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.