Too Big To Win
Fat politics and the race for governor of New Jersey.
As a matter of fact, a "fat pride" movement does exist in this country. The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance was established 40 years ago and continues to serve as a "non-profit civil rights organization dedicated to ending size discrimination in all of its forms." More radical spin-off groups, like the Fat Underground, have come and gone. Now a community of feminists and left-wing academics has sought to formalize the study of body size in its social context. Next month, NYU Press will publish an introduction to this new field, The Fat Studies Reader.
The essays collected in the book make a case for de-escalating the war on obesity. The extraordinary pressure to lose weight does more harm than good, they argue, and it's nearly impossible to change your body size over the long term. Instead, the fat activists propose that we embrace healthy lifestyles for their own sake. Eat wholesome foods and get plenty of exercise, but stop worrying so much about your dress size. (It's better to be fit and fat, they say, than to starve yourself thin.)
Early reviews suggest that the message won't go over so well in the mainstream. It's no surprise that conservatives write off the fat activists as whiny, plus-size hippies. For liberals, all this talk of normalizing obesity sounds like a capitulation and a sop to corporate interests. TheNew Yorker's Elizabeth Kolbert, who reviewed the Fat Studies Reader in July, decided that the movement "allies itself with McDonald's and the rest of the processed-food industry, while opposing the sorts of groups that advocate better school-lunch programs and more public parks." The book's editors, Esther Rothblum and Sondra Solovay, endured the same criticism when they appeared on a WNYC call-in show a few weeks later. ("Clearly these guests are in the pocket of McDonald's, Kraft, Stouffer's, and the other dealers of disgusting unhealthy food ...")
If Rothblum and Solovay are accused of selling out the poor, they're also charged with being obese. "Don't turn your fat into a civil [rights] issue," wrote one commenter at WNYC.org, "just get on the treadmill." Fat activists must be fat people who don't have enough willpower to go to the gym. When I wrote about weight bias in the film Wall-E last year, almost a thousand Slate readers posted to the site or e-mailed me similar, angry responses. "Was your article translated from whale song?" asked one reader. "How many cheese-dipped chicken nuggets did you scarf while writing this crap?" Someone even found a headshot of me and posted it to the Fray message boards: "Charles Atlas he's not," wrote this user.
A couple of months ago, I asked Rothblum why she thought the fat rights movement aroused so much ire from across the political spectrum. Thin people tend to think they've controlled their weight through hard work and strength of character, she said. That makes the idea of size acceptance seem like a personal affront to anyone who's not severely obese. If we're all OK with being fat, then there's no pride in being thin.
So what does this mean for Chris Christie? Most of the country is overweight or obese, according to government standards, yet there's no constituency for a fat politician. Conservatives see excess weight as a sign of moral failing or a breach of personal responsibility. Liberals sneer at the bloated American lifestyle, even while imagining the war on obesity as a fight for social justice. A size-blind culture is clearly a long way off. Until we get there, it's the thin candidates who will be throwing their weight around.