Monday, September 17, 2012

Being Fat


I don't really watch television anymore, save for select shows that I watch online. One show that has taken the Internet by storm seems to be Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, a spin-off from another TLC reality show. The conceit of the show is to fill the audience with a sense of superiority. The show elicits a "can you believe these people?" kind of reaction. The audience feels better about themselves by watching these overweight, under-educated, lower socio-economic class people make fools of themselves.

There's an irony here, of course. Nobody will admit to enjoying the show as anything but as as car crash, the kind of grotesque display that humans are so inclined to watch but feel guilty as a result of looking. The protective cocoon of irony helps assuage any guilt from the awareness that one shouldn't be watching this show. As a audience, we sneer at the family on Here Comes Honey Boo Boo so that we can feel better about ourselves by making it known that we're only watching it out of morbid curiosity.

David Foster Wallace wrote about this in his essay E Unibus Pluram, a desperate plea for the cessation of irony. It's easier to destroy than it is to create, is the seemingly simplistic maxim at the heart of his argument.

Thus, it's much easier to watch this family do crazy things especially when their physical shape seemingly matches up with their inherent abnormality. The entire family of this show would be classified in a strict medical sense as overweight. They are fat. All of them. This is part of the show's car crash sensibility; one watches the show to be disgusted.

This might be sensational language ("fat", "disgusted", "morbid", etc) but it is representative of the cultural war on obesity. On August 28th, 2012, noted "Fat Acceptance Movement" writer Paul Campos published an article on Slate called "Anti-obesity: The new homophobia?". In it, Campos argues that body type and body shape are a result of genetics and that it is as immutable as one's sexual orientation. Thus, his logic concludes, it is as discriminatory to hate obesity as it is to hate homosexuality.

This is, of course, absolutely ludicrous. Obesity is not simply a product of genetics, but an effect of a complex matrix of factors including social class, diet, exercise, and lifestyle choices. There are uncontrollable factors such as one's parents, one's race, one's metabolism, but none of these are insurmountable as one's genes.

Campos's claim seems to trivialize the long arduous journey that gay people as a collective have gone through. There is no Matthew Shepard figure in the Fat Acceptance Movement because the analogy is not and never will be perfect. However, Campos is entirely correct in one aspect of his argument, an element in which the syllogism seems to fit.

There is indeed a cultural war on obesity. As heteronormative paradigms are routinely challenged in the mainstream cultural discourse (the ubiquity of Glee, the success of Modern Family, etc), the reinforcement of anti-obesity rhetoric continues.

There is a psychological and evolutionary reason for this. Attractiveness is based on three factors: individual subjectivity (ie preference), cultural and social factors (ie the 2000s and hairlessness), and universal traits selected by humans. This last item includes what are called secondary sex characteristics which include the size of breasts, the amount of body hair (which indicates testosterone and/or estrogen) as well as general bodyfat percentage. The lower the body fat percentage, the more fit the human is. This is, of course, a general statement and does not take into account the sheer variation of the human body shape.

Physically attractive people, in a general sense, are in shape, thinner, have strong muscles (particularly in the legs, which for females are indicative of child-bearing ability) or a less balanced distribution of subcutaneous fat. That is to say that as women's bodies develop through puberty, fat is distributed around the buttocks, thighs and hips. Obviously, this is meant for a higher chance of survival through child birth.

Most of the traits we find attractive are signals of reproductive ability. One can make all sorts of lofty arguments about humanity's destiny or our purpose on Earth, but the crude brutal truth is that our entire purpose on the planet is to be fruitful and multiply. There is literally nothing else. Anything else we offer to the world (speech, empathy, thumbs) are simply tools for increased efficiency in reproduction.

One way of increasing this particular efficiency is to be physically attractive. Despite our awareness of the complexity of humans, we tend to act similarly in comparison with other large groups. That is to say that one can make generalizations about human reactions due to observed behaviour. Physically attractive people tend to be assumed to also possess socially desirable traits such as trustworthiness, sunny disposition, loyalty, integrity etc. Even though we know that humans are complex, we are objectively aware of this fact, we still tend to assume that pretty people are nice. The assumption that pretty people are privileged members of society actually contributes to the very privilege. This is why pretty people are paid more (CNN) and why pretty people tend to dominate the cultural discourse.

"Good" characters are attractive; "bad" characters are ugly. This dynamic is seen in fairy tales (ugly stepsisters, crones, pretty princesses) as well as in more complicated stories of colonialism or imperialism (attractive Caucasians fighting against evil ugly black or brown enemies). The extreme end of this is the dehumanizing aspect of physical traits. It's the opposite of the Uncanny Valley. Any figure that looks sufficiently "inhuman" is laden with socially undesirable traits. For example, the easiest example, is that reptilian creatures are often saddled with traits such as lying or disloyalty. The snake is the agent by which humanity was expelled from the Garden of Eden. The opposite of this is also true. Any creature that looks sufficiently human enough tends to be anthropomorphized, especially the infant version. Hence, the "cuteness" of puppies, kitties, cubs, etc. The simplest explanation is that they look like babies and we are predisposed to think babies are cute.

This is one reason why television and movies are populated by physically fit people. There is a self-sustaining loop of privilege in which attractive people enjoy the benefits of assumptions of socially desirable traits. This is also why Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is filled with fat people.

Here Comes Honey Boo Boo receives its success as a "car crash" show due to the aforementioned factors of lower socio-economic class, the appearance of classlessness, lack of education (which produces inane comments that elicit a "did she just say that?") and of course their weight. However, if the show had been populated with physically attractive people saying and doing the same things, then the show wouldn't find as much success. The show works because they are fat and uneducated, not because they are pretty and uneducated.

A predictable criticism at this juncture would be the success of Jersey Shore, in which in shape muscular men and women from New Jersey do and say horrible things. People do not watch Jersey Shore because they like the cast. Rather, they watch it for the same "car crash" reasons that Here Comes Honey Boo Boo enjoys. The male cast of Jersey Shore are universally in shape. In fact, The Situation's abs are famous for their perfection. However, as my rebuttal goes, people who spend too much time in the gym, sculpting their body, are vain and self-centered. They are often the Lothario, the player. The cast of Jersey Shore are not objectively physically attractive. In fact, they represent a grotesque version of attractiveness that elicits an adverse reaction. They are spray-tanned and dress with too much flair. The key issue is that they are not effortlessly attractive. They try too hard which only serves to expose their classlessness. Thus, they are not attractive.

So then, this helps explain the cultural war on obesity: the human preference for secondary sex characteristics such as fitness as well as the human tendency to assume physically attractive people also possess socially desirable traits. But then why such a violent reaction to obesity? If we tend to prefer physically fit humans, why is our dislike of obesity so strong?

Mike and Molly, a show about two overweight middle class individuals, received much publicity during its premiere when a writer for Marie Claire stated that she didn't want to see fatties on TV. Maura Kelly wrote,
I think I'd be grossed out if I had to watch two characters with rolls and rolls of fat kissing each other... because I'd be grossed out if I had to watch them doing anything. To be brutally honest, even in real life, I find it aesthetically displeasing to watch a very, very fat person simply walk across a room – just like I'd find it distressing if I saw a very drunk person stumbling across a bar or a heroine [sic] addict slumping in a chair.
The post remains for all to read, despite protest from other parts of the media. Although, Kelly did apologize for her hurtful comments. One would think that this reaction against Kelly would indicate a growing acceptance of obesity in the US, but the answer is not so simple.

In terms of popularity, Mike and Molly isn't really taking the world of television by storm. Regardless of perceived quality in writing, acting, etc, the show's ratings remain low. In 2011, it was ranked 31st of all television shows, whereas Modern Family was rated 15th the same year.

Perhaps one explanation for the reaction against Kelly's post is that since obesity is steadily rising in the US, American television is slowly reflecting that reality. According to the CDC, 35% of the United States of America is obese. However, the statistics also show that 70% of the United States can be considered overweight, which would obviously include obese individuals. More than half of the country is overweight.

But what does that mean "overweight"? Is there an average weight that people should be hitting? Does this take into account variances in body type, height, metabolism, gender and even race? What does the CDC mean when they say "overweight"?

Overweight means, in a crude sense, that there is an excess of fat relative to the overall health of the body. Which is to say that the body needs fat (shock absorption, energy stores, thermal insulation, etc) but that there is too much than what is required. To measure this, the Body Mass Index is used. The BMI is a calculation that takes into account the individual's height. A BMI number of 25 or more indicates the individual is overweight. A BMI in excess of 30 indicates obesity.

Obviously the most obvious problem with the BMI is that it does not consider varying body types or varying distributions of weight across the body. A BMI calculation does not allow for breast size (which are - literally - sacks of fat) or other things.

However, the BMI is a place to start. It was never meant to be an objective unit of measurement upon which to hang diagnoses or future prediction of patient behaviour. Rather, it's a guideline. Keeping this in mind, let us take a look at what the BMI considers "overweight" in realistic numbers rather than calculations.

Using the average height of an individual, 5 foot 11 inches, the BMI provides four categories beyond "normal" weight: overweight, moderately obese, severely obese, and very severely obese. Starting from the normal range, the weight ratios are:
Normal: 132 and 179 lb
Overweight: 179 and 214 lb
Moderately Obese: 214 and 250 lb
Severely Obese: 250 and 286 lb
Very Severely Obese: 286 lb and on
We see then that "overweight" is only a range of 30 pounds above the upper limit of normal. As aforementioned, this calculation does not consider variables such as breast size, or varying distributions of accumulated fat around the body.

Remember that the development of secondary sex characteristics in females include a redistribution of fat around the body in order to facilitate reproduction. That is to say that fat accumulates in the thighs, hips and breasts in order to improve the female's survival rate during and after birth. The BMI cannot take into account the age of the individual nor their redistribution of weight that is mandated entirely by biology.

Another, more recent way of measuring this weight issue is the Body Volume Index, which serves to count the relationship between mass and volume distribution. This would help to alleviate the statistical problems offered by lean athletic body shapes (low BMI) and larger more problematic body shapes like weight lifters (high BMI). The problem with the BVI is that it requires careful volumetric measurement as well as calculations based on the hip-to-waist ratio. That is to say that computers and 3D body-imaging scanners are the tools of the trade as opposed to BMI's use of scale and pen and paper.

Thus, the BMI is a guideline, and is more helpful for physicians to make quick decisions regarding the health of their patient rather than a hardcore system of measurement for use by the layman. The problem is, of course, that the BMI measurement is being co-opted by non-technical individuals for deciding courses of action or for personal perception of the body. This merely feeds into the cultural war on obesity when the idea is systematized and organized.

The BMI is a discipline in the Foucauldian sense of the word. The perception of rigorous measurement and order creates a self-sustaining power based on authority and knowledge. The BMI offers itself, or rather, people see it as an objective marker where other knowledge systems (measurements) are unable to compete due to the BMI's use by established founts of knowledge (physicians, CDC and other health organizations). The weight ranges and categories serves to atomize and distribute the individual into various categories that isolate and reinforce the category itself. As Fredric Jameson writes in the introduction to Postmodernism, "the active function... of such neologisms [naming categories] lies in the new work they propose of rewriting all the familiar things in new terms and thus proposing modifications, new ideal perspectives, a reshuffling of canonical feelings and values" (Jameson xiv)

As aforementioned, this serves to feed into the cultural war on obesity. If systems of knowledge and power are articulating and organizing individuals into categories, the discipline of body-weight-measurement tends to be self-sustaining. The cultural discourse echoes the establishment of the system of power as culture reflects the systems in power.

The discourse of "obesity" is intensified in a "spectacle or image society". Instead of the discourse just being legitimized through established institutions, body shape categories are being reinforced in the constant recirculation of imagery in the late capitalist system.

This, of course, provides late capitalism with a new market to colonize: the advent of the exercise nation. This blog post at "Go Retro!" provides a campy look at some photos of the fitness craze of the 80's. In her book, Pink Ribbons Inc, Samantha King offers the theory that the reason for the 80's exercise and health craze was due to a complex intertwining of factors including neoliberalism and the increased visibility of AIDS and its victims. As King admits, neoliberalism is a complicated term that means different things to different people. In her formulation, the word means that the US government was asking its citizens to take care of themselves. Socialist programs such as the welfare state were being slowly rolled back in favor of big business which was hoped to boost the stagnant economy of the world's superpower. As the visibility of AIDS increased, and as the government gave back personal responsibility to the individual, a market evolved overnight: the exercise craze.

It should be no surprise that the mainstream cultural discourse is reflecting the economic movements of markets. It is, after all, a culture industry and "'culture' has become a product in its own right; the market has become a substitute for itself and fully as much a commodity as any of the items it includes within itself" (Jameson x). Thus, culture is a reflection of the economic state of the world.

However, the exercise fad was just that - a fad. What happened between the 80s and the popularity of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo? The answer, I would argue, lies - again - in the economic situation of the present.

Many reasons have been given for the increase of obesity in Western cultures but probably the most pertinent one is the access to cheaply made, high-calorie, high-sodium foods. Food that McDonald's makes is cheap to produce and cheap to buy. The success of companies such as McDonald's is partly due to the careful management of the brand and the ability to colonize any emerging markets. Notice that fast food companies have been offering increased choices in healthy foods such as salads or wraps. I assure you, the health food options are not about altruism or a concern for the health of the consumer. Rather they are about emerging markets and whoever can capitalize on them.

Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is an example of the cultural war on obesity. Of course, at this point, "cultural war on obesity" just means the complex dialectic of the capitalist system. McDonald's would never take the Big Mac off the menu, no matter how much proof there is that it contributes to unhealthy body weight, because it sells. At the same time, McDonald's wants to increase profits in an stagnant economy (large economies tend to plateau) by offering more options, by colonizing more markets. Here Comes Honey Boo Boo reinforces two things about this dialectic.

Firstly, the show serves to offer a system of knowledge that reflects the norm. Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is increasingly reflecting the average American: middle class, white, and obese. The system of knowledge being offered is one of verisimilitude, ie "This is you, America!".

Secondly, due to the hollow nature of ironic viewing that the show affords, it also reinforces a desire for a new healthier lifestyle, which is to say a new market of healthy living.

Despite what writers such as Maura Kelly would have you believe, fat people on television and in the media serve to sustain the cultural war on obesity by offering a conflicting and contradictory promise. It's the same kind of contradiction where there is a subsidiary market of anarchy-related merchandise. An anarchist bookstore in Winnipeg offers a wide variety of books on anarchy and Marxism and other non-normative systems of knowledge, but always within a framework of consumerism. Obesity on television feeds into the same logic. It serves to reflect the system of knowledge that is omnipresent ("fat people are everywhere!" "obesity is a growing epidemic!" "obesity is the new homophobia!") while serving to open new markets by sheer opposition.

One feels a sense of superiority about not being fat or not being stupid, but one is still watching the show. No matter how ironic the viewing of Honey Boo Boo is, the viewer is still part of the economic system. Watching Honey Boo Boo with a sneer is the same as buying an anarchy book. Part of capitalism's success is that it provides the illusion of choice while ultimately providing the same product over and over.

But what does this mean for the individual who is "overweight" by cultural standards and norms? Unfortunately, the best a person can do is make healthy choices and do what works best: eat healthy and exercise. Ignore the number on the scale, ignore the BMI's system of measurement, ignore any dominant disciplines of organization. Rather, opt into a new discipline, one of exercise and diet in moderation. The physical effects are irrefutable. Ignore what culture is telling you about your own body. Assert dominance of your own body. Assert control of yourself.

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