When perusing my program for the NOLOSE Conference, I was struck by the number of workshops devoted to "keyword: fat + health." I wasn't the only one who noticed. Another conference-goer mentioned in a conversation that she felt there were two main tracks at the conference: one committed to health and the other committed to issues related to anti-racism/people of color organizing. This observation felt like cause for pause.
My ongoing ambivalence about the discussion of health in the fat movement was further complicated by attending a workshop entitled "Reclaiming/Reframing Fat Bodies: Is Health a Moral Imperative?" I spent the better part of the weekend having conversations and thinking about this question. Through those internal and external dialogues I was able to articulate some of my feelings around the language of health in the context of fat activism.
"Healthy" as an Identity
As a person who's fascinated by identity, I found myself asking: "Why are some fatties so strongly invested in an identity like 'healthy'?" Let me back-peddle momentarily and say that this post is not about why fatties are concerned about health. We are in the midst of an increasingly vociferous War on Obesity. We are constantly expected to defend our health. We are less likely to seek medical care because of the compounded (1) lack of affordable/accessible healthcare and (2) fatphobia that is a codified part of medical practice. Fatties have varying degrees of interface with the medical system, have different health needs, have different experiences around dis/ability. I'm not interrogating that. What I'm interrogating is the prevalence of the healthy+fat narrative. What I'm interrogating is Healthy as an identity.
I personally do not identify nor do I feel drawn to identifying as "healthy." On the one hand, this is pretty typical. When we're talking about identity, it's pretty typical that a person in privilege doesn't feel drawn to an identity related to that privilege - because they're not constantly forced to think about and experience this thing. For instance, once I was asked by a trans-identified researcher, "what does it mean to you to be a woman?" I was stymied. I didn't really have anything to say. I didn't have a highly salient/strongly-felt identity around being a woman because - as a cisgendered woman - there was little question - from friends or society - about my status as a woman. Related to the matter of health, a person who does not require ongoing medical care - a person like me, right now - is less likely to have a highly salient health-related identity. On the other hand, because I am a woman and a person of color and a fat person, my body (and bodies like mine) has been subject to medical and social discourse and scrutiny for quite some time. Disabled, female and people of color bodies have been pathologized for centuries. So, in some ways I feel I have been precluded or disqualified from the title "healthy," and so it's not even a desire I can locate.
Once a person holds an identity they are likelier to flag an identity or "perform" that identity. A fatty invested in identifying as "healthy" may be more likely to "perform" healthy. They may be more likely to talk about the "healthy" way they prepare foods or the abundance of "healthy" practices in their daily lives. In this way, the dominant discourse around health is reproduced in a community of people who have been stigmatized and dehumanized by that very discourse.
The Politics of Respectability
In a conversation at NOLOSE, a friend introduced me to Higgenbotham's critique. The politics of respectability are deeply concerned with being palatable to the very forces and institutions that seek to entrap us in the discourse of conservatism - which is about just that: conserving. It is a project concerned with morality, with (false) binaries, with "who belongs" and "who deserves." It is a project that has historically left people of color, poor/working class people, queer people, disabled people, trans people and even fat people behind. And I see the centering of the language of health/healthy in the fat movement as a threat to the future of our radicalism because it creates a culture of compliance in which there is an acceptable way to be fat and an unacceptable way.
We cannot discuss health in fat community in a cultural vacuum. When we talk about health at NOLOSE, for instance, we cannot ignore that we are in Oakland (home to a historically Black, working class population, where there are neighborhoods that have only liquor stores and no grocery stores), California (one of the biggest economies in the world, home to some of the wealthiest cities in the US), United States (where there is a firmly entrenched, WASP-centered idea of what health means and looks like). There is a pre-existing discourse around health that has a history mired in racism, sexism, and ableism. There is incredible cultural impetus to be "healthy" and "health" is framed in the United States as a personal/individual responsibility rather than a federal one. So, when we bring a discourse of health into fat community it already has preexisting capital and meaning; it already has the weight of social mores on its side. The message is familiar and so it's easier - and perhaps more alluring - to adopt.
Me & the Art of Failure
In another amazing conversation with a fellow theory nerd at NOLOSE, a (new) friend and I began discussing the politics of failure. I think being deemed a cultural failure is not only hot but also subversive. I had posted the following thought on my Facebook page:
Social systems are most vulnerable at their margins: so sayeth Judith Butler. To be fat is to experience the freedom that marginality - failure - gives me: the freedom from the tyranny of straight life, freedom from the suffocation of externally determined success, freedom to push the envelope, the conversation, to hike up my skirt, to see the futility of apology, to sweat and love and fuck the way that rebels do.
My friend said our conversation reminded her of J. Halberstam's newest book, The Queer Art of Failure. She observed that the idea of/obsession with health or "long life" is reminiscent of ideas of futurity and reproduction (in the baby-having sense). When I think about my life as a fatty, I find myself drawn to publicly consuming high fat foods, to showing cleavage, to having too much sex and too much fun. Maybe because I'm overly macabre, I don't imagine myself being 70 and telling stories to grandchildren. I don't see myself as part of the project of success or health or being a good American or being a good girl. And that doesn't make me feel sad. It makes me feel like a superstar. The rhetoric of health doesn't resonate with me, and there are lots of reasons why.
I have no grand conclusions or admonitions. I don't want to point fingers or shame people. These thoughts are just my offerings to a growing movement at a crossroads.
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.