Biocitizenship is critiqued for it’s intent to place the onus of health and body self-governance on the individual, under pre-conceived notions of health. There are criteria for what constitutes a “healthy” body, what does not, and what a good biocitizen embodies. We live in the era of the panopticon; self-discipline is the key to being accepted in our society, as we are always on display.
In this piece, I seek to argue in favor of biopolitics as a tool for promoting health among individuals. I will be examining the phenomenon of ‘fat-activism’ in North American society, as a direct result of rejecting biopolitics in an individual’s life. The intent of my essay is not to offend, but rather, offer a contextual analysis of how conforming to biocitizenship has the best intentions for citizens. I will be exploring the criticisms placed upon biocitizenship as agents that control our bodies, the ideas behind fat shaming, and the recent ‘fat-activist’ movement on social media.
Biopolitics and Fatness
Szto, 2014 utilizes Foucault to explain that “bio-citizenship represents one extension of power within Foucault’s larger theory of biopolitics, which is a method of rationalized population control (Foucault 1997). Biopolitics enables institutions to draw socially constructed lines around what is deemed ‘normal’ behavior, health, achievement, etc. Forcing individuals to regulate themselves; it is a ‘set of mechanisms through which the basic biological features of the human species [becomes] the object of a political strategy’ (Foucault 2007).” Therefore, in the sphere of obesity, biopolitics is the notion that the individual must self-police their bodies in accordance to what is “acceptable” by society in general. This shifts the onus of healthcare from the state or community to the individuals themselves. In conjunction with the idea that we self-police is currently the only tool that we, as a society, utilize to combat obesity. We promote “healthy lives, healthy living, and healthy eating.”
First, biocitizenship controls obesity exists in the day-to-day of one’s life through concrete and quantifiable agents. Chair size, seat size on planes, weight maximums on amusement rides, clothing sizes, etc. To participate in what is considered “normal life” and “normal activities,” a person has to be cognizant of their size to fit in. (No pun intended.) This experience is superbly illustrated in Kate’s character in the show “This is Us.” Kate is not the role model for body-positivity – she’s a diet-obsessed, fat-camp attendee, who struggles emotionally with her weight. The final straw for Kate was when she flew to see her family and not only had to ask the stewardess for a seat-belt extender but also assured the person sitting one seat over that she bought the middle place. (This is Us, Season 1 Ep 3) As much as we can herald and applaud a TV show for having a fat character on television, the depiction of her existence is the very essence of the consequences biocitizenship has on emotional well-being, and participation in modern society.
Lupton, 2014 in the sphere of digital fitness trackers reasons that “several writers have pointed to the focus on self-management and self-responsibility that continues to form part of many health promotion strategies in a neoliberal political environment. They have contended that this focus tends to represent individuals or social groups as ignorant, morally deficient and lacking self-control and the capacity to take appropriate responsibility for their health if they fail to take up health promotion imperatives.”
A large part of biopolitics is basically, shaming and ridiculing people into obedience. Fat shaming is the phenomenon where people experience others’ imbuing their prejudice upon them, because they are fat, and often publicly. Because fat and otherwise obese people are not under a ‘protected’ category like race and gender, criticisms from other’s are mostly fair game. Positively heartless and derogatory, but not seen as morally corrupt.
Systemic fat hatred “refers to fear and revulsion of the potentially ‘fat-person-presently-dormant within-but-just waiting-as-fat-laden-flesh-ready-to-emerge-expand-and-visibly-engulf-self-and-identity with each potato chip or serving of a sensuous non-low-fat salad dressing’ (Shildrick 1997). Should that happen, one moves perilously closer and closer to being a legitimate target for uninhibited, even justified, fat hatred.” (Morgan, 2011) Our fear of fat is particularly present in the media we consume. Headlines that read “Obesity as dangerous as a terror threat warns medical chief” (The Times, 2015), and “Dismiss it as the ‘nanny state’ all you want, but obesity is a national emergency – especially for women“ (Independent, 2015) are particularly jarring. Obesity is a national crisis, akin to terrorism and national emergencies.
In Friedman’s study about the obesity crisis and it’s effect on children, in her amalgamation of medical literature, she discovers that it “ invokes the humiliation that fat children face as evidence of parental failure, signs of neglectful and uncaring caregivers unconcerned with their children’s health and welfare.” (Friedman, 2015, pp. 14)
We should indeed be wary of obesity, as “The world now has more overweight and obese people than those who are underweight.” (Azvolinsky, 2016) In our current neoliberal state, the only weapons that we have in controlling the masses, so to speak, is through shaming and imbuing good biocitizenship early on in an individual’s life.
Fat activism is the direct response to fat shaming. A cause that seeks to defy society’s bully-like sensibilities, fat activism hopes to instill self-acceptance and empowerment into the lives of fat people. Being obese, for some individuals, surpasses a vain need to look a certain way. In some cases, people call for referring to obesity as a disability, as it’s such a medically debilitating state. Charlotte Cooper draws parallels to the life of a disabled person vs. the experience of a fat person. Both experience systemic discrimination that she argues is a fault of the system, rather than an individual To illustrate, she “consider(s) the experience of being fat in a fat-hating culture to be disabling, which in addition to my impairment and the similarities I share with other disabled people, such as medicalisation and restricted civil right, suggest that I am disabled.” (Cooper, 1997) The issue here to combat, is then, to lead a movement in which every type of body is accepted, since body positivity is directly correlated to healthy habits. In fact, it’s fat shaming that is causing people to overeat, as per research that was recently released. (Independent, 2015)
The fat activism movement calls for people to accept the way they are, forge a community among other fat members, and take back the word “fat” from derogatory to merely descriptive. It reclassifies exercise as a necessity to lose weight to a crucial part of one’s life, no matter the size. (The Feed, 2014)
Biocitizenship is the best that contemporary society has to offer in regards to keeping the nation healthy in our current neoliberal state. There is undeniable evidence that obesity is the cause of heart disease and stroke. (Azvolinsky, 2015).
People often liken over-eating to smoking, saying that it’s like an uncontrollable addiction that an individual can cease. Unlike tobacco use or other habits, eating is something that everyone has to do. We should be focusing more on establishing healthy eating habits early on, not to avoid fatness or obesity, but as a cultural necessity. Furthermore, I challenge the system to redefine good biocitizens from ones that conform to traditional notions of “healthy size” to ones that “conduct exercise”. With our increasingly sedentary lifestyle, we should be focusing on preventative methods of ensuring a healthy population, rather than addressing the problem when it is a national health crisis. We have been scapegoating obese people with our notions of biopolitics. Rather than focusing the way an individual’s body looks, we should be using this effective method of instilling self-governing to leading healthy lifestyles in general.
Azvolinsky, A. (2016). The Obesity–Cancer Link: A Growing Connection, JNCI: Journal of the National Cancer Institute, Volume 108, Issue 10, 1 October 2016, djw243, https://doi-org.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/10.1093/jnci/djw243
Lupton, D. (2014). Health promotion in the digital era: a critical commentary. Health Promotion International,30(1), 174-183. doi:10.1093/heapro/dau091
Szto, C., & Gray, S. (2014). Forgive me Father for I have Thinned: surveilling the bio-citizen through Twitter. Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health,7(3), 321-337. doi:10.1080/2159676x.2014.938245
May Friedman (2014) Mother Blame, Fat Shame, and Moral Panic: “Obesity” and Child Welfare, Fat Studies, 4:1, 14-27, DOI: 10.1080/21604851.2014.927209
Morgan, K. P. (2011). Foucault, ugly ducklings, and technoswans: Analyzing fat hatred, weight-loss surgery, and compulsory biomedicalized aesthetics in America. IJFAB: International Journal of Feminist Approaches to Bioethics,4(1), 188-220. doi:10.3138/ijfab.4.1.188
Cooper, C. (1997). Can a Fat Woman Call Herself Disabled? Disability & Society,12(1), 31-42. doi:10.1080/09687599727443
Young, C. (2013, December 30). Pro-Fat Is an Unhealthy Status Quo. The Boston Globe (Boston, MA). Retrieved March 12, 2018, from http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1P2-35525361.html?refid=easy_hf
Why I’m Over The Size Acceptance Movement or Hey, SA, What Have You Done For Me Lately? (2017, March 27). Retrieved March 12, 2018, from https://www.xojane.com/issues/why-im-over-the-size-acceptance-movement-or-hey-sa-what-have-you-done-for-me-lately
Lay, K. (2015, December 11). Obesity as dangerous as terror threat, warns medical chief. Retrieved April 3, 2018, from https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/obesity-as-dangerous-as-terror-threat-warns-medical-chief-2th6zpgq67m
Smith, J. (2015, December 12). Dismiss it as the ‘nanny state’ all you want, but obesity really is a national emergency – especially for women. Retrieved April 3, 2018, from https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/ridicule-won-t-avert-the-threat-of-obesity-a6771026.html
Hayden, F. (2015, August 05). Finally, a study that confirms what I knew all along: Fat acceptance is good for our health. Retrieved April 3, 2018, from https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/finally-a-study-that-confirms-what-i-knew-all-along-fat-acceptance-is-good-for-our-health-10440615.html