Quote of the Day

[Content Note: Fat bias; dehumanization.]

"People can't help how they look."—First Lady Michelle Obama, in a Google+ Hangout yesterday, trying to explain that the Let's Move! campaign shouldn't be focused on appearance.


Throughout the half-hour chat, the First Lady tried to emphasize that Let's Move! shouldn't be about physical appearance, but the problem is that this campaign has explicitly been an anti-obesity crusade right from its inception. One can't on the one hand assert to be "fighting obesity," and then on the other assert that the campaign isn't about aesthetics. And if one wants people to believe that one doesn't care about aesthetics, then one can't say things like "people can't help how they look," implying that fatness is unattractive and pitiable.

What's frustrating to me about this campaign is that I want to be on board with it. I am in agreement with the First Lady on probably 75% of what she's saying and most of the objectives of the Let's Move!, but that other 25% is super problematic. She's not listening to fat activists, who have been trying to tell her, in every way possible, that the framing and some of the language she's using is extremely harmful for fat people.

The root of the issue is treating obesity itself like a disease. From the start, Let's Move! embraced the fat-hating frame that obesity is an epidemic that needs to be obliterated, which is incompatible with the idea that health is possible at every size. Fat people's bodies have been a central target of the campaign—and now the First Lady is trying to unring that bell with bullshit like "people can't help how they look." Whoops.

At the end of the hangout, one of the invited questioners asked her how to get the family dog involved in healthful living, and the First Lady responded that President Barack Obama always teases their dog Bo for being lazy (great), but that they require their daughters to take him for a walk every day. She then continued: "Dogs are no different. You want to make sure they are eating a balanced diet, and if they are not an active dog, make sure that their food is reflective of an inactive dog and then get them out there and throw that ball and get them running."

Dogs are no different. Now that statement would have a very different flavor if fat people hadn't been the explicit target of this campaign. But we have been. Fat children, specifically. Again, let me return to the original announcement about the campaign:
"Over the past three decades, childhood obesity rates in America have tripled; nearly one third of children in America are now overweight or obese," the East Wing said in a statement. "The First Lady will announce the elements of the nationwide campaign, which will put us on track to solve the problem of childhood obesity in a generation."
Dogs are no different, in the context of this campaign, is not dogs and people both need exercise and good food, but fat people are no different than dogs. This is deeply dehumanizing language, because it's happening inside a frame of "solving obesity," as though one can go after "obesity" in an abstract way that's totally divorced from fat people.

The very argument that one can fight "obesity" but not be attacking fat people and our fat bodies is itself dehumanizing. My body is part of me, and, because I am defined by the rest of the world on the basis of my fat—because I am assessed and judged and have presumptions drawn about me and am treated on those conclusions because I am fat; because so many people think they know things about me, just based on my appearance; because I move in a world that constantly comments on my fat; because so many people attach a moral component to my fat; because being fat invites judgment in a way that being brunette or blue-eyed or short does not; because my body is viewed as a problem to be solved—my fat is central to my identity as a human.

Whether I want it to be or whether I don't.

That is the thing from which thin privilege insulates people. That is why "targeting obesity" is a fucking disaster, even beyond the simple fact that not every fat person can be not-fat in a healthy way. Or in any way at all.

After all, people can't help how they look.

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