A Weighty Issue
In the Sunday New York Times, the Sunday after our calorie fest known as Thanksgiving, were two pieces on extreme body issues. One on being fat and the other on scary skinny. The first was a moving piece about a woman's effort to save her daughter from starvation. The other trumpeted fat activism, once on the fringe, now joining its cousins queer studeis and women studies and disability studies and going academic. (I know, I know, what could they discuss in fat studies -- sitting around asking each other, does my butt look fat? But it's a real field. With professors and conferences and stuff.)
The thing is that in the alternate press and actual scientists, cultural scholars and such have been studying eating disorders for a long time. Neither piece was exactly a news flash. Anorexia affects 1-3% of the population. But over half the country is overweight and a third is defined as obese. Of course, what we see is the 1-3%, but we are the 60%. (The fat piece in the Style section was nicely placed beside a Gucci ad of models in bathing suits. Someone in layout has a sick sense of humor.)
Both conditions of overweight and underweight have been studied, but the actual causes of weight gain or loss in such extremes seems to confound scientists. Fat studies came about because the common wisdom is that weight is a control issue. Those who are fat are out of control -- those who are too thin, control freaks. Those who consider themselves fat and fit (and say this is not an oxymoron) found themselves connecting this with feminism. Even five years ago, when gastric bypass surgery was just being reported, this was pretty gutsy. Now, with TV shows called The Biggest Loser and cosmetic surgery a given for those in a given age group, turning activist into professors may be one more way to marginalize a would-be movement.
I produced a radio story about Marilyn Wann, fat activist and editor of Fat!So? zine years ago, when she testified at a San Francisco Supervisors meeting to argue that a local anti-fat statue should pass in San Francisco. It did. I spent a day following Marilyn around, going to her gym (women only), eating with her, shopping with her. In the end, I was won over by her ferocious determination to feel comfortable with herself. But despite the fact that more people in the U.S. are like her than not, this doesn't translate into acceptance. The more we weigh, the more obsessed we've become with not being fat. Food for thought.