Ugly Fat Politics

Well I had intended to keep up during my vacation, but it just didn’t happen. If you sent me an email in the past couple of weeks, I’ll try to respond within the next few days, but bear with me. I’m still washing the sand and sun out of my clothes and my synapses, so I may be on the slow side.


Anyway now I’m trying to catch up on the fat politics of the last two weeks without harshing my post-vaca mellows.

Wishful thinking. Back into the fire.

I know this stuff is old news by now, but I have to talk about two long-simmering tropes in fat politics that seem to be coming into their own in the past two weeks:

1. Fat People as scapegoats for the decline and fall of the U.S. (empire): The Sacramento News and Review published a revolting opinion piece by an occasional columnist named Jaime O’Neill. I’ve listened to a lot of hate radio and most of them can’t touch the viciousness O’Neill summons in this hate manifesto. He could give lessons in dehumanization.

I didn’t really want to reread the essay on the grounds it might cause me to punch in my computer screen, but I risked it to pull out the final paragraph:

Our heritage requires of us, as citizens, that we be more than a nation of overstuffed swine wallowing in the mud of our laziness and indifference. We must reclaim our bodies and our minds from those who’ve snatched them from us. If we can regain our bodies and our minds, maybe we can regain our country, too.

Yee-ha. He hits the age-old notes of fascism with perfect pitch. It’s time to purify the social body, cleanse our collective bodies and minds, drive out or whip into shape the unacceptables who bring with them moral decay.

In times of social and political crisis, marginalized groups become not just outsiders, but a focus of collective shame and anxiety. A threat to the national self-image or even national security.

At the PCA conference in Boston this year, Susan Hill traced this dynamic in the reformation in her wonderful (but I think unpublished) paper, Gluttony and Crisis: Excessive Eating During the Protestant Reformation and Post 9/11. If I remember her correctly, Martin Luther echoed almost exactly the same anxieties about the German people being viewed as piggish 500 years ago. So O’Neill may think he’s commenting on a new trend, but his nationalistic panic over other people’s bodies is old stuff.

And here’s the kicker: O’Neill considers himself a progressive. I wish I were still naive enough to be surprised at this. (Though O’Neill is almost refreshing in not even bothering to claim he’s hating us for our own good. He’s just hating us.)

The reality is that for many, the humanistic, tolerant principles of progressivism are tissue-thin, and more primal fascistic impulses run deeper than any sensitivity training could hope to touch. Harvey Fierstein noted, using both fat prejudice and homophobia as examples, “how choosy the anti-P.C. crowd is about which hate speech it will not tolerate:”

Our nation, historically bursting with generosity toward strangers, remains remarkably unkind toward its own. Just under our gleaming patina of inclusiveness, we harbor corroding guts. America, I tell you that it doesn’t matter how many times you brush your teeth. If your insides are rotting your breath will stink. So, how do you people choose which hate to embrace, which to forgive with a wink and a week in rehab, and which to protest? Where’s my copy of that rule book?

O’Neill’s hate-fest generated a lot of beautiful letters echoing a similar sentiment: if fat people hadn’t been the targets, such a pernicious piece would never have made it out of O’Neill’s word processor. I agree mostly, but I don’t think fat is alone in being considered fair game. I take Harvey Fierstein’s advice very seriously, and I think we all could stand to examine our own hearts to see what hatred we harbor: maybe especially if that hate seems somehow permissible or even encouraged.

2. Fat People as scapegoats for failures of the U.S. healthcare system. Why Michael Moore has to tell the world he’s trying to lose weight as Sicko comes out. And why that’s so understandable given that conservatives like Mike Huckabee have predictably responded to its arguments by attacking Moore’s weight.

(For the record I find Huckabee’s assumption of moral superiority over his weight loss especially irritating, since I’m about 80% sure he’s had weight loss surgery. Sorry, but I can’t help but be extremely skeptical when somebody rapidly loses 100+ lbs after years of “unsuccessful” dieting, and starts losing right after a vacation. The type of vacation where his spokesman wouldn’t say exactly when he’d return — which as we all know is totally normal behavior for a state governor. )

But the more important message is that fat people are irresistible scapegoats for anyone who wants to shift focus for the healthcare crisis away from corporate donors or structural failures and onto a very visible and already despised target. If you’ve been watching the presidential debates you’ve probably noticed how answers to healthcare questions often morph into lectures about personal habits. Look for more of this.

11 Responses to “Ugly Fat Politics”

  1. Rachel Says:

    Glad to see you’re back! I wondered where you disappeared to. Hope the vacation was relaxing.

  2. Meowser Says:

    One of the SN&R’s letters was mine! (I’m Andee.) I was actually kind of amazed they printed it, because I wrote it in such a blaze of fury that I could barely think of more than “shame on you, shame on you,” which I know isn’t exactly the most original thing to write. But I’ll take it.

    Oh, and his follow-up to Spins’ letter where he said 60% of people are obese and too many of us had never made any effort to slim down? And the editors didn’t bother correcting him (especially on the 60% part)? That tells me they still don’t care. That this still isn’t a “civil rights issue.” That they care more about the rights and human dignity of meth heads than they do about that of fat people. If I lived in Excremento (I’m allowed to call it that because I used to live in Bakersfield), I’d totally burn some lard on their doorstep.

  3. Jackie Says:

    Actually I have a issue with our countries caring so much more for drug addicts. Since I am fat, and I also have Asperger’s Syndrome.

    I’m not sure if you are familiar with the Special Ed system in our country. It’s become a dumping ground with anyone with issues. Including druggies. So I was being to told to ignore students bullying me, while the pothead in my class was being babycoddled.

    I still am as angry about it today as I was then. That children with disabilites, are treated less than drug addicts, who really do pose a threat to society. It seems to also be true outside of Special Ed.

    I don’t understand it, Meowser, why doesn’t someone come out and say we’re spending so much money babysitting drug addicts in our country? Certainly they are more of a threat than fat people.

    I also dislike people who give me some guilt trip over having this point of view. I mean, you are telling me that a disability I didn’t choose to have, deserves less attention than a disability someone brought upon themselves. That really is my stance on it. I was born with issues like dysgraphia, I didn’t make myself disabled by smoking pot and going “oopsie, guess I should’ve payed attention to those Just Say No! assemblies”. There shouldn’t be the same treatment. If SPED teachers are so overworked, then they should outsource the drug addicts to a recovery clinic. Not make those with TRUE disabilites suffer on their behalf. My rant is over.

  4. ShortDave Says:

    Jackie, I completely agree that drug addicts are given way too many free passes in our culture.

    Although, what if that drug addict is happy and non-violent, shouldn’t they be allowed to live their happy drug-filled life the way they want to? After all 95% of people who go to rehab fail.


  5. iflurry Says:

    If there’s a so-called obesity crisis, doesn’t that support Moore’s film? I mean, if our national health is in such a crisis, hasn’t privatized healthcare failed us?

  6. iflurry Says:

    Sorry for the double post, but I just had to quote O’Neils response to one letter…

    “First, let me apologize for any pain my essay may have caused. My intention was not to belittle fat people…”

    If this doesn’t make you laugh out loud, you have no soul. Ah Jamie, yer killing me! Next you’ll tell me the late Jerry Falwell didn’t mean to degrade lesbians when he blamed them for 9/11! What a sense of humor you have!

  7. Meowser Says:

    Yeah, iflurry, “[m]y intention was not to belittle fat people” piqued my snortmeter too. Comparing people (even little kids!) to pigs at the state fair and blaming them for global warming and saying that if they’re on a scooter or in a wheelchair they must have binged their way there…that isn’t belittling, no, not at all. He just cares so very deeply about us fatties and doesn’t want us to have diabetes, that’s all, because diabetes is so very painful and obviously the only way anyone ever gets it is if they snack and snack and snack their way there, genetics don’t have anything whatsoever to do with it, and if someone doesn’t tell us in giant block letters how ugly we are we might actually think it’s OK to keep eating and stuff.

    Thanks for clearing that up, Jaime. I had no idea being fat was bad or anything, not with all these people begging to hire me for six-figure and seven-figure jobs and go to bed with me and be my friend and design beautiful clothes for me, just because of what my body looks like.

  8. Maya's Granny Says:

    There is nothing I can add. I agree with the post, I agree with the comments.

  9. Well, Now That You Mention It, I Am in the Market for a Bridge! at Shakesville Says:

    […] I can be such a freakin’ Pollyanna sometimes, you have no idea. For instance, when I read this line from Fat Fu (For the record I find Huckabee’s assumption of moral superiority over his weight loss especially […]

  10. Qit el-Remel Says:

    I also happen to consider myself a progressive. But for the record, I’m quite dismayed that many of my fellow progressives tend to become irrationally vicious on the subject of fat people (and end up sounding a lot like Mike Huckabee). And O’Neill’s weak attempt to save his own bacon (in response to the letter from Kari the therapist) was both irresponsible and downright pathetic.

  11. Plutarch Says:

    Do you have a link for the Huckabee “vacation”?

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