12 January 2012

How body activism marginalises fat people

The YMCA is campaigning on behalf of 'body confidence' in the UK and is supporting a number of meetings of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Body Image, which started in November and will continue through to the end of February. These meetings are open to the public and involve expert testimony from representatives of academia, mental health, youth and education services, media, fitness, fashion, health and cosmetic surgery industries.

Those not able to attend are invited to give written evidence to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Body Image via an online survey. I submitted my response to this yesterday and encourage others to do the same.

I support this campaign in vague and general terms, I'd rather it existed than not, but I have many misgivings about it. I'm offering this critique not because I think this work should go away, but because it could and should be very much stronger and more emancipatory. Here's a brief explanation of why I'm wary:

There will be no discussion with health professionals or representatives from the National Health Service other than psychiatrists and psychologists. The hectoring use of BMI charts, plans to encourage everyone from chiropodists to pharmacists to 'helpfully' enquire about your diet and exercise every time you pick up some medicine or get your bunions seen to, and the public-private partnerships being set up between the NHS and weight loss companies would suggest that this is a significant area that affects people's embodied self esteem.

I'm assuming that this group has been omitted because they don't represent the more faddish side of weight loss, but this sets up a false distinction between good and bad weight loss; some doctors advocate very low calorie diets for fat people, for example. The campaign's website talks about problematic 'quick fixes' for body image anxiety, including cosmetic surgery, steroids, and fad diets, but it does not attack weight loss in general as something that is likely to screw up your sense of body image. This echoes a previous attempt to use the British government to support an anti-diet agenda, which was tabled by Mary Evans Young in the early 1990s with the support of Alice Mahon MP. In that instance diets were attacked as detrimental to people's health and wellbeing, but weight loss was deemed acceptable for 'the obese'. Presumably dieting or poor body image is only a problem if you are normatively-sized, everyone else is fair game.

There's no mention in the campaign of alternative paradigms that are already well-established, including fat activism and Health At Every Size. No representatives of these models have been invited to speak, it is as though they don't exist when actually there's a wealth of material and expertise and experience to draw on. The lack of connection to a wider context for this sort of work makes the campaign appear superficial, ahistorical and self-aggrandising to me.

Similarly, the role of dominant ideologies are omitted. Capitalism and neoliberalism are prime reasons why so many of us do not feel at home in our bodies. Racism and oppression in general have a massive part to play in it too. Fatphobia is at the heart of why kids are measured and dieted before they've learned to tie their shoelaces. Governmentality and medicalisation are surely implicated. The broader picture is not being addressed in this campaign, instead there is a pathetic insistence that the red herrings of 'celebrity culture' or 'the media' (which is never defined, and around which we all become passive dupes rather than active consumers or producers, or involved in any other relationship to it - and yes, the bombarded by images cliché is invoked) are the problem.

The online survey through which stakeholders are invited to give written evidence to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Body Image is poorly designed and full of leading questions, sometimes you only get a line to answer a fantastically complicated question, for example, which hints at the campaign's lack of understanding of the issues involved. The language and assumptions behind some of the questions is fatphobic, for example "What are the links, if any, between obesity, eating disorders and poor body image?" implies that the three concepts are more than likely linked and stems from a particular popular discourse of fat as a product of compulsive eating, an immature coping mechanism. Because it's a government platform, and this particular government is all about a neoliberal reduction of state funding, there are many questions about the economic impact of negative body image, which can get quite wearing, as if that's the only kind of impact that matters.

The YMCA is synonymous with gym culture, are they really the best organisation to advise on developing stronger strategies around health and self-image? Gok Wan endorses the campaign, truly a turn-off for me given his own weight maintenance regime. The YMCA's interest in the campaign is to "reduce body image as a barrier to participation" which suggests that they are looking at a business case as a rationale for this work. But I don't want good body image to be a means of transforming me into a more eager consumer of gym memberships, that's not why I do the work I do, my activism is anti-capitalist! Likewise, although I see fat activism as a broad endeavour where many kinds of activities can be sustained, including All Party Parliamentary Groups, I am an anarchist and government lobbying is not my preferred location for social change.

And what does body image mean anyway? The campaign's website defines it as "our idea of how our body looks and is perceived by others" but this is so vague, faux-apolitical and unrooted as to be meaningless.

Finally, you know what? There's not a single fat person in the promotional imagery. Bah.

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