Sunday, November 21, 2010

the invisible fat man

I want to be very careful here. It seems that racism is a distinct (and more horrific) form of bigotry. The oppression of non-whites is hardly something to trivialize with a comparison to other forms of discrimination. I do think it is possible to extract from the field of racism a particular nuance of the human experience of positional violence. I know violence seems like an overly loaded term in this space. It is appropriate if only to suggest that the act of reducing the other to something less is in itself a violent act where power is exercised to control the other. With all due respect and deference since I am a after all a white man I want to suggest a comparison that might get at a peculiarity at work in the field an us / them formulation.

In racism there is the black person and the white person. In body-sizism there is the fat person and the thin person. Black is to fat as White is to thin. This comparative equivalency is only really positional and not actual lest we fall into the dismissive problem stated above.

In order to think about this comparison let us turn to Frantz Fanon who gives us theory of how language situates and reduces the black person to a position of depersonalization. Fanon in the introduction to his first (and my favourite work) book Black Skin White Masks posits the way language works to reduce the black.

“To speak means to be in a position to use a certain syntax, to grasp the morphology of this or that language, but it means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization…The Negro of the Antilles will be proportionately whiter-that is, he will come closer to being a real human being-in direct ratio to his mastery of the French language.”

Fanon is suggesting that the adoption of a language situates the individual to a restriction of identity as a subject. I think this should be fairly clear for anyone who has tried to master a second language since what becomes immediately apparent is the way the new language forces a different perspective, thought process, etc. The better one can speak the language the better able the individual is able to negotiate the essential elements of living within that culture. The accent is what gives one away as a foreign speaker – it keeps one at a distance. Distance might be negotiable but what Fanon suggests is that ultimately this restriction – the act of supporting ‘the weight of a civilization’ is an act of complicity toward a denial of the black person’s real identity as they strive to take on the whole cultural aesthetic of white person.

Turning back to food, I have already talked about how theorists have framed food as a system of signs that operate like a language. Food and eating is a way to communicate. Eating in a certain way is a way of producing identity.

Fanon again describes the project of coming out from under the restriction that language can impose on the racial oppressed black.

“We shall have no mercy for the former governors, the former missionaries. To us, the man who adores the Negro is as “sick” as the man who abominates him. Conversely, the black man who wants to turn his race white is as miserable as he who preaches hatred for the whites. In the absolute, the black is no more to be loved than the Czech, and truly what is to be done is to set man free…Mankind set free of the trampoline that is the resistance of others, and digging into its own flesh to find meaning.”

What Fanon is interested in is not just having the black person find vindication or revenge on the oppressor but instead to escape the entire system that allows this kind of oppression to exist and flourish. The point for the black person is not to achieve the position of the white it is to smash the whole thing to pieces to get at freedom. Fanon is alerting us to the fact that there is something deeply problematic about the function of distinguishing ourselves against another as something superior.

From here it is interesting to think about food again. If eating is a language than the supermarket is like a sort of dictionary. It catalogues the ‘words’ that are available for us to use to talk with the ‘language’ of food. And just like a dictionary a supermarket seems to provide a comprehensive catalogue of all the available words that we can use. (How many times have we heard in grade school: If its not in the dictionary then its not a word – of course in that there is no accounting for Sarah Palin’s “refudiate”) So when we head down the peanut butter aisle we think we are choosing from all the available kinds of peanut butter available – they are all there side by side. Chunky, Crunchy, extra Chunky, smooth, extra smooth, natural, organic, light, reduced fat, etc. – they are all right there together. But what we quickly and intuitively come to know is that although this seems like real choice – it is only actually a limited choice. There must be other peanut butters out there – they just did not make it on to the shelf. This illusion of real choice operates in the same way that words operate in a given language. There seem to be a limited amount of words available to use within a language to express what we want to say. So too it is with food and eating.

If the black man is reduced in speaking another language is the fat man reduced in speaking a different language. If I as a former fat man begin to speak in the new language of ‘being/becoming thin’ what do I do to the fat man. I say that the fat man was not as viable as the new thin man. I want to be thin so I choose to speak in a new language of food. I eat less. I eat the ‘right’ foods to keep me thin and make me thinner. All the while my former fatness betrays my accent in the new language. I have no way to express the way food made my former identity with the new language I am speaking. It seems ironic and even heretical for me to suggest to my son to make some microwave popcorn for him and his friend when I know that this is not the language I am supposed to be ‘speaking’ (and as a father I should not be teaching my kids to speak in my mother tongue). But as a fat man I was able to say things with food that I can’t say now. I used to be able to have ‘words’ telling cooks how awesome their food was by helping myself to seconds and thirds. There seemed to be a way that the mere fact of me being large was able to function as a verification of goodness of food. Now as a thinning man I am left without a voice – reduced. At every turn I must also deny the existence of the old fat man even though the flaps of skin are still hanging well below my belt. I am scrutinized and worried over. How many times have I already heard, “I hope you won’t waste away to nothing.” How ridiculous is that – there is a long impossible road before my material nothingness is realized. But another nothingness has appeared. The invisibility of the fat man. The fat man does not speak – only the thin man speaks. I learn the right way to talk about the fat man. I feel much better now than I did then. I choose different words/food to create my identity. I am trying to become thin…you might think this the ultimate sacrilege to racist discourse but here goes…

to take liberties with Fanon…To us, the man who adores (pities) the Fatso is as “sick” as the man who abominates him. Conversely, the fat man who wants to turn his fatness thin is as miserable as he who preaches hatred for the skinny. In the absolute, the obese are no more to be loved than the anorexic, and truly what is to be done is to set man free.

Here is the root of it all. There is something essential in human nature that perverts the natural distinguishing that inevitably occurs between individuals. When a distinction become a sight of making one person more worthy than another – we have engaged in an act of oppression…

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