Echidne of the Snakes has written a great post, “Obesity As A Metaphor”. Inspired by the Fat-Hate-Bingo-style comments on her Leonard Nimoy post, Echidne expands on her condemnation of fattist healthism:
One commenter asked:
“Seriously. What am I missing here? Why are people defending fatness?”
It is a valid question, and worth thinking about. I didn’t participate in that thread, but my own answer to the question would have been that I’m not defending fatness. Or thinness or any other particular body shape. But I believe what deserves further exploration is the connection between a particular body weight and the ideas of goodness or worthiness, the Puritan equation between sloth and weight or weakness of character and weight, and the mirror image of this equation in how we view very thin women as somehow having won over their greedy and weak sides, even when the level of thinness they have achieved is a medical emergency.
The tendency to draw moral parallels between ill health and human worth is an old one. Mentally ill people were once seen as carrying demons and the treatment was to exorcize the demons in ways which often caused intense pain to the mentally ill themselves. Susan Sontag’s work on illness as metaphors bears repeating here:
“Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor was the first to point out the accusatory side of the metaphors of empowerment that seek to enlist the patient’s will to resist disease. It is largely as a result of her work that the how-to health books avoid the blame-ridden term ‘cancer personality’ and speak more soothingly of ‘disease-producing lifestyles.’ . . . Sontag’s new book AIDS and Its Metaphors extends her critique of cancer metaphors to the metaphors of dread surrounding the AIDS virus. Taken together, the two essays are an exemplary demonstration of the power of the intellect in the face of the lethal metaphors of fear.” –Michael Ignatieff, The New Republic
Something similar is visible on many discussions about health issues. An illness is seen as “deserved” if the patient ever engaged in any activity which is now known to be correlated with that illness, and the illness itself is now viewed as punishment for evil deeds. Illness becomes a moral condition and the search for its epidemiology becomes a court case where the jury looks for that one decision where the patient went wrong, the one sin for which the current pain and suffering might be a just punishment.
In some ways we have stepped out of the framework where illnesses were caused by demons and into the scientifically medical one. But in other ways we have brought those demons with us, transformed into a different type of an ethical judgment or into a search of a different type of causal explanation, and that little hidden demon is what allows us now to judge other people without feeling any embarrassment over doing so. After all, if medical science tells us that some patients “caused” their own illnesses, then it is simply natural that we, too, point out that causal mechanism in all sorts of daily interactions.
[There’s more. Go read. Warning: possible ED triggers in the comments.]