Last week I read an article about colon cleansing. It was mixed in with lots of glossy pictures of winter trends, and the article was asking three people - a mixture of experts and medical professionals - about their opinion on colon cleansing. The doctor among them - who looked a little (ok, a lot) like Scrooge - firmly stated that colon cleansing was a thumbs down because your colon isn't dirty! His exasperation was evident in his words (and the exclamation point). It was one of those moments where I felt like Dr. Scrooge had reached out of the pages and slapped me in the face with the obvious old-school truth about our assholes. And it made me start to think about the idea of cleanliness and dirtiness as they relate to lots of things - especially food.
"Clean" has a very special meaning in the United States, where there is a uniquely high rate of germophobia or fear of contamination. When running a search for the word "clean" I got hits for brooms and mops (and a crawling infant in a sponge onesie), but a lot of hits were for things like clean living, clean eating, clean food, and this stuff called "clean cuisine." The word clean is used to describe a lot of unlikely things. In personal ads it's used to convey someone's STD/HIV-free status. In drug rehab parlance it's used to describe how long someone has gone without using. And when talking about food and diet, clean is used to describe what we culturally associate with low-calorie/low-fat consumption.
I have heard people (including myself!) describe the feeling after eating, say, a 7-11 hot dog smothered in plasticy cheese as "feeling dirty." And it's not just the nitrates. It's the guilt and shame of eating things like a ho-ho or a ding-dong (may they rest in peace) or anything from McDonald's. And make no mistake: the shame is not just about the fat content, it's about the class implications of eating foods that have been deemed unclean. Eating cheap food - which urban poor and working class people are perceived as eating regularly - is the moral equivalent of being dirty (more on this in a second). I don't know about you, but all of this clean unclean food talk reminds me of the days when I was a Sunday School teacher. What purpose do these classifications serve today in our culture, anyway?
Fear of poor people (especially poor people of color) and their potential to contaminate other non-poor/non-racialized people is a cultural staple in capitalist society like ours where there are very limited safety nets/government-provided benefits for US citizens and white supremacy is an essential part of the function of institutions. In the current age, fatness is associated with poverty. The fat body becomes a symbol of the perceived laziness of poor/working class people, who - if they were "better" citizens, as the myth dictates - would be able to work their way out of poverty and into the glorious halls of respectability. For non-poor and wealthy people the fat body becomes a corporeal reminder that represents what could happen to you if you become poor. The food that is seen as causing fatness is therefore seen as unclean - taboo. Make no mistake that race is part of this as well. People with dark skin are taught that they/we are dirty, and this permanent "dirt" (our pigment) is irredeemable. All of these things - the anxiety about racialized people and poverty - are projected onto food. Food becomes a fetish - a stand-in - for all the nuanced things we can't entirely articulate but that are unmistakably there.
Ok, one more level of analysis and then we'll stop! Our culture values the pursuit of ever-increasing germ-free levels of cleanliness - as a way to ensure long-life and disease-free living, which ensure productivity. This is connected to Western medicine, science and technology and these things are part of the prevailing white-supremacist/androcentric concept of human progress. I believe that consuming and buying into the idea of "clean" foods become a way we signal to ourselves, our networks and our culture that we are part of/on board with this project of progress. And, yeah, poor, fat, non-white people are just not signalling that - at all - and so we become, like, enemies of the state and subject to public acts of policing. I bet you didn't know your fat was doing all that, huh?
In conclusion, you don't have to agree with all of my contentions nor do you have to feel bad for maybe sometimes buying into the "clean" food thing. And I don't mean to imbue a double decker taco or a salad with incredible ramifications for global citizenship and heteropatriarchy. But I do want to encourage you to critically interrogate your feelings around food and where they come from.
The first time I heard about the linkage between suicide and bullying in mainstream media was two years ago. It was in the context of suicides committed by lgbt youth who had been systematically harassed/ abused by peers. At the time I felt that something was wrong with the use of the word "bullying" to refer to behaviors that had ultimately led to someone's death. I felt it didn't capture the extremity of the behavior. It didn't really encapsulate the, in fact, violent nature of what was happening, and it didn't capture the complexity and symbolism of the violence itself. Since then, the word "bullying" has increasingly been invoked when discussing public health campaigns targeted at fat children and the fatphobic behavior that fat people (children and adults) experience online and in person.
"Bullying" came up unexpectedly a few weeks ago at the National Women's Studies Association annual meeting. I attended a presentation by Sandrina de Finney and Jo-Anne Lee, on the relationship between colonialism and violence against racialized women and girls. They inspired this post, and both Dr. de Finney and Dr. Lee had critiques that felt very relevant to the invocation of bullying in the discussion of fatphobia.
Bullying is a behavior that pivots on a complex set of social understandings: most relevant for this article is the understanding that the person getting harassed is somehow understood to be outlaw or aberrant and therefore vulnerable and/or disposable. When we use the word "bullying" we cast fatphobic behavior as (1) unidimensional/non-intersectional, (2) child-like, and (3) a natural part of maturing.
When we use the word bullying to talk about institutional and interpersonal fatphobia we obfuscate the ways that fatphobia interacts with class, gender, and race. Fatphobia is perpetuated institutionally by things like laws, standard work practices and the War on Obesity. Fatphobia is also interpersonal and built into the way we speak, joke and understand ourselves socially. The way you experience fatphobia is affected by your perceived class standing, gender and race. For instance, the recent Strong4Life public health campaign in Georgia targeted childhood obesity by showcasing images of fat children alongside slogans that have been called "bullying" by critics. But carefully examine the image and text below:
The text reads "It's hard to be a little girl if you're not." The message is certainly brutal, but its complexity is lost when we simply look at it as bullying. This message is being tailored specifically to this child based on her gender. The slogan seems to negate not only the fact that she is "little" but that she is a girl at all. When read more carefully, this message is specifically about leveraging the threat of losing citizenship and recognizability as female and as a child.
The next ad reads "Fat prevention begins at home and in the buffet line."
The phrasing of "fat prevention" invokes the public health language used to discuss viruses in an effort to pathologize fat and cast it as communicable or as something you can catch while doing things like eating at a buffet: an activity that is specifically seen as something that only working class and poor people do.
Some of the campaign images were of children of color/racialized children. When casting conversations about fat brown kids as "bullying," the complexity of race (and the way that brown bodies are constructed) is quickly lost. Public health messaging about fat casts "obesity" as the cause of decreased quality of life/shorter lifespan rather than understanding these things as a product of institutional racism and a permanent under class.
The word "bullying" infantilizes - and consequently belittles - behaviors that can be harmfully life-altering and, at times, actually illegal. Furthermore, the word "bullying" invokes a cultural understanding that it is behavior that happens on the playground, eventually stops and that it strengthens us when we ultimately overcome it. Implicit in this understanding of "bullying" is that violence is a natural and necessary part of life and that it provides societal benefits.
I'm not saying that we should stop anti-bulllying campaigns or that the language of bullying has no place in a discussion about fatphobia. What I am saying is that the analysis cannot stop there. If you choose to use the word "bullying" to describe things that are motivated by institutions (like homophobia, racism, fatphobia), there has to be an attendant understanding of what we lose when we use this word to capture a range of behaviors that have their roots in the deepest parts of our culture's fears around race, gender, class and the non-conforming body.
Last Friday night was an unusual evening for me. It was raining. A baby was born. I hadn't had carbs in over three hours and I was wearing a bow tie.
It was the fourth day in an unusual string of rainy days. Because no one in San Francisco has any sensible shoes (myself included) those kinds of weather anomalies make us grumpy. But it didn't seem to stop the dedicated friends of Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion from filling up Modern Times. In fact, it was standing room only. Genne (co-author of the chapter, "Fat Histories, Fat Futures") had texted me earlier in the day telling me that she wasn't sure she'd be able to make it because her friend was having a baby. Somehow she managed to book it over to 24th and Alabama just in time to be the final reader and she looked damn good in a black and blue faux lace pencil skirt.
After the reading we signed books and I still desperately needed some damn carbs. So I went to dinner with my old friend Caya (we used to be health educators together when I first moved to San Francisco and bonded over our teenager-induced experiences of temporary insanity and also vulva puppets) and another friend from out-of-town, John (we dated very briefly while I was in college; the first time we met I thought he was pompous and I told him so and then he moved to England) at this hipster spot on 24th that serves milk shakes and Reubens at 10pm with a healthy side of ironically mustachioed attitude. Oddly, I found myself rushing through my chocolate shake as a fast-paced punk song played overhead - the only recognizable lyric being the word "FASTER" repeated again and again. John and Caya had to go home, but my night wasn't over...
I headed over to AsiaSF for the Full Figure Entertainment Hot & Heavy after-party, complete with signature cocktail, Fierce Diva, which was kind of like a naughty grown-up caramel apple made of alcohol. I danced my booty off. And then I headed home for a decent 4 hours worth of sleep before heading to Pac Heights for an afternoon of wine tasting.
Virgie Tovar, MA is one of the nation's leading experts and lecturers on fat discrimination and body image. She is the founder of Babecamp (a 4 week online course focused on helping people break up with diet culture) and the editor of Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion (Seal Press, 2012). She writes about the intersections of size, identity, sexuality and politics. See more updates on Facebook.