People Who Moralize Fatness—But Not Other ‘Risky’ Behaviors—Are Telling On Themselves

In her new book, 'Unshrinking: How to Face Fatphobia,' philosopher Kate Manne dissects arguments about personal (and interpersonal) health risks.

People Who Moralize Fatness—But Not Other ‘Risky’ Behaviors—Are Telling On Themselves

In her new book Unshrinking: How to Face Fatphobia, philosopher Kate Manne identifies the multiple biases that intersect with fatphobia, and deconstructs the numerous fallacies and offensive cliches society regularly deploys to stigmatize fatness. Below, we’ve excerpted a section of her chapter on the way (western) cultures moralize overweight bodies.

A wealth of literature shows that the size of our bodies is largely out of individuals’ control, in being due to genetics, the food environment, common illnesses and medications, and a whole host of other unchosen factors. But even to the extent that fatness is (for some people, and to some extent) under our control, analogies suggest that this is not a genuine moral issue.

People make all sorts of trade-offs to enrich their lives in some way, to pursue their desires and whims and pleasures, at the expense of potentially serious health problems and even increased mortality. Take the person who regularly goes BASE jumping, despite the risk of serious injuries and death; take the person who attempts to climb Mount Everest, despite the risk of altitude sickness and falls and frostbite; take the person who races cars, despite the risk of crashes and conflagrations; take, to use the philosopher A. W. Eaton’s pertinent example, the person who tans their skin, despite the risk of cancer. Provided they take reasonable precautions, such as using the right equipment, and do not endanger others, we do not tend to condemn or shame these people. We regard them as entitled to live their lives, and to have humane and fitting healthcare if they do run into problems. We even generally regard them as entitled to run the risk of dying significantly younger. And we are right to regard them as having these entitlements.

This highlights a major problem with the idea of a moral obligation not to be fat: We regularly accept as much or more risk when it is carried by presumptively thinner bodies.

So imagine a person who “lives to eat”—adventurously, pleasurably, comfortingly, or even just copiously—and does end up as a result with a significantly fatter body than they would have otherwise. And, suppose, controversially, that this person does run certain health risks as a result of this. The above analogies cast doubt on the idea that they are under a moral obligation to choose a different lifestyle. There’s at least strong pressure on their critics to explain, if they don’t object to the aforementioned risk takers and thrill seekers, what the difference is, exactly. Often, I suspect, these critics will not have a good argument, but rather an image of the above people as thin and thus, supposedly, “healthy”—which in this context means robust, lean, muscular, and non-disabled. More broadly, choosing to be somewhat fatter in order to eat more pleasurably or adventurously or comfortingly strikes me as a valid choice—a potential trade-off of the kind people make all the time and that they are entitled to make as their lives unfold in all their individuality and richness and complexity. As Eaton puts it, in making a related argument: “Modern life, especially modern urban life, is built around this kind of trade-off which, in most cases, does not suffer from any de-aestheticization, stigmatization, discrimination, or other negative social consequences”—unlike fatness.

This highlights a major problem with the idea of a moral obligation not to be fat: We regularly accept as much or more risk when it is carried by presumptively thinner bodies.

Image: Crown Publishing Group

Often the moralism I’ve been calling out here is criticized under the aegis of “healthism”: the idea that health has been elevated to a supreme moral value in contemporary Anglo-American culture, rather than recognized as one value among many, and one that plausibly does not issue in an individual moral mandate to be healthy. (It certainly doesn’t mean we should be as healthy as humanly possible, given other competing values such as the pleasure and community that partaking in supposedly “unhealthy” foods may foster.) But it’s worth reflecting how rarely such considerations figure in discussions other than fatness, drug use, and smoking—that is, bodily states and behaviors that are already heavily moralized. Healthism seems to be less a general moral mistake, then, than an ideological weapon wielded selectively against those who are already stigmatized and othered.

What about smoking, though? Don’t we shame smokers, to great effect, and for their own good? It’s true that the rates of smoking have decreased hugely since the public health campaign against it, due to this intervention, among other factors. But, for one thing, it’s not clear to me that we should shame smokers, as opposed to continuing to educate them on the risks, given the very real social stressors and bodily vulnerabilities that lead people to develop this powerful addiction. (Compare other addictions, like alcoholism, that we increasingly view through the lens of a disease model and do not take to be an appropriate basis for shaming in particular or moralizing generally.) For another thing, difficult as it is to quit smoking, it is a discrete behavior that can in some sense be given up. Whereas one cannot simply stop eating and live for long afterward. The health risks of smoking are also far greater and better established than the health risks of fatness. Finally, smoking confers real risks on other people, due to second- and thirdhand smoke, as well as modeling this ostensibly “cool” behavior to impressionable younger people. So fatness and smoking are in many ways disanalogous.

To sum up my argument, then: Fatness is by and large out of our control, making the supposed moral obligation not to be fat likely moot from the beginning. And even if fatness were under our control (again, to some extent, for some people), we tolerate people making all sorts of choices that markedly increase their risk of diseases, injuries, and death. Why should the choice to be somewhat fatter, in order to better enjoy the profound pleasures of cooking, eating, and sharing food with others, be regarded as fundamentally different? The answer is not a rational one, I believe; rather, it is rooted in errors of human psychology—the tendency to regard the fat body with disgust, and to hence regard our very being as morally verboten.

Excerpted from Unshrinking by Kate Manne. Published by Crown, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2024 by Kate Manne.

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