Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Has Spock Joined the Fat Acceptance Movement?

Leonard Nimoy (yes that Leonard Nimoy) has a new book of photographs called The Full Body Project, featuring images of full-figured women. It also includes a foreword written by one of our favorite authors, Natalie Angier. Admittedly, our first reaction was something along the lines of "Huh?!?" However, Nimoy actually sounds pretty serious about the cause.

"The average American woman," he writes, "weighs 25 percent more than the models selling the clothes. There is a huge industry built up around selling women ways to get their bodies closer to the fantasy ideal. Pills, diets, surgery, workout programs. . . The message is 'You don't look right. If you buy our product, you can get there.'" Right on, Leo. That all sounds so, um, logical. Sorry! We couldn't resist. And we are definitely not doing the Vulcan hand salute right now. [Digest]

Related: Does This Photo Look Familiar?

Update: One of our commenters tipped us off to this excellent NPR interview with Nimoy.


cerebralmum said...

The message is good. And the photos are beautiful. But I'm just not so sure about it. The idea of "fat acceptance" disturbs me. Yes, the "fantasy ideal" is wrong, wrong, wrong. But these beautiful, and probably wonderful, women are not an ideal picture either.

They are not "full-figured", they are obese. And I mean that as a medical definition, not an insult. Despite the fact that the media presents us with images from the skinniest end of the spectrum as the ideal, at they same time as that is making us feel like hell, our perception of what "fat" is, what "obese" is and what "morbidly obese" is, for "normal" people is shifting in the other direction. Because obesity is endemic in our society.

There shouldn't be "fat acceptance". It's not healthy. We should be able to use the word "obese" without it being an insult and a judgement, but rather a scientific measure of the health risks so many people are faced with. This is a crisis and we should be able to call a spade a spade.

These images may do something to "balance" the images we are bombarded with, but they are not balanced.

I haven't gone through the whole book, obviously, but I do know the ways in which people use images of other peoples bodies, and I don't want to see these used to normalise something which is unhealthy, the same way that the practically skeletal ones do.

People of all shapes and sizes beat themselves up with images of what they are not. People of all shapes and sizes respond to this by "defending" what their bodies are. It is polarising, and while we all get lost in debates about bodies, the most important thing gets lost: It is our preoccupation with bodies which is the problem, not the shape those bodies take.

You don't get healthy (and that term has room for many shapes and sizes) by concerning yourself with what you look like. You get healthy, physically and emotionally, by caring about things that actually matter.

Like I said, I'm just not sure about this. I like the message but maybe I'm just cynical: I think the effect of them has just as much potential for harm as "pro-ana" images do. But we're not allowed to say that because the number of people these women represent is overwhelming, and it's "offensive".

But the truth is this: Just because they are "real" doesn't mean they're healthy.

Anonymous said...

"Just because they are "real" doesn't mean they're healthy"

Who ever said that art has to represent healthy images? This is an artistic endeavor, and should be looked on as such. The subject of art is often beauty in un-thought of places.

Besides that, obesity is not inherently unhealthy, as more and more studies are proving. Yet the popular media chooses only to publicize those studies which add to our fear and condemnation of anything different.

Of course there should be "fat acceptance." Because fat? exists. Accept it. And it is the fat acceptance movement that is de-criminalizing the language, as you suggest. You will never offend a fat acceptance advocate by calling him/her fat. It is a descriptive term, not a value judgement.

Fat is not a 'crisis' - it is, however, a scapegoat for everything wrong in our society.

Leonar Nimoy gave an interesting interview on NPR in which he described his un-ease with the large bodies of these women. He had a powerful personal experience creating this book because of the subjects, the political implications of the fat female body, the reaction of men, and of himself as a man to those bodies. All things that create powerful art.

Magali & Claire said...

Thanks for the tip about the NPR interview. We found the link to the audio and included it in the post.

cerebralmum said...

To anonymous,

I never said that art had to depict what was healthy, and I was very clear that I thought the images were beautiful. I used the terms "concern", "not sure", "disturb". I can see benefits. And I can see risks.

I am interested in the research you mention. "Overweight", "obese", and "morbidly obese" are clinical terms which have a very specific measurement. The social use of these terms is widely divergent, the increasing numbers of obese people are leading are creating norms which lead to categorizing people in a lower range than what they actually are. This means that whatever science says - good or bad - they are applying its results to the wrong people and that is a problem.

I have seen scientific studies showing actual health benefits of being in the "overweight" range, but I have seen no research that shows obesity is without very serious health risks. If you can point me in the direction of the research you mention, I would be genuinely interested in reading it.

While it may be true that calling a fat person fat is not offensive, using the term obese very often is. Because those who are well within the clinical range for obesity view obesity as something "bigger" than they are. It's a "bad" word. It may not be for some people, but for many others it is.

I have grown up with an obese (and dieting and yo-yo'ing) mother, and I have suffered through a "skinny" eating disorder myself. I can recognise the sameness of our incorrect perceptions of our own bodies and our ill-treatment of bodies based on values we projected on to them. And I can recognise those same behaviours as prevalent in society at large.

Whatever a person's size, the causes and effects of this self-abuse is the same. I am not suggesting that everyone of a particular size has an eating disorder, but I would not hesitate to suggest that many people who are obese do. It may not be so extreme as to kill them the way anorexia often does, but it is a health issue nonetheless, psychologically, socially and physiologically. And yes, it is a crisis because we cannot see ourselves as we are.

I do not need to "accept fat". I am not in any denial about its existence. I have no interest in making anybody's shape or size different. Prejudice of all-forms is abhorrent to me, but the "fat acceptance" movement walks a very fine line between an opposition to prejudice and creating another projection of body-type-whatever=good.

People with eating disorders lie to themselves. And much of the "fat acceptance" rhetoric supports them. Not intentionally, maybe, but functionally.

A spade is a spade is a spade.

Anonymous said...

Hello spade-is-a-spade anonymous,

Perhaps you want to listen to the NPR interview before ranting?

cerebralmum said...

"Hello spade-is-a-spade anonymous"

1. I am not anonymous.

2. I was not ranting. I wrote my considered opinion. With care.

3. I have already heard the interview.

4. I was very clear that I was talking about a broader issue than the book.

Your response, on the other hand, seems to consist solely of a direct insult. I am more than happy for people to disagree with me. I am more than open to changing my opinion, if other people make a convincing argument or provide me with information I did not have.

If you have some particular points against my opinion, based on the interview, or your own opinion, I will read them and consider them with care. Respectfully, as I have tried to do already.

But this is the one and only time that I will respond to a personal attack.

If I choose to write a comment somewhere, it is because they are a great forum for dialogue, often between people with different perspectives who care about the same issues. It seems that my perspective is offensive to you in some way, but to respond with a comment that essentially says, "You don't know what you're talking about, shut up until you do" is not dialogue, and tells me absolutely nothing that is likely to shift my opinion, if that is what you would like to change.

Sarah said...

Cerebralmum, start here:

Kate Harding: Don't you realize that fat is unhealthy?

Sandy Szwarc: Junkfood Science

Paul Campos, author of The Obesity Myth

Health at Every Size

Major Obesity Myths

You cannot judge a person's health by the outside appearance. A thin person who does not exercise and eats junk food does not have an advantage over the "obese" person who does exercise and eat moderately. And yes, the science backs this up.

I find your willful ignorance on this topic offensive, by the way.

You don't have any right to tell me what shape my body should be. You don't have any right to grill me on my diet and exercise habits because I appear obese. "Thin" people don't have to put up with this prejudice and madness, even though I can bargain that the majority of "thin" people don't take care of themselves or abuse their bodies in other ways.

cerebralmum said...

Sarah, while I am sorry that I have offended you, but I can honestly say that you have misread everything I have written.

I agree with you that someone's visual appearance is not a measure of their health. In fact, I stated as much. I said, and I quote, that the term healthy "has room for many different shapes and sizes."

You said, "You don't have any right to tell me what shape my body should be", but in what part of any of my comments do you think I made any such assertion? In fact, I said this: "It is our preoccupation with bodies which is the problem, not the shape those bodies take."

You also said, "You don't have any right to grill me on my diet and exercise habits because I appear obese." Here, I can only assume that you are speaking to someone other than me. I never mentioned the words diet and exercise at all. Personally, I find the word "diet", whether it is meant to describe a person's eating habits or the restriction of those eating habits, one of the most destructive words we use in our society. And the word "exercise" contains just as much baggage.

Again, there is much in this response which attacks me as a person and impugns my motives in a way that what I have written does not support. On what basis do you call me "willfully" ignorant? Certainly, you may use use your judgement to consider me ignorant, but "willful" implies intentional harm on my part. You have no basis for making such a statement, especially since I specified that I consider this a dialogue and requested more information from someone with a different point of view.

(And yes, I will read those resources you have listed.)

But the fact that I have twice been personally attacked for stating my opinion, and twice had my opinion misrepresented, seems to support my contention that this focus on body size, whether is is fat or skinny, is polarising and counter-productive. And "fat acceptance", even though it intends to counter very real prejudice, focuses on body size.

I would also like to say that you are incorrect in your statement that "'Thin' people don't have to put up with this prejudice and madness." As a matter of fact, they do. Just as large women are often assumed to be lazy or slovenly or any of the other completely ridiculous and baseless things people assume, thin women are often assumed to bimbos or anorexic bitches or shallow, and many other ridiculous things. On this point, I think The Last Psychiatrist's post about sexual attribution bias is worth reading.

People of all sizes suffer from discrimination, especially if they are at either extreme end of the spectrum. And the media attacks skinny as much as they attack fat in terms of health. Often perfectly healthy women are their targets. Thin women and large women have far more in common than many of them think. If they got together instead of thinking their mere existence was an insult to each other, that would surely be a force to be reckoned with.

Anonymous said...

Cerebralmum - Just wanted to clarify, I left the first "anonymous" comment, not the second. That's the problem with anonymous commenting, I suppose.

Personally, I found a lot interesting and a lot infuriating about the NPR interview. In fact, the same thing that I spoke of earlier. Nimoy took pictures and published a book of artwork. Why, seriously WHY must we take every g-d opportunity to shout from the rooftops that fat will kill you. It's art. It does not require a warning label. Heaven forbid that something may "normalize" fat women! Then all the fat women will think that they can leave the sideshows and walk down the streets and shop in stores! Next thing they'll be eating in public. Think of the children!

And your "concern" your "not sure" your other careful sidesteps are silly couching for your real point - fat people should stop feeling good about themselves because they're just lying to themselves and they're all going to die for being fat and in the meantime they should feel shame and hide their bodies and oh yeah, they're also too stupid to know what big important medical words mean. They don't like "obese" because it hurts their great big feelings.

I don't know who you're offending by using the term obese. But I really don't know why it is so important to you that you label people. Obese, liars, a spade is a spade. Relax. People will always surprise you. Don't fight so hard to box them in.

Labels are defined by somebody. In this case, by the National Institutes for Health. For decades ideal weight was defined by insurance company data. BMI was developed over a hundred years ago to measure relative fitness in "normal composition" people. It was never intended to be used in the way it is now. Prior to 1995 the NIH defined overweight as a BMI greater than 27.8 for men and 27.3 for women. In 1995 the "cut-off" was lowered and suddenly thousands of previously normal-weight people were overweight overnight.

Numbers are one data that may factor in a person's overall health. To pretend that the implications of BMI are set in stone is riduculous. To cling to the overweight, obese, morbidly obese labels as though they are anything more than today's sorting system, subject to change at anytime, is just a convenient explanation to excuse your own unease with differences in our bodies.

Sarah - excellent list of resources. I particularly recommend the junkfood science blog and urge Cerebralmum when you're on Kate Harding's page, check out the BMI project. It is eye-opening.

T.S.T. said...

I just posted a follow-up on the FBP on my blog Digest, offering some of my own thoughts. It mostly asks questions, however. I welcome well-reasoned answers, if you've got 'em!

cerebralmum said...

I have to say, I found the NPR interview bloody annoying. Asking him about a cancer research paper? Seriously? I would have preferred to just hear more about the personal and artistic process he went through making the book. The things he learned, the assumptions he had which were challenged. The interviewer was... well, not a good interviewer is the nicest thing I can say.

Based on all the comments here, I think there are a couple of things which I do not seem to have communicated well.

The first is that when I talk about using the terms obese, etc which are based on BMI, I am not talking about using it as a "label". I am talking about the need to remove all value judgements from it so that the results of scientific research (whether positive or negative) can be assessed scientifically.

I am aware of the limitations of BMI and so are most scientists. The largest problem, in my opinion, is with scientific reporting which sensationalises research studies and leads people to infer more from the research than it actually says. The other major problem is the source of scientific funding, which is supported by either pharma and the diet industry or, on the other side, the food industry. That goes a fair way to damning much of what comes out because they, too, have significant financial interest in the issue. But to reject the term "obese" because it is insulting, means you can't assess the science.

Anonymous One, I do not go around offending and labelling people with that term. I use it only when I am discusses the science with someone. In that situation, BMI's are relevant, because that happens to be what the research is studying.

I have a feeling that nothing I say will change your assumptions about me but my real point is not that "fat people should stop feeling good about themselves". I would like everyone to feel good about themselves. I do not think everyone who is "obese" is unhealthy. I do not think the term "obese" means anything but BMI in that range. But it would be disingenuous to suggest that all people who are "full-figured" (a euphemism I don't like which can and is used derogatively) are healthy. And when I say healthy, I mean having a healthy relationship with their body. That is why the only health issue I mentioned was eating disorders. Some fat people have those too. The amount of money the diet industry, which I abhor, rakes in every year is evidence of that.

Whatever anyone's "medical" health is, is none of my business. The crisis in our society (which is my concern) is not how many people fit into any one clinical description, it is how many people put value judgements on their own, and other people's bodies. It is how many people have a distorted perception of their bodies, both in size and in meaning. Not only is that currently a widespread social problem, it creates "medical" health problems because it causes stress and depression, and yes, insane dieting. In people of all sizes.

The principles of the Wikipedia HAES article which Sarah linked to above state exactly my position on what health is, physically and mentally.

The "fat acceptance" movement however, does not. I find it problematic. When I say "concern" and "not sure" I mean exactly that. The internal issues, also listed at Wikipedia, are some of the things which concern me. It does not mean the same thing to all people. Linguistically, it is too easily distorted.

Statements like "Fat Is Beautiful" offend me the same way statements like "Thin Is Beautiful" do. Why? Because beauty is beautiful, not any kind of body type. And how we feel about ourselves has an impact on how beautiful we appear to others, an impact that can actually override body type prejudices.

I don't why you have assumed that I am "uneasy" with fat women. I come from a genetically fat and voluptuous family. I have a naked portrait of my "full-figured" Oma hanging in my house. I find her breathtakingly gorgeous. My mother, as I said, is "obese". She is intelligent and active and "beautiful" as well and I adore her. She doesn't make me uneasy. My sister, on the other hand became morbidly obese and that worried me, not because she was fat, but because the way she felt about herself effected the way she treated her body. When she began to like herself again, some of that weight fell away. I didn't stop worrying about her because she got a little slimmer. I stopped worrying because she was happy. The only fat that has ever made me uneasy is my own. And that was unhealthy. And I fixed it.

What does make me uneasy, however, is the number of people, especially women, who are not comfortable in their own skins. My Oma was. My mother learned to be the hard way. I learned to be the hard way. (And, just incidentally, in case this assumption was made too, I am neither fat nor skinny.)

HAES is for everyone of every size, and I like that about it. "Fat Acceptance" is not. Although I am very aware of how much prejudice fat women face, they do not face it alone. I am uncomfortable with the term "fat acceptance" because it does not address the real problem. The real problem is that our society focusses far too much on bodies. You can't fix that by focussing on a particular body type. You fix that by saying body types have no value attributes whatsoever. And yes, as I've said before, I know that is the intention, but it is not, unfortunately, always the function. Unfortunately, it sometimes functions divisively.

I share the same views as the other commenters here. The only difference we have is about the way to fix it.

I think we should reduce those labels to what they are; a measurement of BMI. None of them should be considered insulting. When we are insulted by them, it gives them a power they do not intrinsically have. We should view the science disinterestedly, and criticise it on a scientific basis, not a political one. We should then criticise the politics when they abuse the science for political motives. (The changes in the BMI definitions are a case in point, and an issue, incidentally, that I was already aware of.) And I think we should separate the idea of pride in ourselves from any descriptor of a body type, and combat all forms of body prejudice as one. Because they come from the same source.

Magali & Claire said...

Does this photo look familiar?

Ariel said...

I'm sorry... but in my opinion to be fat is just horrible... no one want to be fat.. come on... be honest..the picture is such a trash stuff...most of the people that say "It's ok to be fat" are thin people... is easy to say it when you have a perfect body...

annebonannie said...

I've a great deal of compassion for cerebralmum and for other who are like him/her. We are bombarded with the message that "fat is unhealthy", "obesity kills", etc. The headlines on the news are persuasive and it is difficult to believe that it's not true. I mean, it's difficult to conceive that a message so pervasive is incorrect.

The science does not support the popular wisdom that fat is unhealthy. That is a fact. But it is a fact you have to dig for to discover. It's not an easily found truth. It's a truth that forces one to look at all the messages we hear in a critical way and it can be difficult to do.

Be gentle and kind. Try to to take it personally when confronted with ignorance.

Kate said...

Fat acceptance has a place in this world, because right now, fat people are hugely discriminated against (i.e. overlooked for jobs and promotions based soley on appearance; denied medical care because doctors think that "lose weight" is the answer to every problem).

The acceptance goes farther than just "love thyself" (though that is part of it because we are told we should hate ourselves because fat is bad, therefore we are bad). It also is about accepting that fat people are just as capable as non-fat people.

It's one of the last bastions of open discrimination in our culture. I watched the View recently where they talked about this book and one of the hosts stated that there is "no way you can stretch the definition of beauty to include these bodies". How's that for narrow minded?

Acceptance isn't about giving in, which I think is how people define it. By accepting your body as it is, right this minute, and loving it, you are apt to do things for it that are good for it. You nourish it, you take care of it. We don't make good choices when we're in an attitude of self-loathing or hatred. Acceptance is the important first step to being whole and healthy.

As for science and determining health... a number on a scale does not reflect the state of a person's health. This is why you are tested for things like heart function, blood pressure, insulin resistance, et al. THOSE things determine disease, not weight. No one's death certificate says "cause of death: fat".

ProudFA said...

Fat acceptance today is off the rails. It does not speak for the vast majority of fat people.

There is a new movement in fat acceptance of which I am a part. We call it the New Fat Acceptance. We are pretty much what the old fat acceptance is but we are not blaming genes for obesity and we are not anti diet.

We are inclusive movement that welcomes all genders, races, political beliefs and all creeds. We are not the man hating fat white girls club like the old fat acceptance.