Fatties as Folk Devils

Megan McArdle has a great interview in the Atlantic with Paul Campos, author of The Obesity Myth. Campos argues that turning fat people into thin people is impossible, and in any case wouldn’t do much to improve health outcomes. The part I found most interesting, though, is the discussion of status politics and moral panic:

It’s the classic pattern of moral panics. As public concern about the damage being done to the fabric of society by the folk devils increases, increasingly intense demands are made on public officials to “do something” about the crisis, usually by eliminating the folk devils.

That of course is the strategy for this crisis. If fat people are the problem, then the solution is to get rid of them, by making them thin people. The most amazing aspect of this whole thing, for me, has always been the imperviouusness of policy makers, and even more so people who consider themselves serious academics and scientists, to the overwhelming evidence that there’s no way to do this.

I mean, there’s no better established empirical proposition in medical science that we don’t know how to make people thinner. But apparently this proposition is too disturbing to consider, even though it’s about as well established as that cigarettes cause lung cancer. So all these proposals about improving public health by making people thinner are completely crazy. They are as non-sensical as anything being proposed by public officials in our culture right now, which is saying something. (…)

Or (llke the upper West Side women) they stay on a permanent restricted lifestyle that the vast majority of people don’t have the combination of willpower and social privilege to maintain. There’s an important class angle here. Thinness is a sign of social status, and is to some extent a product of it, which is one reason — probably the main reason — why it’s so prized, especially among women. (…)

Right, as Mary Douglas the anthropologist has pointed out, we focus on risks not on the basis of “rational” cost-benefit analysis, but because of the symbolic work focusing on those risks does — most particularly signalling disapproval of certain groups and behaviors.In this culture fatness is a metaphor for poverty, lack of self-control, and other stuff that freaks out the new Puritans all across the ideological spectrum, which is why the war on fat is so ferocious — it appeals very strongly to both the right and the left, for related if different reasons.

Excellent throughout. Read the whole thing. See also the work of Joseph Gusfield on the American temperance movement:

As his own claim to social respect and honor are diminished, the sober, abstaining citizen seeks for public acts through which he may reaffirm the dominance and prestige of his way of life. Converting the sinner to virtue is one way; law is another. Even if the law is not enforced or enforceable, the symbolic import of it’s passage is important to the reformer. It settles the controversies between those who represent clashing cultures. The public support of one conception of morality at the expense of another enhances the prestige and self-esteem of the victors and degrades the culture of the losers.

Policies ostensibly aimed at promoting health and dealing with the obesity epidemic are really about those who place a high value on health and thinness having their views upheld as correct, just, and universally valid. Bigots, I tell you.

2 Responses

  1. Don’t you think there is a away to socially act to encourage health and weight loss without demonizing the unhealthy and/or overweight?

    And if there is I don’t see why it would be undesirable to do so.

    I don’t see anything wrong with valuing health and acting as a society to encourage the value of health. It’s only when valuing health leads to bigotry against the unhealthy that we have a problem but everything in life is a constant balancing act.

    • Acting to promote health at the population level is inherently bigoted, if bigotry is understood as a commitment to your own values/preferences/whatever and a denial that any divergence is legitimate.

      Encouraging health while ignoring people’s preferences over health and other good robs them agency. Health promotion is based on the idea that you know what’s best for people better than they know it themselves.

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