Fat, Wokeness, And Morality
The New York Times promoted an op-ed with this headline:
Well, that triggered me. Before I explain, let’s read on to see what Cornell University philosopher Kate Manne has to say about fatness, a condition with which she has struggled for many years, she says:
I have long admired the work of fat activists — Marilyn Wann, Sonya Renee Taylor and Aubrey Gordon among them — and recognize that fat bodies can be not only healthy but also athletic, beautiful, sexy. I believe in the concepts of intuitive eating and health at every size — at least, for other people. I recognize that the vast majority of diets fail to make people any thinner or any healthier in the long term. I recognize that even if you are a fat person who would be healthier if you lost weight, you don’t owe it to anyone to do so; you don’t owe it to anyone to be healthy in general. And I know how much my internalized fatphobia owes to oppressive patriarchal forces — the forces that tell girls and women in particular to be small, meek, slight, slim and quiet.
I recognize all of this in the abstract. In practice, however, I struggle.
I have lately wondered how much my self-directed fatphobia owes to my career as an academic philosopher. More than one author has remarked that there is a dearth of fat, female bodies in academia in general and in philosophy specifically. Philosophy, with its characteristic emphasis on reason, often implicitly conceives of rationality as the jurisdiction of the lean, rich, white men who dominate my discipline.
We praise arguments for being muscular and compact and criticize prose for being flabby, flowery and, implicitly, feminine. When it comes to our metaphysics — our pictures of the world — we pride ourselves on a taste for austerity, or as W.V.O. Quine put it, “desert landscapes.” And what is the fat body in the popular imagination but excess, lavishness, redundancy?
Oh, right, you knew this was coming: academic bullshitter Kate Manne feels bad about her weight because of the patriarchy, and whiteness. Manne says that by dieting,
I have contributed in a small way to a society that lauds certain bodies and derogates others for more or less arbitrary reasons and ones that lead to a great deal of cruelty and suffering. (The most common basis for childhood bullying is a child’s weight.) I have denied myself pleasure and caused myself the gnawing pain and sapping anxiety of hunger.
These are all things we usually think of as straightforward ethical ills. Almost all versions of the family of moral theories known as consequentialism hold that pleasure is morally good and pain and suffering are morally bad. Even if this is not the whole truth of ethics, it is plausibly part of the truth.
And it has the superficially surprising implication that dieting inflicts real moral costs, real moral harms, ones we largely impose on ourselves (albeit under the influence of potent social forces). If the chances of long-term weight loss (and the supposed benefits and pleasures that conveys) are vanishingly small, then why do we keep doing it? I suspect the answer is not only habit and a false sense of obligation but also the lure of aspiration: a dieter’s perpetual sense of getting somewhere, getting smaller and thus becoming more acceptable, more reasonable, as a body.
She has the idea that thinness is the same thing as reasonableness. Read it all.
I read this after my morning weigh-in on the Noom diet plan. I have been using this diet app since November 19, and as of today, have dropped ten pounds. I still have thirty more to go, but I am so encouraged! I haven’t weighed what I weigh this morning in six years or more. The Noom diet has been all about counting calories, which the app makes easy to do. When I first signed on for Noom, it asked me some questions about my activity level, etc. (sedentary!), and assigned me a daily calorie count (1,556). I can eat whatever I want, as long as I don’t go over that count. In my old way of eating, it was very easy to exceed that calorie count daily. But Noom compels me to, um, apply reason to my food consumption. I can eat bread, rice, and pasta if I want, but that will quickly get me to the daily limit. If, however, I choose vegetables, fruits, and lean protein, I can eat more.
I started this diet around the same time we Orthodox Christians began the Nativity fast, which put meat and dairy out of the picture. So from mid-November until Christmas Day, my life was filled with fresh vegetables (or rather, flash-frozen chopped vegetables in big sacks from Costco, which made preparing them easy). Having to think about what I was eating, to make everything fit the daily calorie count, was really helpful in training me to be more thoughtful in general about food consumption. After two weeks, I had lost five pounds, which was mostly water weight, as by default I wasn’t consuming carbs. But that little bit of weight loss, and the nice way it felt to be able to fit into my old corduroys, gave me the encouragement I needed to refuse holiday sweets.
When Christmas arrived and I was free to eat meat, dairy, and alcohol again, I found that I didn’t want to overdo it, because I could look down at the weight loss tracking chart on Noom and see visible proof of the progress I had made. I did have a few sweets and drinks, but made sure to cut back in other ways. Some days I climbed aboard the elliptical trainer machine I have in my bedroom, and worked off 500 calories, or bought myself thereby credit with Noom that I could use later in the day.
Overall, what I’ve been doing via this app is retraining myself and acquiring more sensible eating habits. Have I been hungry? Yes, at first — but that’s because I was eating immoderately by habit, and refusing to exercise. Mind you, I am genetically predisposed to be heavy. My 23 & Me analysis showed that, but I didn’t need the genetics company to tell me that descendants of my grandmother have a tendency to be fat. I was a fat little kid, and have struggled with weight all my life. The thing is, I can’t blame it all on genetics. I love to eat, and I hate to exercise. There’s no way I’m going to be able to avoid being fat absent diet and/or exercise. The last six months I lived in Philadelphia in 2011, I became a regular at the YMCA, and lost thirty pounds … which I regained in the first few years after moving to Louisiana, and abandoning exercise. I’ve been carrying this weight, plus ten extra pounds, for most of the last decade, causing health problems and general malaise.
The patriarchy didn’t do this to me. Whiteness didn’t do it to me. Genetics and immorality did it to me.
Immorality? Yes. I am gluttonous and slothful. It’s just true. I have seen in my past experience that if I eat sensibly and exercise, over a period of time, I can get down to a healthy weight. If I stop eating sensibly and/or stop exercising, I gain it all back. I was diagnosed a few years ago with a hiatal hernia that requires me to take acid reflux meds. My doctor has been begging me to lose weight so I can get off those drugs and avoid surgery. Heart problems and diabetes both run in my family too (my obese granny, a diabetic, died of a heart attack), so I can’t afford to carry all that extra weight around. Plus, the obese — and I am technically obese — are more vulnerable to Covid.
Despite what Prof. Manne says, it is irrational for me to carry forty extra pounds, because it increases the chances of serious health problems. Besides, I hate being so fat. I might be an old married guy, but I am vain enough that I don’t like the way I look in the mirror, and I hate not being able to wear some of my favorite things.
And for me, at least, being overweight is immoral. Yes, immoral, because it is the result of me allowing my disordered passions to control me. Orthodox Christians consider the moral life to be a matter of conquering the appetitive passions. This is where spiritual battles are won or lost. This is why fasting during liturgically prescribed seasons is so important to us. It’s not about food per se, but about submitting the appetites to reason, and reminding ourselves and our bodies that the flesh should be subordinate to the spirit. I can’t deny that my delight in food is immoderate, nor can I deny that I lack a proper appetite for exercise. My body needs me to rein in my appetite for food, and to increase my appetite for exercise, in order to be healthy. This isn’t rocket science, and though I do have a religious framework for understanding the passions (appetites), you don’t have to be religious at all to recognize this reality.
This is about retraining the will to desire the things that make one healthy, and to stop desiring things that lead to compromised health. This is ultimately about learning how to exercise moral agency to improve your life. I have learned by using Noom that I can be satisfied eating far less than I normally did in a given day. This is great news! I had been under the control of my appetites, but using this app to diet has taught me that my appetites don’t have to control me. The weight loss has been slow but steady, and, I think, sustainable, because the eating habits it is teaching me are things I hope to permanently incorporate into my life.
It is easier for some people to lose weight and keep it off than it is for others. It is harder for me to do this than it is for many people, owing to my genetic profile, but I am sure I have it easier than many overweight people. Because weight has been a lifelong struggle for me, I don’t look at overweight people and judge them harshly. I know what an emotional and psychological burden it is to be heavy. If you are the kind of person who makes fun of the obese, I want you to know that there is nothing you can think about or say to them that is worse than the punishment most heavy people give themselves for their condition.
But I also resent the hell out of people like Prof. Manne, who would take away hope from people like me by externalizing her resentments over her weight struggle, and say that It’s Society’s Fault — especially that it’s the White Patriarchy’s Fault — that we feel bad about our weight. I agree that we foolishly fetishize thinness, especially in women, but the answer to that is not to pretend that there’s nothing wrong with being fat, and that the problem is with people who tell us that fat is not healthy. Being fat is unhealthy! I know because I’m living it. And being fat, for many (even most) people, certainly has a moral dimension, as I have explained. We do no one any favors by pretending otherwise, and we condemn overweight people who really could help themselves to helplessness and resentment.
I don’t know what Kate Manne looks like now, but on her website, she looks healthy and beautiful. When I think about the so-called “fat acceptance” activists — people praised by Kate Manne in her op-ed — I think that these people are aiding and abetting the culture of consumption that trains us to think that our desires are self-legitimizing. Who benefits from the belief that eating as much as you want is morally neutral, or even good? The people who sell us things, that’s who. The people who tell us that we won’t be okay unless we consume more. We have been given the gift of free will, and it is a very good thing to learn how to exercise it to practice dominion over our appetites. It feels great to have more control over my appetite for food than I once did. It’s awesome to be able to look at a piece of cake, and decide that no thanks, I’ll pass … or if I want it, to resolve to eat less at dinner, or get on the elliptical trainer.
Why would a professor of moral philosophy wish to deny people like me the opportunity to have victory over our own immoderate passions? I don’t get it. Then again, in October she hosted a video podcast with a black radical about the radical’s book, titled The Case For Rage. I guess immoderate passions are good things to indulge when they are directed at Bad People. So, each time you want to have that extra cupcake, just tell yourself that you are striking a blow against whiteness, or something.