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The Moralists Among Us: Fighting Fat in the 21st Century

When author and philosopher Aldous Huxley wrote of the “moralists and legislators” who suffer from “crowd-delirium” and pose a larger threat to social order than “either drink or debauchery,” Facebook comments didn’t yet exist.

Crowd-delirium and its dangers

Huxley explored the transcendental function of addiction, or “substitutes for liberation,” and those who feel threatened by it with specific attention to drugs, alcohol, and sex.

He noted that these particular brands of addiction face not only moral disapproval, but also legal and financial repercussions as “alcohol is heavily taxed, the sale of narcotics is everywhere prohibited, and certain sexual practices are treated as crimes.” But his observations about crowd-delirium and the function of judgment take on a much broader meaning.

Huxley admitted that addiction does not come without societal consequences, stating that in mass amounts, drug dependency can lower the “military, economics, and political efficiency of the society in which it prevails” and over-indulgence in sex can “lower the energy of an entire society, thereby rendering it incapable of reaching or sustaining a high level of civilization.”

Similar consequences have been attributed to overeating and obesity.

And still, Huxley insisted that crowd-delirium is “more immediately dangerous to social order, more dramatically a menace to that thin crust of decency, reasonableness, and mutual tolerance, which constitutes a civilization” than the very actions the moralists rail against. In other words, succumbing to addiction is far less fatal to a society than those who demean its addicts. In the former, there is an individual suffering from a painful, personal struggle; in the latter, a blatant assault on the foundations of our humanity: empathy, respect, and dignity.

It could be argued that those who cast cruel judgment are simply suffering from their own painful, personal struggle and instead of self-sabotaging like an addict tends to, they bully. The behaviors may manifest differently but they’re sourced from similar pain. And while bullying shouldn’t be condoned, having empathy for the Bully is as worthwhile an endeavor as having empathy for the Addict.

“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves” --Carl Jung

Yet even with that empathic logic applied, it might be hard to rationalize the frequency and severity of fat shaming that occurs in America. It would seem there is a pervasive belief that thinness, and mental or physical health, imply some moral superiority.

Outrageous outrage and implicit bias

Although internet comments are not known for their sophistication and heart-warming tendencies, it can be shocking to observe the degree of anger and outrage that are expressed in fatphobic comments. These are not anonymous notes; these are actual comments left publicly, under what are seemingly real names, on the internet. They’re comments responding to articles about fatness; a new diet study, a celebration of body positivity, or a news piece about a TV host who recently dedicated a segment of his show to fat shaming the obese.

These comments are not outliers; they’re not hard to come by and they’re not simply the nagging work of trolls. These are people that truly and proudly hold an outraged opinion about the way other people look and live. At face value, it’s perplexing. But when we factor in unconscious messaging, it can start to make sense.

A recent New York Times article offered a psychological outline of implicit weight bias, noting how it can be developed as early as age 3, or more commonly between 9 and 11, as a result of cultural ideas of slimness, and familial hangups about weight. If a parent handles concerns about theirs or their child’s weight and food consumption with anxiety or judgment, the child might absorb a fearful message that fat is bad and terrifying, which can develop into the unconscious belief that fat people are bad and terrifying and therefore worthy of shame and attacks. This unconscious belief can also fuel fear of one’s own fallibility in the face of fatness; a reminder of everyone’s susceptibility to becoming fat themselves.

This study should not be confused for condemnation; parents trying to instill the values of health in their children are typically acting on the best intentions and doing the right thing. Discussion of implicit bias is not an accusation of bad parenting. As the phrase implicit bias suggests, phobias and prejudices aren’t typically conscious until they are. Teaching kids to be healthy is, of course, vital — what talk of implicit bias aims to do is illuminate that quality health education consists of more than just who and what not to be; it isn’t about simply training our eyes or conforming to social norms, and should exclude the message that those who struggle with health, or appear to, are unsafe and immoral. Per the potential impact of implicit bias, these distinctions are crucial, especially to developing minds.

Wearing your neurosis

Let's be clear: Not everyone who is fat is ashamed of their body — and rightfully so. Not everyone who is fat is unhealthy — such things can’t be determined so superficially. When I speak of the shame of fat people, I acknowledge — and ask you to do the same — that not all who are overweight are suffering or in need of healing. These nuances are widely deemed unimportant by the moralists in the crusade against fatness, so let’s embrace them here.

There are many people — fat, skinny, or otherwise — who feel ashamed of their bodies and bodily imperfections. For those people, it can be painful to be seen at all, much less by eyes who are ready and willing to scrutinize, blame, and demoralize.

There is a common misconception that not shaming fat people is somehow enabling them to remain fat. But is shaming an actual means to recovery for those who seek it?

Personally and professionally I have not yet encountered a human being who wasn’t holding onto something they were not proud of; behaviors they engage in that allow them to survive another day, be they healthy or not, shameful and painful. People with eating disorders wear their shame on the outside, and this offers others the illusory right to an opinion about it. But imagine for a moment your deepest, darkest shame displayed on your very body with the court of public opinion weighing in on your every move, determined to make you ashamed of that which you already are, picking away at your wounds until they are bigger and bloodier and more painful than you ever thought possible — would that help you heal?

And I mean heal. I don’t just mean be shamed into behaving differently for some period of time, aching inside all the while, but heal.

Fat people fighting their inner wounds to feel worthy in their skin are not bad, or undeserving of love and empathy; they’re just living out their struggle with an audience. Perhaps it is not the responsibility of a society to mend its fractured pieces — or perhaps it is — and no, acceptance won’t necessarily heal all wounds; no one is required to offer another person kindness or unconditional love, but I can’t imagine a better way to spend our time as humans on this Earth.

One of our primal human needs is to feel a basic acceptance within our community. Consider that, when you’re cast out as a deviant of society, not because you have broken parts — we all do — but simply because the broken parts of you are visible to everyone around you, your ability to engage with that pain head on and heal gets suffocated. Instead of believing yourself worthy of help, you might experience the unconscious counter-rejection of said society: Why would I want to be part of a society that is so cruel and dismissive to begin with? What an isolating place to be.

Another response is internalized worthlessess: If I’m already worthless, what happens if I lose weight and remain worthless? Or the only remaining response to a primal fear of exclusion and disconnection: Relationships have proven to be full of rejection and abandonment, how else can I feel alive except to reach for the one thing that gives me some sense of connection and pleasure.

A culture obsessed with consumption, but not compassion

Americans, and I’m speaking without regard for the commonplace exceptions, are culturally preoccupied with consumption. We proudly declare how many hours of binge watching we’ve sacrificed to the Netflix gods, we inhale the daily lives of our friends and strangers through social media, we devour material products to the point of financial debt, shopping when we’re bored, sad, or just convinced we need more stuff in order to feel valuable or not feel vulnerable. It’s common to cope with our human aches by blindly diving into consumption, yet it seems equally common to revel in our opportunities to cast judgment on the result of consumption from afar.

Americans are also culturally preoccupied with food. It is not uncommon to see billboards and commercials of bacon-wrapped, supersized meals or social media “foodies” sharing images of complex feasts oozing with creativity and calories. As Americans, we honor the way food comforts us through the bad times and helps us celebrate the good; social events revolve around food, we feel nurtured by home-cooked meals, offerings of food are anticipated signs of care, radiating with feelings of comfort and safety.

As a basic need, nourishment is one of the first ways a human being is cared for or dangerously neglected: it doesn't seem so strange that such a delicate and profound relationship — that between humans and food — could have the potential to go so wrong.

And yet some of the most empathic people I know have displayed symptoms of implicit weight bias. They don’t mean to be hurtful or dismissive, of course, which is the very function of an implicit bias.

Holding biases like these do not warrant blame; unconscious material is not absorbed with awareness, much less permission, and everyone experiences myriad biases. But as we get to know ourselves and enter into fields of consciousness, it becomes our individual responsibilities to integrate better messages to live out.

The fierce way in which we fat shame indicates a collective panic; it’s a strategy of war to say we must fix this issue urgently, before it gets us all, and the only way to make sure we’re safe from it is to destroy everything that represents it.

Huxley said “against its excesses, societies contrive, in one way or another, to protect themselves.” So is that what we’re seeing? And, if protection is the destination, is condemnation the worthwhile journey to it? Or does that only create enough suffering to ensure the cycle never ends?



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