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against a cause: the (mostly) quotes edition

Posted: April 28th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: academia | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments »

ETA: Apparently my efforts to block spambots have unintentionally stopped all comments.  Um, yeah, technology fail.  Should be all fixed up now, but drop me a note at hello@fatuosity.net if you’re having problems.

I’ve been toying with a post about eating histories.  About my eating history.  I think it’s an interesting thing to reflect on (for me, anyway).  And I’m interested in food, in how people eat, in the development of tastes and habits and patterns.  I’ve been noticing lately how differently everyone cooks, and I find it fascinating.  But I’ve been reluctant to make that post because … well, it seems too personal.  More than that, it seems too diagnosable.  Oh, you were neglected as a child and didn’t get regular meals?  That probably messed with your metabolism and that’s why you’re fat.  You probably think food is love.  You probably binged as compensation.

Yeah. Not where I want to go.

Instead, I’m going back to the first fat studies work I ever came across, Kathleen LeBesco’s Revolting Bodies: The Struggle To Redefine Fat Identity.  I first read it in 2005 when I was in third year, and I devoured it in three days (unheard of for an academic book!).  It crystallised all these things that had been going around in my head at that time, that I hadn’t even been able to properly identify let alone articulate.  It enabled me to see, to say, after all those years in classes about ‘the body’, that fat mattered.  That fatness was an embodied difference.  A socially dis-empowered identity.  And that it was a valid object of scholarly enquiry.  It gave me the way forward for my honours thesis, which led into the research I’m doing now.  It literally changed my life.

When I read back over the book now, I don’t have quite the same breathless excitement about it.  But I keep going back to it, and I keep quoting from it, and it falls open at my favourite passages.  Like this (all emphasis mine):

An essentialist position on fat identity can take a biological or sociocultural perspective; the common theme is the idea that the condition of fatness is necessary, could not be otherwise, or is the outcome of some essential (usually failure-related) cause.  Whether tracing along a biological path to bad genes or hormones, or along a social path to traumatic childhood experience, proponents of essentialiat positions argue that fat identity is the unfortunately inevitable outcome of a causal relationship with some original variable cone awry… In contrast, an anti-essentialist position on fat identity does not attempt to reveal causal factors; instead it focusses on the ability of human actors to participate in the creation of meaning (including the meaning of material bodies) through the discursive processes of communication and politics (p14).


We’ve heard about genes, hormones, fear of being sexually attractive, and dozens of other causes for fatness … each one advanced with the understanding that finding a remedy would be a financially rewarding proposition.  Why, though, do we need to explain (away) these modes of being, when few scientists are hard at work on finding the cause for slenderness … When we engage in cause-seeking rhetoric, we presume that some intervention into the ‘problem’ is necessary (p85).

And the bit I quote again and again, from the chapter ‘Fat Politics and the Will to Innocence’:

Fat is treated as volitional – “a choice made out of laziness, hostility, social disdain, or other moral shortcomings like lack of willpower, failure of motivation, greed and dependence” – so the tendency when dealing with this regressive attitude is to suggest that fatness cannot be helped.  I wonder what would happen if, instead of giving up our volition, we worked to alter the terms of the choice, to emphasize that subjectivity mustn’t be predicated on perception of innocence (P117).

I wonder, too.  I recognise the impulse to explain (away) my fatness.  How could I not – the idea that bodies are ‘naturally’ thin, that fatness is the result of something going wrong*, is central to this culture’s understanding of bodies, to the hysteria of ‘obesity epidemic’ discourse, to fat hatred.  I’m aware that an eating history could be so easily co-opted into this framework of causation, even if that was never the intention in telling it.  I’m all too aware of the easy equation of eating (especially women’s eating) with pathology.  I know that the current meaning of material bodies which are fat lends itself to a pathologisation of eating habits and histories, no matter what those habit and histories are.

I love food. I love cooking and I love eating and I love sharing meals.  Sometimes I am greedy.  Maybe that contributes to my fat, maybe it doesn’t.  Like LeBesco, I think cause-seeking is a limited political strategy.  And I don’t want innocence.  I want a different choice.


*Of course, there are all sorts of reasons why body size changes, and all sorts of very valid reasons for intervention.  But I’m talking about the idea that all fatness is cause by something going wrong, and should therefore always be ‘cured’.