This post has been knocking around in my head for a while but it’s timely after another round of The Great Liberal Fat-Hating Sugar Tax “Debate” has played out on the leftwing blogosphere.
There’s always an outcry when the phrase “fat hatred” gets used. “How dare you imply I hate fat people!” they say. “I’m just talking about the public health issues caused by obesity.”
You don’t hate fat people. And homophobic cake bakers in the US don’t hate gay people, they just want them to stop being gay in public (or anywhere else). And the boss who won’t hire women doesn’t hate women, he’s just making a rational financial choice because women just go off to have babies. The Tories don’t hate people on benefits, they’re just cynically appealing to their base by putting vulnerable people through a meatgrinder.
If you are a liberal, a left winger, or anyone who claims to oppose social injustice, you know damn well that oppression isn’t as black-and-white as someone literally nailing a “No Fatties” sign on the wall. If you’ve read so much as a Wikipedia summary of any historic human rights struggle, you know damn well “it’s science” is a well-trodden path to justifying systemic abuse and violence.
So stop clutching your pearls when people point out – in far more reasonable language than I will manage – that the demeaning, arrogant way you talk about fat people and your smarmy, paternalistic “solutions” to the problem of fat people existing is 100% hateful, oppressive, and contemptible.
Not because what you’re doing literally harms people by contributing to stigma which denies them access to jobs, homes, food or freedom. Not because you should recognise that fat people, including Those Awful Fat People Who Deliberately Make Bad Choices, are human beings with minds and autonomy.
Do it because when you hate on fat people, and when you pontificate about the virtue of denying them access to “bad” food, you are harming the movement. Put perfectly by Anna Mollow at Food, Fatness and Fitness:
The key to success, we are told, is to make “healthy choices.” Eat more kale! Cut back on carbs! These imperatives uphold two closely related ideologies: neoliberalism and fatphobia. Most of us on the Left know that rhetoric about individual choice is frequently used to support neoliberalism; by claiming that individuals have the power to shape their own destinies, defenders of the current social and economic order foreclose critiques of systemic injustice. Since false claims about the power of individual choice animate both neoliberal and anti-fat ideologies, one might expect the Left to have mounted a strenuous critique of fatphobia. But unfortunately, this has not been the case.
These are facts. A person’s weight is significantly controlled by genetics. Having a fat body is linked to but does not cause some health conditions the exact way sex, height and ethnicity are “linked” to different health conditions and risk factors. Diet and exercise do not explain why people get fat, and do not make naturally fat people thin. The diet industry is worth billions, and the companies who make money selling weight-loss plans and drugs which don’t work are doing exactly the kind of dodgy studies we get up in arms about when Coke commissions them.
There are serious health problems in our country. Actual diseases caused by substandard housing, actual illnesses made worse by a lack of varied food (where added sugar is a concern, but here’s the amazing irony: that’s because we decided too much fat made people fat so we got rid of all the fat in foods which made them taste awful!) We have actual epidemics of preventable diseases and we have too many families in our community who cannot afford a full load of groceries, or even the time to Just Grow Their Own Vegetables in the garden they don’t have because they’re living in their goddamned car.
Imposing a sugar tax fixes none of these. I hear your objection – “we want to do other stuff too!” – but you need to understand that none of that other stuff is happening. And it will never happen as long as you, the well-meaning liberals who just want to help the stupid poor people make better choices, continue to buy, believe, repeat and promote a fundamentally neoliberal ideology about fat people, food, and health.
Stop using rightwing memes to justify hatred. Stop saying “we must punish the fat people in order to save them”. Do something to actually make a difference in people’s lives: challenging the judgemental status quo, promoting real progressive ideas, building true solidarity against our capitalist oppressors and changing the damn world.