Shaping debate on religion in public life.

So What’s Wrong with the F-word?

13 Apr 2017

Spring has arrived, bringing brightness and a gentle warmth back into many of our lives. Yet it’s also a time of year when we are assaulted by a deluge of calls to beach-body readiness and action against the F-word: ‘tackle those winter bulges’, ‘the battle plan diet’, ‘fight the flab’, ‘wage war on your waistline’, – calls to arms in a battle against what are construed as a dangerous, common enemy: fat bodies.

So what are some of the drivers of these ‘battle calls’? The imaginaries of ‘fat wars’ have deep and multiple roots, among them a particular reading of Christianity. For example, in Psalm 119:70 the arrogant are portrayed as possessing hearts that are ‘fat and gross’, intrinsically linking moral and somatic pathology. Paul also warns that appetite can be destructive of both self, community and possibilities in the afterlife. These somatic imaginaries are also gendered and sexualised through the imagery of the Fall. Similar judgemental, othering and often punitive themes have been serially echoed through time in the practices of the flagellants, Calvin, the Puritans and countless further iterations. As this period of Lent may have reminded us, controlled appetite and slim bodies are similarly and variously linked to the themes of redemption, holiness and salvation.

This model of Christian ethics also shares a conceptual template with contemporary economics, culture and politics, which are imbued with the principles of individualism, self-discipline, lean efficiency, competitiveness, maximisation of surplus and profit, which in turn form sacralised benchmarks for the being of all bodies. In contrast, non-normative bodies are constructed as objects of disdain or abjection, and so marginalised. Yet paradoxically, consumer capitalism also actively inflates bodies. For example, fat and sugars in the form of corn syrup are purposely added to a wide range of foods to generate desires to buy and eat more, exploiting our instinctive, survivalist drives. As Scientific American highlighted in 2016, fat and sugar are addictive in ways that parallel gambling or cocaine. Further, Dupuy suggests the recent rise in ‘obesity’ is a mark of capital’s productive and marketing success which, in turn, underpins a complementary, multi-million pound slimming industry.

The narratives and practices of that slimming industry, which are intimately related to those of anti-fat pharma and redemptive private medicine, tend to portray images of soft, fleshy bodies as disfigured and in need of redemptive measures. Quasi-religious, ideal images of thinness are serially deployed, and salvational regimes include controlling carnal urges, ‘taming the flesh’, regulatory coding of permitted and non-permitted eating, rituals for self-flagellation, confession and public shaming of failure. Self denial and sacrifice are celebrated. All are underwritten by an idolatrous and eschatological ideal of perfected, ‘born again’ flesh. This amounts to the propagation of shaming and devaluation of bodies on an industrial scale, dynamics which are complemented by the media.

All forms of media cultivate an affective milieu in which larger bodies function as markers of disorder, indulgence, indiscipline and incivility. Such imagery is disproportionately applied to and used to shame the poor, unemployed and the token celebrity who has ‘failed’. In contrast, lean figures are portrayed as normative, virtuous and desirable. Morality and worth are accorded not only by weight, gender and class, but also ‘race’ and sexuality as evidenced through publications as diverse as ‘Diva’, ‘Asian Women’ and ‘Vogue.  These images are thus not only devaluing, but also divisive and colonising.

The collateral damage of this ‘war against fat’ is threefold. First, there is logical collateral – as Berreby argues, these individualising blaming and shaming practices have little logical or scientific bases. Second, these ‘fat wars’ also generate political and ethical collateral too. These imaginaries not only comprise oppressive forms of social regulation and control, they are also divisive, discriminatory, exclusory, create hierarchies and mitigate against equality of respect and social justice. At an inter-personal level they can also foster a competitive comparative ethos and even aggression towards nonconforming flesh. The dynamics of dehumanisation, loathing, ostracism, bullying and aggression towards larger bodies are of particular significance in the context of rising hate crime. Third, at a psychic level, ‘fat body’ narratives can generate feelings of inadequacy, humiliation, anxiety, self alienation, loathing as well as shame. Overall, this ‘war on fat’ is cruel and dehumanising, renders larger bodies docile and as such comprises a systemic form of discrimination and oppression.

So are there alternative religious approaches that might suspend such hostilities to the body? Temple would be a good example here. Whilst he lived during a period dominated by a Christianity which was lean and muscular in its somatics, larger bodies were widely conceived as greedy, effeminate, irrational and uncontrolled. Indeed, Temple’s own proportions did not go without comment among politicians of the time. Nevertheless, Temple valorised the utility of his larger body on the rugby field and further embraced table fellowship to the full (and beyond!) from Bermondsey to Balliol. In doing so, he contested, rejected and inverted the shaming somatic values of the cultural milieu around him. Temple was a political radical in many ways, but his somatic radicalism, as expressed in his embrace of a kinder and more accepting approach to all bodies is often overlooked.

Arguably, there is a similar, pressing need to reframe somatic economics, politics and culture today, to identify ways of being and forms of well-being which do not put us at war with our own bodies, or with each other’s, and which are not tied to profit-driven motives. There is a need for frames which recognise and affirm the vibrancy of difference, diversity and their interrelatedness. Relational Christian Realism is one such approach and the organisation Health at Every Size offers another.  Both embrace the import of biodiversity and interdependence, and gesture towards a possible future in which there would no longer be a need to fear the F-word.

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