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Unwelcome allies?

December 11, 2007

Ok, this title of the post might be needlessly inflammatory but something that has concerned me for a while and is one of the reasons for my abandoning the FA community in the past is how many of our allies, hell, our sources are also part of what I might consider a neo-liberal/libertarian corporatist movement.

Now I don’t think that Fat Acceptance belongs to any one political stance. Just like I’ve marched with people carrying “Republicans for Choice” signs, I will welcome anyone who believes that fat people are human who deserve to be treated well into this movement. But when you start to move beyond the basic fat people = human of the movement and into the details it becomes more complicated. What government intervention into food and health is appropriate? What science and scientists do we trust? Does it matter what other viewpoints our allies espouse? Who do we make alliances with?

I don’t actually have answers for the movement. I’m curious to whether or not this bothers other people.

For me, since I don’t take a hardline stance on the science of obesity, I’m not convinced that government intervention into food supply and availability with an eye to improved health is “nanny state” politics as I’ve seen it called elsewhere. Not to mention, of course, that the gov’t already plays a big part in the way we eat. Without all those ginormous subsidies for the meat and dairy industry, that stuff would be a helluva lot more expensive and therefore be less of a centerpiece in American diets.

I’m less certain about how I feel in terms of allying myself with people and groups who otherwise advocate positions that I vehemently disagree with. Like I said, I’ll march with pro-choice republicans so why should I feel uneasy about accepting the work that someone who works for pro-corporate organizations does on the obesity hype? Well, honestly, because at this point I’m putting a lot of trust in other people’s interpretation of the science that’s out there (which is why I’m not sold on fat being health-neutral or mostly genetic, I read lots of scientists take on it) and when someone advocates one position that seems to be skirting the edges of scientific interpretation and seems to be more about serving a particular ideal than an unbiased* look at the facts…well, it makes me question all the information they give. Reason magazine may say things I agree with about the obesity epidemic, but if I think their presentation on the evidence for Global Warming is contrarianism, then do I put that out of my mind and assume their treatment of obesity is any better?

Now I know that there exist people who are doing great work on these issues who don’t have the pro-corporate ties that bother me about groups like the Center for Consumer Freedom and, for now, I pretty much rely on the former and take anything the latter says with a grain of salt, but I do worry that groups and people who are more prepared to play a bit loose with the facts will appeal to the movement a lot more than scrupulous people who really just want to get at the truth of things.

* I don’t pretend that perfectly unbiased people and/or research exists. My skepticism goes both ways and I treat information put out by anti-fat scientists and pro-diet corporations with just as much distrust as I do something on the CFCF website.

  1. Hope permalink
    December 12, 2007 2:17 am

    I think that my thoughts about this are somewhat similar to yours. The purpose of science is to provide knowledge about the world. It is an incremental process and, although it is impossible to ever be completely unbiased, it is important for science and the interpretation of scientific results to be as unbiased as possible. I think that organizations or entities that manipulate scientific results to support their values or interests lack credibility.

    I also rely on other people’s interpretation of studies about obesity and I’m glad to learn that being fat is maybe not as unhealthy as I’ve been led to believe my whole life. However, even if it is unhealthy, it doesn’t change the basic fact that every person should be treated respectfully regardless of any characteristic (age, gender, fatness, race, health status, etc.). This is a somewhat philosophical argument, but we don’t create ourselves and we don’t get to choose who we are. Each of us is the result of our genetics, our experiences, and our current life situation.

    Despite this fact, we are a species that tends to judge and blame people for who they are and societies create criteria for acceptability and moral worth. Fatness, healthiness (whatever that is), beauty, etc., are all criteria for judging other people and I don’t think we should discard one (e.g., fat) and replace it with another (e.g., beauty or health).

    For example, we tell ourselves that fat is beautiful and that we can beautiful at any size and my response is typically, well that’s nice, but I also wonder, why should I be beautiful? Because underlying the statement that fat is beautiful is the message that in order to be acceptable, in order have moral worth, one must be beautiful. It is just a new parameter. It’s okay to be fat as long as you are beautiful. Now the new manta is that fat is healthy and I think, well, that’s nice, but why should I be healthy? For the same reason, why do acceptability and moral worth have to be dependent on health.

    For the record, I do want to be healthy (as I define it) but that is not always possible. Illness is a part of life. And I would also like to be beautiful, but it isn’t necessarily possible either. I am who I am.

  2. Arwen permalink
    December 12, 2007 5:24 am

    I do absolutely see what you’re saying, and I do read the science firsthand. My personal hypotheses of weight is that there are utterly complex biological feedback loops and a huge number of inputs, some of which are environmentally keyed, some of which are behavioral, and some of which are genetic: but also that fat cells, once there, will work to get you to fill them. So that fat is sort of a lobster trap: you can get all sorts of people in, but harder to get anyone out – unless all they’ve done is overstuff a limited number of fat cells.

    So it’s adenovirus Ad-36 for some, genes for some, some it’s an indicator of an underlying condition, some it’s the greater potency of THC since the 80s (*joking*) or the number of corn molecules in the modern food chain. We’re in a nutrient rich petrie dish, us first world monkeys.

    I’m not 100% convinced that overweight is healthy – how could I be? The science my whole life and a thousand nagging doctors have convinced me its common sense. But by the same anecdotal token, MY ancestors were fat and long-lived, and I know MY body.

    It was a bloody relief to merely have it pointed out, a statistic I knew, that 95% of diets fail in 5 years.

    Because whatever *makes* us fat, the recognized medical establishment doesn’t seem to know how to solve even a small part of it for any large number of people. Whatever else is true or not true, that is uncontested.

    Assuming that nutrition and obesity scientists aren’t all utter and complete morons, which I doubt – if they can’t find any solution for a greater number than 5%, they probably don’t yet really understand the problem, or in which cases it’s a problem. Having worked at a diabetes research bio-tech company, I know there was a lot they didn’t really know! And that means that any simple solution (calories in and out) is ridiculous oversimplification at best, and a gross miscarriage of scientific principle at worst.

  3. December 12, 2007 6:05 am


    Very good point about accepting the primacy of seeking health or beauty when acceptance doesn’t have anything to do with either.

    I understand why people want to dispell the idea that being fat automatically means being unhealthy, but I do think it’s only a first step. Kind of like that first free hit from a drug dealer :p And, this is opening up a whole can of worms, but I’ve always thought the focus on fat and healthy can sometimes veer into not seeing, or making invisible, the links between disability activism and fat activism.

    But that’s another post…

  4. December 12, 2007 6:20 am

    Because whatever *makes* us fat, the recognized medical establishment doesn’t seem to know how to solve even a small part of it for any large number of people. Whatever else is true or not true, that is uncontested.

    Absolutely. And I think this message is vital to so many people in this society, especially the fact that brilliant researchers have tried for years, and failed, to find any sort of effective and safe way for people to permanently lose weight.

    My feelings on the science, which I can’t completely follow, is that, in the mythical future when we understand all of this, it will turn out to be so intensely complicated that a lot of the common ideas about obesity in play today will seem like believing in spontaneous generation does to us now.

  5. December 13, 2007 6:02 pm

    Totally with you on this one, and was just thinking about it last night, when Deniselle linked to an anti-Morgan Spurlock site (which I can totally get behind) by a guy whose agenda sometimes seemed to be more about defending McDonald’s honor than informing people about Spurlock’s reliance on bad science. I liked a lot of what he had to say, but I’m still wary of him, ’cause we’re REALLY not on the same page when it comes to “personal responsibility” — for all the reasons Fillyjonk laid out in her choice post. I never link to the CCF for the same reason, even though when I search on a particular topic, they often have exactly what I’m looking for. (And one of the reasons I can’t stand Spurlock is that he relies so heavily on the Center for Science in the Public Interest and Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, both of which have specific agendas just as blatant as the CCF’s.)

    To me, it’s about keeping myself honest. I’m much more sold on the science than you seem to be, Attrice, but I do my best not to be swayed by arguments from anyone on either side who seems to have an agenda beyond merely getting at the truth. (Of course, you could argue persuasively that everyone does…) At the very least, I try to be as skeptical as possible, even when someone’s saying things I really like hearing.

    Also, I’d definitely put those groups in the category of “frenemies” rather than allies. I’m suspicious that if I allied myself with a pro-corporate and/or libertarian organization, I’d get stabbed in the back by them soon enough — and rightly accused of hypocrisy by my actual allies.

    It’s a little different with individuals, I guess. I don’t know if Sandy Szwarc self-identifies as a libertarian, but I see that thread running through some of what she writes. And I could not disagree more with her about universal health care. But at the end of the day, she’s writing a lot of great stuff that checks out, so I have no problem plugging her blog constantly.

    So, yeah. You’re not alone in being bothered by this.

  6. December 15, 2007 11:07 pm

    Yeah, I have the same issues when fellow vegans rely heavily on PCRM b/c, to me, science becomes immediately suspect when it starts from an agenda – even one I agree with.

    I definitely disagree with Sandy Szwarc on some political issues, but I don’t put her in the same camp as the CFF precisely because I don’t see any gain for her in advancing fat-positive views. The CFF getting money from a ton of food producers is so unfortunate because it makes their conclusions all suspect even when, as you say, they may have good information.

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