Essay

Chewing the fat

I HAVE BEEN fascinated by fat ever since I was a pre-teen anorexic. My fascination may have preceded the onset of anorexia, although I don't remember being particularly worried about getting fat. My father, apparently, was a rare male anorexic when he was young and he would often point out what a strapping girl I was. But to place the weight of my neuroses on him is silly – although it cost me thousands of dollars in therapy before I came to that conclusion.

A late developer, I was interested in girls' bodies that seemingly changed over night. In the locker rooms at schools, they would parade their new teenage bodies and talk about pads, and boys, and going to the local hops. For some reason the favoured scent was Fabergé Brut. It came in a green container and really stank. I'd scurry like a mouse into the showers when no one was looking, ashamed of my lack of womanly charms.

Who had the perfect body in my rural high school? It was in Wales, so most of my schoolmates were short and dark. The blondes stick out in my memory: the one we called "Frilly Knickers", for obvious reasons; the tall one who would flick her long mane, a tic my best friend and I mercilessly parodied; the little blonde one who got pregnant and disappeared.

Then there were the Prosser girls who formed the local bovver-girl gang. Maybe they were copying the bovver boys – skins who were into bad music – but they were much more frightening than their male counterparts.

I don't recall how many Prossers there were. They seemed to be as one. Blondish, squat, with big tits, and awash with Brut. Like all good gangs they had their heavy. She was big and dark and got bossed about – happily it seemed. The Prosser girls would bark orders and Joyce would respond with alacrity. "We'll get Joyce to bovver you", and sure enough, bovver would happen. I was a runner. I don't have the body for glamorous sprints, but was good at endurance. Our school was big in cross-country running because there was a lot of country in which to run. Joyce would be sent to "get me" out on runs. It made me faster.

 

I CAN'T REMEMBER much of what I learned in school. But I do remember the bodies. The school took in students from a large radius and the halls smelled of country kids. Hair wasn't washed very often and the hot odour of heads nearly overcame the Brut. The townies turned up their noses but it was hard to avoid the particular mix of manure, hand-me-down unwashed clothes and the reek of age-old poverty that pervaded the school bus.

We'd walk in wellies through the mud and cow dung to the main road. Then my sister and I would hide our boots – very uncool for school – and put on shoes to ride the 16-kilometre journey to town. The town's population was all of 3000 but it seemed very grand, especially to those who came down from the hills. They were the ones who really stank. Beyond the usual smell, something clung to them. One boy in particular, probably called David, last name more than likely Jones, was dark and sharp and reeked. For a while he made my life hell, always asking if I ate whale blubber. In the convoluted logic of children, he'd made the connection between my Canadian mother, Eskimos and eating whales. I thought he was picking on my size, which he probably was. But then again, it could have been part of a rough ritual of courtship. Later, I found out that his father was a real beast and that the whole family – countless children and a sad wife – was brutalised by his violence and sexual abuse. So maybe insults were the limit of his understanding of intimate connection.

Social life revolved around the Young Farmers' Association dances that were held in different school halls in the various little villages. A village usually consisted of a general store, the "posh" church – the high Anglican "Church in Wales" – the "chapel", where everyone else went, and, of course, a pub. The hops were held in the village hall across from the church and next to the pub. The pub was a grim place but we didn't care and nor did the owners who would serve us the drink of choice, "vodka lime": warm vodka made sticky and sweet with Rose's lime cordial. Girls could sip on this for hours while the boys drank beer. And then it'd be across to the hop.

The hall blared with the hits – Bay City Rollers, T Rex and maybe some Gary Glitter. The girls danced together in the middle, while the boys prowled the perimeter eyeing up the cute girls. When they'd been picked off, the rest of us would be up for grabs. I was still very thin but hot pants were in style and my older brother had knowingly told me that I had the perfect body for them. It must have worked because I did get picked up. I thought I'd made it until he threw up on me. And that was it for us.

 

I LEFT MID-WALES as soon as I could but memories of bodies stayed with me. My experience of anorexia served me well. Later I did my master's thesis on the history of anorexia, which took me back to the cramped and smelly spaces of my youth. My first publication was on a case I'd found buried in The Lancet about a Welsh priest who bragged that he had a miracle in his parish, a young girl who he said existed solely on the Host. This was in the 1880s just as the term "anorexia nervosa" was taking over from the previous name for the condition, inedia miraculosa. The priest described in detail his miracle girl who lived in her family's small farmhouse and read the Bible.

The priest taunted the experts at Guy's to prove him wrong. They arrived from London and put her under surveillance. She died soon after.

In my thesis I pontificated about how this demonstrated the validity of the cultural theories of which I was enamoured. I was terribly excited about how this seemingly demonstrated the truth of Foucault's ideas about the discursive shift and the battle for knowledge in the 19th century. Eureka! I also used the dead girl's body as evidence that the dominant interpretations of anorexia were all wrong. In the 1980s, anorexia was used by some feminists as proof that the media was misogynous and directly led to girls becoming anorexic. "Hah," said I. If anorexia existed in the 19th century it could hardly be the fault of the modern mass media. I then elaborated a very complicated argument about struggles for power, interpellation and the different things that discourse does.

My spirited argument now seems totally over-the-top. But it was the first step in a long journey of scrambling up the academic greasy pole. My article, imaginatively entitled "The Anorexic Body", was praised by some and denounced by others. One critic accused me of ignoring the flesh and blood of anorexic sufferers. Others reeled in horror before the all too touchy way I described my own experiences. In response (and yielding more publications) I got on my Foucauldian high horse and pointed out that it wasn't about personal experience, it was about "discourse", as if that saved me from both accusations. Funnily enough, no one pointed out the unfeeling way in which I used the example of that young girl, nor did they remark on the distanced tone I used to describe my own experiences.

It was a strange and heady time in feminism. People got outraged at the injustices women faced. The unequal division of labour, rape, abortion, starving women in the Third World – they're all issues that now would be dismissed by some as part of "victim feminism". At that time, new concepts were flowing into another brand of feminism and talk was of embodiment, corporeality, fluid gender identities – in short, what some condemn as "postmodernism", or worse, "ludic feminism".

I was a happy part of the latter, throwing epistemological missiles at the dags. I was a talking, living example of lesbian chic (it was only when I came to Australia that I realised – to my own great hilarity – the easy slide from "chic" to "sheep" to "dag"). "Sexy Bodies", "Bodies that Matter" (or splatter), "Imaginary Bodies", "Volatile Bodies" ... bodies, bodies and more bodies.

They were exciting times and some good things got said. So, too, did a lot of rubbish, but that happens when a lot is said. The books were published at a frenetic rate; no matter that much of the citation revolved around one or two names.

Bodies began to pall. There are only so many times you can hold up the gendered, or sexed, or raced, or classed body as the demonstration of the unequal workings of power. It's even more limited if those bodies are only used to expound on abstract ideas.

 

THANKFULLY, OTHER ASPECTS of bodies are slowly re-emerging. They're bodies that feel, that are moved by different emotions – fear, love, shame, disgust, anger. In different areas of research these bodies are either defined by affect or by emotion. For some it makes a great difference whether one uses one term or the other. Emotion tends to be what social scientists and those in the humanities talk about: emotion is the social way in which we express what we're feeling. It's adequate enough, although at times emotion as a descriptor lacks precision – "I cried with joy", "I wept with pleasure".

The term that the hard sciences – clinical psychology, biology, neuroscience – tend to use is "affect". For instance, the American psychologist Sylvan Tomkins, whose writings span from the 1950s to the late 1980s, described an affect system that worked alongside Freud's ideas about drives. Drives are the ingrained impulses that "drive" us to eat, have sex, breathe, etc. A drive tends to be associated with one distinct object and goal: eg, the hunger drive is differently satisfied than the sex drive. A drive also tends to be portrayed as working in an on/off or digital manner: once you've had sex the drive stops. Or at least that's the theory.

Tomkins argued that the affect system was more important because it served to amplify the drives. The affects – fear, disgust, contempt, shame, anger, interest, joy – also complicate the picture of the one-off result of the drives. In other words, you can feel more than one feeling at once. And we don't always know whether one stimulus will have the same affective result.

For instance, shame is only possible if there has been a prior positive affect. You have to have been interested or affectively invested in someone or something in order to be shamed. The classic example: you think you recognise a friend at a party or on the street. You go towards her, a smile already playing on your lips when you realise that she's a stranger. You blush, you turn away, you are ashamed.

The consequences of this thinking about affects are considerable. In the work I have been doing on shame, I keep returning to the argument in the sciences that the affects are an ingrained and biological system that we all share. For many this statement would hardly cause a stir. But within feminism and, more generally, the critical study of cultures, such an idea – all humans experience shame – smacks of universalism, essentialism and probably several other "isms" that we have supposedly been fighting since the 1980s.

The appeal of a biological and social understanding of feelings goes beyond somewhat internecine battles. After years of attacking universalist statements, I now rather like the idea that humans are wired in the same way. And just because we have the same mechanism that makes us feel shame or joy does not mean that we are not different in what causes us, in different contexts, to be ashamed or joyful.

These ideas return me to my remembrances of childhood bodies, and make me feel again the texture of bodies: the ways in which bodies fought and taunted each other, the clumsy attempts at courtship, the damage wreaked upon young bodies who were poor, condemned to lives like those of their parents, who stank, whose faces were speckled with the pock marks of inadequate medicine, bad diet and cramped interiors – in short, imperfect bodies. The shyness of the boys as they encircled the dancing girls, the bravura of the bovver girls, the shame of being chased by a bully and the pride at running faster, the envy of the blonde Frilly Knickers, the shame of the pregnant ones – all this imparts a powerful lesson.

 

THAT LESSON NOW underlies how I think about researching bodies as surely as it permeates how I live, work, teach and coexist with others. I cannot any longer simply use bodies as an example of such-and-such a theory. Nor can I stand on the evidence of bodies to proclaim an abstract political point.

To end with an example of what it means when you realise – really realise – what bodies are about, I'll go back to my fascination with fat. It helps to remember that fascination comes from the Latin fascinum – to cast a spell. To be fascinated is to be attracted and to be paralysed with fear.

Interest and fear; attraction and revulsion – that about sums up my attitude towards fat. What particularly attracts me is the recent emergence of youth obesity as "the epidemic" of our times. Part of me wants to dissect the panic and to demonstrate what is at work: questions of morality and blame, scapegoating, the facile blaming of fast food and television, the influence of feminist arguments about body-acceptance that has permeated popular culture to the detriment of our kids who know much more about the fairly rare instance of anorexia than they do about the more common and perhaps equally harmful effects of being obese. It could be a very clever project, where I could showcase ever more clever arguments about performativity and embodiment.

But so what? Sure, it would allow me as a researcher to stay a comfortable arm's distance from fat. It would allow me to have my cake and eat it – to profit from a hot topic without really engaging with the feelings and experiences of those bodies.

That's no longer quite good enough. Beyond the discursive level, what of all those bodies who are called fat on the playground, who are shunned by their peers, sometimes their teachers and even their parents? What of the boy who says "they call me Blubbo, Porker"? What of the overweight girl whose mother shows her a photo of an overweight bride and says there's hope for her?

Of course, social research cannot save the world. But it can make small incremental intrusions into culture. One just has to look at the success that a bowdlerised version of "fat is a feminist issue" has made in promoting fat as the perfect feminist body. From a simple point about how bodies are necessarily different, there is now a vast industry busily using – consciously or not – Foucauldian and feminist ideas to promote "fat liberation".

Many of these attempts to reverse fat discrimination take Susie Orbach's Fat is a Feminist Issue (Arrow, 1998) book as a guide. But while Orbach is a fervent activist against the diet industry – apparently her latest ploy is to launch a class action suit against Weight Watchers on the basis of their huge recidivism rate– she has never argued that we should celebrate fat. Nor does her argument condone the now tedious harping against perfect bodies. The gist of her argument was and continues to be, that women use fat as an armour against the pervasive and often aggressive messages about sexuality. Fat in this sense acts as a screen to hide behind.

Twenty-five years after the publication of Fat is a Feminist Issue the body diversity message has sunk in. Read any girls' magazine and you'll realise that girls are quite aware that thin models and diets are bad for them. Look around and you'll see young girls and teens proudly flaunting the midriff look whether or not they have perfect stomachs.

Kids don't need the message that it's okay to be fat. They also don't need the hyped up moralism and panic about obesity, nor do they need to be told by (usually overweight media commentators) that their lifestyle is to blame, especially given the sheer ignorance that most adults have of what constitutes youth culture today. What girls and boys – thin, fat or in between – need is empathy and an instilled awareness that fat does not protect them against a cruel world.

For far too long the attention has been on denouncing "perfect bodies". It's time we turned to investigating the feelings, the experiences and the sheer diversity of imperfect ones.

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