Monday, July 30, 2007

Fat Again: The Politics of Vanity and Fear

Looking back over some recent posts, I discover I have an unhealthy obsession with fat. And 'unhealthy' turns out to be le mot. Seemingly, we are programmed to be repelled by fat people as some part of our brain takes fatness as a sign of disease. As ever, people react to this kind of information with special pleading. One of the Two Fat Ladies, Clarissa Dickson Wright, for example, says its nonsense. Fatism happens, she says, because racism, sexism etc became unacceptable and prejudice had to go somewhere. Er, but.... And then Beth Ditto, leader singer of The Gossip, says it's a way of  putting 'sexism on the agenda and 'all this stuff completely negates what feminism stands for, and you can't act like that's not connected with other issues.' Oh right. On the whole this kind of 'we are programmed to' story should be treated with scepticism. One usually finds evidence of scientists finding what they want to find. But the reactions are interesting, almost always because people are confused about 'is' and 'ought'. They should, for example, have the confidence to make statements like this, 'Even if fat revulsion 'is' pre-programmed, we 'ought' not to treat obese people badly.' Instead, they say something entirely illogical - 'Treating obese people badly is wrong, therefore fat revulsion cannot be pre-programmed.' This is to misunderstand both morality and science and it is a misunderstanding perpetuated in almost every science story about genetics/ evolutionary psychology. It is a compound of vanity - about the rightness of our own convictions - and fear - of the revelation of our evolved natures. And it renders serious debate about science impossible. 


  1. Good point, Bryan! Well, and people are on the defensive, so of course they aren't thinking clearly (it's like the 'God is Not Great' craze: all pendulum, always knocking against the other side).

    But I don't believe this can be a sort of hardwired health-based aversion. In so many cultures it has been just the opposite! Thinness is a sign of being one meal away from even more thinness; fatness is abundance, plenty, provisions stored against hard times. In many cultures, times and places this has been of importance.

    And - not necessarily talking about extreme obesity here - many men over the years have told me that they 'prefer a woman with some fat on her'.

    So I think it is a cultural prejudice we're experiencing, and an intrinsically decadent one. We have reached this point where we don't need to worry about food supplies: thinness can then be adopted as, essentially, a decadent pursuit.

    And: of course, nowadays, poorer people are fatter, because greasy food full of trans fats is much cheaper than fresh vegetables, fruit and lean meat. So the status symbolism of fat/thin has reversed.

  2. Thanks, Ms Baroque. I agree with you about the thin thing and about the prejudice.

  3. hard-wired: life is a competition without morals. we're programmed to seek out possible weaknesses in our competitors - all that is non-conformity. One Fat Lady is half right - sorry, love, there has always been fatism.

  4. ms baroque, you're last point would be true if it wasn't for the fact that the cultural diet of poor and better-off (westerners) is more or less the same.

  5. ian: is a competition without morals! Why, you old fogey, you. Haven't you heard that all the cool evolutionists say we're programmed to cooperate. Survival of the nicest and all that. Read your Dawkins, man.

    You Darwinists are great. When we try to pin you down on morality, you insist we've been evolving since time immemorial straight to the UN Declaration on Human Rights. But if we slip out to the toilet for a few minutes, we come back to hear you all muttering darkly about "nature red in tooth and claw".

  6. To cooperate (be nice) isn't necessarily a moral act.

  7. It's not preprogramming at all, according to new research from a Harvard scientist. I've written about it here. Friends make you fat: the chances of being obese if you have a friend who is obese is twice as high as it is if you have the so-called 'fat gene'. And the research suggests the link is to do with norms. That is, fat is a moral issue - which I take to be good news if it calls the received wisdom of genetic determinism into question.

  8. And that combination of vanity - about our importance and impact on the planet - and fear, of Earth taking its revenge, drives the 'climate change' non-debate, doesn't it?

  9. well it's obvious to anyone with half his or her faculties that co-operation is something we have to force feed our consciousness on a regular basis least we forget our lessons. the natural urge is always competition. you mean we are a social species, maybe? quite, but one with a hierarchical model.

  10. and I've never read Dawkins. and I would read the bible cover to cover before I would read one word of Dawkins.

  11. the targets of our prejudices are too easy and obvious. if we all looked almost identical, do you think there would be no prejudice or would we just look all the more closely at each others features?

    they used to say that young children were incapable of prejudice. then someone noticed if you gave a group of tots a plate of fruit pastilles, the green ones wouldn't get eaten. then they found a kid who was partial to green fruit gums and they introduced him to the set. he ate the left overs no problem but he never made any friends...

  12. Sorry Ian. I just had to wreck any plan you had for four consecutive postings - call it competition!

  13. Susan BaléeJuly 30, 2007 2:43 pm

    Fat women have been beloved by painters for centuries: Look back at Rubens, Boucher, Renoir's bathers. And women must have a certain amount of body fat in order to get pregnant, so maternal viability depends on a degree of plumpness. Men are attracted to women who look like they're capable of bearing children, specifically, the male viewer's children.

    Of course, 'pleasantly plump' and obese are very different categories.

    But forget all that lard, here's the question I want answered: Were Alan Rickman and Patti Smith separated at birth? I recently saw a bio. of her and I swear to god, at first I thought it was Rickman on the cover!


  14. Psychologists are hard-wired to be complete fuckwits: my extensive research in the field has proved it beyond any doubt.

    The problem with being fat is that it is a moral failure: you can't become fat unless you eat too much. So there is no more reason to suspend judgement than there is in any similar moral case.

  15. i have read the Bible cover to cover and so i'm qualified to weigh in on this debate, and say -

    "I like big butts and I can not lie
    You other brothers can't deny
    That when a girl walks in with an itty bitty waist
    And a round thing in your face
    You get sprung, wanna pull out your tough
    'Cause you notice that butt was stuffed
    Deep in the jeans she's wearing
    I'm hooked and I can't stop staring."

    In the noble words of Sir Mixalot.

  16. Well Susan, If Rickman and Smith were separated at birth it must have been hellishly painful as it lasted from 21 February to 30 December '46. (Source: Wikipedia).

  17. On a practical level would it help to see obese people as a highly trained elite who simply need retraining. Obviously if the original training began at age nought (with parent's/coach's encouragement), occurred several times a day and has been kept up for life - often following the progressive principle, a little bit more each session - it'll take some doing. Overeating must be the mother of habits to break - cold turkey not an option, temptation to be overcome every day. Sorry, just felt a sympathetic note was needed...