March 13, 2023

Demoralizing Fatness

Why fat-shaming harms health and how we need to change the conversation
Author Kate Manne

Being fat has become so culturally and morally freighted that it’s tangled in class (today’s elites are thin), character (somebody lean is perceived to be disciplined, whereas fat people are often equated with laziness), virtue (being skinny is godlike, thereby, fat is evil) and numerous other domains. The latest “re-do”, when it comes to fat-shaming, is the alteration of Roald Dahl’s children’s books that have recently removed references to some characters — remember Augustus Gloop? — being fat. Gloop is now enormous.

Which is precisely why the Calgary Institute for the Humanities at the University of Calgary will be hosting a marquee lecture on March 30 that will focus on “fatness and the kinds of biases that we have against fat bodies,” says Dr. Kate Manne, PhD, author of Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny and Entitled: How Male Privilege Hurts Women, and who says she has been fat for most of her life. When it comes to her body, Manne has felt ashamed for feeling shame.

But, if you think this will be an evening loaded with weight-loss tips and the author’s dining proclivities, you’re dead wrong. “This is a talk about being fat,” explains the moral philosopher-professor from Cornell University, who is giving the 7 p.m. talk at the Central Library. “The relationship between fatness and health is much more empirically and philosophically complicated than we’ve been historically led to believe.” This is examined extensively in the book Manne is currently working on, Unshrinking: How to Face Fatphobia, due to be published in January 2024 along with, she says, “how we’ve arrived at a place where we feel morally obligated not to be fat.”

During a talk structured in three parts, Manne will not only discuss why society fetishizes thinness and why fatness has wrongly been moralized, she will also examine the role genetics plays in weight as well as trauma and, “things like inequitable access to food, so-called food deserts.” Adding to that list, are “features of the built environment, as well as very common medical conditions such as hormonal and metabolic changes, things like polycystic ovarian syndrome, or conditions such as lipedema. There are all kinds of reasons why people get fat, and there are also reasons why losing weight in the long term turns out to be much, much more difficult than we're accustomed to thinking.”

Once categorized as “severely obese,” Manne says, “the chances of someone like me ever reaching a so-called normal weight are around 0.1% in any given year. However, many fat people, including me, happily at the moment, can be healthy and happy without weight loss by pursuing certain health behaviours. Moreover, even if there are certain kinds of health problems in being fat, people have very little choice in the matter.”

Like her upcoming book, Manne will dive into the moral, intellectual and aesthetic biases against fat people, as well as argue that they are often gaslit by diet culture.

“The book adapts my philosophical definition of gaslighting and tries to make the case that the reason we keep dieting, despite widespread knowledge that diets don't work, is because we’re gaslit into feeling guilty for our fatness,” Manne says.

Manne goes on to say that “dieting causes, for many people, real suffering that we should take seriously as a moral ill that diet culture visits on us.”

What it will take to alter society’s view of beauty and how that relates to size is something Manne dubs “a body-reflexive ethos. Instead of giving a kind of generic, even neutral evaluation to all bodies, including our own, we should actually just cease to think of bodies as something that we judge for the purposes of consuming them. Rather, body reflexivity says that your body is for you and my body is for me, and so on and so forth.

“We shouldn't be grading, ranking, contrasting or even holding everyone up to the same level. That's just not how we should think about a body, any more than we should think about a sunset that way,” says Manne. “You might really appreciate a certain sunset, but you don't need to rank it against yesterday's; you don't need to pronounce it superior to 17 other sunsets, but not these other three. You don't even need to be neutral about it. You can genuinely appreciate it, but realize your judgment is, in a way, irrelevant.”

Be prepared to challenge your ideas and relationships with food, fat people, fatness, the diet industry and other body-mind issues. Register for Demoralizing Fatness when Kate Manne presents the Calgary Institute for the Humanities Invited Lecture in Applied Ethics.