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Why Fat is a Queer and Feminist Issue

Shortly after Barack Obama took office in 2009, first lady Michelle Obama kicked off the national slimming program “Let’s Move” and inaugurated an escalation of America’s already deeply entrenched “war on obesity,” seeming to interpret her husband’s campaign messages of “Hope” and “Change” in a manner fortuitous to our country’s $60-billion-per-year weight-loss industry. As with the metaphorical wars that came before it (against “drugs” and on “terror”), in the battle against fatness it’s difficult to discern the heroes from the villains—or, in terms made famous by the punitive yet highly popular reality TV program, to distinguish the biggest winners from the “biggest losers.” Those who soldier on in the war against “obesity” are at times ambiguous about precisely what (pounds of flesh?) or who (fat people captured on television eating fries?) are its intended targets. “Love the sinner, hate the sin” could be the rallying cry for America’s fight against the putative vice of fatness. The consistent butt of jokes, a handy icon of “unhealthiness” and loss of self-control, that which we feel we must protect our children from becoming—is “fat” what “queer” was a generation ago? Ever since radical feminists Judy Freespirit and Aldebaran founded the Fat Underground in 1973, fat activists have worked to make visible the inseparability of homophobia and anti-fat prejudice. Today, a thriving fat and queer community is foregrounding similar intersections. But queer communities more broadly have not yet embraced the cause of fat liberation. “I don’t think that, in general, gay and lesbian attitudes about body size make fat people feel accepted,” queer fat activist Julia McCrossin remarks. As an example, she points to weight-loss programs promoted by the Mautner Project (the National Lesbian Health Organization) that are premised on the belief that being fat is unhealthy. This is the first parallel between fat oppression and homophobia: the widely accepted cultural assumption that we’re dealing with a dangerous disease. In 1966, Time magazine described homosexuality as a “pernicious sickness.” Today, “a deadly epidemic” is the cliché about “obesity.” The terms “obese” and “overweight”—favored by a medical establishment that receives generous endowments from the pharmaceutical industry (makers of weight-loss drugs) and the diet industry (funders of most major studies on “obesity”), and which itself has much to gain from the pathologization of fatness (bariatric surgery is big business)—give the impression that higher-than-average body weight is an illness. But the correlation between body size and health is actually minimal. Risks associated with being “morbidly obese” are no greater than that of being male, and “overweight” people live longer than people of “normal” weight. What’s more, the claim that fatness is a health risk ignores a basic principle of statistical analysis: Correlation is not causation. The small differences in life expectancies between average-size and very large people are most likely not caused by being fat but are instead the result of factors correlated with fatness: social stigma, economic discrimination, and the harmful effects of weight-loss dieting and diet drugs.


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