Over the past several years, the characterization of weight loss surgery (WLS) as effortless, coupled with tabloid type coverage of surgery gone wrong, fails to offer any in-depth consideration of WLS as a cultural phenomenon brought about by a collision of factors. The healthcare industry’s limited approach to body size, the practices of loading food with high fructose corn syrup and offering super size portions as the norm, the failure to promote health, nutrition and exercise rather than diet, diet, diet, and, most pertinently, the sanctioning of prejudice enacted upon fat bodies (and especially fat female bodies) in the news, the workplace, and the public arena are just a few of the causes contributing to the growth of WLS.
Not only has the thin-loving media condemned WLS, so have fat acceptance groups and fat activists. Paul McAleer claims such surgeries are done “in the name of fucking vanity” while Kelly Bliss predicts that in the future we will look back on WLS as “comparable to lobotomies.” It is surprising fat activists such as these suggest those opting for surgery only do so for aesthetic reasons on the one hand, and that ‘stupid fat people’ are being duped into surgery on the other. Comments comparing WLS to “fat genocide” or framing WLS as a moral outrage similarly construct the debate in very stark terms – namely, WLS bad, fat good.
However, I don’t think it is any better to claim that fatness is ALWAYS good than to claim that thinness is always good, beautiful, etc. Fat CAN be unhealthy for certain people given their genetics, body frame, and other health factors. Fat is not INHERENTLY unhealthy in and of itself, but so-called morbid obesity (I hate that term) CAN be a health risk. Fat activists and acceptance sites often seem to deny this. But, what if fat is no better (or worse) than thin? Isn’t this notion the goal body liberation groups are trying to reach? That, we need to, as activist Marilyn Wann claims, erase the “line” between fat and thin – and – in so doing – eradicate “skinny privilege.” If this is truly the goal, condemning the symptoms of body hatred should not be the focus – rather, the CAUSES of this cultural dis-ease with certain types of bodies must be addressed and eradicated.
Further, the insinuation that WLS is done in the main for vanity or conformity reasons fails to account for the fact that health risks are the number one reason people cite for considering (or having) WLS. While I understand that such risks are trumped up and mythologized by an anti-fat medical establishment, I also believe that fat can complicate certain health factors for CERTAIN bodies. Is WLS the answer? Not necessarily. But, acting as if it is NEVER the answer seems myopic. Further, hammering the point that it is risky and can lead to death seems like scare mongering – surgeries are inherently risky, all of them can lead to death… giving birth is risky and can lead to death – should we frame it as comparable to a lobotomy as well? (This rather overstretched analogy is prompted by McAleer’s post that frames WLS as a “moral decision” in relation to reproductive choice/abortion).
Camryn Manheim touches on an important issue related to what seems like the conditional acceptance in the fat acceptance movement. In Wake Up, I’m Fat, she notes her discovery of the plethora of fat acceptance organizations and magazines, sharing her dismay with trying to find a potential partner in the personals sections of such publications. Revealing fat as a sexual commodity in such magazines, she laments that “In this world of ‘size acceptance,’ my fat was all that mattered; the other stuff was apparently irrelevant” and bemoans that the ads are not based on “size acceptance but ‘size insistence'” (Manheim 1999, p.121 and 123). To a degree, this observation can be extended to the fat acceptance movement. If you are not fat, or not ‘fat enough,’ or have lost your fat, you are suspect to insinuations of cultural conformity and ‘giving in.’ This is why I now tend to favor “body acceptance” or “body positive” or “healthy at any size” or “body liberation” rather than the phrase “fat acceptance” as I feel ALL bodies – not only fat ones – deserve acceptance.
Protesting WLS by marketing anti-surgery products on the web and staging anti-surgery demonstrations, fat activist Marilyn Wann is in line with this view of WLS as acquiescence to cultural conformity. Noting a future issue of her zine Fat!So? will be about “how silly weight loss surgery is,” Wann says “I think the most powerful force for change in our society is public ridicule.” Wann describes her plan “to ridicule the idea that cutting off the healthy stomach of a human being is ever a good idea,” noting she will enact this plan “without ridiculing actual people” How, in fact, is such supposedly well meaning ridicule possible? Rather than the ego-deflating practice of ridiculing, which fat people already suffer on a daily basis, how about devoting energy to examining the widespread causes that have made WLS such a widespread cultural phenomenon in the first place? For, while questioning the validity of surgery as an option is certainly laudable, condemning surgery on all counts seems narrow-minded. Such a blanket condemnation seems to go against the very message such organizations preach – namely, diversity, acceptance, cultural awareness, and extended analysis of the deep-seated causes of fat phobia.
And, while size acceptance groups roundly condemn the surgery, the very media that exhorts us to be thin at all costs, that sends us thousands of daily messages conveying only thin bodies are beautiful, also chastises those who attempt to live up to inane standards via surgical means. Survive on liquid protein (ala Oprah), exercise so fanatically that even post-pregnancy you’re stick thin (ala Demi Moore), or opt for drugs instead of food (ala heroin chic) and you are a fat fighting hero. But, opt for surgery, well, you’re a brainless lazy schmuck with zero will.
Even more ironic is the MSMs relative approval of the fat sucking procedure know as liposuction (as extolled on shows such as Extreme Makeover and The Swan). If this surgical option is ok, why isn’t WLS? Hmmm, could it be that those who opt for liposuction are usually only curvaceous with plump thighs or tummies that they must get rid of in order to morph into Kate Moss? In contrast, the bodies who undergo weight loss surgery are for the most part upwards of 250 pounds. They are the bodies paraded on talk shows as freakish, the ones inspiring bumper stickers like No Fat Chicks!, the ones no one wants to sit next to on an airplane, the ones constantly exhorted by ‘well-meaning’ friends, family, and strangers to diet. Often, they do, creating a cycle of loss and gain and ending up with far more health and esteem problems than if they had accepted themselves in the first place. These bodies, rejected by culture, mocked by the media, and scorned by the general public now have yet another burden to add to their vilified existence if they opt for WLS – now they are also too lazy to do it the hard way (as Oprah suggests), too weak to exercise self control (as Maher jokes, characterizing the surgery as “willpower bypass”), too cowardly to refuse conformity (as fat activists propose).
The many before and after shots lauding post-surgical success stories may make it seem the media have embraced this phenomenon. But a closer look reveals an emphasis on extreme risk, deprivation, pain, and, horror of horrors, post-op saggy skin. And, predictably, the stories focus on female bodies. As with shows such as The Swan, where ‘ugly duckling’ female contestants undergo extensive surgical and diet procedures to become ‘beautiful swans,’ it is still the female body that is under strict cultural surveillance to be attractive (read thin) at any cost. These stories are told not to celebrate let alone analyze this latest trend in our never-ending futile fight against fat – rather, they are the newest form of the fat body as freak show entertainment, proclaiming: “Come one, come all! Feast your eyes on a former fatty!” Oddly enough, the fat acceptance movement seems in league with the media in that it also frames those opting for WLS as freaks – or, as lobotomized morons with amputated stomachs… What if instead, we saw fat as no better or worse than thin?