Taboo: A Long and Rambling Recap

I finally got around to watching the National Geographic series Taboo's feature on fat. I was getting increasingly concerned that it would be exceedingly sensationalized and my fears seem to be have been well-founded. This is not a balanced study of a controversial issue. It just dwelled in extremes and fear mongering. Here is my long and rambling recap of the special.

They had several "experts" to raise extreme fears and lay blame firmly on fat people being lazy gluttons. It pretended to be blaming "the culture" at times, but even then they took care to let the experts bring it back to blaming fat people. The fear mongering was at its silliest. We're told fat people are falling part in every conceivable way. One of the talking heads goes so far as to threaten fat people with dementia. I checked the background on that it and it was predictably overblown.

The special spends most of its start with an extremely fat WLS patient. He's used to frame all of the extremist set-up with it being frequently implied that all fat peopled are doomed to be 750lbs. Its briefly noted that he's a serial dieter, but that's quickly dismissed as a personal failure. You got a distinct vibe that he responded to the repeated failure with a degree of despair, but the documentary frames it as an issue of moral irresponsibility. His gluttony is always his fault and the fact that he spent his entire adult life not wanting to be fat is not something to even consider. Throughout the segment, they keep making up scary words to make fatness even scarier. We here about "globesity" and "obesigenic" environments as if those aren't just imaginary words. At one point his clothes are removed for the expressed intent of disgusting the audience. He is a side show and little more. On display because he is appropriately apologetic and self-blaming and fits the narrative about fatness to a T.

The truth is very few people are his size and its rarely so easy as blaming the fat person for being a gluttonous sloth. Even here, we have someone who claims to have been on countless diets. Why do we never consider the impact of perpetual dieting on fat people? On their bodies and their minds. The fact that diets always fail is always blamed on the dieter. Why? If something fails 95% of the time, when do you start blaming the goal? When do you start questioning if this makes sense at all? For many fat people, going through diet after diet, they lose hope. Because they aren't being told to eat well and be active for its own sake, when they see this activity not resulting in weight loss, they despair. This is what the dieting culture leaves us with. In many ways, it trains fat people to be exactly what they are told they are by repeatedly offering them one path to betterment which is constantly out of reach. If we tell fat people all that matters is losing weight, what incentive are they given to do the things that will improve their well-being regardless of weight? Why should they do anything but what is expected of them when failure is their only option? This is precisely what is so dangerous about the culture of dieting. As it pushes people's weight higher and higher, the cycle of failure itself seems to argue against the kind of things that can improve any person's health. Because we tie weight and health together so tightly, its inconceivable for most fat people to be fit and fat. When healthy actions don't yield weight loss, what is the point? When weight loss is always the point, it serves as a barrier to improving the health and well-being of fat people.

I'm not talking about "Good fatties" vs. "bad fatties" here, either. I think that whole debate is largely a reflection of the cultural health goals dictated by a culture in opposition to fat people. I don't buy their standard of good because I've seen how much harm it does. What we need is to move past it and move past their failed "solutions" to find real answers that can improve all of our lives. Fat hatred has done nothing.

Of course, sensationalizing the dangers of fat isn't the only place the show wants to go. After almost a half-hour spent scaring us about one fat person, the "other side" gets a chance to shine. Now, I wasn't expecting the world here, but the special got off on an especially disrespectful foot by starting this in Mauritania. If you aren't familiar, this is a nation in Africa where some villages have a reversed standard of beauty with Western Culture. Its a place that is often brought up in the kind of "How backwards are these people" sort of way. Not that I find much to like about the society, which enforces its beauty standard in ways as horrifying as our own. Only, the "foreign-ness" of their society makes it seem easy to condemn what is unquestioned in ours.

You see, girls are force-fed to fatten up here. Reprehensible behavior, of course, but frankly we have little right to feel morally superior in a society where girls just as young are put on restrictive diets. Indeed, the reality is that this behavior is actually outlawed in this country. (The special gets this wrong, by the way) So, strictly speaking, I think they might have cause to be judgmental towards US. I don't see anyone suggesting we outlaw forcing 4-year old girls to diet. The only people threatened in our supposedly enlightened society are parents who don't make their children diet. Or more accurately, don't have children who successfully diet.

So, like I said, this didn't strike me as a good start. Mauritania is brought up to demonize and there was little effort to pretend to treat the culture with respect. Again, I disagree with it, but this series is pitched as an attempt to humanize taboo subjects, and they aren't trying here. It draws parallels with Western society, but only in terms of the beauty ideal. Not the pursuit of it. The treatment of the girls is explicitly called torture. Fairly, might I add. But, what of the parallel in our culture? Fat children are treated in a horrifying way right here. Even more alarmingly, that treatment extends to children who aren't even especially fat. Often a quite normal weight. The special actually seems to explicitly pronounce our own beauty standards as superior because of "health". A rather thin argument if you excuse the pun.

We come back to the US with a super-fat American web model. This is the closest the special comes to a fair study of the "otherside" of fat stigmatization. Of course, it doesn't get there until the final third of the special, so that kind of undermines the fairness from the start. We do, at least, here from a NAAFA spokesperson, but they don't have her saying anything exceptionally revolutionary. While the cons of fatness was all about health, the counterpoint is restricted only on the beauty ideal side of things.

Even here the point is undercut. The show introduces the concept of men of who desire fat women, but the man it has represent this is quick to insist he dates women of all sizes. Which is fine, and all, but not really representative of the men and women who actively prefer fat partners. While the model talks about fat admirers, even the man featured doesn't really say anything about liking fat bodies in particular.

Well, not until we get to a fat social gathering where we finally hear from an actual FA. I was somehow not surprised to see a long-time Size Acceptance talking head was tapped for the job. Always the usual suspects. He, though, comes the closes to really questioning society's stigmatization of fat, but even a mildly defiant comment is quickly met with an unseen "some would say" rebuke. Not even the most cliché acts of revolution go unremarked in this special. Funny, I don't recall any "some would say" counterpoints for the first half-hour as we kept hearing about how all fatties are going to diet. But one activists says that what we eat isn't anyone's business, and the special takes care to offer an unsourced counter-argument. The bias is coming on strong now. We've still seen nothing to counterbalance the fear mongering of the first half. At most, we're just told some people find fat people sexy.

The web model does get to introduce the concept of people dieting resulting in weight gain. Finally. I can't help but notice the soundtrack, though. It sounds rather "wacky" in comparison to the start of the special. My fear proves well founded, as the narrator again rebukes the subject for being okay with being fat. Here, though, one of the anti-fat talking heads steps in to SPECIFICALLY condemn the subject of the documentary. BY NAME. I swear, I'm not making that up. He specifically belittles her attitude and threatens her for thinking differently. My mouth was literally agape at hearing that. Did the NAAFA spokesperson get time in the first half? Nope. But they get one woman to say she's at peace with her body, and they have to single her out to call her a fool. It wasn't even enough for the talking head to speak generally dismissively of the perspective. He has to call the woman out by name to threaten her personally with "consequences" for disagreeing with him. Wow. The soundtrack has shifted here, of course, with ominous tones replace the wackiness that underscored the model's own self-affirming statements. The narrator justifies all of this as we segue to a second anti-fat talking head (the dementia guy, by the way) who ALSO calls her by name, though now using her as the scary future of America. He, by name, suggests the possibility where all Americans are her size. The ominous soundtrack continues. Subtlty is clearly not on the docket.

With that, we leave the fat model willing to stand up for herself and move onto the far more non-threatening faire of a plus-size beauty pagent in Lousiana. This segment does give some consideration to fat stigmatization's impact from a purely discrimination perspective. I had to note that some of the discriminatory attitudes were ones very heavily promoted in the opening of the special. The empowerment was limited to feeling beautiful and not asking for too much respect. I get the sense a lot of this was done with editing, though some contestants probably aren't very interested in challenging the basis of fat bigotry so much as objecting to its results. Oh, and for the record, we had 3 anti-fat expert talking heads compared to one NAAFA spokesperson.

As the special closes, the "experts" get a final say in saying that fat acceptance shouldn't really be tolerated. As long as fat acceptance is not encouraging fat people to lose weight, it cannot be allowed to have its own voice. Gee, where have I heard that before? It does note that fat stigmatiation is not productive, but in the weakest manner possible. The real problem with fat stigmatization is just that doesn't provoke weight loss and the experts complain that fat bigotry hampers their efforts to more fatness illegal. Okay, I'm paraphrasing there, but not by much. An expert laments that fat bigotry prevents action on public policy. Clearly, he has some legal means in mind to combat fatness. Remember, though, its dieter's rights that are at risk. The special than comes back to its threat of everyone becoming teh fat if we don't do something. Which isn't going to happen, but is pretty par for the course in this special.


Stupid idea is stupid all over again

I'm sure some people are going to start crying about how I'm hurting the feelings of the poor people advocating for increased shaming and stigmatization of fat children, but this is an incredibly stupid idea. It was stupid the last few times some idiot decided we didn't have enough avenues of picking on fat children, and its stupid now. The notion that we're just not telling fat people that they are fat often enough is perverse and out of touch.

Yeah, yeah. Its not our place to question the GOOD INTENTIONS of people who just want to help our sick diseased bodies. This is probably just their own fat acceptance. Shame on me for not keeping in my place. Better slap my wrist for not taking the abuse like an apologetic little fatty.


The Martyrs for the Status Quo

I usually don't repost my comments on other blogs, but this rant felt appropriate. These are my comments to here, (sorry, the actual post was lost when Bri's blog crashed last year) but in truth are more in response to the phenomenon on display than this particular instance. It is the all too common sight of people opposed to fat acceptance who act very righteously offended at being denied a seat at fat acceptance's table. This has been happening for years and for much of that time, I have been sorely disappointed with the way fat acceptance leaders have opted to act with far too much deference to those who disagree with fat acceptance. There is a difference, however, between resepecting an opposing opinion and advantaging it. All to often, those who oppose fat acceptance demand we advantage their opinion. An act which in itself is disrespectful to ours.
Now, this is not a unique problem to fat acceptance. Feminist sites regularly have to deal with anti-feminists who feign outrage that their oppositional beliefs aren't given safe haven. The ex-gay movement is no stranger to trying to masquerade as a gay rights body. What I have seen from other communities though is a sharp lack of tolerance for this and I have often found it inspiring. I'm pleased that the tide has turned in fat acceptance as well, so let this be my call to action to keep up that fight. We have a right to our beliefs and to a space to learn from each other. Fat acceptance spaces need not be battlegrounds where we must constantly justify ourselves to everyone who decides they just don't agree with us. Here is what I have to say:
Ugh. A new round of people feeling they are being edgy and innovative by talking about weight loss. Yeah, dieters are so put upon in our society. What meanies Fat Activists are by oppressing the dieters! Lets all rebel and do exactly as we’re told! Fight the system! The completely powerless and marginalized “system” in the name of the overwhelming status quo.
I swear, its the back-patting over this that drives me nuts. Every time someone decides to agree with practically everyone in the world, they act like they are Martin Luther nailing a note onto the Cathedral. You aren’t martyrs. You’re the majority. You don’t agree with fat acceptance? Fine. LOTS of support out there for you. Just spare me the self-righteous nonsense about how this is “your” fat acceptance. No its not. Fat acceptance is what it is. Respect it enough to just disagree with it. Don’t pretend you can redefine it just because you’ve decided to side with the majority that doesn’t think we have a right to our opinions. And that’s precisely what you do when you think you can fashion a “your” fat acceptance. Fat acceptance has a right to exist and to have its own spaces for expression. Everything in the world doesn’t need to be promoting weight loss.
Really, do they all honestly think they are the first person to ever "stand up" to fat acceptance? Every time we have to endure these wanna-be martyrs they all act this same way. Like they had a revelation they just had to share. No wonder they can't seem to get the fact that we've heard this all before. People have been attacking fat acceptance for decades. How can one seriously think they are the first to pipe up with "Yeah, but what about the fact that you're all so FAT!" and think they are really bringing something new to the discussion? They all prove very practices are playing victim of course, but its a joke.

Seriously, fat acceptance is not oppressing dieting. If you think that, your perception of the world is so severely impaired that I worry for you. Your certaintude of your rightness has warped your mind into seeing things which do not exist. The plain reality is that fat acceptance is severely marginalized. You have a right to disagree with fat acceptance, but acting like martyrs at its hand is just a perversion of truth and I'm fed up with it.

Any perspective has a right to its own space. A right to a space where its ideas can incubate and its activists to converge. It is especially vital for a movement still so powerless in the face of enormous opposition. The notion these wanna-be martyrs have is that fat acceptance doesn't deserve such a space. That they are righteous in making our house a battleground for their opposing views. And that we are overbearing for resisting their calls for us to be in a constant state of justification.

It is sick. It is sad. And at this point, it is positively boring because its happened again and again and again. Fat acceptance is not respected by these people. That's what it all comes down to. Not some joker semantics. Its about respect. And their lack of respect for us. They seem to have these fantasies that we're all so insulated from their point of view. They are being heroes by bringing the fight to us! As if the fight wasn't brought to us every day. By newspapers, TV, magazines, and yes even the part of ourselves that still repeats the mantras of fat bigotry. They seem to think we have isolated ourselves from that. With what? An RSS feed? Are you that invested in your prejudice that you'd ignore reality?

We deal with fat stigmatization almost every moment of our lives. We deal with friends, co-workers, family who have no respect for our beliefs. We are told we are wrong day in and day out. You aren't being unique by telling us you are wrong. You are being positively ordinary. We need to claim a space to express ourselves and to learn about ourselves. We need to try to form the bonds of community that are so scarce in our day to day lives. We need a bulwark against hatred and stigmatization where we can try to forge a different path in pursuit of our health and happiness. We need a place to say NO.

Shame on anyone with such little respect for us to say we don't deserve that because they don't like us saying no.


Fat Acceptance is KILLING US!

CNN Health asks "Is the fat acceptance movement bad for our health?"


Oh, I'm sorry, they kept going. I thought it was odd that they'd have a one word article.

Look, here is the essential folly of such articles. Fat acceptance is profoundly marginalized. I'd love for the movement to be at a place where that was a question that could at least meet the basic requirements of plausability with fat acceptance having some kind of significant influence on our society, but that's not remotely the truth. Until then, this strikes me as just as meaningless a question as the dieters who whine about how fat acceptance is infringing on their "right" to diet. I'd LOVE for us to have the kind of power and influence necessary to justify such fears, but we aren't there. Not even close.

Which makes this kind of "concern mongering" something very different. Its not about what fat acceptance actually does but rather the fever dreams of the most ardent fat bashers. They see fat people who've failed to respond to the constant yelling at and they are in search of answers. While some conclude they simply must not have yelled loud enough, others are convinced of vast support for fat acceptance warping the minds of vulnerable fatties telling them its okay to give up on being healthy.

Here in the real world, its a concern that can't really be taken seriously. Yet read the CNN article closely. The author repeatedly employs hypothetical critics. Only at the very end does she quote someone very directly fretting about fat acceptance's dangerous influence. And to be fair, even that person doesn't actually call out fat acceptance so much as a fantasy of about a culture that just happens to be more accepting of fat people. Again, please let me know when that exists, but that's also not really an attack on fat acceptance.

Is it because no one would come out and demagogue against fat acceptance? Please. I'm sure there is no shortage of people eager to do so. Our so-called allies at Yale do it all of the time, for one. So, why didn't the author back up these hypothetical critics with actual ones?

Because in our society, that's just not necessary. Criticizing fat people is just accepted. Why waste words on what everyone "knows", right? Define fat acceptance and people will just implicitly believe it to be foolish and dangerous. But its these kinds of short cuts in the media that simply ordain this view point and insulate it from genuine criticism. Note that the article concludes with fat bashing. Can you imagine an article on dieting that gave the last word to a fat liberation activist? Of course not. But suggesting fat acceptance is menace? Heck, the author can just do that themselves and still pretend to be unbiased. The deck is stacked against at every turn and yet the media can still seriously entertain the question of whether our influence is TOO great.