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.

Unfriending the Bigots

Ah, Facebook bigotry.

Guaranteed to be even more awkward than your ordinary brand of internet bigotry, as it usually involves family, friends, classmates, or coworkers.

I recently got into a bit of an exchange with a person I’ve met all of once, who thought it necessary to masturbate his fat-hate onto my Facebook wall. Seriously, I can just picture some of these bigots with pleasure-faces as their hate oozes out into the world, delighted as pigs in shit often are to root publicly, messily, and splashing it up on you if you’re not careful to stand far enough away.

I shot back with a link to the heritability study and told him that “even if adiposity measures health in some kind of reasonable way (which *hasn’t* been conclusively shown, despite “common” knowledge), your health isn’t someone else’s business, so bugger out of their life. Trust me, fat people know they’re fat. No, really. They do.”

Yeah, a bit grammatically incorrect. I don’t deign to be that careful with my sentence construction when I’m addressing hateful morons that really, really need to bugger off with their hate, oh, yesterday.

I’m rather pissed. And do you want to know the earth-shattering, oh-so-deviant, gravity-defying status update to which the douchebag above was referring?

Body obsession occupies women’s time and minds, as a tool of patriarchy to pin us down. What if we could put this energy into politics, poetry, science, or art?

And his response (get out your bingo cards!):

Well, I guess we’d be a race of super advanced fat people, like in WALL-E… 🙂
Obsession is always bad, I agree. That said, from a health perspective, we do let ourselves go quite a bit, women and men, and I think it’s very easy to over eat and under exercise. I also find it funny and a little pathetic that one of the biggest research fund hogs in the world right now is a pill to make you lose weight. Seriously? Is it *that* hard to go to a gym 3 times a week?

Gah.

What’s your story of fat-related Facebook/MySpace asshattery? Or rather, have you noticed the sheer determination of bigots to be bigots in *your* space?

(oh yeah, and I totally unfriended his ass. Hence the title of this post!)

Another One Takes the Cut

I debated a bit whether to post this, but decided to.   When I started this particular job some year and a half ago I was pleasantly surprised to note that there were plenty of fat people around – safety in numbers, you know?   And I was far from the fattest by any means.    But where you find plenty of fat people, you find Biggest Loser competitions, you find dieters, and you find gastric bypass.  Sometimes despite knowing the fact that you believe the surgery (even in your libertarian heart) ought to be outlawed except for all but the most extreme cases of people who are caught between a rock and a hard place and can’t even get out of bed (though that doesn’t mean the surgery will be a cure) your supervisor insists on spouting off to you about how great she sees other people doing with either diets or surgery.  Even when said supervisor never succeeds in a diet herself; she internalizes every example of someone who has taken the cut or starved themselves thin and goes on and on about how it’s a cure for all “the sugar” and how “good” this or that one is being.   Gag me.

Well this time, the first woman who actually made me feel comfortable here, both because she was very fat and because she is really very nice, has decided since her brief, once-in-a-lifetime romance crumbled, that she too has to undergo bypass.    At first I didn’t get it; my supervisor said, “She’s going for a bypass,” and I thought something was wrong with her heart – I was shocked!  This woman has no trouble walking except for some knee pain from various prior falls in her life, she’s over 50, she eats a fair-seeming amount of so-called healthy food, she doesn’t have any mobility issues, no heart problems, no lung problems – just a very large amount of fat from the waist down.    And so-called pre-diabetes.   You don’t even know she’s fat until she stands up, because her shoulders and face are small; she’s like the fattest-bottomed pear I’ve ever seen, and she looks good to me.   She looks…healthy.  She IS healthy.

My fear is that she will no longer remain healthy after such life-altering surgery.

Against all hope, when she mentioned it to me, I hopefully mentioned “So…are you getting the band?”  (Please please please be getting the band.)   Nope.   “Because on the band you can cheat, and with the bypass it’s just one-time, it’s a done deal, there’s no going back, nothing you can do about it.”   Do people hear themselves when they say things like this?   Has she been informed that it can KILL her?   Has she been informed that it’s supposed to be for *serious* health problems and she doesn’t have any?   And then she gets nothing but encouragement from the people around her.   Now I’m not going to say anything one way or the other except to hope for a good recovery – but there is no real recovery from surgery designed to create within you a disability and malnutrition, is there?

I am afraid she will possibly turn to substances, if indeed she uses food for comfort (who doesn’t?) as so many surgery candidates do.   I am afraid that she will get rickets or any one of those other hideous malnutrition diseases or, God forbid, as happens frequently, they simply cut a little too much, you go bald and shrivel away and die over the course of a year, only they can’t attribute it to the surgery anymore.   I’m afraid she is going to wreck her healthy glow and her cheerful disposition.

Am I afraid that I’ll be one of the fattest women in the place?   No.   I have a feeling she will not even get down to my size before the first year is up and she’s not the only fat person by a longshot.   But I’m uncomfortable with how this surgery has been portrayed in this establishment, how many people have undergone it, and how many are held up as having done so well.   I don’t want her to be an example, do I?    Well, no.    I don’t fucking know how to feel about it because of that, and frankly, I don’t want to keep thinking about it right now.    It’s enough to make a person go on a diet, isn’t it?   (Well, no.)

Up in Arms: Judging a First Lady the Wrong Way

Puerto Rico Campaign 2008 Michelle Obama

For Mother’s Day (this past Sunday — hurry and send those belated cards, people!), Sally Quinn of the Washington Post brought the objectification of powerful women to new, dizzying heights: The Nation’s Embracing, and Embraceable, Arms

The laser-like focus on a First Lady’s body is nothing new. First Ladies who are young and conventionally attractive are held up as role models and breathlessly worshiped in conversation and print by members who sympathize with the party of that Lady’s husband; First Ladies who are dowdy, fat, older, or aren’t conventionally attractive are praised more for their programs or character, but tend to fade into the background or turn into fodder for late night talk show hosts (and these days, the comedic evening dailies).

However, the essay by Sally Quinn is, I think, a much more modern creation. Beauty has always been seen as a means to endow the lucky genetic accident with princess-like qualities, but today Healthism has pushed the idea of certain body type = moral superiority to a new, frightening level. That this is an essay espousing Michelle Obama’s role model status by turning her thin and toned arms into a symbol of the superior qualities of the Modern Female, implies that flabbier, less-toned, less youthful arms could not convey the same message of female strength and feministic advancement.

The conversation had been high-minded — religion, philosophy, the nature of evil…

…We then began a discussion about the significance of the first lady’s arms. Actually, it turned out to be equally serious. Michelle Obama’s arms, we determined, were transformational. Her arms are representative of a new kind of woman: young, strong, vigorous, intelligent, accomplished, sexual, powerful, embracing and, most of all, loving.

I can see how toned arms can imply youth, physical strength, and physical prowess. But strength of conviction, vitality, intelligence, ability, sexuality, kindness, and love? Certainly older women, or women with larger or non-toned arms, can have all of those qualities. Never for a moment when I used to lift weights did I think, “My arms look more toned now, I must be more intelligent/kind/able/loving!”

It truly is nonsensical and bizarre to claim that the shape of one’s arms can convey so much information about her moral character traits. And no, I think this went well beyond a simple symbolization in order to sell Mother’s Day copy about a popular mother in American culture at the moment. I think it is a symptom that, despite our liberal call for judging individuals based on their true character traits and not based on what they look like, we are, as a society, plunging ever deeper into the chasm of classifying character based on having the “right” body.

Individuals – especially women, but not exclusively – are invested with qualities they may or may not have, simply because of the way they look. Hence, Michelle Obama’s arms make her a “better” First Lady, woman, and mother, because they have a certain shape and circumference. She is endowed with greater qualities of character because of having the “right” kind of arms. By that same reasoning, women who don’t have those arms are ultimately worse women, mothers, role models, employees, students, and wives (“embracing,” “strong,” “accomplished,” “intelligent,” “loving”).

Ms. Quinn, you are sadly, quite wrong. And the kind of tripe you gush has nothing to do with feminism or praising Michelle Obama — it has everything to do with objectifying women and dehumanizing the First Lady. For shame.

Son of Porkulus

The news contained in this post is so horrifying that I’m going to put up some extremely cute pictures along with the text to try to offset the mounting terror.

cutie2

The bizarrely massive porkulus bill that just passed the senate, has had some interesting little hidden things in it. And by “interesting” I mean “horrific” and by “little” I mean “enormous”.

The bill’s health rules will affect “every individual in the United States” (445, 454, 479). Your medical treatments will be tracked electronically by a federal system. Having electronic medical records at your fingertips, easily transferred to a hospital, is beneficial. It will help avoid duplicate tests and errors.

But the bill goes further. One new bureaucracy, the National Coordinator of Health Information Technology, will monitor treatments to make sure your doctor is doing what the federal government deems appropriate and cost effective. The goal is to reduce costs and “guide” your doctor’s decisions (442, 446). These provisions in the stimulus bill are virtually identical to what Daschle prescribed in his 2008 book, “Critical: What We Can Do About the Health-Care Crisis.” According to Daschle, doctors have to give up autonomy and “learn to operate less like solo practitioners.”

Look back at the doggie!

cutie1

So never mind that I pay to go to a PRIVATE doctor, whom I expect to keep my fucking business to HIMSELF – now he will have to report my every visit, my every prescription, to the feds? THE FEDS? (I dare say some doctors are going to go rogue on this one – this is an outrage beyond most outrages I’ve ever read of – they NEED to step up and say “NO, we will NOT do this.” A database? A fucking FEDERAL database? You weren’t worried about stupid little things like your privacy, were you? Your autonomy? Your liberty? You can kiss those things goodbye, pal. They were never yours.

dumbooctopus-s448x450-2298-580

Now my doctor weighed me once, the first time I visited him; and has never mentioned my weight to me, or asked me to get on the scale. He is more concerned about things like my asthma and my stress levels. But God forbid he asks me now – the feds will most certainly tell him that I must lose weight and if I don’t I’ll be non-compliant…that won’t help them save money, right? Never mind that IT’S MY FUCKING MONEY I’m spending to get PRIVATE treatment from my PRIVATE PERSONAL doctor.

dorayaki

This is so far beyond a travesty that I’m getting speechless. I could go on about it for weeks, months, and never hit the end, and I’m exhausted just thinking about it. Well, frankly I’ve been hearing a lot of people screaming about socialist health care and how we need it. All it costs you is your privacy and your liberty and your autonomy. And MINE TOO. Thanks a fucking lot. All I ever asked is to be left OUT of these plans and to be allowed to live my life – because, you know, the constitution says I have that right. Form all the little socialist societies you want and all the voluntary plans you want, but leave me out of it. Now these people have thrown out *everyone’s* autonomy for them. Nice job. Those of you who wanted it – hope you enjoy it as much as I will. TANSTAAFL, but no one knows this anymore. Pfft. Here’s a pretty good rant on it; most of which I would have said myself. Enjoy. 🙂

UPDATE: Hospitals and doctors that are not “meaningful users” of the new system will face penalties. “Meaningful user” isn’t defined in the bill. That will be left to the HHS secretary, who will be empowered to impose “more stringent measures of meaningful use over time” (511, 518, 540-541)
What penalties will deter your doctor from going beyond the electronically delivered protocols when your condition is atypical or you need an experimental treatment? The vagueness is intentional. In his book, Daschle proposed an appointed body with vast powers to make the “tough” decisions elected politicians won’t make.

The stimulus bill does that, and calls it the Federal Coordinating Council for Comparative Effectiveness Research (190-192). The goal, Daschle’s book explained, is to slow the development and use of new medications and technologies because they are driving up costs. He praises Europeans for being more willing to accept “hopeless diagnoses” and “forgo experimental treatments,” and he chastises Americans for expecting too much from the health-care system.

Even before socialized medicine inevitably degenerates into mandatory euthanasia à la Logan’s Run, the elderly will be hit hard.

Daschle says health-care reform “will not be pain free.” Seniors should be more accepting of the conditions that come with age instead of treating them.

It just gets better and better.

Universal Healthcare is not automatically fat-friendly

As one individual in the UK put it, commenting on the recent article by Marianne Kirby from the Rotund:

Given that we’re obliged to contribute to a universal health provider, there is a legitimate public interest in criticising avoidable behaviour which increases the burden upon it, whether that be over-eating, lack of exercise, or substance abuse.

If the time comes when it is possible to opt out of contributing to that system (rather than merely consuming it), and choosing one that rejects the wilfully unhealthy, that legitimate public interest will no longer exist.

Now, please look at this more closely. The junk science the UK citizens are fed gives them even more reason to legislate thinness. Why, oh why, does anyone believe junk science would magically “go away” with universal healthcare? You’re still going to get outsourced groups writing the medical guidelines, and they’re still going to claim that fat raises risks in all cases, and they’re still going to recommend that fat people need to be eradicated.

Excuse me, but I’m already hated enough for my body in the USA. I don’t need a “legitimate public interest” in it, too.

A Quick Comment (having to do with Healthism)

In summary: tiffabee posted “French Women Don’t Get Fat: Part III.” She was sitting with a woman from New Jersey on her way back to the airport, during her trip to Paris. Fifteen minutes into the ride, the woman starts talking about how there were “no overweight people in Paris.” Since the two of them (tiffabee and the woman) would be considered not overweight, tiffabee made the point that the woman just assumed she would engaged in the negative, hateful talk about fat people. Of course, tiffabee did not (hooray!).

However, there were some interesting comments to the post (some which had nothing to do with the post itself, as is characteristic of our weight-obsessed culture, which uses nearly any hook to harangue fat people and/or the obesity “problem” — which was, quite delightfully, tiffabee’s point all along — thanks, commenters, for playing into it so well! LOL ). Here are two comments I specifically addressed:

#1:

But come on, you have to admit, being obese isn’t healthy; it’s not comfortable either. I am constantly pissed off at how the inner thighs of my jeans wear off so quickly to the point of tearing.

I’m all for body image acceptance; I wish I loved my body more than I do. I also wish I was healthier. In the context of my family medical history, my obesity isn’t a good omen.

In the end, it’s not really about fat for me; it’s about health, which is NOT equal to thin (see Nicole Ritchie and most runway models); but obviously, we’re all susceptible to the popular conception of beauty, so all people tend to focus on is whether I’ll be able to wear a bikini or not.

It’s a vicious circle; if a less-than-stick-thin woman wears a bikini, people will stare and gag; so that woman will focus on getting thin so people won’t react that way; so then she’ll be the next one to stare and gag at the next fat woman that wears a bikini; and it goes on and on and on…

#2:

I don’t think that O’Maolchathaigh was equating obesity to immorality. He was merely saying that obesity is a problem.. not that obese people are.

I agree with many of you that people should be more accepting of overweight people. But we all make judgments, so I don’t see the point in being angry about it. When tiffabee says that she thinks people in LA could stand to gain a few pounds, she is essentially judging them on their weight. We are all guilty.

If we cannot say that people should lose weight, who are we to say that people should gain weight?
Unless we look at eating disorders such as anorexia and bulemia and so we must intervene for the people’s well-being. In which case, we must also say that we must intervene and say something about the eating disorder of eating excess to the point where you are putting your life at stake.

I think regulations on diet and exercise are important if a person cannot stick to one to save their lives (meaning this in the most literal way). That doesn’t mean I think all non-fat people should go out and start forcing overweight people to go on a diet. But some people are in need of regulation from a dietician or some kind of accountability from a friend or family member.

It’d be nice to acknowledge, also, that a lot of the spoken judgments about obese people stem from insecurity about one’s self-image. Perhaps that is the problem– the declining self-image today– and not the “status quo” or a lack of societal acceptance.

And my response:

I don’t “have to admit” being obese is unhealthy. You cannot look at a person and determine their health based on how much they weigh. That’s absolutely ludicrous, and no different from statistically-based assumptions about sex, religion, and class (i.e., not all women like romantic comedies, not all Catholics have big families, not all poor people live at McDonald’s).

Think I’m exaggerating? I’m not. I merely understand the nature of statistics, and I also understand how odds ratios have been used in the calculation of obesity stats in order to make some “risk factors” seem far, far more determinant of health status than they are. Read about that here: http://junkfoodscience.blogspot.com/2006/12/study-sidebar-odds-ratios.html

Besides, carrying the torch of healthism doesn’t give you to the right to impose your beliefs on someone else, regardless. You don’t want to be fat? Fine, don’t be. But don’t start making blanket statements about connections with health that you don’t understand, and using the “but it’s obvious!” non-argument to make your case, and expect anyone to take it seriously. Also, don’t assume that the rest of us ascribe to any so-called “popular” notion of attractiveness. I certainly do not.

“If we cannot say that people should lose weight, who are we to say that people should gain weight?”

Someone can be starving to death and need to gain weight (because it’s been shown, over and over, that without food you do indeed waste away and die, regardless of who you are). But no, nobody on the street can be *sure* of that. In fact, last time I checked, health and medical issues are *private,* and are supposed to be your and your doctor’s business. The point is, no one can tell by looking at someone what their health problems were, and even if they could, then it woulds STILL BE NONE OF THEIR DAMN BUSINESS.

The problem with our society (in respect to weight issues) is that people make other people’s weight their business. Family members, friends, teachers, bosses, colleagues, and strangers feel free to comment on your body, what you’re eating, or subject you to long tirades on their own weight issues, eating, dieting, etc. Food has become a symbol of morality and strength amongst more than just fringe circles, with Mickey Dees seen as the lowest of the low and vegan whole-foods local markets seen as the pinnacle of morality. People feel free to sneer at or feel superior to others (especially if they’re fat) if they’re seen eating the “wrong” foods, buying the “wrong” groceries, or feeding their kids the “wrong” foods. Think I’m exaggerating? Ask any fat person who’s grocery-shopped. Ask someone who eats fast food in public if they don’t feel embarrassed if they think they’re eating the “wrong” foods, or if they feel proud if they just have a bottled water and an energy bar.

We’re taught to be “proud” of weight loss, that it’s an “accomplishment.” How can you extract that from morality? Accomplished = good, = better than non-accomplished, i.e., better than people who didn’t lose the weight. Weight loss, for all but the very thin, is generally seen as an accomplishment.

Gaining weight is seen as an accomplishment only in extreme cases, usually when dealing with people who are severely underweight. Even pregnant women are being increasingly coached not to gain “too much weight” during pregnancy, or they’ll risk having a big baby. Of course, this is completely unsupported by *any* evidence at all, at best a misinterpretation of diet.

The fact is, most of the commenters here can’t imagine a society where people *weren’t* morally judged based on their weight. Healthism is just another excuse for passing moral judgment on those you believe are being “willingly” unhealthful. Athletic injuries are quite common; and, you can easily argue, athletes bring them on themselves by being athletes in the first place. Yet there is no vilification of these “unhealthy” people. &etc.