A respected science writer of my acquaintance, who is not part of the fat acceptance movement but has been writing for a long time about the increasing research that complicates our stereotypes about fat and fat people, recently pitched an article to the New Yorker about the burgeoning field of fat studies. A new and contentious scholarly field seems like a pretty natural topic choice for the New Yorker, but they rejected the idea very politely, saying that it wasn’t really for them.
This seems somewhat less surprising now that I’ve read Elizabeth Kolbert’s book review “XXXL.” This is one of those zeitgeisty New Yorker reviews, where they look at a pile of related or semi-related works that have come out recently. In this case, it’s on the subject of why people are fat — or, if you prefer to unhitch fat bodies from gluttony, why people are given to overeat. Hilariously, it opens with Katherine Flegal discovering that the population gained weight in the 1980s — you know, the same Flegal who later added that this wasn’t necessarily a problem. But from the rest of the article, I’m guessing that if anyone told Kolbert about that study, she put her fingers in her ears and went “la la la stop trying to make me gain weight.”
The piece throws around some scary-sounding statistics — in ten years, Americans gained more than a billion pounds, or a gut-busting 3.3 pounds per person per year over the course of ten years! (thanks Meowser for checking my math) — and settles on saying that “Men are now on average seventeen pounds heavier than they were in the late seventies, and for women that figure is even higher: nineteen pounds.” Nineteen pounds is roughly the difference between these women and these women, or between her and her, or between Jen and Ginny. And, of course, a huge cohort of individual people are individually 19 pounds heavier than they were in the 1970s, because they’ve all hit middle age. But, you know, whoooooa, terrifying epidemic.
Still, we have gained some weight as a population, at least at the heavier end, and we do have different eating habits than we used to, though people who think they’re unequivocally better worse (whoops!) are living in a nostalgia-gilded fantasy land. There’s not too much negative judgment in evidence as Kolbert discusses recent books picking apart our modern way of eating, which tends heavily towards the processed, the convenient, and the sweet. The books she looks at discuss the evolutionary, financial, psychological, and industry-driven reasons why the population as a whole might be eating food in larger portions, and might be inclined to eat fatty, salty, and calorie-dense foods. Kolbert gives no nod towards the fact that these foods don’t magically become nutritious once you’re below a certain BMI — throughout, she conflates fat bodies with what have come to be understood as fat behaviors — but the discussion is an interesting one. The books put forth different reads on the modern food landscape, sometimes complementary and sometimes mutually exclusive, but after all it’s a book review; the piece stands as an overview of current popular research, not as a scientific consensus. As an overview, it’s thought-provoking at the very least.
Then she gets to “The Fat Studies Reader,” which was evidently shoehorned into a piece where it doesn’t remotely belong (fat studies, I probably don’t need to tell you, isn’t really about the evolutionary psychology of eating) and clearly isn’t wanted. Suddenly, Kolbert feels qualified to offer dismissive analysis where she’d previously been satisfied to treat the experts as experts — or perhaps I’m using the term “analysis” too loosely. Among the rather jaw-dropping claims: fat scholars advocate “putting on weight [as] a subversive act,” the fat studies field “oppos[es] the sorts of groups that advocate better school-lunch programs and more public parks,” and saying that some people are naturally heavier than others amounts to almost the same thing as saying that some people are meant to be poor. As my writer friend, who has seen pre-publication excerpts of the book, put it: “My guess is that she didn’t read much beyond the foreword.”
I haven’t read even that much, I must admit. But even sight unseen, one thing I feel I can say with confidence about “The Fat Studies Reader” is that IT IS A READER. Readers are anthologies of scholarly work designed to show the scope of a theoretical field. Some pieces probably do take radical positions, ones that would be too radical for most of us to stand behind completely, or that stand in direct contradiction to our ideas about what fat acceptance means; others show more measured viewpoints, and some might be too conservative for many of us (for instance, fat academic Corinna Tomrley has criticized Susie Orbach’s important but early “Fat is a Feminist Issue” as being essentially a diet book). Kolbert’s reaction is akin to flipping through a feminist studies reader and coming away with the idea that feminists think all heterosexual sex is rape.
How disappointing that a mainstream, usually thoughtful publication acknowledges fat acceptance, but then describes a movement that none of us would recognize. How disappointing that the usually scrupulous Kolbert couldn’t justify the minimal amount of effort it would have taken to get a more representative idea of the movement as it stands. Reading the entire book she’s purporting to review would have been a start.
(On the other hand, this Talk of the Town piece in the same issue is pretty much the pinnacle of the medium and will probably be back as a Friday Fluff. Dear NYer publishers: you guys can stop that feature now, except for Hendrik Hertzberg. It’s peaked.)
Edited to fix ambiguous phrasing, thanks withoutscene.