The Mia Freedman Debacle, or, Why Moral Panics Need Strawmen

Bri King of Fat Lot of Good, fellow Fat Acceptance blogger and general advocate, recently came under fire as she found herself daring to push back against a so-called body image activist allowing virulently anti-fat comments on a recent post about feederism.

Bri has since been asked to comment for articles in several Australian news outlets. (students of sociology, pay close attention to the language used in the titles of each of these articles—five extra brownie points for some analysis, if you wish to provide it!)

1. Herald-Sun: Body blogger Mia Freedman gets heavied

2. Today/Tonight: Heavyweight fury

3. A Current Affair: Mia’s fat fight

The article is the fairest, though uses some cheap fat-mocking ‘colorful’ descriptive language here and there. Both of the other segments I watched briefly without the sound so that I could get a sense for the kind of imagery they put forth, and it’s immediately problematic — headless and legless fatties, thinner people who get attractive straight-on headshots, and so forth. But I think others can go through the segments with a bit more of a detailed analysis, what I want to talk about is what really went down, here, and why this is an example of how the strawman effect is the most powerful foundation block of a moral panic.

For Bri’s explanation and links to Mia’s post and its comments, please see her posts here (ordered by date):

1. This Angry Fatty won’t just shut up and go away…

2. still Angry Fatty

Freedman has since come back to explain that, in fact, she wasn’t talking about fat people in general but was highlighting the feederists, which we can all agree are bad, bad, bad! And why don’t us regular fatties just shut up about it, what, do we think that kind of behavior is good or something? Of course, the arguments being made against Bri are chock full of logical fallacies (extra points for those who list which ones!). And it shows either a great deal of ignorance or intellectual dishonesty on the part of a so-called body image advocate to claim that highlighting feederism in the midst of a moral panic where fat people are the folkdevils isn’t harmful to fat people in general.

Here are a few facts to chew on, in case you’re still not convinced:

  1. Feederism wouldn’t seem as horrifying if society wasn’t already panicked and disgusted by fat people in general. The natural bigoted question being, “Can you believe there exist people who not only like being fat but want to get fatter?”
  2. Feederism wouldn’t seem as horrifying if the common wisdom wasn’t erroneously that people with few exceptions have the ability to control their body weight. The natural bigoted question being, “Can you believe these people want to be fat when they could be thin if only they got their priorities straight or were sufficiently shamed, and further, that they want to be so very fat indeed?”
  3. Feederism wouldn’t seem as horrifying if the nanny-state wasn’t continually making its version of ‘health’ a public responsibility (thus placing people’s bodies into the black box of common ownership and hence critique). The natural bigoted question being, “Can you believe these people are irresponsibly choosing fatness when it’s my wallet on the line?”

Let’s further the analysis, for those who still aren’t clear on the connection between these points — demonizing feederism in the context of a moral panic where fat people play the part of folkdevil — and why such a blog post, made by a so-called body image advocate, furthers general sizism and worsens general hate of all fat people.

Feeders/Gainers, and those who are seen as clearly choosing to get fatter, are the strawmen of the ‘obesity epidemic.’ Because one of the fundamental lines of reasoning behind the moral panic of fat is that the vast majority of fat people choose to be fat. Hence, in the common-wisdom narrative of the ‘obesity epidemic’ all fat people are, to some degree, feeders/gainers.

So demonizing feeders/gainers in the context of the ‘obesity epidemic’ moral panic is the same as demonizing the vast majority of fat people.

And the comments on Freedman’s site prove this point to be true, as do many of the comments on the Herald-Sun article linked above. Those commenters don’t care if Freedman was talking about feeders/gainers in particular — to them regular fatties aren’t really that different from feeders/gainers. So what Freedman has written has the effect of only reinforcing the bigoted notions of fat put forth by the common-wisdom narrative, reinforcing people’s disgust over fat people. What Freedman has written reinforces their horrified sensibilities concerning what and how it is proper to consume food or think about wellness and how they believe ‘proper thought’ to be inextricably tied to a particular ‘proper’ size. What Freedman has written reinforces the idea that it is okay to hate and ‘be against’ this behavior, which to them is only an extreme version of what they believe all fat people do.

Freedman, a so-called body image advocate, is doing nothing more than promoting the ‘proper’ body — one that isn’t too fat — by means of what she surely believes is well-placed concern about feederism.

Still don’t believe me? Take the tenor of the comments on any article which treats this debacle (including comments on Freedman’s blog). The high level of outrage and disgust signify rage and panic over someone daring to be an outspoken member of a deviant class. This is traditionally how moral panics police their deviant classes. If most of these commenters came in with honest curiosity or concern over health, I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt the level of emotion would be quite a bit lower.

In conclusion, I would like to reiterate a comment I made on Bri’s blog about this whole debacle, in particular the backlash against her take on the situation.

Remember, the ‘obesity epidemic’ is a moral panic, and by being an outspoken member of the deviant class you threaten the status quo and that’s obviously ruffling some feathers.

In fact, congratulations are in order: it seems you’ve advanced your particular message to the third stage of activism. For as Gandhi said, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

They’re definitely fighting you. Cheers, Bri, keep on!

EDIT (5/13/10, 11:30p EST): Please also take a look at Spilt Milk’s current Freedman post. She replies to a comment Mia Freedman made to Spilt Milk’s blog—it’s really fantastic, please read it!

NOTE: If you have come to submit the comment, “But don’t you know that feederism is bad? What, are you promoting feederism or something?” I might actually publish it, just to get laughs. But I request in any case that you re-read this post — and again, if you’re still scratching your head — and if you can’t get it after that, congratulations! You’re a bigoted pawn of the moral panic. Or should I say, I send my deepest regrets to your friends and family.

18 comments on “The Mia Freedman Debacle, or, Why Moral Panics Need Strawmen

  1. daturagreenleaf says:

    You have an amazing ability to take a really complicated situation and explain it so well that it leaves no room for confusion. I was really struggling to put into words why this situation was so problematic, and you have summed it up brilliantly: “Because one of the fundamental lines of reasoning behind the moral panic of fat is that the vast majority of fat people choose to be fat. Hence, in the common-wisdom narrative of the ‘obesity epidemic’ all fat people are, to some degree, feeders/gainers.”

    • bigliberty says:

      Thank you! It took writing this to suss it out for me. As a side note, by day I’m actually a complex systems researcher (of sorts)—I get a lot of practice boiling things down that have a lot of moving parts :/

  2. Fatadelic says:

    Utterly brilliant post. I’m in awe.

    • bigliberty says:

      Thanks, I appreciate it…I’m just so tired of this goddamn obesity epi-panic already. I’m ready about yesterday for it to come to its natural end…but it’s not going to happen as long as there exist people who co-opt the language of body acceptance to advance their version of the ‘right’ body and ‘right’ behaviors without wondering if perhaps it’s that kind of dichotomized thinking which has led to a greater prevalence of disordered body image in the first place!

  3. Spilt Milk says:

    I love this. I have had an overwhelming feeling that amongst all the usual/unusual goings on surrounding this, that at the heart is intellectual dishonesty. You’ve explained beautifully how that is the case.

    • bigliberty says:

      I have to say, my professor of Frosh Honors Composition changed my life when he had us read Carl Sagan’s “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection.” I never, ever heard arguments the same way again, and I hope that I’ve been careful to try to avoid the most glaring kind of fallacies in my own argument. Still, there are a few simple things that have been made clear to me over the years I’ve been a size acceptance activist: We are in a moral panic where fat people play the part of obesity folkdevil, and people will cook up the strangest, most convoluted, and most importantly fallacious arguments to support their irrational biases (i.e., to strengthen the panic). I’m afraid it’s all going to get worse before it gets better, but we need to remain strong throughout it all, keep our head above the water, and we’ll get through it!

  4. sleepydumpling says:

    Fabulous post. It’s been an intense few days and I’m finally getting the opportunity to catch up with posts on the topic by folks other than Spilt Milk, Bri and myself.

    To be honest, I don’t think that either Mia, or those who support her “arguments” have actually read what we have been trying to say at all. Well, read it maybe, but comprehended it… no. It was all turned into “The Fatties vs Mama Mia” which is not where I started from or wanted to go.

    I love your use of the Gandhi quote, last night when everything was at it’s peak furore, one of the aforementioned ladies (and I apologise for forgetting which one) shared it, and I found it a lovely anchor point in a moment of chaos.

    Kudos for a beautifully intelligent and balanced analysis.

    • bigliberty says:

      I agree, I don’t think it’s possible that Mia and her supporters have at least comprehended what we’ve written (and at worst read it at all). I would hope that an intelligent, successful person like Mia Freedman apparently is wouldn’t so cleanly sweep reasonable arguments ‘out of her sandbox,’ as it were, considering she’s the one who started the feeders/gainers-as-a-freakshow dialogue in the first place.

      As a secondary note, I think all of this ties back into the good/bad fatty dichotomy in interesting ways. Since the moral panic has framed all fat people, to some degree, as feeders/gainers, it’s more important than ever to realize that us pushing back against so-called ‘bad’ fatty behavior is in its own small way fueling the fires of the moral panic.

      Truly, we also need to more fully embrace the fact that fat isn’t a behavior, and stress that no bodies should be demonized, regardless of how they ‘got’ that way. And further, wouldn’t this be the purview of, say, a body image advocate? And so lies the crux of the debacle, and why what Freedman posted is simply unacceptable for a person in her position, no matter which way you slice it.

  5. Miriam Heddy says:

    Given the prevailing belief among serial dieters that anyone (especially any woman) not dieting will voraciously eat the world, you’re right in noting that Gainers are likely to be categorized as just an extreme version of any and all fat people.

    And I will come down firmly in the camp of supporters of bodily autonomy in saying that we do ourselves a great disservice, as Fat Acceptance advocates, if we attempt to distance ourselves from Gainers in order to argue that we are reasonable while they are deviant.

    Specifically, we’re resting a movement on shaky foundations if we define the goal of Fat Acceptance as accepting only those fat women who:
    –are genetically fat (by however we define that)
    –are fat even though they “exercise” and “eat right” (by however we define that)
    –have a stable weight and grow no fatter over time
    –do not find their own fat body to be a source of pleasure
    –make no money off their own fat body in a world in which female bodies–especially thin bodies–are regularly commodified, even as fat women are regularly economically penalized for their fat.

    The second wave white feminist movement really messed up big time in privileging the agenda of white, middle and upper class heterosexual women, and marginalizing everyone else. The gay and lesbian rights movement has done much the same thing to bisexual and transgender people.

    I think that’s why deconstructing the rhetoric of fat hatred is so important. If we understand how some fat bodies are being used against all fat bodies, we might start to recognize that solidarity with those deemed deviant is important–even vital–to dismantling the very notion of “proper” bodies.

    • bigliberty says:

      This comment is made of so much win, thanks, Miriam. It’s so important to understand the dynamics of social movements in the context of what works and what doesn’t (to advance the message and reduce oppression, the goals of most movements).

      To split and divide the movement into ‘acceptable’ and ‘not acceptable’ bodies/behaviors pits us against ourselves. I think it’s important to note that the desire to reduce/gain is a symptom of a culture which places moral imperatives on being such-and-such a size. And that those who succumb to such pressures aren’t the enemy.

  6. Fat Academic says:

    thanks so much for this post and your continued support throughout this whole debacle. It really means a lot to me to know people have my back when things get messy.

  7. Snuffycup says:

    Hey BL, I don’t know if you’d welcome a comment from me or not, I totally know my last comment was completely inappropriate and I’m still so sorry! But on the off chance that I haven’t gotten myself banned, here goes…

    Thank you so much for this post, I just had a conversation the other day with my best friend on the feederism lifestyle. She’s fat (as am I) and is disgusted by feederism and terrified of being “lumped in” with “those” people. I had no idea what to say to her, I knew there had to be a way that feederism fit into FA but I couldn’t find any way to articulate it. Your post, and all the great comments after it, said everything I wanted to tell my friend but that I couldn’t find the words for. I’m going to direct her attention over here right now so she can become more enlightened (something you’re always helping me with, even if it seems like I don’t always get it right away) as well. Thank you!!

    • bigliberty says:

      Thanks for the apology. It must not have been a huge deal because I honestly don’t remember what it was all about! You’re welcome to comment here, I’m sorry if I made you feel unwelcome somehow. The last thing I want to do is scare off allies 😛

      I’m glad that my post has helped you better articulate how feederism and FA are related, and welcome to your friend when she happens to pop by.

  8. therealsydney says:

    Great post, I really enjoyed reading – I have to admit, I knew little of this topic or the blogs of Bri, Spilt Milk, Fathephalump until last week – I will now be following them all and encouraging my reader to drop in on them once in a while aswell.

    I have been a reader of, and commenter on Mia Freedmans blog for a few years – I have often disagreed with her – specifically on what I perceive to be double standards or inconsistencies in her messages. I will continue to comment on Mia’s site because I believe that all women deserve a voice, even the ones that disagree with her.

    For me, one of the worst things in this whole ‘debacle’ is that Mia really doesn’t think she has done anything wrong – and that’s pretty scary.

    • Spilt Milk says:

      I’ve really appreciated your contribution to this, The Real Sydney. It’s been a big boost personally and I think in terms of the message to have people like you identify that although our arguments weren’t ones you were familiar with (or even necessarily supported), that they were made reasonably. I also have to say, I think it’s wonderful that you’ve taken the step of educating yourself on what FA is all about. Allies are wonderful people! Certainly, Mia hasn’t admitted to any wrong-doing. But to be fair, she has stopped by Fatuosity (another blog), and Spilt Milk… I don’t know what she’s thinking when she’s reading. But I think it’s positive that she’s reading and I’m going to be optimistic about human nature, as is my wont, and assume that she’s capable of learning. We shall see if anything changes.

      I also want to put my hand up as someone who has tried treading the fine line between distancing myself from gainers and promoting acceptance of their bodies and I haven’t always done that well. It is really hard: like a lot of people, I am still working to remove that ingrained fear of fat but most of all fear of gluttony. I think it’s the blatantly unrestrained nature of gainers that causes us to view them as monstrous. In that way, this is a feminist issue as well as an FA issue: it’s about how we perceive bodies, how we police boundaries of bodily autonomy, how we label certain sexual practices as deviant. For women in our culture, to be accepted you must be restrained: you must diet or appear to diet or appear to ‘not need to diet’. You must police your sexuality or have it policed for you. Your body must be pleasing to others – privileged others – not only to you. Gainers subvert all those things and so do most non-dieting fat women. We’re in the boat together with feederism whether we want to be or not (and if we don’t want to be, I think we perhaps need to examine why that is. As Miriam suggests, there is nothing to be gained through further divisiveness.)

      Again, thank you for throwing some more light on this bigliberty because it has really made me think.

      • One of the things that really comes to light for me with this is that nobody should be ashamed of their bodies, even those that are engaging in what I would consider extreme behaviours at any point in the spectrum. I find the behaviours concerning, not the bodies, if that makes sense.

        But then I also think that others have the right to engage in those behaviours too.

        As someone who comes from a very disordered background around food and exercise, I know how much damage can be done with food or withholding it, the same with exercise or withholding it, but if someone is making an informed choice (instead of one they are pressured into making by fat hatred etc)… then that’s their choice.

  9. […] but clearly the good/bad fatty dichotomy is something to avoid (the latest example of this was the Mia Freedman debacle, where feeders/gainers — and soldiers of the anti-fat moral crusade see all fat people as to […]

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