208 Spring 2012
Fat, privilege and resistance
A response to Jennifer Lee
Jennifer Lee (Overland 207) writes, ‘I expect many readers disagree with what I say about weight and fat, but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong’. The implication is that she’s right, and that disagreement speaks in the voice of the oppressor. It is one of many reasons why I find Lee’s article – and identity politics more generally – to be a narrow and unhelpful frame for discussion. A large part of this narrowness resides in language: there is much of value in Lee’s argument, but I find her rhetoric an obstacle, not an invitation, to further debate.
Let me begin with this notion of ‘privilege’, a much-abused term within the Left, so much so that on most days I can barely conceive of what it stands for. Lee wants readers ‘to acknowledge thin privilege the way the Left has acknowledged white privilege, class privilege or straight privilege.’ As a friend commented when I read this sentence aloud, ‘So, badly, then?’ I’ve lost count over the years of the number of meetings, workshops and protests where a checklist of privilege is ‘acknowledged’ at the start, as if mere words could encircle a space with magic and vanish the tangled inheritance we each bring with us.
Conversely, the term ‘privilege’ can be used to invalidate the arguments of those we disagree with, like a CANCELLED stamp on an overdue fine. Either way, we try to render a blank where there isn’t one.
To my mind, the notion of ‘privilege’ implies not only benefits accrued to one’s social position, but a certain obliviousness to these benefits: the unexamined belief that everyone is treated just like you and, if they are not, it is due to their own personal failing. It is to mistake structural advantage and disadvantage for a meritocracy in which the good will always out. Hence the responses that surface every time women, for example, try to highlight the structural benefits of patriarchy: ‘If only you tried harder’, ‘There’s no-one stopping you from achieving’, ‘Stop complaining and put your head down’.
We may eventually become aware that our social standing is not a simple reflection of our innate qualities as a person – I guess that is one meaning of ‘acknowledgement’. But what if we carry this awareness all along? I think that Lee’s notion of ‘thin privilege’ is mistaken precisely because it presupposes that thin people are unaware of their advantages – as this relates to women in particular, I am not sure how much of either unawareness or advantage really does exist. To be female within our society is to be subject, from the earliest age, to a process of socialisation which makes one intensely aware, at all times, of how one’s body and appearance matters. Every woman knows that it is an advantage to be thin – from thinness, we learn, every success and happiness follows – and the diet industries which Lee points to are surely evidence of this massive effort to achieve and then hold onto such advantage. But the advantage is illusory. No woman’s body is ever perfect enough to be satisfactory. If not her weight, then her height or hair or teeth or breasts will be a problem.
Every woman has internalised this bodily shame and dissatisfaction, and if Lee believes that privilege resides in having ‘a body that aligns with dominant ideas of what is attractive’, must I remind her that this dominant idea is forever shifting in its form, so that women can never quite inhabit it? The anxiety of being regarded as attractive or not attractive, and the belief that one’s value as a person can be indexed to appearance, is precisely the kind of sexism that all women struggle with, both in and outside of themselves.
The transformation of personal experience into political struggle has been one of feminism’s great achievements, but this alchemy can only be reached when the effort is collective. Part of my discomfort with the rhetoric of identity politics is that it seems to limit us to speaking only as individuals. Within Lee’s terms, what does it mean for my argument if I describe myself as a thin woman who has been, at differing points in her life, both overweight and anorexic? Where does Lee’s ‘thin privilege’ reside in me then? Would it disappear if I gained twenty kilograms? Would I accrue more or less privilege should I slide back into anorexia? At all points along the spectrum from fat to emaciated I have been subject to judgements, assumptions and unwanted comments about my body – every woman is. We err when we locate ‘privilege’ as a fixed attribute that resides within a person, rather than as an effect of social categories that are always subject to change. Even racial privilege – a topic to which I will return – is not as fixed as one may first assume. It is worth remembering just how many ethnic categories we might now regard as ‘white’ – from Greeks to Italians to Poles to Irish – were once emphatically not white, and when definitions shift, it is almost always due to a collective loss or gain in economic power. Class is the horizontal category: within a capitalist society, it is the structural difference that matters most. It’s hardly a ground-breaking argument to point out that privilege is in large part an economic advantage.
Lee’s argument is distinctly lacking in class analysis. She is right to point out that ‘fat’ brings with it a host of assumptions: ‘lazy, sloppy, stupid, undisciplined, greedy’, but she stops short of identifying how all these words are used to signal economic unproductiveness. I vehemently disagree with her tactic of replacing one category of prejudice with another – in this case, ‘fat’ for ‘black’ – in order to illustrate her argument, but if there is a parallel to be made, it is a class one. Assumptions of laziness and indiscipline come to bear upon certain bodies – the fat body, the black body – because in so many cases this is also a working-class or even ‘underclass’ body. I really don’t believe that ‘the government, media [and] medical associations’ have much stake in trying to ‘turn us all thin’. I do believe that agribusiness corporations – which have come to monopolise food production and distribution throughout industrialised countries – have a very great stake in getting the most product for the cheapest investment, and that the social cost of this food production is now being borne, disproportionately in all senses, by the working class. Several decades worth of profit-driven food production – emulsifiers, flavourings, syrups and powders – is now lodging itself inside of us: the body politic, indeed.
For perhaps the first time in history, fat is regarded as a physical attribute of the poor, while the rich can afford to be thin. Lee’s admonishment of the Left for using the stereotype of a ‘fat cat’ capitalist points us back to an earlier era when class divisions within the industrialised world meant the difference between eating and malnutrition. A factory owner grew symbolically ‘fat’ on the surplus extracted from his workers but he could also feed himself.
Such divisions still hold true for most of the world today, but in the affluent West, the symbolism of the fat body has been reversed. As Susie Orbach wrote recently, ‘The paradox of consumer culture is that we must consume, but we should do so discreetly and expensively … We value holding back and then assign to fat people the contempt we feel for our own longings.’ Fat prejudice is, more often than not, barely disguised class hatred: the problem with those stupid poor people is that, in their lumpen selfishness, they don’t know when to stop. It’s the same class contempt that surfaced after the London riots last August when scorn and vitriol were heaped upon the rioters for being greedy enough to loot things ‘they didn’t need’– the same blame that politicians across the world have shifted onto their constituencies as national economies collapse. You lived on credit, you indulged yourselves beyond sensible limits, and now you must be placed on an austerity diet, for the health of the country. One only need view a minute’s worth of The Biggest Loser or its ilk to get a sense of how bodily humiliation and shaming is bound up with the inculcation of bourgeois values: to eat – and to consume – discreetly, in tasteful moderation.
The flipside of this prole-baiting-as-entertainment is print and screen space taken up with hymning certain kinds of food production and consumption: organic, local and – that dreaded word – artisanal.
Again, a historical reversal has taken place: where in the 1950s and 60s it was a sign of middle-class success (or aspiration) to be eating the latest in tinned and branded foodstuffs, while growing one’s own produce was a sure sign of poverty; now it is the poor who are left to their Wonder White while the middle class knead sourdough. The solution is not, as I once heard an activist memorably argue, to eat McDonald’s as an act of class solidarity. Rampant environmental destruction means that local and organic food is better for the planet, and the costs involved better reflect the real economics of food production, including labour, than does a two-dollar cheeseburger. But the ‘choice’ between organic and industrial food is, firstly, not a choice we can all afford to make, and secondly, ‘choice’ limits our politics to an act of consumerism. There is no reason why organic food should be a strictly bourgeois axiom, interwoven with notions of moral virtue, but it becomes so when access to it is unequal and when the consumption of such food is presented as a ‘lifestyle’. And what is ‘lifestyle’? Surely it is a kind of performance: the life you can lead if your income allows you to consistently, and publicly, match your buying to your desires.
Beyond food itself, we must look to the conditions of labour: what work is being done and by whom? An increasing number of ‘service industry’ jobs are sedentary and desk-bound, which reverses the historical assumption that a working–class body (generally a male body) would be muscular and fit from manual labour. If exercise is being denied us in the workplace, then a very particular class privilege accrues to those who can afford both the time and money to exercise outside of work. This exercise increasingly takes place in dedicated gyms with expensive equipment and steep membership fees: the neoliberal shift from public to private services, combined with the car-biased design of our cities and suburbs, makes access to free and communal exercise increasingly difficult. We pay, if we can, to condition our bodies during the ‘leisure’ hours left over from work that leaves us, if not physically exhausted, then physically alienated.
Every liberation struggle is intimately connected to the body: with what certain bodies are permitted or prohibited from doing, and in what spaces. In this sense I can see why Lee chooses to ‘parallel’ her examples of fat prejudice with racial prejudice, but I also think that her logic is misguided. If, as I have argued, privilege is on the one hand a question of economics, then on the other – particularly under the rubric of the War on Terror – it is a question of surveillance, and one’s proximity or distance from this. Lee uses the word ‘surveillance’ to describe the stigma and shaming associated with being fat. Having experienced this shaming for the first sixteen years of my life, I know what she is talking about, but I don’t believe it amounts to surveillance. Still less do I believe that fat prejudice can be paralleled to the daily encounters with the blunter instruments of the state – police, prisons, border control, detention centres – that are the lot of any person whose skin colour or ‘ethnic profile’ renders their occupation of particular spaces (a mosque, a boat, a housing estate) immediately suspicious.
At the beginning of her essay, Lee states that ‘all prejudice is different’, but she then proceeds, repeatedly, to compare being fat with being black in an attempt to prove that one category of prejudice – racism – is, in fact, a corollary to fat prejudice. It is not. The structural privilege that accrues to ‘whiteness’ (I put the term in quote marks as a reminder that whiteness, too, is a construct, not a neutral or fixed state of being) is reflected across a breadth of sociological data. In Australia, Indigenous life expectancy is, on average, seventeen years lower than that of the non-Indigenous population; infant mortality is two to three times higher; household income is a mere 62 per cent of that in non-Indigenous households, and Indigenous people account for 24 per cent of the prison population, despite comprising 2.3 per cent of the overall population.
It is this last statistic that speaks most forcibly to the huge gap in disciplinary surveillance between white and non-white bodies. Freedom from such surveillance really is privilege, and until Lee can bring me the evidence to prove that fat people live with the same invasive, corrective and coercive forces, I will politely decline her invitation to be ‘reminded’ of racism when I encounter fat prejudice. I am reminded of no such thing.
Lee proposes visibility from synchronised swimming to ‘eating ice-creams in public’ as a way forward for fat people to counter prejudice. I have argued previously (‘Permanent Daylight’, Overland 200) that visibility is not a political solution, particularly for feminists. Women – fat and thin – live with a particular kind of watchfulness, a sense of always being on display: the word ‘surveillance’ hints at the feeling but is better applied elsewhere.
Perhaps we lack a word subtle enough for the condition that I described in that essay as ‘a deep and systemic psychic distress … of perpetual visibility’. If visibility is a condition of women’s oppression, then why should we keep demanding to be seen? If all the billboards across the world were replaced overnight, and fat women took the place of bone-thin models advertising underwear and perfume, would this constitute victory? I wouldn’t think so: I’m still being sold stuff, and someone else – another woman – is still being objectified for the purpose of selling it to me. To demand visibility is to submit to capitalism’s strictures: to accept that being an image is more important than being a subject; to accept representation in place of participation.
Moreover, the rhetoric of visibility can be, and is, used by rulers against the ruled: to be visible is, on some level, to accede to the anti-terrorist logic that one has ‘nothing to hide’. I am much more interested in how radicals across the world – whatever their bodies – can work together at escaping these intertwined visibilities: the image-logic of capitalism, the coercive gaze of the state.
I don’t deny for a moment the existence of fat prejudice, but Lee’s argument doesn’t take us – the Left – far beyond this moment of recognition. We need an argument of greater scope, one that draws upon the richness of feminist learning and analysis about the body – which doesn’t mean that the struggle or the solution only involves women. An awareness of how political pressures are taken into the body, and then move outward again, is a starting point for a struggle against the physical alienation of contemporary life, a life we all share.