Spicy pork rinds in hand, I settled on the bleachers to watch the annual Brown County Fair’s Demolition Derby. Beside me were several larger folks, fat people, chowing on their favorite county fair snacks from pineapple whip to deep fried pickles and oreos. Wanting to do right by the Midwest and genuinely a fan of fairground food, I had already consumed a pineapple while myself, in addition to a half container of spiral-cut liquid cheese drenched fried potatoes and part of a German taco. As the giant mass of us stood up to sing the national anthem, I heard the aluminum benches creak beneath our weight. Would they hold us I wondered? Or would our mass obituary read, “85 people crushed beneath the weight of their own fat selves – bleachers not to blame.” Was I and were the rest of my fellow fairgoers choosing to be fat, choosing to risk not only heart disease but a potentially ugly death by crushing? Before I had a chance to further reflect the engines revved and the giant mass of us began to clang and stomp upon the echoing platform. I gulped down my fears, joining the crowd’s enthusiastic bellow, “One, two, three! Derby!”
As has become apparent throughout the Sawyer Seminar, concepts about how and why we eat the way we do are more complicated than rational decision-making models and theories of individual agency would have us believe. We have seen that our choices are limited by our political, economic and geographic environment, as well as our brain’s ability to constantly process pieces of information. Choices, however, are also influenced by the historical, social and cultural contexts in which we live and act. This fact is perhaps no more important than in the discussion of our own bodies, which are yet further limited by our biology. Ideas that one can opt to be thin, that thinness equates with health, happiness, and good citizenship and, conversely, that fatness is bad, are all examples of the simplistic and underexamined rhetoric that currently pervades American discourse. But does one choose to be fat?
According to Dr. Julie Guthman, the current politics and debates concerning obesity offer simplistic ideas about the structural, biological, and political causes of a putative problem that is far more complex (2006). “Obesity epidemic”, she argues, is a rhetorically loaded termthat turns obesity into a social problem without considering why it has come to be seen as a problem and what the effects are of labeling it as such. For example, in June 1998, the BMI (body mass index) considered overweight was reduced from 27 to 25, putting several million people into the ‘overweight’ category overnight.
Furthermore, while we currently live in a cultural context that equates thinness to health, models for health and beauty have changed substantially throughout history, and this cannot be just chalked up to a past of ignorance about health and wellness. Not only is there is no straightforward link (i.e. epidemiological evidence) between good health and thinness (Gaesser 2002), but many thin people eat poorly, do not exercise, and suffer from more chronic illnesses than their “overweight” counterparts (you are safer being 30-100 lbs overweight and moderately physically active than 5 lbs underweight, Gaesser 2002). On the other hand, in the desperation to uphold the thin ideal and achieve the socially acceptable body, many heavier people engage in unhealthy and sometimes dangerous dietary practices that rarely work (Brownell 2004 among others). Meanwhile, fat people are subjected to discrimination, social humiliation and judgment by their fellow citizens despite the fact that “what constitutes the ideal body has less to do with health and more to do with ideas of perfection, goodness, femininity, and so forth” (Guthman 2006:443).
The social-cultural underpinnings of the “obesity epidemic” both reveal and confound nationwide discourse concerning fatness. First of all, neoliberalism entails a society of consumption – to be a citizen is to consume. And yet those citizen consumers who are literally embodying their participation in the American capitalist system are vilified.
“In short, neoliberal governmentality produces contradictory impulses such that the neoliberal subject is emotionally compelled to participate in society as both out-of- control consumer and self-controlled subject. The perfect subject – citizen is able to achieve both eating and thinness, even if having it both ways entails eating nonfoods of questionable health impact (Splenda) or throwing up the food one does eat (the literal bulimic). Those who can achieve thinness amidst this plenty are imbued with the rationality and self-discipline that those who are fat must logically lack; they then become the deserving in a political economy all too geared toward legitimizing such distinctions (Guthman 2006:444).”
No wonder we don’t take pleasure in our food – it’s a terrifyingly complex act of patriotism each time we take a bite. I can’t even enjoy the County Fair! In their article on the psychology of food in everyday life, Paul Rozin and colleagues reveal that among citizens of France, Belgium, Japan and the U.S., Americans are the least likely to associate food with pleasure, the most likely to alter their diet in the service of health and are also the most dissatisfied with their diets, their bodies and their choices (1999). One can’t help but infer that characterizing fatness as a national problem only drives discontent and food-related stress, which has been shown to do little to change our actual bodies let alone our levels of health.
There are also those of us whom, rather than being passive medicalized dupes or victims, seemingly take a stand against the body ideal. The fat acceptance movement, including online size-accepting and size-admiring communities, are spaces where embodied social actors actively re-signify ‘fatness’. However, Monagan has argued that such efforts to fight stigma actually consolidate a public conception of fatness as a ‘real thing’ and fat people as constituting a ‘real’ group (1981 and Goffman 1968). Unfortunately, such segregation and attempts toward constructing alternative definitions of fatness may reify current notions of body norms, giving more power to a social construct.
In sum, does our current food system encourage people to eat more calorie dense nutrient free foods? Yes. Is there some evidence that this has come to affect our waistbands? Yes. Is this extra adiposity related to some chronic diseases? Yes. Has identifying this difference in body size as a national problem/epidemic (and therefore those of us who embody it criminals) done anything to create a better, healthier, happier citizen? I would argue no. Our current political and economic come cultural system dictates that we ‘choose’ to consume in order to act as citizen. Yet, when that consumption shows up on our thighs, stomach and butt, we are stigmatized for it. The days of a Cartesian mind-body divide are behind us; when we make ‘rational’ choices about our food and bodies they are but the confluence of an array of factors siphoned into a collective of heuristics that become continuously represented by our brains and our belts. Perhaps it is time to take our focus off the individual and onto the cultural ideologies promoted by a system that is doing everything it can to divert attention from its failings.
It pays to note there are several studies reporting that calorie consumption has not actually increased over the last few decades. How many people on the bleachers beside me at the Midwestern county fairgrounds came from communities where DDT, a proven endocrine disrupter, has been dumped for decades on corn and soy crops high pesticide use on corn crops? See Glenn Stone’s helpful discussion of obesogens for more information.