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There is no such thing as a ‘natural’ body

Posted: March 19th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: fat politics, media | Tags: , , | 18 Comments »

This is my response to Donna Simpson aiming to become the ‘world’s fattest woman’.  Actually, no, this is my response to other people’s responses to the story.  The horrified, the disgusted, the morally outraged, the pitying.  The responses from fat-haters and fat-accepters.  Almost all of them are pissing me off (check out Charlotte Cooper’s take for the one thing I’ve read that hasn’t made me shouty; check out the comments for an example of the things that have).

One things that almost all of these responses have in common (and that Cooper’s take doesn’t) is that they’re all resting on an unexamined idea of a ‘natural body’.  AND THERE IS NO SUCH THING.  There, I said it.  I know this is an unpopular notion in Fat Acceptance.  Set point theory has been incredibly useful for many people in re-conceptualising fatness as genetically determined rather than the result of gluttony, sloth, a lack of self-will, a moral deficit.  I’m not coming out for or against the theory – I’m rather decidedly not interested in engaging with the statistics wrangling that characterises so much of these debates around fat.  The theory seems to make a lot of sense in a lot of cases, though I’m not sure it can account for everything.  But beyond the question of veracity, there are political implications to the idea of a ‘natural’, pre-determined fatness, and that is that “moral protection is founded on a loss of political control” (I’m quoting from my favourite chapter of Kathleen LeBesco’s wonderful Revolting Bodies: The Struggle to Redefine Fat Identity).  As LeBesco says:

While I understand the impulse to contravene declarations that fat folk are voracious, eating-obsessed pigs … I believe that allowing oneself to engage in such a debate drains pro-fat rhetoric of its power.  Saying “I don’t eat any more than anyone else” basically says, “I can’t help it – I’m not fat because of anything I did – so leave me along”.  It also says, “I will allow my right to exist as a subject (reflective, reasonable, with power to act) to be predicated upon how much I eat or don’t eat” – and this is ultimately a self-defeating move.

Again, this isn’t an argument for or against set point theory (which was never the point of this post anyway – how did I end up here?); it’s an argument against the political usefulness of the idea of the ‘natural body’.  Lesley at Fatsionista recently posted a take-down of the nature argument, and even though my argument is slightly different, I still recommend reading it (and not just because, despite my profound disagreement on the matter of Gaga, Lesley is one of my favourite fat bloggers).

One of the points Lesley makes is that the idea of ‘nature’ is actually a cultural construct.  What do we mean when we say something is ‘natural’?  I think that, in general, we mean that it hasn’t been altered or intervened with in anyway.  Which is completely impossible.  Everything we do changes our body in some way.  Not doing something changes our body in some other way.  Everything you eat becomes a part of you.  And if you don’t eat, well, that has other implications.  Breathing air, drinking water, wearing clothes, walking, driving, sitting, standing, sleeping, all of these things alter the body in some way.  The body is always in flux, and we can’t live without taking in things from our environment, things which change us.  An unaltered body is, by definition, not alive.  (This is highly influenced by a presentation I recently attended by Rachael Kendrick on metabolism, and while I’m sure I’m this is an obscene misappropriation of her argument, I found it very interesting.  Kendrick isn’t always entirely fat-positive, but she does an excellent critique of medial science and obesity epidemic discourse.)

The ideal ‘natural’ body is also frequently invoked in anti-fat rhetoric, particularly in the figure of the ‘caveman’.  In fact, some people call for a return to this way of eating (if not this way of living).  The idea is that the human body is ideally suited to a palaeolithic lifestyle and that our digestive systems work best if we eat only foods that were around 2 million years ago, and avoid all that new-fangled stuff like ‘grains’ and ‘beans’.  This idea basically harnesses the discourse of evolution in the service of what amounts to a creationist argument.  It posits that the ideal human design was arrived at somewhere in the deep and distant past, and has remained constant ever since.  It denies evolution as an ongoing process, and most importantly, ignores the fact that the caveman body was as much a product of its environment as the modern human body is.

Again, this post isn’t really about evolution vs creationism.  It’s about the idea that there’s a perfect, or ideal, or just pre-determined way that the human body should be, and that any deviation from that is a sign that there’s something wrong. In anti-fat discourse, fatness is seen as a deviation from the ‘naturally’ thin body.  In fat-acceptance, dieting or otherwise deliberately changing the body is also seen as a deviation from the ‘natural’ body.  Neither of these positions interrogates the ‘should’.  Neither of them adequately accounts for the interactions of the body with the world.  Neither of them acknowledge that the body is always being altered, is always changing, adapting, becoming.  That the raw biological material of the body does not exists apart from the culture, the environment, their interactions.  That there is no unaltered, unmodified, unchanged, ‘natural’ body.

Now, I get why people are reacting strongly to the Donna Simpson story.  It’s confronting.  She’s already a fat woman and she wants to get fatter.  It’s almost incomprehensible.  And there’s the feederism aspect, which understandably draws some concern and criticism.*  There’s the question of weather her weight gain is ‘freely chosen’ (I have issues with the idea of ‘freely chosen’ anyway, but that’s a whole other post) or directly coerced or something she’s had to resort to.  There’s the predictable fat-bashing rhetoric about health, mothering, responsibility, and being a burden on society, which doesn’t actually bother me all that much because, predictable.  What bothers me is the claim that any deliberate modification of the body is ‘bad’ and ‘wrong’ and ‘unnatural’.  Is ‘bad’ and ‘wrong’ because it is ‘unnatural’.

Nobody’s – NOBODY’S – body is ‘natural’.


*I am, however, really keen for a re-thinking of the automatic and outright condemnation of feederism.  I think that yes, it is undeniably problematic, but I suspect it’s not a straightforward as the “No! Bad! Wrong!” responses claim.  I think the responses to feederism need to be understood within the context of fat-hatred, especially since it’s so easily posed in opposition to dieting, which may draw criticism but not the same level of disgust and outrage.  I also think it needs to be re-thought in terms of fetishism; I think that the idea of sexual attraction to fat bodies is still so taboo, that the desire for a fatter body is seen as reprehensible.  Similarly, taking pleasure in fat embodiment is inconceivable, so getting fatter could never be ‘freely chosen’.  ALL of this rests on a bed of fat hate, which is why it attracts much more vicious reactions than many other fetishes.  It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if I were to tie up my boyfriend and spank him for his/my/our sexual gratification, it would draw much less criticism and condemnation than if I were to deliberately gain weight for his/my/our sexual gratification.  And before anyone asks, no, I’m not going to do that, I’m just illustrating a point.