This post was born as a discussion on Facebook with the herbalist Rebecca Altman (of Cauldrons & Crockpots and King’s Road Apothecary; both her blog and the KRA newsletter are replete with insightful discussions of herbs, if you’re into that). Rebecca raised the question (paraphrased), “Why do we (21st century Western society) have such a problem with fat and fatness?”
There were many insightful comments and all the participants share some of the credit–or responsibility? heh heh–for helping me formulate my thoughts. They gave me much food for thought which is damn rare in a Facebook discussion (that, by the way, is another topic I plan to write about soon).
Now, I’m not talking here about the medical etiology of obesity. I welcome comments but don’t even bother if you’re just writing another iteration of obesity is so unhealthy and what a terrible epidemic, because that is off topic. I’m also not going to get into the nefarious corporate machinations that are at least partly responsible for the high rates of obesity (but if you’re interested in that, you might like Gordon’s post on the topic). What I am trying to do is to (as they say in academia) interrogate and unpack common assumptions and approach the idea from another perspective. Which is all I really do on this blog. It’s food for thought. Rich, delicious, savory food for thought…here, have another helping.
So Rebecca’s question was specifically about our negative societal attitude toward fat–both as a dietary component and as stored fat deposits on fellow human beings. Though you’ll often see the argument that disgust toward overweight people is a natural or evolved response to their unhealthiness, we must be very wary of such naturalistic arguments. They are always oversimplified and not only overlook but usually deliberately elide the human choices–and responsibility for said choices–that go into creating and maintaining any attitude. They’re also ahistorical. (There have been cultures where obesity was prized and deemed lovely, no matter what the health consequences may have been, for example in present-day Nigeria and Uganda and various Polynesian cultures.) More worrisome, naturalistic arguments are too often use to legitimize very bad behavior.
For example, one cannot overlook that there is a major class-hierarchy element underlying our negative attitudes toward fatness (as well as the actual material anifestation of fatness). While affluent people can afford personal trainers, gym memberships, South Beach and palaeo diets, and have sufficient energy and leisure time to exercise or do recreational sports, how many poor people come home at the end of working two jobs and have the energy to cook an optimal meal? Cheap food is unhealthy food. It is possible to eat healthfully without spending too much money (easier in regions where veggies are available year round), but diet is as much about time, energy, stress, and emotional state as it is about money. Class is certainly a factor. In the old days, poor people were skinny and only the rich could get fat; now it’s the other way around.
Then of course you have sexism and beauty commodification. Does anyone remember the episode of Friends where Ross over-bleached his teeth so that they glowed in UV light and everyone made fun of him? Now every celebrity, model, and anyone you see in an ad has teeth at least that white. Yesterday I saw a commercial where a woman with porcelain-white teeth bemoaned how “yellow” they were. My point here is that our beauty standards are neither arbitrary nor evolutionarily determined–they are the result of advertisers creating a sense of lack so they can sell us a product for literally every part of our body. Women, whose value has long been determined primarily on the basis of fuckability, are the main victims of this, but men get a big dose too. For women, it has become so extreme that we are now supposed to worry about the skin tone of our armpits and anus and the internal symmetry of our vulvae. There is literally not an inch of our bodies that isn’t policed, critiqued, denigrated, and male-gazed at on a daily basis (FYI male gaze can also come from women). So that’s an issue too.
Now that those disclaimers are out of the way, the most interesting idea that emerged from the Facebook fat discussion, for me, was the notion that fat could be medicine. A couple of commenters viewed overweight from an Ayurvedic perspective, opining that Western society can be described as choleric/pitta in nature with sanguine/vata tendencies, and overweight develops as an attempt to balance the scales with kapha. As so often happens when one tries to compensate, we overcompensate. Another take was that people are storing fat for hard times that they perceive a-comin.’ Rebecca notes:
“I see this a lot here in LA, people who want to be fully open, fully bright white love and light without any dark, damp, deep and slow, and I think its pathological. I think, when it comes down to it, the dark, damp, deep and slow (which to me is represented by the fat, too), is something we are terrified of in ourselves because its where we store our pain, and we dont want to deal with that shit. People who build up protective fat layers are often incredibly emotionally sensitive, and bloody well need that protection (at least until they can find another way to feel safe). We store our pain there in the darkness, and not all of us want to face it. Maybe easier to stick to love and light and quickness and ‘high vibrational energy’ (whatever the fuck that is) and hope the rest of it goes away. Or at least hope it just stays in other people, who we can say are distinctly separate from ourselves and therefore not our responsibility.“
Almost any medicine can become a poison in excess. So too with fat. I am, as I have written before, very sensitive to both physical and emotional stimuli and it can get really raw at times. Even if I am more constitutionally sensitive than many (or at least, more so than most people who are not on the autism spectrum), I think that all Westerners are living on a knife edge of overstimulation. Some of the stimulation comes in the form of plain old stress. The planet is overpopulated and its resources overexploited, hyper-capitalism and neo-liberal values treat people as yet more resources to be used, materialism–both the consumer and metaphysical varieties–doesn’t provide any kind of solace, and we are on the fast track to a civilizational downgrade which I think many sense but cannot bring themselves to believe because they have been fed a steady diet (pun intended) of progressivism and technological salvationism for generations. Meanwhile, the economy sucks and is getting worse. Light pollution and lack of sleep fray the nerves. Our hormones are messed up from all the xenoestrogens in water, meat, dairy, and plastics. I sense palpable depression and desperation in the air. And this we pathologize and medicate with expensive placebos. It drives a lot of people to seek oblivion via TV, games, social media, and aimless net surfing–arguably the most heavily marketed items are toys (smart phones, tablets, etc.) which, with their shiny cases and glowing lights, titillate our lizard brains–but all this is just more stimulation.
Fat, perhaps on an esoteric level as much as on the physical, is a buffer, a layer of protection, a softener, a damper. It rounds the hard edges, cushions the hard knocks, smooths wrinkles. It’s armor. I have certainly used my stored fat deposits as protection from the male gaze. Maybe it’s also a clinging–it could be for perceived hard times, or just for comfort. It is a medicine for the sickness of the age.
There may be some people who read this and feel triggered (as the kids say these days) by it. Whether or not I field a flurry of comments to the effect that I am making “excuses” for the obese, or failing to treat obesity as the scourge of the ages, will be a litmus test of (1) how well I am communicating here and (2) how much you, my dear readers, have internalized conventional fears of fatness. Because those issues are red herrings that, I believe, distract and deflect us from seeing the root cause. A couple days after the Facebook discussion that started all this, some guy went into a community college in Oregon and murdered a bunch of people. That headline is become wearingly common in the US. Lately all I hear in the media and well-meaning liberal circles is that we must have more gun control, better care for the mentally ill, and especially more ways to prevent the mentally ill from acquiring guns. I suggest that those are all short-term band-aids on this societal wound. Not only do I not think this addresses the real causes of America’s gun violence problem, I worry a lot about this labeling of shooters as mentally ill. They may be, functionally–though they need not be clinically or legally. But I worry about all the people struggling with mental illness (or perceived mental illness) who are going to find themselves essentialized, labeled, subjected to childhood “interventions,” and just generally forced to deal with even more stigma than they already do. All so that we can–to borrow Rebecca’s apt words–“hope it just stays in other people, who we can say are distinctly separate from ourselves and therefore not our responsibility.”
Could it be that the “obesity epidemic” and the “gun violence epidemic” are symptoms of the same societal ills? Just think about it.