In 1978, psychotherapist Susie Orbach published a book about binge eating disorders titled, Fat Is A Feminist Issue. Orbach gained her then-revolutionary status and popular credibility by and through working with stars like Princess Diana, but her book spoke directly to women as something of a prescriptive teaching tool: how NOT to fear being thin…how food is not “the enemy…” This title no doubt homogenized all “fat” experiences to fit that particular mold of binge eating disorders; we know this to be untrue for a multitude of lived realities. One book review understands the textual mission as that which is both healing to the corporeal form as it is to the psyche:
“By uncovering deeply held fears and beliefs, women can understand how they use food to fill emotional and psychological needs” (goodreads).
But could corporeal experiences really be that simple? That individual cognitive-behavioral/self-help therapy could fix, person by person, body by body? That women eat to feed their psychological hunger, and that psychological hunger is inwardly driven and self-derived? As an undergraduate being trained in the Sociological tradition, I tend to think that nothing is ever really that simple. Guest lecturer Melissa Campbell would agree with that sentiment, having made mention of those larger, structural forces at work in the complex social landscape that we call the good old USA. She brought up Orbach’s book last Thursday as a means by which to introduce certain theories surrounding the construction of self within and against differing notions of fat: fat is unrestrained consumption taking over the organism; fat is an alien life form wrapped around the true self. And it’s THIS very concept that Orbach reproduces in her book, Fat Is A Feminist Issue.
Campbell spoke to, “fat as a manifestation of societal pressures on women’s bodies and emotions,” as well as to the consequential visibility and invisibility of fat bodies: “not fat people, fat bodies.” In other words, we dehumanize people when we reduce them to their adipose tissue. Just google the hot button word, “obese,” and you’ll find countless headless bodies! Without faces, without identities: their humanity denied to them by the eye of we who gaze.
Indeed it is a very mechanical process: we numerize the calories in versus calories expended, we quantify pounds gained versus pounds lost. We measure behavioral successes and failures, which are morally-based, according to such empirical measures of body mass. This is, yet again, biopower hard at work, as discussed by Zoë C. Meleo-Erwin in her work on, “‘A beautiful show of strength’: Weight loss and the fat activist self.” Meleo-Erwin discusses obesity in those terms defined by our social culture: as risk as well as epidemic. Public health responses, generally signaled by the hyper-visibility of ‘excess’ adipose tissue, require certain “containment” like an ‘out of control disease’ (Meleo-Erwin). In her work on weight loss surgeries, Karen Throsby talks about the war on fat – which in turn can be interpreted as biopower’s war on deviant bodies.
But wait, why all this “waging war” on obesity? Where do these discursive powers stem from?
Underscoring biopower is an undeniable capitalist intent by hegemonic powers all throughout the State-financial nexus we call America. Over the past ten to fifteen years or so, media representations of fat bodies as bad & fat bodies as simultaneously sick or unhealthy have dominated the billboards, magazines and television screens – not as desirable images of fashion – but rather as forewarning images of transgression, deviance and monstrosity.
These messages are read to us LOUD and clear: obesity is badness, obesity is disease, stop the spread of obesity for the sake of public health. This analysis of fat bodies gets complicated by social class, race and gender, as women are often condemned as bad mothers if they are fat mothers; the implications of such being an unhealthy role model causing her children bodily harm via fatty foods and an unfit lifestyle. No one really ever seems to ask about fat father’s and their role in potentially ‘poisoning the seed(s).’ Historically, women have always come under harsh attack when children do not produce as good, capitalist citizens no matter the context – it was her fault.
Public service announcements, reality television series, morning talk shows and news network coverage all capitalize on obesity as epidemic so as construct images of health as images of beauty. But at the very same time, we are saturated with media telling us to CONSUME, CONSUME, CONSUME! Beautiful people on television commercial advertisements bite into big, juicy, McDonald’s hamburgers but then TLC tells us, “Honey, We’re Killing The Kids.”
(I used to watch this show in Health class, both in Middle School as well as in High School); obesity rhetoric is also deployed as educational, as it simultaneously propels multimillion dollar industries, such as mass media as well as pharmaceuticals. Check out this interesting article, posted by Professor Daniels via Twitter, on “Why the ‘war on fat’ is a scam to peddle drugs.” But no matter the context, obesity rhetoric and representations of bodies in peril instruct the viewer how to read these discourses: fat bodies are the physical, material embodiment of hyper-consumption, which we are taught as good, passing citizens, to not only practice but to simultaneously hate as well.
But therein lies a contradiction of neoliberal proportions – fore we cannot trace a linear path from hard, ethical [body] work (i.e. diet and exercise) to weight loss, and furthermore to societal conceptions of beauty, just as we cannot trace a direct line from hard work to socioeconomic success, especially in the United States where freedom of opportunity does not translate into freedom of equality. How, then, are we to think freely residing under such conflicting discursive powers of governmentality?
It is imperative that we remain critical of biopower hard at work in its deployments of bodily regulation via media representations and public health rhetoric. Tracing the effects such discourses have on women’s bodies is key to contemporary feminist theory; those intersections of capital, class, race and gender are crucial to our understanding of how biopower operates and how it mobilizes itself so efficiently – as we are the mechanism by which bodies are policed.