Fat: Provocation

This month, Field Notes is dealing with "Fat" in a series organized by Jessica Hardin. The series begins today with a contribution by Susan Greenhalgh, which will be followed by pieces from Jessica Hardin, Harris Solomon, and Michael Montoya. Find out what Field Notes is about here.

Why (Not) Fat?

The editor encourages contributors to these notes to play with their topics, but few people feel playful about our topic. Even the kitties on lolcat get upset when someone calls them fat. A sad kitten says, “Mom... they called me fat.” Mom consoles: “You’re not fat! You’re just fluffy.” At least in the U.S., fat is a pretty serious subject.

For 15 years the U.S. has been waging a giant campaign to stanch the “epidemic of obesity” that is said to be harming the nation in a myriad ways. What began as a public health campaign against obesity has now morphed into a society-wide war on fat that is inescapable in daily life. Doctors scold us in the clinic. Fat-talkers chide us in the donut shop. Pop-up ads for weight-loss products stalk us on the internet. Teachers and coaches badger our kids at school. In these days of Ebola and other deadly viral fears, fat may have lost its status as public health enemy number one, but we are still enjoined to fight it, to earn our right to good citizenship by maintaining thin, fit bodies and by coaxing, bullying, and shaming others into doing the same. Fighting fat has become as central to nationhood and belonging as the proverbial apple pie. And since the WHO declared obesity a “global pandemic,” countries around the world have been battling excess pounds, with varied effects. 

The war on fat is not only a big fact of contemporary biopolitical life; its emergence raises critical analytic questions about governance, citizenship, science, and morality. Cultural anthropology, so present in the wars on poverty, tobacco, and HIV/AIDS, has been mostly absent from this war. (Biocultural anthropologists have been more attentive.) In this note, I want to provoke reflection about why that is. Until we uncover the reasons for the neglect, we won’t be open to seeing the possibilities present in the topic. What is so dull or distasteful about fat? What might we learn about anthropology by posing this question? (“Obesity” is the medical term, “fat” is the term that circulates in society.)

Risking discomfort, I have asked quite a few colleagues why the culture and politics of fat have attracted so little anthropological interest. Here are some of their answers, reworded in somewhat more formal language, followed by a few reactions.

Informant 1: Fat is not a proper topic for anthropological inquiry. There’s little precedent for studying it and so far few analytic frameworks with which to think about it. We should just leave it to others.

Reflection: True, there’s a growing body of work in fat studies—indeed, there’s a new journal with that name—but little of the work done so far is ethnographic. We have little idea how the war on fat is playing out on the ground; how it is reshaping bodies, lives, and selves; or how it may be reconfiguring and deepening disparities of gender, class, and race/ethnicity. Anthropology has critically important contributions to make. 

Informant 2: Many anthropologists are themselves on the heavy side. In a culture in which “excess weight” is a sign of “irresponsibility” and failure to lose weight triggers feelings of guilt and shame, the issue is just too personal and difficult for most of us to approach.

Reflection: Yes. But if we were to “follow the affect,” we would find that it rests on the assumption that weight is under individual control, and that that assumption is a veritable biomyth that has continued to circulate long after the genetics of obesity put it and other common sense notions to rest. Plump with taxpayer and corporate dollars, the sciences of obesity have been exploding, presenting us with an opportunity to study a cluster of fat “facts,” knowledges, and technologies that, through the pathologization of heaviness, and the insertion of the anti-obesity campaign into every major institution of society, have a huge impact on individual well-being.  

Informant 3: Ethnographic research is up close and personal and usually of long duration. For those reasons, ethnographers can only study people they like. That’s why anthropology has not touched this topic.

Reflection: Whew. Does this mean we ourselves quietly participate in or tacitly accept the cultural derogation of fat? What are groups that anthropologists “don’t like” but have nonetheless studied? Might it be productive to examine what we “don’t like” about fat people?  

Informant 4: This is a totally taboo topic. It’s polluting, defiling, and disgusting. I’m not touching it.

Reflection: Come again? Don’t anthropologists study taboos, pollution, and affect/emotions such as disgust? Why does obesity produce such visceral reactions in colleagues more used to self-reflexivity? 

Informant 5: [A frown followed by silence]

Reflection: Truth be told, this is the most common response and it is the most troubling because silence is, well, silencing. Disturbing the discipline’s fat taboo would give us an opportunity not just to understand our culture’s treatment of fat, but also to challenge it. 

Susan Greenhalgh is Professor of Anthropology at Harvard. Her new book, Fat-talk Nation: The Human Costs of America's War on Fat (Cornell, spring 2015), is based on teaching and fieldwork conducted during her years at the University of California, Irvine. Her articles on fat politics can be found in American Ethnologist ("Weighty Subjects: The Biopolitics of the U.S. War on Fat," August 2012) and Human Organization ("Bad Biocitizens? Latinos and the US 'Obesity Epidemic'," Fall 2014, with Megan A. Carney).