Marina Martinez ’16 requested the opportunity to write a guest response to Paige Willey’s article, “Fat Justice Workshop Degrades Women, Stretches Truth” (March 24). The Independent welcomes letters to the editor and guest responses from all political perspectives.
When I read Paige Willey’s article, I was appalled. Having been inspired by the workshop to further educate myself, I couldn’t believe the way Willey took out of context nearly everything that she quoted from the speakers. Ironically, while Willey attacks many of the points at the workshop as lacking evidence—and as using heavily implicating “leftist” keywords to elicit emotional reactions—she employs the exact same strategy in her critique. In fact, many of the conclusions Willey draws about the “point” of the workshop are simply wrong. They were neither said nor implied. I’ll address each of her points separately:
1. The speakers did not, as Willey suggests, rant about Adolphe Quetelet’s “evilness,” nor did they classify BMI as a “white supremacist, patriarchal, colonizing, exploitative force.” First, it is widely accepted in the scientific world that BMI falls far short as an accurate classification of obesity and health. BMI fails to account for bone proportions and muscle density, meaning BMI often misclassifies athletes as overweight. The use of BMI often results in higher insurance premiums for many healthy adults because of the inaccuracy of BMI calculations.
Secondly, the “white supremacist, patriarchal, colonizing, exploitative force” mentioned is not, as Willey makes it appear, an unreasonable statement. In the workshop, this force was actually defined in the context of phrenology and eugenics, not BMI. Phrenology is the “science” of making judgments on someone’s character based on their physical attributes. These practices have existed for centuries, in many cultures and time periods. However, during periods of colonization, the standard for good character was a white male European body. Visual depictions of black or indigenous peoples not native to Europe during this time were often heavily stereotyped, drawing from references to animals in order to dehumanize these populations of people and assert white moral and intellectual dominance. As British sociologist Dr. Richard Twine states, phrenology was used over centuries to “buttress scientific racism and the misogynistic focus on prostitution.”
Therefore, when Quetelet wrote The Average Man, in which he determined that weight increased as the square of height, his ‘average man’ was white and obviously male, and this man was used as the standard for bodies. This is by nature patriarchal and oppressive, because when one standard is used as the ideal, anyone who does not fit the ideal is seen as wrong. Nonwhite people, and indeed women, could not fit into the established norm, and this was used for the next several centuries to dehumanize, oppress, marginalize, mistreat, and murder people who did not fit the standard. I would argue that BMI decidedly derives from “white supremacist, patriarchal, colonizing, exploitative forces.”
The speakers did fail to state that Quetelet was a mathematician. According to most sources I found, Quetelet was a pioneer in mathematics and statistics. However, many sources that lauded Quetelet also embraced BMI as an accurate, indispensable tool—yet there is widespread scientific consensus that BMI is an inaccurate tool to measure obesity and health.
2. Not once did the speakers suggest that we should stop celebrating the heroes of women’s suffrage, nor was it suggested that flappers intentionally adopted a style that “de-emphasized” their “feminine attributes.” White feminists did many incredibly courageous things, none of which Segal and Sullivan condemned. What they did condemn was that white feminists did, in fact, “[throw] everyone else under the bus” because they realized that in order to gain the vote, they could not include women of color. Historically, to gain more status and freedom, oppressed groups have themselves furthered the oppression of other, more oppressed groups (for example, white ethnic immigrants such as Irish, Italians, and Jews in the US were some of the loudest anti-black racists during industrialization in the late 19th and early 20th century, because by racializing blacks, they could obtain classification as white Americans and secure jobs for themselves in factories while excluding blacks). As the speakers stated, the feminism of the early 20th century excluded women of color in order to gain limited power in the world they lived in, an unfortunate and shameful part of feminist history that nevertheless must be acknowledged.
Additionally, Willey suggests that it was the purposeful intent of flapper women to de-emphasize their feminine attributes and antagonize women with larger breasts. While prominent flappers who were societally accepted may not have intended to look the way they did, they were afforded such social acceptance because they looked this way. It can hardly be ignored that women who gained fame as flappers in that time were of a certain body type and skin color—and this is still a pertinent issue in media representations of women today. At no point did the speakers suggest that the flappers “ought to be chided” as opposed to respected as courageous young women. They were courageous young women. But they did not provide an accurate representation of the female population, and the standards they imposed were damaging to many.
3. For Segal and Sullivan, the 1960s and 1970s were notable for the mobilization of young people who were dissatisfied with their government and had the hope of something better. They did consider “communism and socialism as viable alternatives to capitalism and exploitation” because in our capitalist society today, as at that time, huge numbers of people are exploited, marginalized, and otherwise oppressed. The country being discussed is the United States. No mention was made of the Soviet Union and China during these times because they were not relevant to oppression in the United States. Additionally, it must be noted that China and the Soviet Union were communist in name only; a ruling class existed in both cases to oppress and in fact destroy the livelihoods of the less powerful. The “large-scale human exploitation” was a result of enormous power concentrated in the hands of very few people. Communism and socialism as concepts are antithetical to these values, and protesters in the 1960s and 1970s were not advocating for this type of system.
4. The reference to Ronald Reagan ‘fuck[ing] everything up’ was not directed toward obese people, as Willey leads us to believe. It was directed at the silencing of movements towards civil rights, greater equity, and democracy that had previously been gaining ground in the country. Obese people were not explicitly mentioned in regards to Ronald Reagan; the focus was on Reagan’s policies, which included enormous tax cuts, reduced government regulation in terms of businesses and corporations, and heavily increased government regulation in terms of drugs and prison.
5. For evidence of the “medical-industrial complex” creating the obesity “crisis,” look no further than the 1997 FDA trial, dominated by health experts with direct ties to the pharmaceutical lobby, who successfully lowered the “overweight” BMI classification to 25. A Seattle Times investigation found that this change was a direct result of the pharmaceutical industry’s pressure on the government to increase the number of overweight people, and about 30 million people became categorized as “overweight” or “obese” overnight. Drug companies, hospitals and doctors collaborated to administer weight loss drugs and campaigned for obesity to be treated as a public health crisis.
One of the most dangerous drug combinations, prescribed to millions of people before its side effects were known, was a combination of the drugs fenfluramine and phentermine. It turned out that these drugs, with brand names Pondimin and Redux, caused side effects like heart valve malformation requiring open-heart surgery and chronic pulmonary hypertension, a thickening of capillaries in lungs that hinders breathing. These side effects were measured in a 1997 Mayo clinic study to affect 30 percent of patients who took the drug. By the time the Pondimin and Redux were taken off the shelf, the company selling them had made a profit of 200 million dollars. So actually, there is strong evidence that the “medical-industrial complex” had everything to do with the labeling of obesity as a health crisis.
5. Like Willey, I disagree with the claim that “there is no scientific consensus…that fat is unhealthy.” To the extent of my research, I found there is evidence for health problems correlated with extreme obesity, namely hypertension, coronary-artery disease, and other cardiovascular problems. However, correlation is not necessarily causation, and the data for this is inconclusive if obesity is the root cause of any of these problems. The problem with Willey’s blind acceptance of “virtually any reputable medical source” as sufficient to debunk the speakers’ claims is that these are exactly the sources that the speakers cite as being influenced by pharmaceutical lobbies. An investigation into pharmaceutical lobbying in government reveals that pharmaceutical and health product companies, like Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson, spent a total of $225,715,937 dollars in government lobbying in 2013.
What we can say is that many factors affect body fat: socioeconomic class, age, race and ethnicity are all shown to play a role. Lifestyle alone is not a significant way of predicting weight or body fat. The health benefits of exercise are not something I’ll get into here. I’m a huge proponent of exercise. But in most cases, judging by scientific models and by various studies, exercise alone can make people healthier, but does not help people lose significant weight. The speakers’ point there is no consensus that fat people need to exercise more is true, because many fat people exercise just as much as thin people, and many thin people don’t exercise at all.
6. Controlling for external lifestyle factors, such as smoking, eating habits, and exercise habits, overweight people actually tend to live longer than “normal-weight” people. Grade 1 obesity (BMI from 30 to 35) was not associated with higher all-cause mortality, but it was not associated with longer life either. Grades 2 and 3 obesity, classified with a BMI over 35, were associated with higher all-cause mortality. So Willey is correct in pointing out that the speakers skirted the fact that not all overweight people live longer; however, even most obese people do not have any increased mortality rate than “normal-weight” people. This also goes back to the point that there is no scientific evidence that fat people need to exercise more—apparently, there isn’t.
7. Side effects of bariatric surgery include death (1 in 300 patients), pulmonary embolism (1% of patients), bowel leakage and subsequent infection requiring secondary surgery (1% of patients), bowel obstruction requiring emergency surgery (3% of patients) and bleeding requiring medication or surgery (2% of patients). Additionally, excessive scar tissue formation between the stomach and bowel occurs in 2% of patients, resulting in chronic vomiting and decreased tolerance to food. Ulcers occur in about 2% of patients, and can be brought on by such painkillers as ibuprofen and Aleve—medication many people take for headaches, muscle aches, or menstrual cramps. Another serious side effect is chronic nutritional deficiency in protein and essential vitamins and minerals.
These symptoms uphold the statement by the speakers that many who go through gastric bypass are “reduced to involuntary anorexia and bulimia.”The point of the surgery is to reduce the body’s ability to digest food. This is literally what anorexia is—chronic reduced food intake. The number of complications that cause vomiting alone are sufficient to describe involuntary bulimia.
One of the biggest questions to consider here is why we are so comfortable condemning people to massive discomfort, lifestyle change, and poor quality of life in the name of treating them. Many believe that fat people should stop at nothing to lose weight in the name of their health, and yet many fat people sentenced to such drastic changes are not experiencing adverse health conditions, and the measures taken to lose weight actually worsen their quality of life. We arrive at the question of whether people should have the autonomy to decide their own lifestyle, especially considering that fatness is not often tied to lifestyle.
Segal and Sullivan did not claim that “anesthesiologists lack the expertise to calculate anesthesia doses for larger patients.” In fact, they said the opposite: that high rates of bariatric surgery indicate that anesthesiologists know exactly how to calculate anesthesia doses for larger patients. However, it is a well-documented fact that the majority of hospitals do not have adequate equipment to treat fat patients; few ambulances are equipped to handle fat patients; and in many facilities, fat women are denied access to procedures such as late-term abortions that their thin peers are granted.
Willey heavily criticizes the blame game she assumes Segal and Sullivan engaged in. It is an unfortunate fact that whenever oppression is pointed out, those with more privilege take it as an attack on their privilege and in fact as an example of ‘reverse discrimination.’ All the self-flagellation in the world isn’t a productive way to fix an oppressive structure. What people who have more privilege can do just as a first step, however, is actually listen to the perspectives of those who are oppressed, rather than—as Willey does—writing them off without considering any idea beyond what their privileged experience has given them.
I am confused by Willey’s statement that Segal and Sullivan’s “blam[ing] supermarkets for urban ‘gentrification’” was antithetical to saying that healthy food should be affordable and accessible. What Segal and Sullivan explicitly said was, “Everybody should have access to healthy food.” What they also said was that currently, supermarkets that sell healthy food and fresh produce tend to be too expensive for underprivileged neighborhoods lacking such food. The correlation between being poor and being fat in this country is too great to ignore, but it cannot be solved with lifestyle advice if the environment makes this lifestyle impossible for so many people. An illuminating point that Sullivan made was that in the hospital where she works, all the professionals are thin, and all the service workers are fat. This points at a structural problem and at the possibility that fatness is a salient category used for discrimination as well as social class, gender/sex, and race. Thus, rather than try to force people who can’t afford it to change their lifestyles because we want them to stop being fat, we might work on making those lifestyles financially accessible in the first place. But that would require more money for welfare and food stamps, better public housing, and that catch-22: eliminating systemic discrimination and exploitation in the workforce.
As I have already made clear, the speakers emphatically stated that everyone should have access to healthy food. With this comes the example Willey makes of Michelle Obama. Just because Michelle Obama is neither white nor a man does not mean her policies and ideas can’t stem from a patriarchal or white supremacist paradigm. These ideologies are deeply entrenched in our society. Policies such as the “war on obesity” endorse the same ideology that fat people are responsible and indeed obligated to make every possible effort to change how they look despite usually having little to no control over their genetics, environment, and subsequent weight. If we admit, as scientific evidence pushes us to, that genetics and early environment have by far the biggest influence on weight before lifestyle comes into the picture, then it is incredibly oppressive to ask a group of people to change their lifestyle beyond what is reasonable and often beyond what is possible for little to no results, just so that they can fit into our society. In fact, doing this justifies the oppression of fat people, because it spins the problem into an issue of personal responsibility when as we have seen, personal choices rarely account significantly for a person’s weight.
This oppressive ideology is self-evident in Willey’s own perspective. There is nothing empowering about the hundreds of diet products that can harm a person’s body, about doctors refusing to treat actual symptoms because of what they see in front of them, about qualified fat people being passed over for a job because of superficial and inaccurate judgments on their character made because of their weight. What would be empowering would be to recognize that health is not always correlated with what we see in front of us and moreover, that a person cannot be treated as a lesser human being just because of subjective speculations on their lifestyle.
I disapproved of Willey using the ‘angry, man-hating lesbian’ quote to make Sullivan look irrational and thus discredit her arguments. When Sullivan threw that phrase out there, it was right after making the case that in order to be respected as an activist or a feminist, one must still be mainstream. Both speakers were describing how women are quick to acknowledge that although they are feminists, they are ‘normal’—they shave their legs, for example, or they’re straight. Sullivan challenged us to think about people who may make us uncomfortable because they don’t fit into a mainstream idea of normal. Can we claim they don’t deserve to be listened to? Politics in our country don’t leave a lot of room for people who don’t fit into the current picture of respectability—so to be angry, for example, is supposed to delegitimize someone’s opinions, as is to have emotions about something as opposed to having a “rational” viewpoint. Yet those who say they “hate feminists” or “hate black people” or “hate gay people” continue to enjoy significant mainstream support for their views.
I entirely disagree with Willey’s assessment that everyone in the room being thin and privileged somehow exemplified oppression. People who did not have a personal investment in the issue were still there listening, wanting to learn about the oppression of a group of people they did not belong to. I found the presence of many thin people in the room to be encouraging. It was not an example of “blind solidarity;” it was an example of privileged people making an effort to listen to those who are less privileged, and this is exactly what Willey refused to do. By insisting that she knows better than the people who actually suffer discrimination, marginalization and violence every day, she is refusing to give a legitimate voice to those with less power and privilege than she.
Willey had a big problem with the “emotionally-charged” nature of the talk, another symptom of her insistence on buying into our culture’s notion of objectivity as removed from passion. But how can we expect the speakers not be passionate about an issue that affects them every day? Passion does not necessarily translate to a lack of rigor or accuracy. Willey’s rejection of the speakers’ research is every bit as “eager and emotionally-charged” as the workshop was, because her agenda is to preserve her cherished opinion that fat justice is not worthy of consideration. If Willey had been willing to hear the facts before she eagerly picked irrelevant phrases out of context and spun them to fit her storyline, she, too, might have benefited from this workshop.