|January 25, 2013|
You have perhaps heard of “mansplaining”. It’s the observed phenomenon wherein men, assuming that perfectly capable women are, by virtue of their being women, ignorant, generously explain things they already know to them.
Today I came across a close relative of mansplaining. I call it thinsplaining. It’s where people who aren’t overweight assume that people who are overweight need their problem explained to them in detail.
Dan Callahan is one of the elder statesmen of bioethics, who has made numerous extremely important and valuable contributions to the field, on issues from abortion to euthanasia and everything in between. And now he has turned his attention to obesity, by which I mean he thinsplains it. I have no idea if Dan Callahan is thin, but in his article, ‘Obesity: Chasing an Elusive Epidemic’ he sure writes like he is. In it he declares that, having himself been shamed into quitting smoking, the only way to end the obesity epidemic is to shame the fat right off people. That’s right: a good ole’ fashioned public stigmatizin’ to mortify the flesh away.
But wait! This isn’t just any kind of stigmatization. Oh, no. This is special, bioethical stigma that, quoth Callahan, “does not lead to outright discrimination” (well, as long as it’s not outright…). This, ladies and gentlemen, is “stigmatization lite.” Alas, Callahan misses the opportunity to name it “Diet Stigma.”
You see, thinsplains Callahan, because nothing else seems to be working, we must turn to making obese people feel bad about themselves in order to shed the pounds. (Because no fat person ever felt bad about themselves, obviously). What we need, apparently, is a concerted system of social pressure that makes obese people “put some uncomfortable questions to themselves.” (Because overweight people only ever softball themselves with questions about the last episodes of NCIS and Two and Half Men.) Would you like to know what those questions are? Of course you would:
- If you are overweight or obese, are you pleased with the way you look?
- Are you happy that your added weight has made many ordinary activities, such as walking up a long fight of stairs, harder?
- Would you prefer to lessen your risk of heart disease and diabetes?
- Are you aware that, once you gain a significant amount of weight, your chances of taking that weight back off and keeping it off are poor?
- Are you pleased when your obese children are called “fatty” or otherwise teased at school?
- Fair or not, do you know that many people look down upon those excessively overweight or obese, often in fact discriminating against them and making fun of them or calling them lazy and lacking in self-control?
Can he possibly believe that people who have struggled with their weight would need to be made to ask themselves these questions? Does he think he is the first person to think them up? Can he never have read Fat is a Feminist Issue? (Rumours that this list originally included “Aren’t you disgusted with yourself, you big fat fatty?” are unconfirmed at this time).
One of the interesting things about Callahan’s piece is the way in which he makes obese people into a sort of amorphous ‘other’ to himself and the reader:
“When it is as common as is now the case, those who are overweight hardly notice that others are the same: it is just the way ordinary people look. We need them to notice the others and to want something different for themselves – and those others will be similarly motivated… Only a carefully calibrated effort of public social pressure is likely to awaken them to the reality of their condition… They should not want to be that way.”
“We” need “them” to get with the program; we, presumably being sylph-like and lithe, “them” being lumpen drains upon the economy. The piece, as a whole, is written in pure mandarin: a view from the heights – if only everyone else could see so clearly! Oblivious to the actual lived experiences of the people he would like lite-ly to stigmatize, Callahan’s whole idea is predicated on his own assumption that obese people either want to be fat, enjoy being fat, don’t know they’re fat, aren’t willing not to be fat, or live in a world without any kind of media whatsoever and thus think everybody is fat. These aren’t actual obese people, these are obese people as imagined by Dan Callahan, presumed non-obese person. That it might ever have occurred to “them” that “they” might want to change their weight or their lifestyle, seems not to be something he has considered. “They” are as much of a fantasy as Marie Antoinette’s shepherdess’s cottage, except now he’s declaring “let them not eat cake!”
Callahan provides us with scant evidence that shaming works when it comes to obesity. Although he understands that there are socio-economic factors involved, he presents stigma as a cure-all for them. He seems to think that the reason government won’t legislate to curb the availability of cheap, obesity-causing food is because we, as a society, simply aren’t grossed out by fat people enough. If we were then government would suddenly be able to extricate itself from the 60+ years of post-WW2, post-Great Depression legislation designed to enable Americans to afford to feed themselves. Because of course it is a lack of public shaming, and certainly not a wildly complex matrix of poverty, commodified crops, subsidies, politics, psychology and economic necessity, that currently prevents the government from mandating that Nebraska turn its corn fields over to artisanal squash cooperatives.
This isn’t evidence-based public policy, it’s organized bullying masquerading as being cruel to be kind. It’s not bioethics, it’s thinsplaining.
(For more on the perniciousness of fat shaming and discrimination, see Deborah Lupton’s excellent post here)
Dan O’Connor – Research Scientist, Faculty, Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. Dan has two main research areas: the ethics of social media in healthcare and historicising the ethics of emerging diseases