The persecution of people for their weight is a serious problem that should be addressed by government and civil society. But the ideal of ending fat discrimination faces some profound difficulties.
This article is not in favour of discrimination against obesity, rather the point here is to reveal the complexities of the problem. Fat discrimination is the direct consequence of exactly those everyday values and practices that we use to regulate our relationship to food and public life.
Anti-discrimination should therefore be seen as contesting with deeply entrenched values and, in relation to food, the odds are against the crusading outsider.
The science and morals of food
People relate to food in a variety of ways, but one of the most powerful modes combines scientific and moral dimensions. We evaluate our food choices for their nutritional content, using such measures as calories, fat, GI or glycemic index, and carbohydrate content. We also relate to our eating habits in terms of the moral will associated with them, so we resist overeating, don’t buy full fat, eat fruit and vegetables and so forth.
In these terms, the good eater combines knowledge of basic nutrition with the moral capacity to act in accordance with this knowledge of what constitutes “good” food.
This moral “regime” has a number of additions and extensions. Exercise, for instance, can be evaluated in terms of calories consumed, while casuistical reasoning allows us to make exceptions for special occasions when the discipline of calorie counting is allowed to lapse. Consider how even dieters will enjoy dessert at a wedding.
What emerges is a picture of a complicated art of living through which we relate to food and our bodies. Almost all of us submit to a version of this regime to some degree, and the ideal that becomes publicly shared as a result is that of the good eater-exerciser, who has achieved some degree of mastery over her body and its desires through this scientific-moral accounting.
To be clear, this description is not intended to valorise this regime. In fact, its technical and scientific aspects seem to greatly diminish the pleasure and emotional health we can enjoy in relation to food.
It also exhibits utter blindness to the socioeconomic factors that encourage obesity.
Putting that aside, the problem for ending fat discrimination is that this widespread regime is completely inimical to the call to respect obese people – they are clearly positioned as failures in this art of living.
From this point of view, the usual negative associations held against obese people don’t appear as prejudices so much as the straightforward meaning of their technical-ethical failings. The obese have not applied scientific nutritional knowledge; they have not controlled their will.
It follows that as long as this regime enjoys wide deployment via the science of nutrition, the dieting industry, and mainstream television (along with other sources), there is no reason to expect fat discrimination will significantly decrease.
Transgressing social norms
A second and equally widespread set of beliefs and behaviours by which we regulate parts of our lives relates to public comportment. From our earliest years, we’re trained to behave in public spaces according to a complicated code. This code ultimately reduces to sociableness – don’t stare at strangers, smile if possible, use please and thank you when receiving service, warn people of danger and so on.
A significant element of this comportment relates to personal space. Thus we say “excuse me” when we brush past someone, we try not to encroach on other people’s space on public transport, and we share park benches.
Perhaps the most common complaint against obese people relates to their limited capacity for participating in exactly these behaviours – consider the common complaint about sitting next to an obese person on a long flight, or the practice of certain airlines in obliging large people to purchase two seats.
Once again, this prejudice is correlated with the ideal of the sociable citizen. This ideal is at least three centuries old and was explicitly formulated to cope with the problem of unsociable behaviour between citizens.
As with the scientific-moral regime governing food, there are no signs that the ideal of the sociable citizen is going to fade.
Both the good eater and sociable citizen are ideals attached to concrete and lived parts of everyday life – eating and interacting in public. By contrast, anti-discrimination calls for individuals to behave in accord with an abstract legal-moral norm – do not discriminate on the basis of weight – that’s disseminated far less effectively.
If we consider the history of anti-discrimination movements in relation to race and sex, legal backing played a significant role in the campaigns’ success. Those who want to end fat discrimination, as we all should, may need to think beyond making impassioned pleas to a populace that’s deeply committed to rival arts of living.