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.

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Eugenics Rears Its Ugly Head, Again

When you deliver your body to the State, expect the State to start:

  1. Making you do things
  2. Preventing you from doing things

In other words, if you hand your body over to someone else, that someone else will claim the right to control it.

Today I was rudely reminded that eugenics, one of the nasty platforms of famous fascist/socialist states like Nazi Germany, is alive and well (h/t Elizebeth). Eugenics posits that one can (must) improve the species by allowing some people to have children, and disallowing others. In our modern time, it has also become more selective: couples can choose to have children with certain genetic makeups and not others. All in the name of having the ‘best’ child, who will become the ‘best’ kind of citizen and human, and that these ‘best’ people are superior in general to naturally-born, unselected people.

In this current example, The European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE)), has recommended practitioners or governments which follow the Society’s recommendations, void the Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for certain classes of people, namely (bolding mine):

1) In view of the risks for the future child, fertility doctors should refuse treatment to women used to more than moderate drinking and who are not willing or able to minimize their alcohol consumption.

2) Treating women with severe or morbid obesity required special justification. The available data suggested that weight loss would incur in a positive reproductive effect, although more data was needed to establish whether assisted reproduction should be made conditional upon prior life-style changes for obese and smoking females.

3) Assisted reproduction should only be conditional upon life style changes, if there was strong evidence that without behavioural modifications there was a risk of serious harm to the child or that the treatment became disproportional in terms of cost-effectiveness or obstetric risks.

4) When making assisted reproduction conditional upon life style modifications, fertility doctors should help patients to achieve the necessary results.

5) More data on obesity, smoking and alcohol consumption as well as other life style factors were necessary to assess reproductive effects. Fertility doctors should continue research in this area.

Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (bolding mine):

Article 16
  1. Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
  2. Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
  3. The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

It is my firm belief that being fat is intertwined with racial status, since fat is preponderantly genetic. Therefore, discriminating against fat people is discriminating against them based on their racial status. Again, fat is not a behavior. Fat is not a disease. Fat is a body type, which is preponderantly genetic.

To understand how ridiculous this is, just consider this one fact: the fear of diabetes is one of the largest health ‘risks’ that anti-obesity crusaders tout when trying to get you into a panicked enough state to agree to their fascist ultimatums. And having diabetes in your immediate family is by far the largest risk factor for having diabetes yourself. Yet, women who already have diabetes — or heart disease, or a history of cancer, or any of the other major ills thrown at the doorstep of fatness — aren’t disallowed from getting reproductive help in the article being discussed here.

This isn’t about the future health of the child (a concept right out of eugenics, by the way), or whatever malarkey they’re concocting to get you to go along with their crusade. Or else women with diseases shown to be genetic wouldn’t be allowed to get reproductive help. No, this is a direct attempt to make formal the second-class status of unpopular groups of people.

As a final note, not only should it be a basic human right for a woman to reproduce if she so chooses. It should also be a basic human right to contract with another individual for services that do not violate other basic human rights. In other words, if there’s a doctor willing to contract with you for IVF services, then you have the right to proceed.

Send Away the Fat Kids

Shudder-worthy article today: Task force: Screen kids, obesity treatment works

An influential advisory panel says school-aged youngsters and teens should be screened for obesity and sent to intensive behavior treatment if they need to lose weight — a move that could transform how doctors deal with overweight children.

Needless to say, sanity watchers points required when reading the entire article.

Ugh, this kind of thing makes me sick…such blatant ‘othering,’ such a huge expense, for: “…intensive treatment can help children lose several pounds — enough for obese kids to drop into the “overweight” category, making them less prone to diabetes and other health problems.”

Several pounds? Twice a week appointments, group ‘therapy’ meant to brainwash children that feeding themselves and/or not having a cookie-cutter body type is a sign of being broken and bad?

Ugh, ugh, ugh. What are your thoughts?

Case-building: Making Fatties the Deviants

In every good moral panic one needs a deviant group on which to blame the ills of the current moral (financial, political) crisis. Since moral panics seek to fix some broken part of society, it makes sense that a group of people is singled out to symbolize the ills associated with the crisis.

Since the late nineties (around the time of the last BMI revision in 1998), the number of news stories about the so-called “obesity epidemic” increased exponentially, reaching a fever pitch in 2004. Check out the timeline chart on the top of the Google News results for “obesity epidemic”:

Frequency of "obesity epidemic" in news stories from 1990 - 2009, via Google

(I can’t find the chart, but I think this somewhat parallels, oddly, the average BMI increase in that same time period, which topped off in 2004 or 2005)

A recent example of the creation of a deviant group to take the brunt of the latest healthism/healthcare panic is the assertion that cases of diabetes are going to keep rising, with a concomitant soaring of costs. (h/t Andy Jo)

Blaming rising healthcare costs on us fatties is one way of covering one’s ass when one isn’t willing to institute any meaningful healthcare reform, just new entitlements.

This is case-building: so that when people are pissed off that healthcare costs haven’t dropped under a new system of entitlements, they direct that anger at some deviant group, rather than where it belongs — at the philosophy of entitlement with its false utopian vision, and the proponents of that vision.

I’ve said it before, and will say it again. When you make your body the financial business of your neighbor, get ready for your neighbor claiming the right to have say over your body. In other words, making healthcare a public financial burden makes your body public business, and thus erodes the most fundamental right of living in a free society.

This is merely the tip of the iceberg, folks. The government takeover of healthcare hasn’t even passed in the Senate, yet, and there’s already talk of reigning in costs by discriminating against particular groups of people, in this case a popular deviant group of the Healthistic moral: fat people. Do you think it’s going to stop at higher taxes for fat people, if that isn’t bad enough? I predict it will not: forced interventions, children being taken away from their parents, fat people being practically barred from some kinds of  employment, and the ultimate loss of the freedom to pursue happiness in the confines of liberty will be the end result of this government takeover of healthcare. And it will start with fatties, but it won’t end with us, because we are not the source of all healthcare-related ills.

Stay tuned. It’s going to be one helluva ride.

When Other People Pay For It, They Can Claim the Right to Control It

I’ve said this several times before, but it bears repeating: when other people can make a reasonable argument that they are paying for the choices you make about your body (even if those choices are only perceived choices), then they can claim the right to have a say in your choices.

Take the furor over the Stupak amendment to the recently passed House healthcare bill. I was walking through Harvard Square last afternoon on my way to my weekly voice lesson, and there were congregated at the mouth of the stairs to the station a group of protesters, who desired to get the Stupak language stricken from the (potentially) reconciled House and Senate bill.

I didn’t stop; I’m rather used to Harvard Square protesters. Let’s just say they’re not a particularly rare occurrence.

But I couldn’t help shaking my head and thinking, as I descended the stairs into the station, how those pro-choice, body-freedom people on the left are finally discovering that the greatest threat to their personal choices and freedoms isn’t some corporation or private entity, but widespread government control.

I’ve long heard fauxgressives waxing philosophical about how greater government control at the federal level would loose certain states from fascist, body-controlling regimes. They claim that those who don’t want to use taxpayer dollars to subsidize abortions in some way are the extreme fringe social conservatives, who I agree are fairly nuts. But this goes way deeper than that. The abortion debate has never really been about fending off nutty social conservatives, in my opinion. And it’s not just about abortion as a choice; it’s a symbol for the much greater question of government control vs. body autonomy.

That question is at the center of the debate on government’s role in healthcare.

The Stupak amendment clearly illustrates that with few votes to pass it, late at night on a Saturday when most people aren’t watching C-SPAN (though I was, dammit), a large swath of your freedom can be subverted. And though the Stupak amendment didn’t go as far as banning abortion outright, it did quite plainly single out a behavior that was unpopular and discriminate against it.

In the free market, if there’s demand, there’s availability. In a controlled market, there’s a hell of a lot more white noise between demand and supply. It’s not enough that you and your neighborhood wants it, your representative has to want it, too. And then he’s got to be powerful enough that he can band up with other reps, who need to be part of a majority in the country. And that’s assuming that your reps are listening to you at all, and you’re not a lonely city in a gerrymandered district that is locked into political representation with which you fundamentally disagree.

In a free market, if you buy a boat and never use it, and you have a mariner neighbor who would love a boat but can’t afford one for whatever reason, that neighbor can’t blame you for his lack of a boat. However, in a system controlled by the government, there’s a single pie. If you take a bigger piece, you’re necessarily taking from somebody. So your mariner neighbor could claim that you did, in fact, diminish his ability to buy a boat. He might then be in favor of a law which only allows boats to be sold to mariners, since that would be his only recourse. In a free market, next season you might find out that they replaced expensive parts with less expensive parts, and turned out a model of boat that was more affordable, because they realized there was an untapped market for cheaper boats. Everyone wins.

In a free market, if I ruin my health due to various behaviors, my neighbor has no stake in it. If I get an abortion, it doesn’t affect my neighbor at all. If I eat ten steak-and-donut sandwiches a day and suck down more opium than oxygen, it doesn’t make a single bit of financial difference to my neighbor.*

The point of all of this is, those of you who really believe that giving government greater control over healthcare is going to give you more freedom over your body and health choices can take the Stupak amendment as a warning shot. And if you think they’re not going to come for the fatties next or soon, you’re dreaming. As soon as costs rise (and the projected healthcare spending as a percentage of GDP will rise if the current bills on the table pass), and people are getting taxed at higher rates, fined for not having acceptable coverage, or even thrown in prison with up to a fine of $250,000 for not having acceptable coverage, they’re going to clamor that costs can be forced down by regulating the behavior of those with perceived preventable conditions.

Healthcare reform isn’t a fantasy; there are real reforms that can be made which would make buying plans cheaper, give greater access, and yes, even help cover those who have slipped through the cracks, without shackling citizens to some bureaucracy with the threat of imprisonment if they don’t comply (though there’s certainly a larger Constitutional question in all that). But what’s being put forward by Reid and Pelosi isn’t healthcare reform. It’s a giant grab for power and a threat to your freedom to choose.

REFERENCES**

My Body, Their Choice – Reason.com

House Bill Increases Healthcare Costs – Politico.com

Listing the New Taxes in the Senate Healthcare Bill – Wall Street Journal

Mandatory Insurance is Unconstitutional – Wall Street Journal

Stupak Amendment Threatens the Rights of Every American – The Huffington Post

Rationing’s First Step – Investor’s Business Daily

* Those who assume the insurance system we have now is a free market system are way off the mark, so arguments about the current state of insurance risk-pooling are irrelevant. Additionally, the argument that the uninsured rack up hospital costs for the rest of us ignores that emergency rooms are required to treat those who can’t pay, which is government, not market, intervention.

** Please do not poison the well.

Government Healthcare is Bad for Fat People

Why?

Read the links on this page.

While employers can currently establish plans that incentivize weight loss, it’s not illegal and/or will not cause your taxes to go up to decide not to participate in such programs. Additionally, there is some measure of direct voting by employees — complaining about the plan, leaving the business to work elsewhere, not participating in the plan — that is much closer to the decisionmaker in the process and could ostensibly much more quickly repeal a plan decision than waiting for a large enough group of people to be voted in who commit to weeding out problems in legislation, which can take at its quickest years, and at its slowest, never (as the problems become too deeply institutionalized).

If the government forces everyone to buy private or public plans, then encourages (through subsidies to private plans, or directly in public plans) plans that create initiatives or penalties based on weight, then there is no escape. Even if it’s just verbal encouragement, it gives employers the sense that they can discriminate against unpopular groups and lower their own costs without the possibility of losing an employee that is a member of an unpopular group, since even if that employee was to leave, chances are the same discriminatory initiatives would be in place wherever else they’d choose to seek employment.

The choice to participate in health care should not be forced. Choice is sometimes the last check one has on a virtually universal discriminatory and unethical system with deeply rooted institutional bias. The ability to choose to opt out of healthcare, to have the choice not to participate, is essential. Those who want to argue about public costs are only doing so in the context of the current healthcare framework under which we suffer: though the nature of insurance re: pooling risks does mean that some will pay in and never take out as much as they pay in, while others will take out more than they pay in, it doesn’t mean that anyone’s health is technically anyone else’s business. That’s just the nature of insurance.

This would not be the case if health decisions and health behaviors and being a member of an unpopular health class literally become public business. By definition. One would have to completely trust the government not to fall in with popular Healthist sentiments that have a tendency to put a good deal of the blame for unaffordability and poor public health on fat people. In my humble opinion, placing such immense trust in a fickle, by nature ever-changing, populist, and power-hungry entity is foolish.

Those who are interested in freedom from institutionalized discrimination should always be concerned when choices are taken away, rather than offered up. The way to fight discrimination is to open doors, not close them. Many pro-fat activists are in favor of universal healthcare because they believe it will force insurers to cover those who are currently not covered, or allow the government to provide a plan that will cover them (they currently already have this power, by the way). But this is an example of closing doors, not opening them. Fatphobia is still out there, and it runs rampant in government — and is no less present in Progressive political circles than any other circle. If fat people can be used as scapegoats to save money in what is sure to be a very expensive system (TNSTAAFL*), that is what is going to happen.

And that is already what is happening, as the healthcare bills currently being proposed are overrunning their cost goals, even taking into consideration that every gimmicky scheme to shift money around has been called upon in order to make the bills look less expensive than they already are (frontloading payins, backloading payouts, political promises of savings that won’t be kept, etc). Since the government doesn’t have to worry about doing anything scientifically sound if their electorate cares more about money than science, they’ll pick groups to discriminate against (or promote discrimination against) re: insurance in the order that these groups are medically unpopular. Fat people and smokers are, without a doubt, the top of that list.

Universal or forced coverage is not good for fat people. What you gain in terms of being technically covered you will lose in the inevitable discrimination, higher costs, public shaming, fat hate and the wider spread of fat hate and focus on fat people as a “problem,” and so on.

Besides, I (and many others) know how to really lower costs, so that even groups that insurers put in a higher rate category would be able to afford insurance. But to lower costs would require less regulation, less control, more choices for individuals to buy care…in other words, a free market injection in a hopelessly overregulated industry. I’m certain that the cost of a plan for a “fit” family of four in Massachusetts currently would be the maximum of what you’d see for a non-“fit” family of four in a freer market.

The answer to the problem of fat people not being covered (or covered affordably) does not lie in handing over our fates to politicians and bureaucrats who are the ultimate barometer of public whims and misinformation.

If you have any questions, here is a bit of reading.

Do not give the public the ability to vote on your private health matters: No Fat People in Concentration Camps

Socialized medicine leads to more discrimination, higher costs, and fewer choices: Universal Healthcare and Fat

We should be free to do what we want, as long as that liberty doesn’t infringe on the liberty of others: Libertarians and Obesity, Take Two

A chain of back-of-the-envelope logic whereby involved government in healthcare in our current climate leads to dire consequences for fat people: Eliminate Fat People

Involving government in healthcare in our fatphobic environment can lead, and has led, to the breaking up of families. Additionally, it could lead to the state-sponsored eradication of fat children, by any means necessary: The Tide of Hate Rises

You should never give someone else the ability to make choices about your body: When Your Body is No Longer Yours

The state is not an objective third party with no profit motive, and will not operate as such in the distribution of health care: Why Universal Healthcare Should Be Opposed by Fat Activists

Junk science and fat unpopularity = the legislation of thinness: Universal Healthcare is Not Automatically Fat-Friendly

The Food Police are coming: “Lock-in” the Fatty Fat Fats

*There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

Will Chris Christie’s Fat Frankness Turn the Tide?

Chris Christie, Republican candidate for New Jersey governor, has been at the center of a controversy which has propelled him from the favorite to win to merely sitting on the knife’s edge of public opinion. What was the propellant?

His opponent’s focus on his fat (see Rachel’s excellent post on the subject).

But there are some who are claiming Christie may have turned the tide recently by doing nothing except coming out and defining that focus which has been weighting him down in the polls, as it were:

I found Chris Christie’s new tack very smart. He called out his opponent for the ads in a subtle, humorous way: by basically coming forward and owning his fat. “I’m fat, Don.”

Imus went on to, in mainstream media fashion, probe Christie for the numbers that would best determine whether or not he fell into some socially-shunned BMI category (which is why not allowing yourself to be labeled by such numbers is so important). Christie gave his height, but when Imus asked:

“How much do you weigh?”

Christie responded: “550 pounds.” (followed by laughter)

The point Christie was making wasn’t that 550 pounds was comically huge, but that he might as well weigh any number that is “large enough” to put him into some socially-shunned BMI category, since that was the way he was being treated, simply based on his appearance. The actual number isn’t the point. The point is that he falls into what is currently considered to be “too large,” and being too large to be taken seriously was what he was trying to own. He subtly expressed the ridiculousness of the importance of that number to his political campaign, while at the same time acknowledging that his opponent wants it to be important.

The Christie vs. Corzine race should be watched closely by those interested in fat politics. Whatever your affiliation (or lack thereof), this race could set the precedent for future races involving fat candidates of any party. If Christie is able to turn the ownership of his fat to his advantage, future campaigns against fat opponents might be less willing to utilize fatphobia in their platforms. If he isn’t, it is still an important case study, and could be a depressing sign that the moral panic against the obesity folkdevil has not yet reached its climax.