and intersects with homosexuality, both terms serving as proxies for Americans’ anxieties about death, disability, and disease. In discussions of aids, conservative commentators inveigh against the “disease” of homosexuality and call gay male sexuality a “culture of death.” According to the right wing, queer sexualities are a threat to our children, a risk to our national security, and a blight on our future. Similar claims are routinely repeated about “obesity,” on both the Left and the Right: Fat people are charged with “eating themselves to death,” weakening our military, overburdening our healthcare system, and promoting disease among children.
Clearly, the politics of homophobic hate are inseparable from our culture’s fear and hatred of fat people. The slur “fat, ugly dyke,” used to police women of all sizes and sexual orientations, exemplifies the deeply rooted intersections between fatphobia and homophobia. Sure enough, a new federally funded study plans to determine why lesbian and bisexual women and girls are among the “hardest hit” by the “obesity epidemic.”
Queer women are not the first group to be singled out in this way: Disproportionate levels of “obesity” among Latino/a and African-American populations have been the focus of public health interventions for decades. In her chapter in 2009’s The Fat Studies Reader, Bianca D. M. Wilson describes what it feels like to hear “fat-is-bad” statements applied to her communities: “I am reminded that I belong to the ‘target populations’ of fat black or lesbian people…. Their talk about my impending early death due to my body size is juxtaposed with my experiences and work in black gay communities, which demonstrate that there are far greater enemies to the health and well-being of black lesbian and bisexual women than the fat on our bodies, such as violence, poverty, and psychological oppression.”
Anti-obesity programs directed at people of color and queer women will only exacerbate the problems that Wilson names—by reinforcing anti-fat prejudice, they ensure that these groups will face more violence, economic discrimination, and hostility from mainstream culture. As fat queer Latina activist Margarita Rossi observes in an interview with Julia Horel of Shameless magazine, “Fat hatred is often used to uphold racism, and vice versa.”
Anti-racist, feminist, and queer activists must make fat liberation central to our work; we need to explicitly and unequivocally reject the notion that body size is a “lifestyle choice” that can or should be changed. And make no mistake: It is in the interest of people of every size to become fat people’s allies. I am a thin woman, and yet my life gives me many reasons to want to fight fat oppression. Like most women, I have spent years in terror of being, or becoming, “too fat” (the same years, not coincidentally, during which I was most afraid of being, or becoming, a lesbian). My partner (and wife-to-be) is a fat woman. My experiences with a chronic illness that is often dismissed as “psychosomatic” have taught me what it is like to be blamed for a physical condition over which I have no control. One day I may be fat myself. And I am tired of oppression of all kinds: I refuse to participate in the mistreatment of an entire group of people simply because the way they look does not conform to hegemonic ideals of “normality.”
The war against fat, like efforts to “cure,” “convert,” or “repair” queer sexualities, will fail. And so—we must make certain—will the war against fat people. If you want to say you were on the right side of this fight when fat liberation becomes mainstream (as it no doubt will), there is much you can do. First, stop dieting. (And if you say you are not dieting but are merely subscribing to a “healthy way to eat,” then ask yourself: Would I continue to adhere to my dietary restrictions if I knew they would make me both healthier and 50 pounds fatter?) Desist from all dieting talk: Recognize that remarks like “I’ll have to work off these calories at the gym tomorrow” or “Do these pants make me look fat?” are as phobic as fears that the wrong clothing or accessories might make you look queer. Rather than complimenting people for being “petite,” “slender,” or “svelte,” find something else to praise them for instead. Eliminate the words “obese” and “overweight” from your lexicon, and substitute the simple word “fat.”
Start looking at large people in a new way; notice that fat folks are as beautiful and sexy as anyone else. If previously you have ruled out fat people as potential sexual partners, rule them back in, and rule out fatphobes instead. Discover the fat blogosphere (or the “Fat-O-Sphere,” as Kate Harding and Bitch contributor Marianne Kirby call it, in their sexy, scintillating anti-dieting guide). Enjoy blogger Tasha Fierce’s reflections on race, sex, and “fatshion,” and learn about the unearned advantages of thinness at the This Is Thin Privilege blog. Join a group that fights racism, fatphobia, and queer oppression together (check out NOLOSE or It Gets Fatter). Support the “I stand against weight bullying” campaign, which protests government-sponsored shaming of fat children. Eat a cookie. Or some pie. Skip the “guilt.” And spread the word—many people dont’t know about fatphobia or fat liberation, but once they do, they, like you, will know to do the right thing.