Last week, The Daily Beast published an essay by Emma Woolf with the title: “If You're Fat You've Only Got Yourself to Blame.“
The essay supplies the usual chatter about taking personal responsibility for your body, because you’re making the wrong choices, understand, because whatever is going on with you physically, it’s pretty much always because of choices you did or didn’t make. The tone of the essay is saturated with the customary flavors of “tough love” (because I guess there are two or three people somewhere in the internet-accessible world who have never heard this idea before) and bombastic righteousness, that this is common sense, and why do none of you have any common sense? Come on, with the common sense.
It’s a curious argument mostly because it’s such a familiar one -- there is nothing earth-shattering or radical about asserting that the responsibility for fatness lies with fat people themselves. This is actually the most popular narrative on the subject. The voices trying to acknowledge that perhaps different people are fat for a variety of reasons -- not all of them due to a habit of consuming whole buckets of Crisco in one sitting, on a reinforced couch, using an ice cream scoop -- are far fewer than those who assert that obesity is a singular problem with a singular cause and a singular solution that is universally applicable. In other words, you’re fat because you eat the wrong things, and too much of them, and there is no other reason in the world that anyone is fat.
These beliefs are based on the idea that somehow, even in the absence of formal education on the subject, we all perfectly understand the science of how bodies work, and that we are basically just furnaces on the inside, into which fuel is stuffed through the mouth, burned for energy, the leavings dropping out our back ends. SIMPLE. SIMPLE SIMPLE SIMPLE, because bodies are simple as a campfire in a flesh-box and there’s nothing more to it than that. No, no, don’t think critically about this. Never think critically, it’s bad for you.
But I digress. Woolf’s Daily Beast essay was inspired by her recent experience on a radio show, in which the host and another journalist argued that their weight problems are “not their fault” and that, “The louder the food police shout, the more they scare us into scoffing doughnuts.” Near as I can figure, the logic here is supposed to be that conflicting information about healthy eating is baffling people into -- eating doughnuts, I guess? I’m still not clear on that.
But whatever the question, the answer is always “self-control.” Woolf’s point is to remind everyone that they are solely and individually responsible for the size of their bodies and the things they eat, and she resorts to a familiar metaphor:
As any ex-smoker knows, there is nothing more tempting than others lighting up around you, the sight and smell of a cigarette, the habit, the urge. Instead of blaming other smokers, I simply avoided pubs, clubs – even coffee bars – until I was through the worst cravings.This is called taking control.
Of course, there’s a problem with this popular analogy (and it's not just me always wondering if I am the only ex-smoker who had no problem being in smoking environments when I quit -- my worst triggers were traffic and writing): unlike cigarettes, alcohol, or virtually any addictive substance, food is not optional in life. You can’t avoid food cold turkey; you can’t quit eating altogether. Even avoiding secondhand exposure to specific types of food -- anything purchased via a drive-through window, for example -- is all but impossible for most people, because fast food is so ubiquitous.
Which is why the accountability argument is so perplexing. When people assert a belief that the ready availability of high-calorie fast foods are a factor in their weight, the suggested solution is self control, and the means of achieving self control is via avoidance. Which is exactly what these complaints are addressing -- the difficulty of avoiding these foods. In many cases in the US in particular, where food deserts are increasingly common in low-income communities, people must contend with the impossibility of accessing and affording “common sense” options like fruits and vegetables and other whole foods. This, of course, is not only a problem for people who want to lose weight, but for people who simply want to eat a more balanced diet.
When a person is trying to quit smoking, their goal is simply not to smoke a cigarette. When a person is trying to make more thoughtful choices about the foods they eat for the purposes of weight loss, they cannot simply stop eating. I mean, they CAN, but that comes with its own problems.
Which brings me to the other glaring issue with this approach. I probably wouldn’t even have noticed the Daily Beast article if it wasn’t subsequently commented on in a response from Tyler McCall on Fashionista, who notes that Woolf’s mention of her own struggle with anorexia seemed to undercut her assertions about self-control being the answer:
I have to wonder if, during her struggle with anorexia, Woolf ever had someone tell her to "just eat something." I'd imagine that she did, because eating disorders are still so frequently misunderstood as a simple problem of vanity rather than a complex and devastating mental illness.By Woolf's own argument, she should have known -- and probably did know -- that depriving her body of food and nutrients was likely killing her slowly. Yet I have to imagine that having someone tell her to just stop, to just eat something, would probably have been a deeply frustrating experience.That's because weight, like every other decision we make as human beings, is a much more complicated equation than, "I know this is what I should be doing, but I'm not going to because I don't feel like it." If simply knowing something was bad for us was enough to deter us from making bad decisions, no one would over eat, become addicted to drugs, practice unsafe sex -- or fall victim to eating disorders.
I think that this assessment is spot on. As much as we like to cling to the idea that our cultural and personal relationships with food and bodies are as straightforward as flipping a switch, they are, in fact, anything but. Each of us brings a literal lifetime of personal experience to our consciousness of these issues, and as such our reasons and approaches and explanations will inevitably be radically different, from one person to the next. Acknowledging individual circumstances is not avoiding blame, but then, why does blame need to be assigned in the first place?
For as long as I’ve been publicly writing on the subject, I’ve experienced people either asking me or telling me why I’m fat. When they ask me about it, they already think they know the answer. When they tell me, it doesn’t matter whether I think their explanation is true. (Fun fact: That’s where this book title came from.) Indeed, I predict at least one person will comment on this essay right here with some self-styled wisdom on why I am fat, as though my body is an irresistible mystery just begging to be unraveled.
I’m pretty accustomed to the fact that, on a cultural level, my fat body does not belong to me exclusively. By virtue of my putting it out in public -- especially without making copious apologies or engaging in redeeming behaviors -- I am perceived to be inviting the world to tell me about myself, and the truth or inaccuracy of what they say is irrelevant. My opinions don’t matter; I have demonstrated that I can’t be trusted on these matters, nor can I be trusted to correctly occupy a body of my own in the first place.
(Luckily, it’s still socially acceptable to offer unwelcome advice to people who seem to have a “weight problem,” to instruct them on how they might improve their body-having skills. Just because there’s no reason to believe this has ever worked efficiently in the past is no reason to believe it might not work now! Just EAT LESS and EXERCISE, am I right?)
I also know that on a functional level, assigning fault or blame is irrelevant. It’s your own fault you’re fat! OK? Whatever. Even if it’s true -- and in some cases it certainly is -- how does that change anything? Do you feel smart for having said it out loud? Do you expect a response that outlines all of that person’s deeply personal and private feelings about their body and their weight? Are you trying to be someone's savior? Are you waiting for a lightbulb moment in which the fat person in question says, Oh wow, you’re right, and I’m going to do something about it because you said so, helpful stranger!
In a broader sense, why are we so married to the pervasive idea that we need to have a reason, that we must always be prepared to supply an explanation for our bodies? This is as true when someone remarks that we look “tired” as it is if they’ve mentioned a perceived weight loss or gain. You need to give a reason -- you need to explain yourself. You need to say why you don't look the way someone else expected you to look.
Ultimately, assigning blame is really about making fat people feel sorrier for obesing up the planet. It’s about applying more social pressure to be thinner, because the internal pressure many fat people feel -- pressure that, in many cases, is buffeted by self-loathing and misery -- obviously isn’t enough. Never mind that research has demonstrated that this kind of negative feedback is likely to make people fatter still. Assigning individual blame for obesity is not about helping people, or about improving their health or their overall well-being -- it’s about social control.
I’m bored with reasons and explanations. I don't have any. I have a handful of possibilities I sometimes turn over in my own mind, but none of them is a conclusive reason for my body, because I don't know precisely why my body looks how it looks. I don’t pretend to have minute control over every bulge, fold and curve, even though I guess I’m supposed to want that. I don’t know why I’m fat any more than I know why the sound of someone whistling an unrecognizable tune makes me near-homicidal, or why I love raw mushrooms but cooked ones make me gag.
More to the point, I just don’t care. And if I don't care, why does anyone else?
You can say I'm to blame, or not. I’m dropping out of this debate. I don’t need a reason. I don’t need to explain. Say I’m fat because I am transporting a colony of aliens, or because as a child I was tricked into eating a magical obesity pie, or because gnomes built me from the slain flesh of the legendary pig Plumpsnout for the purposes of infiltrating the human world and infecting as much of the population as possible with the blessings of sacred gnomic fattery, or because I’m an undercover whale.
Just whatever you make up, make it good. And keep it to yourself.