21 September 2010

Research: language and the war on obesity

I'm glad that I'm living in a time and a place where I get to witness at close range the dying gasps of fat hatred through the desperate medium of scientific obesity research. The days are numbered for the people who produce this work because a bunch of us are on to them and we're not going to shut up about what we've found, for example:
  • That their research gets funded by companies that benefit from fat hatred
  • That they have non-existent or crapulous methodology
  • That their interpretation of results flies in the face of all that is scientifically reasonable
  • That their work is founded in prejudice and misinformation
  • That despite access to resources, they exclude critical perspectives
  • The complete absence of fat stakeholders within work which is supposed to be about us, which portrays fat people, or rather "the obese," as some kind of Othered subhuman lump of helplessness.
Et cetera.

Alternative ways of understanding fat are starting to emerge from Fat Studies and through activism and models such as Health At Every Size. These take a more sophisticated view of fat, and strive to recognise the humanity and agency of fat people.

So here I am, sitting in my deckchair in the garden of Fat Studies, flowers blooming, birdies tweeting, golden sunlight, and I'm watching obesity science implode over the other side of the fence where the ground is barren and the stinking dust chokes you. I'm thinking: "Burn, baby, burn."

Today's piece of obesity science schadenfreude, evidence of a dying empire, comes courtesy of the University of California, San Diego (also home to a group of amazing Fat Studies scholars, as it happens). Lead researcher Jeffrey Schwimmer's study confirms the concept 'infectobesity' which refers to a correlation between exposure to viruses or bacteria and being fat.

Whether or not Schwimmer's research offers any useful facts is not my interest here. What concerns me is that this study makes the concept of infectobesity concrete and real to people without any critical understanding of its social impact, or care that such a perspective is absent.

The same happened with Foresight's popularising of the concept obesogenic, meaning how environments supposedly cause people to become fat. Not long after that piece of work was published – and boy, was it ever a piece of work – you couldn't turn a page of The Guardian without coming across some posh twit using it to make themselves look knowledgeable, concerned and important.

The effect of obesogenic was that it legitimised judgmental middle class intrusion into working class people's lives in the UK through stereotyping of poor people's perceived lack of health knowledge, proposals for Healthy Towns and food labelling and taxation systems, as well as the increased surveillance over children through chubby fatphobe Jamie Oliver's school dinners campaign and the whole Change4Life fiasco. Good work!

Meanwhile, terms like obesogenic and infectobesity are problematic because they assume that fat is pathology rather than a part of the fabric of humanity (we think that biodiversity is a good thing, why doesn't this extend to people where fat is concerned?) and automatically conflate fatness with ill-health rather than address the structures which influence health, eg poverty, discrimination, stress. They seek reasons for explaining fatness so that it can ultimately be obliterated, a rationale that mirrors eugenicist social engineering, only this lot want to do it for profit. Infectobesity is worrying, too, because a viral explanation of fat is likely to lead to increased discrimination against and social exclusion of fat people.

Given the ferocity of these ideological attacks on fat people like you and I, it seems odd that one might feel pity for the world that this research represents. It's a strange reversal of the pity directed at fat folk through obesity science. But obesogenic and infectobesity represent ever more desperate attempts to explain fatness using the ever-dwindling touchstones of energy-balance and pathology. These concepts are being produced in the shadow of new scholarship that blows this narrow thinking out of the water and threatens the profitability of the businesses which fund such rubbish. These are the final gasps of a dying entity.

I thought I'd end this post with some ideas for alternative concepts upon which obesity scientists could base some studies. Feel free to suggest your own.

Fleabesity The belief that fatness is caused by bites from infected fleas.

Obesogreed A term which refers to the insatiable desire to cash-in on fat hatred through spurious scientific claims. Describes weight loss companies that fund research producing and endorsing obesity charities.

Meteobesity The belief that fatness is caused by changes in the weather, or meteors.

Obesignore The act of paying no attention to one's own research findings and instead reiterating the worthlessness of fat and the value of weight loss at any cost.

UFObesity The belief that fatness is caused by aliens.

Uselessblobesity The act of making fat people absent, abject and anonymous within obesity research.

Disobedieisty The belief that fatness is caused by bad thoughts.

Dinobesosaur The term by which old skool obesity scientists should now be understood.


spoonfork38 said...

This is fantastic and funny and cleared my sinuses right up (my keyboard is another story).

Charlotte Cooper said...

Any time...

Heidi said...

Carpesity - the belief that fatness is caused by excess fish consumption.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Sounds reasonable to me. Time for a fat tax on those fish fingers.

Dominique said...

no-nobesity, the science of people saying ''if you quit doing this and stop doing that you won't become obese. And if you're already obese, quit doing this and stop doing that and you will slim down.''

Charlotte Cooper said...


Devra said...

Ehehee. Immediately, my brain spewed "astrobesity," "obesilly," "fauxbesity" (similar to fauxmosexuality) and "shobesity." Apparently, I miss you.

Kerri said...

Mantramethobesity - the belief that saying something often enough makes it so. An example of useage may be: "By using the respected Mantramethobesity tool of measurement, researchers have demonstrated that all fat people are secretly unhappy. Mantramethobesical studies have long reiterated such statements"

Flab-gab-obesity: The 'Eureka' moment a fatphobic pedlar of psuedoscientific fat hatred encounters upon talking to a fat activist. "I'm flabbergasted", they exclaim as they renounce the error of their ways.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Shobesity, is that something to do with jazz hands? x x x

Charlotte Cooper said...

Bravo Kerri!

Tia said...

You are absolutely awesome! I'm so happy you blog these amazing and vitalising texts that fuel my anger and determination to do something - for example, finish my essay on fat feminism!
Thank you :)

Kerri said...

Onanobesity. The profession of a belief in the existence of Flabgabobesity. Haha. *cough*

Charlotte Cooper said...


Tor Hershman said...

Moi 'tis also fat.
I've also been know to cause trouble BUT I REALLY NEVER DO ANYTHING!

JeanC said...

"UFObesity" I KNEW IT!!!!! I knew it was them thar alien who done swooped my up in their mothership and done made me fat!!!!!!!