The Weight of the World

Until today, I was not aware that there was an academic subject known as Fat Studies. You can take Fat Studies at several universities, and it will probably come as no surprise to readers to learn that they are fully compatible with the main aim of modern education, namely the promotion of a sense of grievance and resentment in the students. One university described its course of Fat Studies as the “Examination of weight based oppression as a social justice issue with other systems of oppression based on gender, race, class, age, sexual orientation, and ability.”

How terrible! Discrimination on the basis of ability, for example in jobs such as airline pilots, nuclear physicists, and brain surgeons! Could social injustice go further? It is good to know that universities will henceforth refuse to deepen social injustice and inequality (the same thing, actually) by rewarding, much less by requiring, intelligence or effort, the latter being the pure product of the cultural expectations of the sociodemographic group to which a student belongs and which determines the strength of the efforts he is prepared to make. In other words, personal effort is not really personal at all, but a social product.

I hesitate in this context to appear weak and wishy-washy, but my own attitude to the question of obesity is somewhat nuanced. (Nuance was hated and feared above all things by a newspaper for which I used sometimes to write, whose pages avoided it as Dracula avoided holy water and garlic flowers.) I have not a clear line to promote.

Few people desire to be fat or are happy to be fat. The only people I ever knew who actively wanted to be fat (I have known no sumo wrestlers) were some women in Zululand whose husbands gained prestige from what Thorstein Veblen would no doubt have called the result of their wives’ conspicuous consumption.

“Most of us are incapable even of taking a course of antibiotics as prescribed.”

Fat people are not wicked or evil, but mostly they are, or have been, weak: as are, or have been, the rest of us in some respect or other. It would never occur to me to insult or humiliate someone simply because he was fat, not because I did not think that he was in considerable part the author of his own downfall, or rather his expanded adiposity, but because it is wrong to insult or humiliate people and further add to their unhappiness without any reason to do so.

It is true, of course, that there are social correlates of obesity, of which there has been a vast increase in recent decades. The poor are fatter than the rich because of their diet and inclination to watch television as much as they can. Their diet is bad not because the food they eat is cheap, but because the bad food they eat is convenient, requires no effort (on their part) to prepare, and is immediately gratifying. It is possible also that feminism has played a malign role, by making it beneath girls’ dignity to be taught or to learn to cook. Squealers will no doubt protest, “Why not boys as well?” The fact is, however, that in general only middle-class, conventionally married men cook, and women are far more often the caregivers of children in single-parent households; I very much doubt that this is going to change in the near future. So if women can’t cook it has worse social effects than if men can’t cook.

It is also true that fat children are likely to grow into fat adults, though this is not an absolute fatality against which human volition can do nothing. There is a genetic predisposition to obesity also, but again (except in rare cases) this is not a fatality. But women in particular who allow their children to grow fat, who are often fat themselves, are knowingly giving their children a prolonged handicap in life, not insuperable but difficult to overcome. I know of a very fat little boy whose mother gives him a diet of sweetened drinks and junk food, more or less ad libitum, such that on the rare occasions—for example, on a visit to his grandmother—when he is deprived of them, he makes a great scene. I try to understand and sympathize with the stupidity of the mother, but I find it difficult to do so, especially as she does not work and therefore cannot claim she is too busy to cook. No doubt some psychologist or sociologist would be willing, though not necessarily able, to explain her conduct away; but to do so would be implicitly to deny individual human responsibility for anything, effectively transferring all responsibility to governments or other organizations—which, alas, are composed of people also.

I sympathize with the struggles of the fat in their efforts to slim. Temptation is all around them, and often they are so far gone that to reduce weight significantly, other than by surgery, would take months of iron self-control. How many among us are capable of such self-control without any visible effects to encourage us to continue? Most of us are incapable even of taking a course of antibiotics as prescribed.

I have just read an article about an obese woman in France, Gabrielle Deydier, who has published a book about her struggles with obesity and the insults that she has suffered because she is so fat. On a personal level, I sympathize with her. According to an accompanying photograph (she is indeed very fat), she has an appealing face.

The problem comes when policy prescriptions are implied that are based on rights. She says that she would like more visibility of the obese in “the public space,” by which I supposed she means on television or in parliament, maybe a quota for them. Since 16 percent of adults in France are obese, how long will it be before someone advocates that 16 percent of deputies to the French National Assembly ought to be obese? Anything else, after all, would be demographically unjust.

The article begins:

Until now, we have found the arm-rests of theatre seats rather useful. We even practiced a discreet duel with the elbows of our neighbours to claim the maximum of area on them. That was before Gabrielle Deydier, aged 40, made us realise that these limited spaces were not at all comfortable for those whose size didn’t permit them to fit into them.

What are theaters supposed to do? Reduce the numbers of seats so that the fat can fit in? Obesity, while it disables, is not a disability; it is not like paraplegia, and however much we may sympathize with the fat as individuals, we should not pretend that it is.

A word in the article that I did not previously know caught my attention: grossophobie, fatphobia. But one is not irrationally fearful of obesity or fat people: One simply prefers people not to be obese. One fears to grow fat by eating too much, especially of the wrong things, but that is not irrational. If you eat too much, you will grow fat. To prefer one thing to another is not a symptom of a phobia, that is to say a mental disorder. Because I prefer water to Coca-Cola, I do not suffer from Colaphobia.


Sign Up to Receive Our Latest Updates!


Daily updates with TM’s latest