The Trouble With Normal Weight, part 2

Stef very helpfully pointed out in her comment on The Trouble With Normal Weight:

Eric Oliver in Fat Politics has a couple of pages about the historical developmental of the concept that “average” is the same as “ideal”. He discusses a Belgian astronomer named Adolphe Quetelet who, in the 1830s, invented the notion of BMI by studying the height and weight of members of the French and Scottish armies…

This is what I get for buying, but not reading Fat Politics. When I read that comment I glanced up at my bookshelf, where the book stared back at me reproachfully.

It turns out Quetelet is the very same statistician that Michael Warner credits with instigating the conflation of the “statistical average” with “health” in medicine starting in the 19th Century. Warner’s concerned with the pernicious effect this had on the construction of homosexuality, and I didn’t put together that he was the same statistician who created the BMI until I read Stef’s comment.

quetelet2.jpgI looked up the Quetelet section in Fat Politics, and it puts the pieces together. If you haven’t bought it (or – ahem – read it), you should. Anyway, I know what I’m going to be reading for the next few days.

Oliver explains:

Among his many accomplishments, Quetelet first derived the concept of the ‘average man.’ Because most people congregated around average points in their physical characteristics, Quetelet believed that deviants, criminals or troublemakers could be identified by their physical abnormalities….The farther someone was from the average weight, the more they violated other social norms, and the more they could be monitored, institutionalized, or controlled.

Which is what the moral panic of the obesity epidemic, is all about, isn’t it? It’s why so much of the focus is on controlling behavior of fat people. And too little is on whether that  “control” actually makes anyone healthier.

And it’s the reason for the furious insistence that you must be living a “poor lifestyle” if you’re fat.  I always thought that the ferocity with which this article of faith is held was simply a function of the need to rationalize bigotry (requiring that fat is a “choice.”)

But that’s not all it’s about, is it? It’s the defense of an older idea that interprets human variability as a “failure” to live up to a physical “ideal” – and therefore reflects a fundamental inferiority. It’s a way of thinking about diversity that led to some of the most ignominious moments in medicine and politics in the past two centuries.

Oliver writes:

Quetelet’s scheme was a harbinger of a larger wave of scientific attempts to measure and differentiate groups in society…Although these efforts were done in the name of science, they sought to do more than merely taxonomize the population. Most efforts at measurement were meant to identify miscreants and justify racial and economic prerogatives among a white, aristocratic elite….By claiming that elite groups had certain traits, scientists could rationalize inequities in wealth, employment, and education.

For fat the irony is rich. This construct of a “weight ideal” and the resulting marginalization of fat has led to rampant discrimination, and has helped marginalize those groups who have a tendency towards higher weight.  

And now the modern inheritors of Quetelet – epidemiologists – ingenuously wonder why poor people tend to be fatter (better question: why are fat people poorer?) And turn to exactly the same 19th Century fallacy that started it off, that the failure to be “ideal” must be a matter of social deviance – or to use modern language: “poor lifestyle.”

For most traits, the idea that physical variation is an indicator of character has been largely discredited – at least in the mainstream. But for weight – and perhaps weight alone – this old and dangerous idea is fully alive and kicking – hard.

7 Responses to “The Trouble With Normal Weight, part 2”

  1. Stef Says:


    I would just add that other physical variations are certainly still used as an indicator of character. It’s just that these days we call such attitudes racism and sexism and “keeping the country safe from terrorists” instead of blithely assuming they are always correct. Size, on the other hand…well of course everyone knows that if a person is fat that means they are lazy and morally suspect and eat 500 pizzas every night.

  2. fatfu Says:

    Yeah I was trying to point out the roots of fat phobia are related to the history of racism and sexism and homophobia. Not like those things are history – wouldn’t that be nice? It’s just that with fat, the assumption that difference means inferiority – especially moral inferiority – is still mainstream and totally unquestioned by most people.

  3. Corinna Says:

    Great work here! Very informative and also quite moving. When you lay it out so simply I find it easy to laugh at the ridiculousness of the concept of “normal” and that doctors today base their viewpoint of average body weight on the poor science of a class elitist in the 1930’s. I love it when you get all scholarly.

    Would you be willing to post a reading list?



  4. Kate217 Says:

    Can you say “phrenology?” I knew you could…

  5. wriggles Says:

    The roots of fat phobia are related to the others in the sense that
    a) fat hating is replacing them, as they no longer have the same purchase, and quality of catharsis as before when they were more widely accepted.
    b) The same techniques are used, I know this annoys some black people as they feel it trivialises racism, but it’s true!
    It seems to me that fatphobia is about the phobics NOT the fatties.

  6. Rebekah Says:

    Have you read “The Beauty Myth?” I am brand new to your site and at a glance didn’t notice a mention. Nothing has thrown my concern with weight and exercise blah blah out the window like that has. I HIGHLY recommend that classic!

  7. The Rotund Says:

    I’m glad Kate217 brought up phrenology because I was going to but I was just laughing so hard because this is so true and so painful.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: