17 October 2011

Anti-obesity campaigns: fatphobia in the radical left

My Facebook news feed is the place where I generally encounter fatphobic memes. A couple have cropped up recently that make me want to say more about how the Left uses fatphobia in its visual rhetoric, which is an extension of how the Left has continued to fail fat by stereotyping fat and class.

I'm posting the images here in order to take them apart and expose the hatred within the supposedly progressive message. People may find them upsetting, they are upsetting, I'm sorry.

A couple of years ago I wrote to the London Cycling Campaign (LCC) to tell them to stop using anti-obesity rhetoric as a rationale for their work. I live in London, like to cycle, and want to ride my bike safely. Being fat on a bike can make you a target for street hate. I wanted support for my cycling, but the LCC was not up to it and could only understand me as an offensive and abstract stereotype. I wrote How to Ride a Bike: A Guide for Fat Cyclists for their magazine, but it made no difference, anti-obesity continues to be a fundament of their mission statement.

So this image has been popping up on my news feed:

Not everyone is going to be able to ride a bike, there's a certain assumed embodied privilege about the idea that everyone should and can ride a bike. People's bodies are different. Frail people are not going to ride a bike, many disabled people are not going to ride a bike. Adaptations for disabled people who do want to ride are rare and expensive. Some people just don't like cycling. Cycling to town when you live in a city like London is not necessarily feasible. It's fine if you're rich enough to live in the middle of things, but riding to central London for me would mean a thirteen-mile round trip that takes in a dual carriageway and a handful of treacherous junctions, and I'm only in Zone Three. The cycle lanes that exist are not safe. I know two people who been run over whilst riding, and London's streets have far too many ghost bike memorials, I'm not interested in risking my own life. These differences cannot be accommodated in this image. In addition, the logic of the picture represents fat as a substance whose only use is to be burned, there is no humanity in fat.

This is a long way of saying that bike culture located within social and environmental discourse, and typically seen as representing a progressive, Left-ist politics, has a big problem with fat people. Those cyclists really hate us, even when we too are on two wheels.

Here's the second picture, eurgh, where to start?

Maybe with the racism? The people in these images are stripped of agency and humanity, they are abstract symbols that enable viewers to feel as though they can claim moral high ground through their pity and disgust for the people in the picture. Both images invite the enlightened progressive viewer to rescue the subhumans depicted, they need you!

The images have no context, they are offered as plain fact, it is beyond obvious that the starving African (a racist cliché in itself) and the greedy and out-of-control Asian* kids are both victims of a capitalism that favours some and not others, that a fair post-capitalist world would distribute resources evenly, where presumably everyone would have bodies that are neat, normatively-sized, the same. The meme presents itself as inarguable. Fat is greed, an obesity timebomb, a product of Western corruption, McDonalds, energy balance gone wrong, a racist terror of a voracious fat future dominating the world (ie the West, never mind that the West has its own history of colonial exploitation). Fat and thin are opposites. Forget that fat people might also be anti-capitalist. The slogan pulls it all together. You don't need to know anything else. Facebook tells me that this image has been liked by 10,000 people, shared by 7,000, and has enjoyed 4,000 comments (the 100 or so I looked at were uniformly praiseworthy). People on the internet really like cheap stereotypes, they help you feel good, as though you are doing something helpful for the betterment of humanity.

Here's what's not in the picture: Information about setserock and their motivation to create the meme, if indeed they created it, they may just have slapped their name on the corner at a later stage. Information about the people in the pictures, their accounts of being photographed, their thoughts about how their images have been used. Accounts by the photographers about how, when and why they took the photographs, how they were distributed, who got paid. A disclaimer about stereotyping. A comment on the implications of the presumed ethnicity of the people depicted? Thoughts about why the head of the person has been cropped out of the image (look familiar?). Engagement with the idea that fat is not pathology. And so on...

The picture comes undone when you stop seeing it as self-evident. Whilst setserock is enjoying hit after hit on their website as a result of this meme, I doubt the people in the images are enjoying any kind of material reward. How does that affect the statement? Who is benefiting from this image? Where is the power? How evenly is it spread? How exploitative is the image? How is this image a product of capitalism? How is setserock, and others who share it, implicated? Capitalism isn't working? No, it isn't, especially not here.

* Edited to add: I have read these kids as Asian though I am probably wrong. I don't know what their ethnicity is. I first came upon this image in a fat panic news story about kids in Asia, hence my reading, but it's likely that the people in the picture have nothing to do with Asia and were just picked from a photo agency's database to illustrate the story. 


dee.calarco said...

Just a comment on the picture of the fat kids. I think that you may have the general idea right - that both the Africans and the westerners pictured are members of racial minorities - and the details wrong.

I don't think those kids are South Asian. They're probably Hispanic. That means they're Americans of Spanish and Native American descent. That ethnic group (and everyone else with Native American ancestry, which at this point is most North and South Americans) is notorious for having thrifty genes.

In the US, both African Americans and Hispanics tend to be heavier than people of Northern European extraction, and racism and sizism are pretty closely intertwined when it comes to anti-black racism and US prejudice against Hispanics, which often expressed as anti-immigrant sentiment.

Emerald said...

Heck, I'd happily cycle here in rural Norfolk if it wasn't for the drivers - even the back roads aren't really safe, and I'd have to use a number of A roads to get to work.

I have American Facebook friends who pass on all sorts of images to do with the 99% campaign - some striking and thoughtful, but some, as here, making that association between physical fatness and capitalist greed. Paul Campos (I think) suggested that fat is being used as a scapegoat for the richer sections of Western society to displace guilt about their own consumption of resources, and I think he may well be right - but to see it used as a trope by people fighting inequality is depressing. I also resent being blamed for global warming, and that's another scapegoating thing. Grr.

Heather said...

Thanks for the link to your Guide to Fat Cyclists! Very encouraging.
In my town in the San Francisco Bay Area, there's a bike shop that uses similarly fatphobic slogans and ad campaigns. Their banners are displayed on the main street with lots of slow car-commuter traffic, and addressed to the drivers of cars -- teasing/chiding/taunting us about being fat, lazy, and trapped in our cars instead of lean, energetic and moving freely on bikes. The ads make me so angry I would never go to that bike shop! But I haven't told them so. Thanks for the inspiration.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Thanks all.

Dee, I first came across that pic in a news feature about fat kids in China, hence my assumption. You're right though, they could be of another ethnicity.