22 March 2012

Using anti-colonial theory to call out obesity science

I'm noticing a wave of TV programmes and articles about the scientific truth of why people are fat, and what should be done about it. I know this is a pretty constant part of the media in the UK, but I'm noticing it more than usual, and it's high profile too. Perhaps its greater visibility is something to do with the forthcoming bikini season, or the devil's Olympics, or the Conservative-Lib Dem destruction of the NHS. Anyway, there it is.

Fat people are not present in this work, unless you count the headless fatties. Even though this is the kind of work that underpins how I am understood by the world, I do my best to take no notice of it because it takes no notice of people like me. There are plenty of articulate fat people who have a good grip on why obesity discourse is corrupt, including very gentle and moderate people who would be polite and constructive with their criticism, but you will never see them in work like this. I have written many times of the ways that obesity discourse makes fat people anonymous, abject and abstract, and this work continues to employ these strategies to reproduce and capitalise on anti-fat stereotypes. If it was truly helpful then it would engage closely with fat people. If fat people who have agency, community and culture to showed up in this work, it would expose the lie that obesity is a medical scourge about which something – surgery, hormones, drugs, genetic engineering, policy, shaming, hand-wringing – must be done.

Instead, this rash of TV programmes and articles about the scientific truth of obesity, and its inevitable solutions, present a world of experts who have no connection to the people about whom they are expert. What kind of expertise is that? This is why I think of this stuff as being more about the people who produce it than the people they think they're helping. Once again I thank the gods for disability activists who, over past decades, produced similar critiques of charity and medicalisation, showing how these concepts are generally less than helpful to disabled people themselves; these debates are directly applicable to fat people and obesity interventions, as I have discussed in my book Fat & Proud, and my ancient article for Disability & Society.

More recently, excellent critiques of problematic imperialist activist interventions are hot off the press, a response to white fat activism from People of Colour in the fat justice movement springs to mind, as does Teju Cole's The White Saviour Industrial Complex, I think these critiques, as well as anti-imperialism work more generally, can also help people call out obesity science and create space where more diverse voices can be heard within and beyond the dominant discourse. As disability activists say: nothing about us without us.

Meanwhile, obesity scientists keep gaining column inches for their neutral, helpful work. They clearly see themselves as the good guys, no-one could conceive that their work was problematic in any way. They're just helping to rid the world of people like me and you, you know, the useless ones, the social burdens. They're doing it for our own good.


Anonymous said...

Well done. U should be on the tele ;) I'm considered obese now but I don't want to lose weight cos of the 'shame' this term inglicts on me. I want to lose weight cos I am finding it harder to walk and I dont want diabetes, glaucoma and gout like my carribean father. However the pressure under 'scientiific scrutiny' makes me wanna head to krispy cremes in an anarchic display of 'fat rage'. My NHS dietician called me a 'domestic slut'
the other day - it was the only insightful and pleasing
remark of the meeting!

The Mojo Kid

Charlotte Cooper said...

Thanks for your comment. I'm sorry it's complicated. Good luck with the dietician, maybe see what they make of http://www.criticaldietetics.org/ ?