25 September 2009

Research: obesity scholars who ignore fat people

I was mooching around the library at Coventry University recently, I came across Fat Economics: nutrition, health, and economic policy by Mario Mazzocchi, W. Bruce Traill, and Jason F. Shogren (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), and gave it a flick. It made my hair stand on end.

Call me weird but I'm strangely fascinated by high level theory books and reports about obesity policy. I think what fascinates me is how far an idea can go, how rarefied the discourse can become, how unselfconscious people are when they write or opine pretentiously and pompously about fat. Adding to my fascination with accounts such as Mazzocchi et al's is this kind of Emperor's New Clothes effect, that all this stuff sounds reasonable, although overblown, but then you realise it is based on a really wobbly foundation, that is: fat = energy balance, fat = dangerous dysfunction, and fatness = problem to be managed and eradicated. The minute you question these fundaments is the minute that works like Mazzocchi's, or Foresight, lose credibility because they don't critique their basic premise.

Unfortunately the authors of these works do not question those beliefs. Even more unfortunately, they get to be published by extremely well-regarded academic publishing houses, or by official government channels. This is one of the processes that keeps problematic ideas about what it is to be fat in circulation, almost beyond criticism.

The main thing that I want to talk about here though is about how works like Fat Economics make fat people abstract. These are works that do not include accounts by fat people, they are not written by fat people, and fat people have absolutely no voice in these works. It's like the literary equivalent of the headless fatty. Such works refer to fat people as 'the obese', a term which treats fat people, like me, as a nebulous blob of Otherness, with no power or thoughts of our own. Research like this contributes to the notion of fat people as passive and stupid, people whose lives need mediating and explaining by thin 'experts' who arrogantly eye us as interesting scum in a petri dish.

Standpoint Theory takes the position that the best people to talk about a subject are the people directly affected by it. As a general rule of thumb I think this is pretty good, although it's worth bearing in mind that many fat people have internalised cultural messages about the awfulness of obesity, and that fat people are a diverse group rather than one with a generic perspective. It also needs stating that body size is not a good measure of where someone is coming from, attitude counts for a lot and, certainly, there are some very articulate and sound thin people who are currently producing excellent work around fatness. So it's complicated, as ever, just adding some 'voices of the obese' to the mix might not be what is really needed here, a fundamental paradigm shift is what is actually required.

Fat Economics makes universalist claims but only tells part of the story because it does not recognise fat people as having agency or a legitimate voice, and it doesn't seem to take a critically reflexive view of its own claims (I only skimmed the book, so maybe there's a sentence somewhere, but I didn't see it). Imagine how differently it would read if it did take critical perspectives of obesity into account, or was able to own and name its own limited perspective rather than assuming it to be universally true.

What if the authors of Fat Economics had actually talked to some fat activists, or were Fat Studies scholars themselves? What kind of questions would they have been able to ask? What economic questions would you like to ask? Here are some of mine: How much does body hatred cost? What is the financial impact of fatphobia and discrimination against fat people? What is the cost of a Health At Every Size programme compared to a weight loss programme? How much is spent on promoting fatphobia? And on it goes, useful questions that may never be answered because of the limitations of the academy, the wilful ignorance of its researchers, and the lack of political impetus for funding such work.


Rachel said...

Yes, I also hate the term "the obese." It reduces fat people to nothing more than a homogeneous clinical term that carries strong negative associations for many people.

It's so very easy for people to loathe a group of society they consider to be the "other." And prevailing stereotypes about fatness also help us to conveniently overlook or ignore the reality all around us. It's much easier to hate fat people when they're "the obese" who's hogging up resources. It's much more difficult to hate fat people when we think of them as our mothers, fathers, spouses, siblings, friends or even ourselves.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Thanks Rachel, I agree.

I think that there *is* hate in current obesity policy, but I also think that it's also framed as 'concern' and 'caring,' though is misinformed.

Miki Breakwell said...


This is a "thank you", not so much to do with just this post, particularly; but your whole approach.

Thank you for bothering to do some basic and indeed detailed research which it has never occurred to anyone else (including me, a fat Business Intelligence expert and therefore statistician) to do.

Thank you for questioning all the accepted wisdom about obesity, thereby allowing the rest of us to do so too.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Thanks for the encouragement Miki.

Mario said...

Ciao, I am one of the author of "Fat Economics" and I read your criticisms with great interest - I promise I will take into account them in my future research, especially in avoiding to refer to "the obese". I am sorry you see fatphobia and discrimination in what we wrote, it was certainly not our intention, I was even thinking that our book was making a different point... that contrarily to the public health vision, food choice (and possibly obesity) is the outcome of free choice and should not be targeted as a disease. Anyway, I'll try and take on board your tough comments, but I would be most grateful if you read a bit more deeper in the book (if only to reinforce your bad opinion). Ciao, Mario (P.S. How do you know we're thin?)

Charlotte Cooper said...

Hi Mario, thanks for your comment. I appreciate you taking time to write here, it makes me hopeful for productive dialogue although I need to warn you that I felt angry when skimming your book, and this is likely to be apparent in what I'm writing here.

I might read your book in more depth in the future but at the moment, based on my skim, it doesn't appeal to me. Why would I want to read something that likely further marginalises or pathologises me as a product of food choices? Or presents me as pitiful or helpless? Or that is written about me and people like me by people who possibly have little idea of what my/our daily reality is like?

I'm sure you all think that you're 'helping'. Everybody involved in 'obesity research', especially at high governmental or academic levels, thinks they're helping. But abstracting and absenting fat people does not help at all, especially in a fat economic climate where the US government thinks it perfectly okay to produce something like the Obesity Cost Calculator.

I think some really fruitful work could come out of fat and economics, but I think it requires a paradigm shift away from energy balance, or food discourse, or dehumanising fat people. I welcome your self-reflection here and I would urge you to consider doing some reading around Fat Studies or Health at Every Size. The Fat Studies Reader has just been published, that could be a good introduction to the themes I'm talking about here.

How do I know you are not fat? I Googled all the authors and searched for pics. Your academic institutions all have pictures of you on their websites. I made some assumptions based on headshots, but you all look pretty normatively-sized to me, though I'm open to discussion about that.