You’d think that living fat is a condition of obviousness. You’re, well, FAT, and you need to eat less and move more and stop whatever you’re doing (because you’re doing it wrong) and start doing something else and just, you know, get healthy and fit and don’t you want to be healthy? Aren’t you miserable being all squishy? You’re going to catch all these diseases if you don’t. Isn’t it obvious that everything would be better if you weren’t fat?
You’d be wrong.
The only obvious thing about being fat is that nothing is solid. Your physical form wiggles and jiggles. You can grab a handful and squeeze it, roll it, move it all about. It’s like your whole body is cheerily doing the Hokey-Pokey.
Even less stable than the adipose tissue on your ass are the meanings of the terminology deployed to discipline all that bulk. They are in a greater state of flux than a yo-yo dieter. What do these words really mean?
- Fat – It’s a dietary substance, a type of body tissue, a description, a medical diagnosis, a moral judgment, a cultural signifier, and can mean any one and/or combination of these things at any given moment depending on the overt and covert intentions of the speaker.
- Health – Is this a clinical measurement? An aspirational goal? A general descriptor? How do you know what counts as healthy? Is there an objective measure?
- Fit/Fitness – What counts as fitness? How does fitness change over time in the social imagination? How do you know when you are “fit?” Is anyone ever fit? Is fitness conditional?
- Diet – It’s a way to lose weight, a description of an eating pattern, a prescription from a medical professional, a four letter word, something to be avoided, an indicator of health, a signifier of pathology, something for girls, a label that indicates that consuming this particular soda will actually make you fat even though it’s zero calories because it just will, OK, don’t ask me to fucking prove it with science!
- Disease – A medical problem, a systemic condition or syndrome, a creeping existential menace, something that will happen to people who don’t live a healthy lifestyle, something that must be treated even if the patient resists, a boogeyman under the cultural bed.
And so on. The point here is that the meaning of fat, obesity, health, diet, disease and so many other terms involved in discussions of what needs to be done about the Obesity Epidemic are over-determined – they carry more meanings than safely can be consumed in our national conversation.
It carries over into our conversations about food, where most of the class based sleight-of-hand is performed. What is “healthy” food? Is it food that is low calorie? Organic? Locally sourced? Made with hard to find ingredients and cooked for a long time? Packaged in glass? Calorically dense? Nutritionally dense? Produced in a restaurant kitchen where I don’t see that they use industrially produced soybean oil just like the taqueria down the street? With all visible fat removed? With all visible fat preserved and crispy? That comes from Panera Bread, not McDonald’s, regardless of the nutritional label?
The one constant here, the only thing that comes close to being solid, is the assumption that someone else’s consumption habits are fair game for public judgement. It’s difficult to find judgement that is not an exercise in shaming the subject. It’s almost impossible to find discussions of health and food that are not primarily promotion of weight-loss, usually accompanied by some kind of gimmick, program, surgery, and/or method to make someone else some money.
This makes it difficult to talk with empathy, intelligence and common sense about anything related to fat and food and resist the impulse to pathologize and “other” the people (allegedly) “doing it wrong.” It makes it difficult to say simultaneously that a person should be accepting of their imperfect, fat form and is capable of making changes to that form for the sake of the individual who inhabits that particular body. It makes it almost impossible to make clear that the decision to change is no one’s business except the individual inhabiting the form.
And that is the one thing that should be obvious.