by Natalie Boero
“If you let her keep getting fatter, they are going to take her away from you.” Stunned, I turned to the woman who said this to me. I struggled to find words to respond as she pushed past me, out of the restaurant, and into a waiting car. Having just finished a late meal after our children’s choir concert, I did not expect to find myself explaining to my daughter what this woman had meant when she suggested that my daughter could be “taken away” from me because she is fat (though not remarkably so) and perhaps more to the woman’s point, because I am remarkably fat.
My immediate response to this harassment was to check my own maternal hurt and rage in order to calm my daughter’s fears about being “taken” from her mothers. Yet in the days and weeks that followed, I went back and analyzed what had happened as I do most things, as a feminist sociologist.
I am no stranger personally or professionally to fat shaming, body harassment, size discrimination, whatever you may call it, yet having these things so blatantly and cruelly directed at my daughter was a new experience. The woman who said these words felt entitled to publicly evaluate me as a mother, scare my child, and implicitly question both of our health and worth- all from simply looking at us. It was no accident that I was targeted as the mother of a larger little girl. Feminist and fat studies scholars have long observed that weight discrimination is gendered and I myself have written about how targeting mothers as the “cause” of their children’s fatness is a new wrinkle on the ages old sexist tradition of “mother blame”, or blaming women as mothers for any number of social problems. I also came to see this woman’s assumption of the rightness of her thoughts and the wrongness of my and my daughter’s bodies and, by extension, personalities and behaviors as a concrete example of many of the phenomena I wrote about in my book, Killer Fat: Media, Medicine, and Morals in the American “Obesity Epidemic”.
In Killer Fat I use the tools of sociological research and analysis to look at how our society came to view “obesity” as an “epidemic” and what the real world consequences of this designation are. The book is broken into two parts. In the first part I explore how obesity became an epidemic. I am not concerned with how, if, or why people have gotten fatter in recent decades (there seem to be plenty of people writing about those things!). I am interested in how something like fatness- not a contagious illness- came to be talked about in the language we typically use to describe diseases that spread through contagion and kill quickly. Looking at the claims of public health officials, medical practitioners, special interest groups, and the media I show how, over time, it has come to be taken for granted that obesity is an epidemic spreading most rapidly among children, the poor, and minorities. I look at how we arrived at now taken-for-granted raced, classed, and gendered assumptions about weight and health that assume that measures like the body mass index (BMI) are useful measures of health and how these assumptions preclude framings of the relationship between weight and health other than that of fat = death.
How these truisms about fatness and fat people play out in people’s every day lives is the focus of the second half of the book in which I look at people’s- particularly women’s- experiences of dieting and surgical weight-loss. More than anything, the people I spoke with were motivated to pursue weight loss not out of concern for their health, but for a desire to “fit in” and be “normal”. This was overwhelmingly true of my female interviewees who had all grown up with their weight being at the center of their socialization as girls and women. They were all too familiar with experiences like the one I had with my daughter. For many, the stigma and discrimination they faced- particularly as fat women- were enough to push them to “choose” dangerous and irreversible surgeries.
It became clear to me that for all our talk of an “epidemic”, panic over obesity is not really about health. The “obesity epidemic” is a way to place the burden of public health on individuals at a time when inequality in the US is growing rapidly. Moreover, an uncritical focus on obesity is a way to distract us from more structural determinants of health like race, class, ethnicity, and gender, again putting the focus of social problems onto individuals and marginalized populations. The ironclad association of fatness with ill health keeps us from taking seriously alternative framings of weight and health like those advocated by the “Health at Every Size” or HAES ™ movement. The widespread acceptance of approaches like HAES ™ that move the focus off of weight and on to social, physical, environmental, and emotional health for everyone may not be profitable for the diet industry, but they will serve our bodies and communities well, and, they might just curtail the public harassment of little girls and their mothers.
Natalie Boero is associate professor of sociology at San Jose State University. Her book, Killer Fat: Media, Medicine and Morals in the American “Obesity Epidemic”, is reviewed in the April 2014 issue of Gender & Society. To read the review click here.