We are citizens, we deserve equal rights

York’s “this is my time” Campaign Not so Innovative – Promotes Continued Stereotyping of Fat People

In Uncategorized on December 9, 2013 at 9:35 PM

As part of its ‘this is my time’ advertising campaign York University in Toronto, Canada held a contest that invited students to submit a statement about their ambitions and goals for changing the future. The prize was a free year’s tuition. The university’s media department did a follow up interview with the winner, a Kinesiology major who will graduate in 2015. After deans of York’s eleven faculties decided on which of the submissions were “top visions,” a panel made up of York employees chose the winner.

This year’s winning entry is: “2023: As CEO of a fitness and nutrition company, I make Canada the leader in reversing the growing number of obesity and type 2 diabetes cases”.

I am not critiquing the young man that came up with this entry. I am critiquing the university that rewards mainstream thinking as innovative. I am critiquing the university that wants to claim for itself the prestige of using interdisciplinary approaches to health through its York Institute for Health Research (YIHR) while simultaneously allowing its Kinesiology Department to not challenge the understanding of fat embodiment.  According to Mamdouh Shoukri, York’s president, the winner of the contest has “a unique and inspirational vision.” Perhaps Mr. Shoukri is unaware of the billions of dollars people spend yearly on weight-loss products in North America. Much of this money spent on nutrition and fitness products or programs. While York uses their ‘this is my time’ contest as a way to promote how their undergraduate degrees can “make a positive impact on society”, they choose the single most hackneyed idea in the history of weight management as an example of innovation. Let me run through the number of ways in which this vision is flawed as innovation or a positive step for good health for fat people.

First, the students’ vision focuses on the individual for what is a societal ‘problem’. If there has been a problematic increase in global obesity (and some researchers are not convinced), then how does starting a company that teaches individual people what to eat and how to exercise going to address this? In an interview, the winning student reports on his inspiration: his 11-year-old brother was being bullied at school because of his weight, so the winner taught his brother how to eat so that he could lose weight. Why did he focus on the actions of his brother, implicitly blaming his brother for his size, instead of challenging the behavior of the bullies? As a young person in an institution of higher learning isn’t the winning student supposed to be encouraged to think beyond the already established (and failing) parameters to develop new and innovative solutions? Apparently not at York University.

Second, the winning student’s proposed solution for weight loss — eating well and exercising regularly — is no different than what is already on offer for those interested in weight loss. In fact, the very method the winner puts forward has been the main intervention for weight loss since at least the 1960s. The student’s vision does not distinguish how his program of eating and exercise would vary from the wearisome advice all fat people already hear regularly from doctors and the media. More of the same does not address the “problem”.

Third, the winning student’s vision conflates obesity with diabetes. Many fat people are not diabetics, and many diabetics are not fat. Why intertwine the two? Scientists do not know what causes diabetes. The student’s vision promotes the dangerously incorrect stereotype that fat is an early warning sign for diabetes, which creates a situation where non-fat people’s eating and exercise habits are ignored. Health professionals should focus on all people, regardless of size, in promoting a healthy lifestyle.

Fourth, this vision begins from the supposition that fat people do not know how or what to eat. This stereotype promotes a harmful and bigoted understanding of fat people premised on the understanding of fat people as less intelligent than other people. The panelists who chose the winner, and the deans who created the list need to be aware of how the choosing of this winner would alienate its fat students, fat faculty members and future fat students.

So, why did York’s deans and the panelists choose this vision? This choice is a regrettable failing of this new campaign for innovation. It breathes new life into an incorrect and harmful stereotype that fat people deserve to be bullied, must be individually blamed for their size, and that they could lose weight with knowledge and will power. The emphasis on a corporate solution that encourages individual responsibility echoes the neoliberal times in which we live. Excess weight is seen as the crime and individual willpower is the solution. I expect more from universities, but they are becoming a part of the neoliberal structures that constrict our society instead of liberating it.

What’s in a Film Review? Fat Hate and Judgment

In Uncategorized on October 21, 2013 at 7:44 PM

In his recent review of James Gandolfini’s last movie, Enough Said, the Guardian’s David Cox argues that Hollywood does not denigrate obesity and obese people enough. He facetiously writes “we’ve been educated to understand that it’s wrong to question the life-choices of the generously proportioned”. We, the readers, are supposed to grin along knowingly with his decision not to use the word fat, or the medical jargon obese. This sentence belittles the efforts that many fat people have made to lose weight and keep it off. It also showcases Cox’s ignorance. In her 2012 book Killer Fat Natalie Boero spoke with women who have had weight loss surgery and found that most of them said that they did it to feel normal, to fit in. This is not a society that doesn’t “question the life choices” of fat people. This is a society that is so full of hatred for fat people that surgical rearrangement of the gut does not seem like an extreme solution.

Cox goes on to say tie Gandolfini’s weight to his heart attack. Of course, he has no inside information about Gandolfini’s medical history or family history. He was able to read Gandolfini’s fat body and diagnose him.  Luckily, Cox did speak with an actual doctor (who also had no affiliation with Gandolfini, but hey, at least he has medical credentials) who very definitively states Gandolfini “was a walking time bomb” before Cox backs off from what could be interpreted as libelous by using the weasel words “Crandall suggests that Gandolfini’s size may have given him high levels of …” (emphasis mine).  In other words, they have no real information and are using assumptions. Further, it reveals the truth about medical knowledge and facts when it comes to weight and health issues. None of the issues correlated to overweight and obesity exist only in fat people, thin people experience diabetes, cardiac arrest, high blood pressure and cholesterol.

Tom Hanks recent diagnoses of diabetes also takes a turn on the stage when Cox quotes Hanks as saying that he may have gotten it from gaining weight for movies. There is no discussion of the weight cycling that Hanks has done for roles. For instance, he lost weight for Wilson and Philadelphia. After both these roles he went back to his normal weight. Yet, this is not mentioned. Perhaps because it doesn’t fit in with Cox’s overall message?

Cox then goes on to say that “fatness is smiled upon” in film while “undue thinness” is condemned as promoting anorexia. While, I agree, there does appear to be a recent backlash about those who look as though they have lost weight suddenly or are smaller than they have been before, it is a far cry from thinness being denounced as obesity is. Cox points out that actors are congratulated for putting weight on for roles. I disagree, I believe actors are congratulated for taking the weight back off after the roles are done. Further, I consider many of these instances examples of bad or lazy acting since (as for Bridget Jones) excess weight is meant to telegraph certain personal attributes about the character that the actor then does not have to develop through acting.

The article ends by saying that “[i]t’s a pity  … [Gandolfini’s death] didn’t also prompt a little bit more reflection.” And I agree wholeheartedly, however, I think it is Cox who needs to think a little longer and harder before typing out the first hegemonically shaped knee jerk reaction that occurs to him. We are a long way off from accepting fat people into society, fat women, particularly, are still rarely represented in film and television without accompanying negative tropes and stereotypes. It may be a little early to bemoan society’s humanity towards fat people.

The Tricky Sartorial Decisions of a Deathfat* Woman

In Uncategorized on July 1, 2013 at 8:20 PM

Samantha Murray (2005) has written about coming out as fat and the accompanying ambivalence she has felt in exposing her body in public. We aren’t talking the usual body parts that bring to mind decadent displays of forbidden flesh — boisterous breasts, cheeky bum bottoms, gracious gams. Murray is specifically talking about wearing a sleeveless top during hot summer days as a way to celebrate (and flaunt and exercise?) her new-found fat pride. She explains that when she sees her own body reflected back at her she is once again confronted with negative thoughts about her body. Despite her claim to fat activism and body positivity, she is still affected by a life lived in a society that prizes the thin body and openly denigrates the fat body.  Her feelings about her own body are mediated by that society even though she has rationally decided that her body is not something to be reviled.

I am sympathetic to Murray’s position, because I live it too. I recently purchased a sleeveless summer dress with a beautiful floral pattern. This is the first time in my adult life that I have purchased any piece of sleeveless clothing with the intention of wearing it without a shrug or jacket over it, or a t-shirt under it. I sometimes feel as though I am a fraud when I struggle with these types of issues. How can I call myself fat positive or a fat activist while being ashamed for showing my body in public? Doesn’t this mean that I am as biased against fat as someone who is fat phobic?

No, like all of us I am a product of my social context. I grew up and am socialized in the Western world, Canada more specifically. I used to drink the Kool-Aid on a regular basis. Sometimes it seeps back in. Wearing something that exposes my body is opening myself up to the gaze (and judgment) of strangers who do not know me. My body and clothing choices may be read in a variety of ways – none of which I have control over. For instance, some people will look at me in my dress and realize that the summer heat is the underlying reason for my sartorial decisions (I am too warm). Others will look at me and wonder if I am presenting myself as a woman with a sexual appetite and may be affronted by this positioning of a fat body (I am taking sexual liberties). Still others will think that my clothing choices are out of line because they find it offensive to look at my body (I am pushy and force my decision on others). There are likely many other readings that I am not considering.

One of the most problematic aspects of this, to me, is that much of this will go on beneath the surface. Few, if any people, will voice their disdain, disgust, or any other negative thought or emotion. What’s wrong with that, you may ask. But, this means that I am still silenced. My body and clothes will still be read by onlookers through whatever lens they choose to use, not what I want to say. Since social context has given certain meanings to my body, those meanings will be used to interpret what I am saying. What I want this decision to say is, “I have the right to dress in any way that suits my personal needs and beliefs. And so do you.” But, this is not in keeping with the current social conversation about fat bodies.

While I did wear my new and lovely dress out in public, I took a sweater with me. I screwed up my courage and did not put on my sweater while I was on public transit, or while waiting for the bus. But, I did put it on when I arrived at my final destination. Obviously, this is something that I (and many others) will deal with continuously. It should not take bravery to go sleeveless in Toronto in 2012 on a day that was 32° and humid. This is not about patting myself on the back. This is about sharing the difficulties in living in a fat body even when you do subscribe to ideas of inclusivity and diversity. This ambiguity and ambivalence is okay, I accept it, but continue to try and work through my own issues with my body as I push to have society accept me as I am.

Work Cited

*Deathfat is a term used byRagen Chastain on her website Dances with Fat to describe how fat embodiment is being rhetorically created as a thing to be feared and a site of continuous risk. 

**Thank you to Charlotte Cooper for this term. It refers to the often-used (inappropriate ) images that media outlets use when discussing stories that involve fat people and/or obesity. The images often show fat people from the back or with their heads cropped and the people don’t appear to know that their images are being taken. For more background or a fuller explanation of this term, please visit Cooper, C. (2007) ‘Headless Fatties’ [Online]. London. Available: http://charlottecooper.net/publishing/digital/headless-fatties-01-07

Murray, Samantha. “(Un/Be) coming out? Rethinking fat politics.” Social Semiotics 15.2 (2005): 153-163.