Politics of obesity

by Rob Horning

11 January 2006


Steven Shapin’s New Yorker book review of some recent dieting memoirs makes the requisite points about the difference between what physiological health and social mores, pointing out that contempt for obesity is less a health issue than a moral issue. Right or wrong, fair or unfait, fat serves as a instantaneous proxy for lack of self-control and laziness, and while the health risks of obesity may be exaggerated, the repulsion many feel toward the overweight is not. In fact, hating “fat people” may be a way of hating women and minorities (who are disproportionately overweight by BMI standards) and feeling like a health-conscious hero instead of a bigot. Or weight, like race, may be an issue of class in disguise.

Shapin points out that “the key to the spread of obesity in America is technology-produced abundance. There are a lot of calories around; they’re cheaper than they ever were; and they’re more accessible as we move about in the course of a day. Our genetic constitution, having evolved in scarcity, was designed to store up as much fatty tissue as possible in rare periods of plenty, and, since we now live in permanent glut, nature has programmed us for obesity, some of us more than others.” In other words, we produce more than we need in order to grow profits for capital, and the consequences of that growth is padding the bones and weighing down the lives of Americans who can’t afford to complement their overindulgence with robotic exercise, the systematic destruction of productive capacity. Overweight people are an inevitable conseqeunce of social relations out of sync with biological parameters. That we then blame them for it merely adds insult to injury.

Techonology not only allows us to produce more than is needed, but it changes lifestyles to encourage mindless, desocialized consumption, removing from eating the ritualized elements that once sanctified and controlled it. We don’t share meals anymore, and the solitude of eating means we eat uncontrollably. “The social setting was understood to set moral limits on consumption. The shared meal marked the beginning and the end of eating: there was a time to eat and a time to stop. The meal defined the when, the what, the how, the how long, and the how much. You adjusted your consumption to those who were eating with you. You didn’t have exactly what you wanted, exactly when you wanted it, and exactly as much as you might want. The marking, ordering, and, above all, limiting character of the shared meal remained largely intact into the twentieth century” But in the 21st century, that shared meal has nearly disappeared along with many of the other communal activities that once rooted society. The solitary meal is convenient—you eat what you want when you want—and thus it conforms to the general rule of technology, which seeks to atomize us, isolate us, leave us to our own devices, all in the name of making things more convenient for us. (Shapin suggests the car cupholder as the quintessential symbol of our culture, parallels the conclusions drawn in a Harper’s “Annotation” piece on Campbell’s soup-to-go.) Ironically, conveninence leads to sloth and obesity, which is rather inconvenient when it comes to having a social life; thus the pursuit of convenience reinforces the rejection of social life upon which it is premised. Get fat, become unpopular, and then take solace in how convenient your unpopularity has made you.

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