Thursday, September 8, 2011

Dear Jamie Oliver - You're the Human Rights Issue

Dear J.O. -

Fabulous fat suit. Really. Heh. Fat man likes his french fry.

That photo is taken from this week's Guardian piece about your "calls for a global action to tackle obesity."

The gist of your campaign--the first part to your ideas--is that: children in the US and UK live in a world of westernized fast food and food deserts; family cooking is a lost skill; there is little actual food in a lot of the food children eat; companies, obsessed with profit, are clever at finding what will appeal most to children and selling it to them, with no real interest in nutrition.

I agree with most of that. I am fat, I believe wholeheartedly in size acceptance, and I agree with that (if not the moralizing about it). I think the issues that inform what children eat are extremely complicated--more complicated than just corporate influence and a lack of information--but--yes. You can see the problems you describe with one trip to the grocery store--if you can get to one where you live, and if you can afford to buy anything once you're there. Carbs and processed foods are cheap, and protein and produce are not.

However, the thinking that immediately follows these ideas of yours is where you--and Michelle Obama--lose it every time. And lose me. You take off in a plane with lots of thrust, but don't realize that your machine is missing the parts to get it where you want to go. You don't see that the plane's crashed, and crashed fast, from faulty logic.

How does concern for all children's nutrition and health immediately and completely turn into concern about obesity? Why is obesity assumed to be the only response in the human population to the problems of the world in which we live and eat?

There is no sketchy explanation going from one topic to another, in fact there's no explanation at all; you just assume a leap in understanding from the concepts of "poor eating habits" and "food deserts" to fat, quickly followed by fatisbad (not only bad, "PREVENTABLE," as it says on your campaign site.) The pledge you want us to sign reads:
Jamie needs you to join him in taking a stand against obesity. Let’s show the world that we demand more. PETITION: 'I support the Food Revolution. Kids need better food at school and better health prospects. We need to keep cooking skills alive.'
Shouldn't you be asking us to "join you in taking a stand against bad [whatever] food" if that's really your concern?

The way you and most everyone else regard fatness is the exact opposite of the poignant de Montaigne quote, "Every man beareth the whole stamp of the human condition." In your thinking those who are fat do the wrong things in response to the fast-food world we live in, and those who are thin do the right things. Fat people are marked; thin people are not. You can see it and know it.

Forget the fact that this is bad science. Forget the fact that a myriad of factors influence how or if the human body gets fat. Forget that there are thin children suffering from the same issues of nutrition and ill health, from the same diets. Forget the fact that we haven't actually been spending the last 100 years praising being fat in this country; we've been horrified at it, discriminating against it, dieting about it, obsessed with it, trying to make it go away, and it's never worked. Forget that we don't actually know how to make a population thinner. Forget the fact that juking the stats ("obesity in the US costs $10,273,973 per hour!") is a time-honored, suspect way to defend your opinions about the health of a large group of people. Forget the fact that although size and fatness is absolutely interwoven with health, the degree to which it is, and how it plays out in individual cases, varies wildly.

Forget all that. You, and Michelle Obama, still end up in an untenable, illogical, and hateful place by focusing on size instead of health as a solution to whatever it is you really have a problem with.

When obesity is the entire locus of attention, you end up mopping yourself into a corner by (as the Guardian piece put it) urging "western nations to play a key role in halting the dramatic rise in numbers of obese people [emph mine] across the planet."

Try that sentence with any other modifier: "halting the dramatic rise in numbers of old/disabled/black/tall/skinny/short people across the planet." People. The key word there is people. Somehow people get lost very fast in the shuffle talking about fat, when fat is considered an endlessly influenceable state of being and a product only of (bad) decisions. Even when (as the Guardian piece does) experts acknowledge that the "current obesity epidemic was not caused by people being lazy or overeating" and that "research...showed that individuals had much less choice in the matter of their weight than they would assume," you're still choosing to focus on size, not health, as the key to fixing it.

What you end up with, as Melissa McEwan wrote in her excellent Shakesville post, is eliminationism. This is almost always the end result of discussion of size: somewhere, somehow fat people are being asked not to exist. No, I don't want you to go away, I just want you to be skinnier and healthier. Don't come back til you are. Don't be til you are thinner. Don'

To all the folks whose response to any of this is ever, "why the fuck don't they just eat less?" that will sound self-pitying and dramatic. But it's true. Even if fat people could present you with a card that swears they dislike their fat bodies and swears they are trying to change them, and have eliminated every possible "excuse" for being fat, would you still accept fat people as they are, right now? Allow them every right and privilege? Because that's all we have in this world--right now. Fat and apologetic, fat and unapologetic--we just are.

The "flip" side of your alarmist and self-serving headlines such as "42 Million Kids Are Obese--Help Me Save Them" is that THERE ARE 42 MILLION FAT KIDS. That's kids--people. Not 42 million cases of diabetes, not 42 million families that don't know how to feed their kids: 42 million people. The only reason that many people put up with, and wholeheartedly defend, the right to be treated like crap (which, unfortunately, is where efforts to influence body size get us) is because we're taught fat is bad.

And the way we learn that now--the way we justify it--is health. That is how we hate fat people now, by knowing they are unhealthy, dying young, out of shape, eating more than their share, ignorant of nutrition, diabetic, "morbidly obese," and with giant carbon footprints. (It's amazing how fat hating turns everyone into an M.D. And a sociologist. And the coolest part is that you can know this just by looking at em!) You, Jamie, are doing your bit to drive that home.

You and the First Lady could end up somewhere so great--seriously, great--if you just let your ideas go where they want to go--with a focus on health, and let body size come along however it wants to. Not to mention that focusing on health (see HAES) is the only demonstrable way you can effect it. (Weird, isn't it, how that works. Focusing on health improves health.) It just kills me that there is all this good intention--and I think there is a lot of it in the mix--if there weren't, this would all be much easier to deal with--but it goes somewhere so dead-end. With just one crucial tweak you could do so much good, but as it stands you are poised to perpetuate and create a lot of damage.

You called in your recent speech for a "global movement to make obesity a human rights issue," and that's exactly what I think we need--in a different way--to protect ourselves in this very fat-phobic world from the well-meaning, if proselytizing and ego-heavy, efforts of people like you.


p.s. Here's that Shakesville post again.

p.p.s. Here's another great one at Red No. 3.