26 February 2010

Invoking the crazy woman to expose MeMe Roth's fatphobia is oppressive

I live in a part of the world where Meme Roth has no currency as a media pundit. This could change at any moment, all it takes is one journalist to give her a platform, and she'd be away, they'd all be calling her up because she provides what they want: colour, sound-bites, antagonism, and outrageous opinions. It doesn't matter that her claims are spurious, her expertise a sham, her organisation a front. The war on obesity is fashioned by mainstream media as a duel of twirling show-offs. Though Roth is no friend of mine, and there is nothing about her message that I support, I think she is really good at what she does within this context. Wannabe media-jammer fatties could well take a few tips from her. Fat activists might think about developing a critical approach to media too, why not criticise these dumby 'debate' formats? Or the system that creates and supports unsatisfying mass platforms for discussing fat?

A few of us are noticing a trend in the way that people talk about Roth. Again and again she is dismissed as mentally ill, and as someone suffering an eating disorder. These diagnoses are handed out by such experts in mental health as law professor Paul Campos; Jezebel.com contributor Jenna Sauers; and approximately 5,000 (give or take a few) angry bloggers and commenters, such as those adding their words of wisdom to Ruth Davis Konigsberg's profile of Roth for Elle in 2008, or those that turn up if you Google "MeMe Roth" and "mentally ill".

Such pop diagnoses are worthless, but act as shorthand for: I don't agree with you, I don't understand you, I wish you did not exist. These sentiments are valid, but why wrap them up in accusations of mental illness? Demonising someone doesn't make them stop, it doesn't solve any problems.

Historically speaking, "You must be mentally ill" has been used as a slur against women and against dissidents, a way of shutting up those of us who are angry and unruly. Perhaps some commentators will only be happy when Roth has finally been lobotomised or had her brain zapped in some Frances Farmer scenario. Lock her up in a secure unit from which she can never escape. That would stop folks from listening to her say mean or stupid things about fat people! That would remove the onus on people like us to just switch her off whenever she comes on the TV, to stop adding to her mythology.

I'm angry about how accusing Roth of being anorexic and mentally ill adds to the stigma and shame that makes life extremely difficult for people with these conditions, as well as those who love them. Mental illness is a tough ride, I've been there myself, and people experiencing it deserve compassion and support.

I'm furious, too, that people who call Roth mentally ill are saying that so-called crazy people, or people with eating disorders, supposedly have nothing to contribute to anything and should just crawl away and die. Has no one ever heard of Mad Pride or the psychiatric survivor movement? And what if Roth responded to her accusers and said: "Actually, yes I do have an eating disorder, yes, I am mentally ill." What then?


CTJen said...

YES! You beat me to it. I've been thinking of a post titled "In Defense of MeMe", not because I agree with her. Hardly. I think she's a vile, contemptible woman, but because the armchair diagnoses miss the point of "The Debate" all together. I might still do that post, but I'll definitely be linking to you. Well said. :-)

Charlotte Cooper said...


Anonymous said...

I thought something along the lines of what you wrote when reading all the comments/ posts/ whatever that say Meme Roth has anorexia or another form of mental illness - not just because of the reasons you described but also because I think that armchair diagnoses (that are quite often incorrect) can cause serious harm to the "diagnosed" person and I don't wish that harm on anyone, not even Meme Roth.* In addition, "accusing" Meme Roth of having anorexia also means that people might get the idea that all people with anorexia are prejudiced when it comes to fat people - and that is just not true.

However, I wonder what you think about statements like her claim that a person should eat no more than ten times their "goal weight"** in pounds in kcal... Personally I think that there is a difference in pointing out that this is far too little food for most people and that her habits would be neither sustainable nor healthy for the average adult and labeling her with having an eating disorder.

*In fact, speaking from personal experience it is hard enough not to get incorrectly diagnosed by a mental health professional - there is no need to add completly useless diagnoses from totally unqualified people to this mess.

**It seems Roth assumes a weight that corresponds with a BMI of 19 or 20 should be everyone's "goal weight".

Charlotte Cooper said...

I think what she says is rubbish.

O.C. said...

Thank you for writing this. I hadn't thought about it this way before you did, but you're absolutely right.

I'm reminded of how, during the last U.S. presidential election, supposed-progressives were quick to fall into sexist insults against Sarah Palin. Just because someone disagrees with you doesn't make it open season for prejudicial insults.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Right, it's a pathetic response offered by people who feel powerless. I think folks would do better to mobilise their resistance to MR and people like her in more productive and ethical ways. god knows that angry fatties have had the "you must be mentally ill" line thrown at them too.

Ashley said...

Wow, thanks for this post!I disagreed with a lot of what MeMe had to say on the debate, but I find it equally as irritating when all people can think to do is slap her with judgments and labels like anorexic and psycho. And of all people, it's coming from members of body acceptance! How messed up is that?! And several people even confessed to not even listening to her...so if you didn't listen to her, why should anyone listen to your banter about how "retarded" she is hm?

Charlotte Cooper said...

Thanks Ashley, I agree.

wriggles said...

I agree. The way she is attacked and dismissed is the exact same way, fat women are dismissed and attacked.

And I simply cannot see how what she is saying contradicts in anyway those establishment figures who say we must lose weight, we must become thin.

They just try to pretend that there's a healthy way for us to do it, for most of us, there isn't.

Lesley said...

YES THIS, damn it. Thank you. The "MeMe = crazy & anorexic & therefore bad" trend has been sticking in my craw for awhile.

O.C. said...

We should also say that even if it weren't simply the wrong thing to do, there's no NEED to stoop to insulting Meme personally. The things she SAYS are stupid enough. We can counter them all.

the fat nutritionist said...

I'm angry about how accusing Roth of being anorexic and mentally ill adds to the stigma and shame that makes life extremely difficult for people with these conditions, as well as those who love them.

I think this is a very, very good point.

At the same time, I've had my own mental health and eating habits dragged into public criticisms of me, and I can't help but feel a little bitter that, normally, thin people talking about nutrition don't face the same scrutiny that a fat person does.

I certainly don't want to trade in ableism or increase the stigma around eating disorders and mental health. Those are things I'm passionately advocating for.

However, I do think it could be appropriate to point out to MeMe, when she herself brings up her personal habits as though they are something for other people to aspire to, that they could just as well be interpreted as disordered and unhealthy.

But I agree that the personal smearing of her, and her supposed "diagnoses", are inappropriate, and disrespectful not only of her, but people with mental illness and eating disorders. And I can't go along with that.

It's a very fine line to tread between adding a critical analysis to someone's statement about their personal habits, and trying to paint them with a stigmatized label for the sake of discrediting them.

Charlotte Cooper said...


I can't help but feel a little bitter that, normally, thin people talking about nutrition don't face the same scrutiny that a fat person does.

I'm sorry you've been through this, it sucks. Not that this is what you're suggesting but I suppose I think that doing this to someone else does not redress any balance, it just adds to the greater pile of shame.

Chris said...

I am not so sure...I think that when people question MeMe Roth's rationality they aren't trying to disparage people with mental illnesses. I think that engaging with irrationality on is own terms can be very dangerous, even. I think the best possible thing would be to forget about her.

My partner's mother works in an institution in which she estimates the majority of the patients are victims of someone else's mental illness. Some mental illnesses are very destructive of other people, in particular the narcissistic personality disorders. I think there are certain forms of narcissistic personality disorder that manifest as the closest thing to genuine evil as anyone is likely to experience. I've had personal experience, within my family and outside of it.

Not all people who have a mental illness are unhappy, or even want to be rid of their illness (many people who are bi-polar would not give it up, or many people who are autistic). Some forms are beneficial to the individual on some level. But some forms of mental illness hurt other people directly - I'm not talking about shame, but genuine harm.

We live in a culture that increasingly promotes any form of public attention as good attention, and we have a corresponding increase in the incidence of narcissistic personality disorders.

Personally, I think the problem is that someone like MeMe, with such a hateful and irrational message, is scooped up and presented as an expert to provide 'balance'. If that's how the media works, then it's going to continue to attract people willing to adopt more and more extreme positions to get the attention they desire, people who can't distinguish the difference between good attention and bad attention. And we're all worse off as a result.

jenna said...

I'm very curious by what tortuous means you came to understand my post about Meme Roth's qualifications as a "nutritionist" -- or lack thereof -- as an attempt to "silence" her as a "woman."

But do carry on! It's so much more entertaining a story this way. Isn't it?

Anonymous said...

The fat activist community is richer from your presence, Charlotte. On a number of occasions I've found my perspective becoming kinder and gentler after reading your blog- this is one of those times.

wonderful woman said...

i don't think that anyone who is critiquing the Roth = anorexic/mentally ill equation would not also argue that what she advocates as eating/exercise behaviour is harmful and dangerous. Let's not forget that this behaviour is also called dieting and severe restrictions of calories and huge amounts of exercise are prescribed to fat people every day. And also that it's supposed to be ok for fatties and not for thin people when it's harmful to both. It's wrong and it's fostering disordered behaviour.

It's the labelling, shaming and just plain lazy hypocrisy of the 'Roth is...' that I object to. It's just as bad to label her as anorexic as it is to label a fat person as having compulsive eating disorder just based on the fact that they are fat. That's not to say that someone who is fat - or thin - doesn't have an eating disorder or any kind of fat eating disorder denial, but that the only person who can know their own behaviour and make those kinds of proclaimations are the person themself and any professional they sit down with and discuss the details of their life.

Those labels of Roth just detract from the issue and there are ways of talking about the problems of this kind of starvation/exercise advocation without resorting to what is in effect name calling. Name calling that is insulting, inaccurate and as harmful as anything Roth is saying.

Again, thanks CC for this post!

Charlotte Cooper said...

Thanks all.

Jessie said...

How do you feel about calling statements crazy, rather than the people who say them? I feel vaguely inclined toward that, but I'm not sure what the implications might be, or what other terms I could use. Chaotic? Nonsensical? Meaningless?

Charlotte Cooper said...

Jessie, I don't know. I guess it depends on the context.