The Obesity Epidemic is a Moral Panic, FTW!

A quick hit today, for anyone who’s still wondering whether the so-called ‘obesity epidemic’ is really a phenomenon rooted in concern over public health, or has reached the fever-pitch of a moral panic:

(h/t Corpulent)

Negative attitudes towards obese people are based on an emotional response of disgust, a new study suggests.

Previous research had focused on the fact that overweight individuals are blamed for being lazy and not exercising self-control, leading to negative evaluations of those individuals.

The new findings, published in the International Journal of Obesity, suggest that the emotion of disgust can explain that association and may help explain why negative attitudes toward obese individuals are so resistant to change.

“Although the scientific community acknowledges biological, behavioural and social contributors to body weight, a common belief in society at large is that one’s body weight is almost infinitely malleable,” says UNSW psychologist Dr Lenny Vartanian. “The problem with this idea of willpower is that we chalk it up to a moral weakness.”  Dr Vartanian’s findings suggest that this moral judgement is not based on logic but on an emotional response to obesity itself.

And further down the article, to leave no room for misinterpretation…

Disgust is a basic emotion that motivates distancing from a perceived physical or moral contaminant, Dr Vartanian says, yet such responses can change as a result of social influences: attitudes to smoking, for example, have swung from acceptance towards disgust since the 1950s.

“Attractiveness standards have shifted over time, with more curvaceous figures being preferred in the beginning of the 20th century and again in the 1950s, but more slender ideals being prominent in the 1920s and continually since the 1980s. In parallel with this latter trend, attitudes toward obese individuals are worse today than they were 40 years ago.

“It is possible that these body-type preferences over time have also become moral values, and that those who violate this moral value elicit a disgust response. Efforts to change negative attitudes toward obese individuals, therefore, might work toward reversing this moralization process and reducing the moral value placed on leaner body types.” [bold mine]

As an activist this kind of result only highlights the need to attack the so-called ‘obesity epidemic’ as a moral panic, rather than some kind of extreme, yet well-intentioned, concern for public health. For instance, this means we need to see childhood obesity interventions for what they are—political capitalizations on the moral panic, not true concern. It means we need to hear our relatives’ weight-related comments not as concern, but as dutifully policing the standards of the moral panic. It means we need to understand that most doctors who shell out diet plans and gastric-banding pamphlets are willfully abandoning the Hippocratic Oath to be good soldiers for the crusade.

In fact, it is important at this point to note that in my opinion we can firmly conclude we are in the midst of a moral crusade, not just a moral panic. Moral panics are often reactions, temporary, lasting only as long as the perceived ‘threat’ exists as such. The study above makes it clear that the moral disgust of fat people isn’t transient and doesn’t have a context. It has become “We have always been at war with Eastasia…” That is, a fact of history and life that is portrayed as immutable though ultimately based in some kind of fundamental choice (usually the choice is whether or not to question it).

While fat-health-mythbusting gets a lot of face time in the movement, I think it’s important to note here that, at bottom, fat disgust is not determined by whether or not fat bodies are perceived as healthy. That’s simply the current popular vehicle for the hate to seem acceptable and reasonable. Rather, fat bodies have been dehumanized as monstrous lumps who exhibit some of the worst personal vices, universally loathed. How can one argue against an emotion? How can one myth-bust disgust?

Truly, it’s time to hunker down and really think about how we, as size activists, can effectively work within the context of this moral panic. Which messages best undermine the moral panic? I’m not quite sure at this point, 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 some degree a feeder/gainer — were bashed and dehumanized, and a highly predictable moral panic feeding frenzy ensued in the comments).

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6 comments on “The Obesity Epidemic is a Moral Panic, FTW!

  1. Frances says:

    Yep. A thousand times yep. Damn it, why couldn’t I have been this eloquent in my blog post?!

    • bigliberty says:

      Are you kidding? You’re very eloquent! (thanks, btw) In fact, you put forth the first point of how we need to undermine the moral panic — deconstructing the (for the most part, female) beauty ideal.

      While I’m interested in aesthetics and do think there are beautiful and un-beautiful things, in that same sense I believe quite firmly that the modern female beauty ideal’s got it all wrong. In fact, the ideal is meant more as a structure within which women can be kept down and oppressed…controlled, kept from participating fully in society. Which is why I think the ‘fat, out-of-control, hypersexualized woman’ is such a potent folk-demon. It combines two panics into one: the fear of female power, and the loathing of fat.

  2. richie79 says:

    As I tell people who leave fatphobic comments on the DM and other news sites, their eagerness to jump on the fat-bashing bandwagon in fact only demonstrates their susceptibility to media brainwashing / cultural conditioning and an inability to think for themselves. Smart people don’t hate who they’re told to hate but look behind the headlines and try to understand WHY the powers that be are so keen to recast a particular group as folk devils. The ‘visceral negative reaction to obesity as sickness’ is a common trope at the moment with various attempts to afford it the thin veneer of scientific credibility, but it’s one that even my cursory knowledge of social anthropology and human history can quickly dismiss. If disgust at fat people was a natural phenomenon why would Rubens and his contemporaries have spent years painting glowing representations of us, Pacific Islanders and other native peoples venerate us, or the Mauretanian fattening farms remain, despite the growing influence of the Western beauty myth, in such demand? Eastasia indeed; excellent post as always.

  3. publius1796 says:

    I don’t know how it should be done, or if the following suggestion falls into the “good fatty/bad fatty” trap of bad logic (in terms of requiring someone from a disenfranchised group to engage in “acceptable” behavior), but perhaps reminding people of the accomplishments of persons of size from the past (I am concerned with the judgement of “size” here, though, and don’t say this to offend anyone) might lessen the disgust of the fat-phobes. I compiled a list for myself of larger-than-average folks (only by the restrictive standards of today!) who have influenced world history and culture and myself: Queen Victoria, Winston Churchill, BB King, John Adams (US Presdient), Colleen McCollough (writer, neuroscientist), Benjamin Franklin, Sonia Sotomayor, Julia Child, Carlo Rubbia (1998 Nobel prize in Physics), Luciano Pavoratti, Aretha Franklin, Elizabeth Blackwell (first female medical doctor in the US), Otto Stern (physics Nobel prize), and Buddha (or at least the popular depictions of him). Again, I do apologize if the list offends anyone–I take full responsibility for having jugded these persons as above what our Western society currently views as an acceptable weight, based on photos I have encountered in text books and on the web, and I do so to highlight the fact that accomplished people come in all shapes, sizes, genders, and colors.

  4. publius1796 says:

    Wait, I have a more simple strategy to deal with fat-phobes: ask them their political convictions, and then call them out on their hypocrisy. If they are liberals, they should in principle be tolerant of ALL kinds of people (lest they be hypocrites), and if they are conservatives, they shouldn’t want the governement to waste it’s time regulating what we eat and what we weigh!

    I know it sounds hokey, and truthfully, the political convictions of a lot of people (in my experience at least) fall somewhere in the middle and are more complex than the “2 party” partisanship portaryed in the popular media. However, for the folks that absorb the fat “debate” via the popular media, this (calling them out on their own hypocrisy) might be effective, especially in the partisan climate of today.

  5. […] Big Liberty talks about how the “Obesity Epidemic” is a moral panic. […]

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