Fat: Integration

From the Series: Fat

Photo by Sharon Pittaway.

Fat: A Ground Zero of Injustice

Deep in our patterned dispositions (Bourdieu 1977), some things remain hidden, reviled, and a secret. Catholic indulgences are traded or bartered for our sins. Moralisms speak loudly through the affective registers of our lifeworlds (Aretxaga 2003; Mazzarella 2009; Gregg and Seigworth 2010). To understand any cultural form, what better way than to attend to these public secrets, that which is always present but never spoken about. Fat is one such form.

For the foodies among us, for whom fat is the secret of life, fat is something we adore. My tamales are made irresistible by my strategic use of the slow-cooked drippings from the fillings. Savory beans cooked all day with herbs and spices, a chicken or pork shoulder stewed in a crock pot for eight hours, release flavors in their drippings that are the soul of any meal. Butter is an art form in some nations. To wit, nothing beats Norweigian butter and ice cream. The fat in nuts is my best friend. However, I have the luxury, the privilege of loving fat in food. I have the time and education to stay fit. But I monitor my belt loops and the fit of my clothing like a hawk watches its prey. Wings flapping so fast you cannot see them, hovering above, waiting to pounce. How much energy must the hawk expend to hover so?

What we revile speaks volumes, even if glossolalic and tone deaf to the jouissance fat embodies.[1] I am a firm proponent that you cannot tell health by some simple metric of size (Metzl and Kirkland 2010; see also Rose 1999). This is why the fat acceptance movement always made sense to me. I think it was the acceptance that I respect, more than the fat. I have known women and men who have endured all manner of prejudice and discrimination, including that pointed at their bodies for being fat. I have known those who fought back, and won. I admire those who do not answer the hail (Althusser 1971) of body hatred in whatever form it takes, people who inhabit their bodies fully, short hair, full and round, thin, tall, short, grey, black, white, brown and natural in all respects. And those who otherwise express their creativity, their identities, the fullness of their being in ways that counter domination. These people lift my spirits. They give me hope that there are ways to resist forces of domination, of internalized prejudice. They give me permission to be more me.[2] Conversely, those who so visibly suffer in their attempt to look not as they are remind me of the violence humans endure, enact upon others, and exact upon themselves. Their struggles fuel my drive to fight any normativity that does not affirm and bring dignity to our lives.

Fat hatred is hard to escape, however. The priests of science and medicine create and recreate pathological infrastructures around fat to justify their lifeworlds. Young parents learn the piercing tool of Body Mass Indices (BMI) (Erikson 2012), as their children are tracked along percentile scores. And BMI is not even the first disciplining move related to fat. Religion, politics, and parenting congeal in the size wars beginning with fundus measurements. Leptin, a molecule invented to explain fat, new stem cell therapies derived from fat cells first removed from illegal surgeries in Mexico then grown in laboratories, doctors and research scientists of all kinds have so profited from the cultural totipotency of this “thing” we call fat.[3] What will become of these infrastructures (Simone 2004; Larkin 2013; Elyachar 2014) when we finally realize that bodies come in all shapes and sizes, that health is not related to fatness per se, and that social lifeworlds determine wellbeing?[4] Like so many other rabbit holes of technoscience designed to exploit our fears, stoke our hatreds, and develop our skills at judgementalism and social control, fat is a well greased machine of othering. These are skills that are, unfortunately, transferable.

So, we reinforce and impose the infrastructures of othering, the fat obsessions that damage the souls of its victims. Importantly, this pathological fixation on fat keeps our attention away from the inequities that exert far greater power over a person’s ability to eat, not eat, and exercise. It is far simpler to blame the individual, to moralize, and to flex our well-trained skills at being sacrosanct. Also, it is so much easier to bemoan an epidemic by fixating on the individual and not on the social and political context of our lives. If I worked two jobs, feared for the life of my family, had health experts using a dozen metrics to monitor the indicators of my fatness, I would feel like a failure too. And feeling like a failure is counterproductive to everything. For if I cannot control my life, I certainly cannot control my diabetes, my diet, my caloric output.

Fat, the cultural form, is one of many sites of domination. It is a ground zero opportunity to unlearn, dismantle, and transform practices of hatred of self and others and the biopolitical governmentalities (Foucault 1990; Gordon 1991; Stoler 1995) that we create and endure.


[1] The correct phrase might be joie de vivre. The decision is up to the reader.

[2] The inspirations here are too numerous to list and doing so would create a demarcation that would contradict the point being made.

[3] See Montoya (2011) for a discussion of ontological totipotency, esp. Pp. 31-33.

[4] See http://www.unnaturalcauses.com.


Althusser, L. 1971. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” In Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, edited by L. Althusser, 85–126. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Aretxaga, Begoña. 2003. “Maddening States.” Annual Review of Anthropology 32: 393–410.

Bourdieu, P. 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Elyachar, Julia. 2014. “Upending Infrastructure: Tamarod, Resistance, and Agency after the January 25th Revolution in Egypt.” History and Anthropology 25, no. 4: 452-471.

Erikson, Susan L. 2012. “Global Health Business: The Production and Performativity of Statistics in Sierra Leone and Germany.” Medical Anthropology 31, no. 4: 367-384.

Foucault, Michel. 1990. The History of Sexuality, Vol. I. New York: Vintage Press.

Gordon, Colin. 1991. “Governmental rationality: An introduction.” In The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality, edited by Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon and Peter Miller, 1–48. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gregg, Melissa and Gregory J. Seigworth, eds. 2010. The Affect Theory Reader. Durham, NC: Duke University Press

Larkin, Brian. 2013. “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure.” Annual Review of Anthropology 42: 327-343.

Mazzarella, William. 2009. “Affect: What Is It Good For?” In Enchantments of Modernity: Empire, Nation, Globalization, edited by Saurabh Dube, 291-309. London: Routledge.

Metzl, Jonathan M. and Anna Kirkland, eds. 2010. Against Health: How Health Became the New Morality. New York: NYU Press.

Montoya, Michael. 2011. Making the Mexican Diabetic: Race, Science, and the Genetics of Inequality. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Rose, Nikolas. 1999. Powers of Freedom: Reframing Political Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Simone, Abdu Maliq. 2004. “People as Infrastructure: Intersecting Fragments in Johannesburg.” Public Culture 16, no. 3: 407-429.

Stoler, Ann L. 1995. Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault’s History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things. Durham: Duke University Press.