Recently, friends of mine told me an anecdote that was supposed to make me laugh (I guess), but was more of (yet) an(other) example to me how beauty standards and misogyny still go so well together:
He (lets call him Tim) and she (lets call her Tom) were working together on updating the university’s noticeboard, when one of the professors came out of his office and wanted to share some cookies with them. Tim (to be polite, as he said) thankfully accepted, but Tom is allergic to wheat, so she declined. You’d think the professor might be able to go on with his day after this, having handed out a cookie, but her response apparently startled him. His go-to-response was: “Ah, sure, you’re trying to watch your diet.”
Tom did not laugh (because she actually did not hear what he said), Tim gave a little chuckle… This made the professor so uncomfortable that he finally buggered off after some awkward seconds. Tim then implicitly told Tom that she was kind of rude and that her behaviour made the professor feel awkward.
As I get annoyed rather easily (…so I’ve been told ;) ), I am naturally annoyed by this – and with reason, I think. I’m also fine with adding that, as a person who has been put on her first diet when she was seven years old (with no eventual benefit whatsoever), I am probably more receptive to this kind of stuff.
Not only was “diet” the first thing that popped into the professor’s head when Tom did not want a cookie, although there is a multitude of explanations available (…maybe Tom does not like cookies, or does not like the professor’s damn cookies, or does not want to eat cookies right now, or has just eaten cookies, or is actually allergic or nauseated or just not in the mood), he actually thought it was worth commenting on her decision; even more so, in a fat-phobic and sexist fashion.
First of all, and most importantly (and I don’t think you can get that message out often enough): A person’s body and (life style) choices are none of your fucking business. Not mine, not yours, not a family’s, community’s, economy’s or of national or even global interest. Don’t get me wrong, certain individual looks, behaviours and choices are most certainly presented as a matter of the public and of policy; many people behave really horribly, downright violently, and have no sense of boundaries when it comes to weight and size. Sometimes things get rather funny and truly preposterous, as the “But I care for these fatties”-tantrum throwing TV chef Jamie Oliver has shown. My personal favourite, however, is the “scientific” revelation that fat people are one of the major causes of global warming and would save the planet if only they’d exercised more – you couldn’t make this shit up…
From Michelle Obama’s
war on fatty terror concern for fat children to germany’s federally launched “Fit statt Fett” (“fit instead of fat” – and let me just say: the german word “fett” conveys more negativity than “fat” and is a deliberately derogatory term that could have been replaced by more humane alternatives) campaign, weight is framed as both a concrete political/fiscal and societal/symbolic issue: national security and prosperity vs. decadence and decline; discipline and fiscal success vs. laziness and over spending due to supposedly preventable diseases that allegedly put a stranglehold on health care systems.
The professor’s remarks, therefore, are not coincidentally made in a climate of happiness and friendliness and the liberty to be you and me, but in a society that frowns at people who might have taken a cookie despite their plus-size.
Discourses surrounding bodies and health are the prime examples of Foucault’s ideas of government(ality) within the modern state. As Thomas Lemke has pointed out [PDF], Government is more than a static institution or a set of people, it works within all of us. It is constantly (re)created through self-disciplining, self-governing, especially in times of neoliberalism. According to this way of thinking (or rather: analysing), every subject is a (body) project, expected to be seeking the maximisation of its individual value. Taking up more space than others, not aligning oneself in this totalitarian image of efficient and profitable rows of standardised human beings ready to work and function profitably, then, is an act of sabotage, of subversion, a danger to neoliberal ideas of economy and state, that has to be fought. Even if you do not completely buy into these theories, it seems to me that this is a coherent way to explain at least parts of the rigour and forcefulness with which obesity is depicted as an apocalyptic disease that is slowly but surely eating away (pun intended) at the “health” of society. And this kind of imagery rings some very unsavory bells.
Ultimately, I doubt that the professor would have said the same thing to Tim if he had refused a cookie. Even though there are indicators of changing tides for men when it comes to body image, women, as the sex class, are still expected to unfailingly adhere to a narrowly defined concept of attractiveness, and are subject to an objectifying male gaze. As Susie Orbach has phrased it 30 years ago: fat is a feminist issue. Keeping “your diet” is part of the afore mentioned (patriarchial) societal expectations, being strictly enforced through the policing of women’s bodies and the efforts at humiliation and degradation (most recently displayed by Glenn Beck’s disgusting behaviour towards Meghan McCain) if a woman is perceived to literally not fit the “ideal” (…I am particularly fond of the “cave woman’s” miraculous “waist-hip-ratio”-jabbering that gets thrown into discussions about female weight and attractiveness every single damn time).
Even though Tom simply did not hear the professor, I congratulated her for her reaction (staying mute and not smiling). Given the pervasiveness of and link between fat shaming and misogyny, this was not an innocent remark, although the professor might not have been aware of the implications of this (which is not an excuse, but, again, a sign of privilege, especially since he’s a thin, white male). What makes this even more political, is Tim’s jump-in-shaming of Tom’s “unfriendly” (hence: unfeminine) reaction. Not only are (some) women expected to get constant reminders of other people’s awareness of their looks and the disciplining that entails, but are also expected to be thankful for that or at least smile and make a happy face towards discriminatory behaviour.
Disrupting this routine (i.e., not smiling, no thankful/understanding words, and finally calling people out and saying something back) seems to be both necessary and effective. Still, it takes a lot of time and energy to deconstruct this ideology that equates beauty with Western idea(l)s of white, thin, blonde, delicate women with European traits and no voice. This is what should earn us cookies for everyone.