How can you say to me, I am a king?
-- Shakespeare, Richard II
Ah, weight-loss. Some of my Facebook fat-o-sphere friends have made some great comments about the problems with weight loss, particularly the amazing fat activist pioneer, creator of the Yay! scale and author of Fat!So?, Marilyn Wann. All the fantastic women -- and the men! -- of fat activism are inspirations for me, but Marilyn deserves to be singled out. Her quotation summarizes my position on the issue:
I just basically consider it unethical to encourage any human being to undertake a weight-loss goal.Many comments follow such a daring and revolutionary sentiment. Some of these comments are better-informed than others. Instead of concentrating on the overall meaning of the quote, on its insistence that diet culture and basic morality are antithetical to one another, on its assertion that the body does not need to be made smaller to be acceptable or even healthier, people seem to spend a lot of time searching for any circumstance in which weight-loss is "okay." Some insist that people have the human right to lose weight if they choose to do so, and if weight-loss is a personal choice that does not come from a larger pressure, that this choice, like other personal choices, is worthy of encouragement and even support.
Guess what? I don't think so.
Such an argument implies that the personal is beyond reproach -- that if I (think I) do it "for me" and not for diet companies or beauty standards or pressuring relatives, it can't possibly be problematic. I argue that this is untrue because the personal is not such a neutral, ideology-free zone. It is in seemingly personal choices, philosophies etc. where harmful ideologies often run rampant, where they are not scrutinized or balanced by any kind of critique. For one thing, personal preferences do affect the broader community; the personal does not exist in a vacuum. Let's say the apocalypse happened and most members of the fat activist community dieted together and they all lost hundreds of pounds. As a fat person looking at all of this weight-loss in a supposedly fat positive community, would your "personal" choice really be to stay at the weight you are? Of course not.
While I created an improbable hypothetical situation, in a way it's not far from reality. A lot of fat girls and women like me are watching friends, relatives, media personalities, etc. lose weight (temporarily) and discuss the pleasures of losing weight and being thin. It's going to seem like there is no option not to be attempting weight-loss. It's going to seem like losing weight is the only way to be happy, moral, attractive, capable, and even worthy of existing at the most basic level. I'm not sure why under these circumstances -- under our circumstances -- anyone would make the personal choice not to lose weight. There is no innocence in Western culture around weight. One can't lose weight for the hell of it. Unless weight-loss is the byproduct of something else -- you have a health issue or new medication, you get really involved in a new sport or discipline that shapes your body, you do psychological work on your eating and feel less compelled to binge -- it is being forced on you by this culture; it is a result of the enormous pressure on fat people to alter their condition.
And this is the insidiousness of the seemingly personal: our culture compels us to lose weight and convinces us that it's what we want! For French Marxist theorist Louis Althusser (who has been one of my strange obsessions for the past year), this is how ideology works. Ideology is paradoxical in order to be effective. He writes, "it is indeed a peculiarity of ideology that it imposes (without appearing to do so, since these are 'obviousnesses') obviousnesses as obviousnesses" (in "Mapping Ideology," ed. Slavoj Zizek, p. 129). Or: "one of the effects of ideology is the practical denegation of the ideological character of ideology by ideology: ideology never says 'I am ideological'" (p. 131). In other words, ideology operates by concealing itself, by convincing you that it is the only reasonable way to understand things. This way, it isn't forced upon you. You have supposedly chosen it, when in fact it has chosen you. (In Soviet Russia...) Ideology is that which "we cannot fail to recognize and before which we have the inevitable and natural reaction of crying out... 'That's obvious!' 'That's right!' 'That's true!'" (p. 129).
Doesn't this sound familiar? "Of course being fat is unhealthy! There's no way to be healthy at that weight -- look at them!" "People want to lose weight to feel better about themselves!" It is ideology because it does not seem like it, because it convinces us of its truth over and over. We read about the "obesity epidemic" and say "of course" because we already believed it, because we are subjects in (subjects of, subjected to) a culture that already believes it and, like God -- for Althusser the ultimate ideological construction -- it creates us in its image. Ideology names us, or as our theorist puts it, it "hails or interpellates" us "as concrete subjects" (p. 130). Althusser famously uses the example of a policeman seeing someone on the street (a much more loaded example now than it was then, might I add, and yet, perhaps all the more appropriate). The policeman or anyone really says, "hey! you there!" And you recognize yourself as the person who has been called, who was already that. You're the "fatty" for instance, the defective one, the one who needs to change.
More simply, social forces and interactions "call" you; they shape the way that you are seen and see yourself. For Althusser there is no subject outside of these social interactions; you're subject to your subjecthood. What seems the most free -- your individual subjectivity -- is actually the most constrained, and this is how ideology stays in place. Althusser says it here: "the individual is interpellated as a (free) subject in order that he shall submit freely to the commandments of the Subject, i.e. in order that he shall (freely) accept his subjection, i.e. in order that he shall make the gestures and actions of his subjection 'all by himself'" (p. 135).
Ideology, then, creates you as a subject (subjected to it) who believes in it, who fits into an Ideological State Apparatus like a political party, a school, a church, a family, or, oh I don't know, a diet program, a dieting culture... In other words, a person "wants" to lose weight because he is hailed or interpellated as a fat (bad) person in a thin-centric culture, because he adopts the codes and goals of this culture "all by himself." By this logic there is no such thing as losing weight (or doing much of anything) "for yourself" because you are called to do it by a system that inscribes you as a bourgeois American Dream-loving subject that knows that if you just work hard enough you can make yourself acceptable. And of course you did that by yourself and for yourself. Or not.
Althusser also points out that "all Ideological State Apparatuses, whatever they are, contribute to the same result: the reproduction of the relations of production, i.e. of capitalist relations of exploitation." So because you "choose" to lose weight, you contribute to diet apparatuses -- Weight Watchers, Slimfast, Atkins, the "War on Obesity," the general belief that one "should" weight a certain amount, the idea of "good foods" vs. "bad foods," any and all of that. And by contributing to diet apparatuses, you keep them in business; the ideology underpinning them strengthens the exploitative relations that allow them to exist in the first place.
What can we do about all this crap? Well, I'm not totally sure, but I have a few ideas. We can work on being aware of it and be honest that we are part of it. I catch myself having certain ideas about both fat and skinny people that appall me. And as a fat activist, I do hold out more hope for human agency than Althusser does, even though his arguments against it are persuasive to me and have their use. I think it is possible to create and align ourselves with a different ideology, a countercultural one that is more accepting of different body sizes. I think Althusser warns us, rightly, that our position as fat activists is as ideological as any other. But that doesn't mean it's not legitimate. It's a position that creates a kinder and fairer world, one where rhetoric supports us in enjoying our bodies and caring for them as they are rather than condemning them. That sounds pretty good to me.
The excellent fat poet Kathy Barron has a very good blog post on similar topics. She takes on the "it's a personal choice" argument very effectively without invoking needlessly complicated theory. Check it out!