The Big Fat Lie, Part 2
This is the second in a multi-part series looking critically at weight loss, dieting, and the cultural, social, political, and economic landscapes that shape our ideas about weight and bodies.
I write this from my perspective as a multi-racial woman, who experiences chronic health issues, and who benefits from the privileges of a thin body, and a white-passing body, among others. I am indebted to the many pioneers of the fat activist/ fat liberation, and body neutrality movements, with particular gratitude for the Black and Trans women, and others holding marginalized identities who have incubated, enlivened, and sustained this work, often at great personal and professional risk. Thank you.
Bodies, Race, and Power
When it comes to bodies, variation is the name of the game. Even within a biological family, skin, eye, and hair color may differ, cognitive, physical, and emotional abilities exist on a spectrum, and bodies come in all different weights and shapes. Rather than acknowledging this as normal, we have been conditioned to see fatness as a problem to be solved. This is due in part to the huge profit the weight loss, diet, and wellness industry can generate from a populace steeped in anxiety about weight, and socially motivated to seek thinness. It is also an intentional manifestation of systemic racism.
In the mid-18th century, enslaved Africans were being transported and sold throughout the Americas and British colonies. The people who stood to benefit most from the practices of slavery created a discourse to justify the inhumane treatment of other human beings. They used eating habits and body size (among other things), as a way of differentiating who was worthy of freedom and who was not.
The logic espoused by those seeking racial dominance was that White Europeans were rational, moral, and self-controlled, which could be demonstrated through the denial of sensory pleasure and keeping a tight rein on one’s appetites. These were the enlightened, civilized people. Black people, they asserted, were too lazy to control their appetites, enjoyed food too much, indulged sinfully in all kinds of sensory pleasures, and were therefore too fat. These were the primitive, uncivil people, who needed to be controlled and to be shown how to live in a refined White society.
Of course, not all Africans had larger bodies, and plenty of White Europeans were fat, but that was irrelevant to the narrative. What was important was what people would believe, and people will believe a lot, especially when it absolves them of wrongdoing and amplifies their own power.
Creating a hierarchy based on physical characteristics was a way to concentrate and keep power in the hands of White men, and subjugate anyone who didn’t meet their description of civility, intelligence, and desirability. White scholars of the late 1700’s and early 1800’s published articles that assigned different levels of intellectual ability, beauty, and morality to various races, with the “White race” always at the pinnacle. Magazine articles targeting middle and upper-class White women emphasized the importance of eating as little as necessary in order to show their Christian nature and their racial superiority. Labeled as scientific truths, and sanctioned by law, these ideas flourished in the United States through the 19th and 20th centuries, as a way to justify slavery, racism, and classism, and control women through “temperance”. The fact that thinness and whiteness grant more access to social, political, and cultural capital in so many areas of society today, traces directly back to these baldly racist systems.
One standout example of how these systems persist in our lives today is the use of the BMI, or Body Mass Index. The formula, created in the 1830’s by a statistician named Adolphe Quetelet, was never meant to be used in medical settings. Instead, Quetelet was aiming to create the “perfect everyman” against which others could be compared. And in his own words, “everything differing from his proportion or condition, would constitute deformity or disease … or monstrosity.” Though the “perfect everyman” Quetelet envisioned was based on a 19th-century White, European, cisgender man, taking no one else into account, his inaccurate and racist formula is used every day to make wide-ranging and life-altering healthcare decisions for people of all genders, ages, ethnicities, and abilities.
Size and Stigma
Racialized people face considerable health challenges due to systemic oppression and marginalization. Chronic cardiovascular, inflammatory, and metabolic risk factors have been found to be elevated in Black women, even after controlling for behaviors such as smoking, physical exercise, or dietary variables.
Many doctors have claimed that Black women’s “excess” weight is the main cause of their poor health outcomes, often without fully testing or adequately addressing their symptoms. The idea that weight is responsible for negative health outcomes among Black women builds on historically racist ideas and ignores how interrelated social factors impact health. Stressors like workplace discrimination, unequal pay, and the threat of sexual assault contribute to higher rates of chronic mental and physical illnesses. Black women are disproportionately more at risk of sexual violence. Nearly 1 in 5 Black women are survivors of rape, and 41% of Black women experience sexual coercion and other forms of unwanted sexual contact. Sexual trauma is frequently associated with PTSD, depression, substance misuse, suicide ideation and attempts, and other adverse health effects.
Centuries of segregation and housing discrimination keep families of color from building generational wealth. As a result, Black women are more likely to live in higher poverty areas, to contend with pollution, lack of access to fresh food and clean water, and to face housing instability.https://www.americanprogress.org/article/systemic-inequality-displacement-exclusion-segregation/
Racial disparities and bias in healthcare also effect Black women’s well-being. In the U.S., the CDC reported that Black women experience maternal mortality two to three times higher than that of white women. The estimated national maternal mortality rate in the United States is about 17 per 100,000 live births––but it is about 43 per 100,000 live births for Black women. https://www.ajmc.com/view/racial-disparities-persist-in-maternal-morbidity-mortality-and-infant-health
These social and material realities (those listed here are just a small sample), play a much larger role than body size in determining overall health. Too often, the impacts of structural violence toward marginalized people go unacknowledged and the focus is placed primarily on weight. This leads to further discrimination in the form of weight stigma, which itself increases one’s risk for diabetes, heart disease, discrimination, bullying, eating disorders, sedentariness, lifelong discomfort in one’s body, and even early death. https://publichealth.uic.edu/community-engagement/collaboratory-for-health-justice/addressing-weight-stigma-and-fatphobia-in-public-health/
It also fails to address the underlying causes of these disparities, allowing systemic injustice to flourish, while putting the onus on individual choices and claiming to be “working on the problem” by prescribing weight loss. Public health initiatives claiming to tackle the “obesity epidemic” for example, often refer to higher-weight populations as needing guidance, monitoring, or management. Stereotypes around fatness and laziness proliferate, as does the assumption that a person’s eating or exercise habits are something that can be determined by looks alone. Animalization and other dehumanizing language are leveraged against people in larger bodies, particularly racialized people. For how closely this rhetoric mirrors the propaganda used to justify genocide and slavery, it is all too common to find liberal and progressive institutions and individuals promoting these ideas. This societally condoned anti-fat bias should be named and recognized for what it is: a hierarchy that privileges some and makes others disposable.
Even if long-term weight loss was sustainable for most people, changing body size does nothing to change the circumstances that cause poor health for marginalized populations. A society invested in weight management and idolizing thinness, is a culture invested in the maintenance of the supremacy of the dominant culture. It’s time to unlearn the lesson that fat is anything other than a neutral descriptor, and move toward a more equitable future for everyone.
Part 3 of this series will examine the relationship between weight and health and shines a spotlight on the widespread myth that higher weight causes negative health outcomes. It poses critical questions about what being healthy actually means, and who has access to the conditions which create health. Stay tuned!
Further reading & resources:
Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia by Sabrina Strings
Belly Of The Beast: The Politics of Anti-Fatness as Anti-Blackness, by Da’shaun Harrison
Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating by Christy Harrison (this author has a great blog and podcast as well)