A few days ago, I arrived back home after an agonizing 6 hour drive to see my family for the weekend. We were sat around the table eating dinner a few hours later when my mother suddenly raised the topic of anorexia. She asked how people can possibly be anorexic, and why. Me being that one kid that tries too hard to impress their parents, answered with an array of psychological and physiological explanation, of which the former was taken. She then proceeded to tell me that the son of a friend of hers, Rob was his name, became “anorexic”, and that Rob was to come over to the house tomorrow for the purpose of “making friends with us”, as my mother put it. She explains that he was sent off to study in the US from my country of origin, Indonesia, but was apparently bullied mercilessly and possibly harassed for his obesity. His “anorexia” went unnoticed until he was taken to the hospital after he fell and fainted in the middle of class. My mother told me that Rob had been going through his day eating nothing but a few pieces of Regal (Indonesian branded crackers) ONCE A DAY, and was suffering heavily from malnutrition. It was much later that I learned that the illness anorexia nervosa, according to the DSM V, does not apply to people whose BMI is more than 18.5kg/m2, which, in other words, means severely underweight. Nonetheless, Rob has characteristics and similarities of symptoms to those diagnosed with Anorexia, and I would argue that his body image is also “distorted”.
My mother showed me a picture of Rob, and meeting him the next day, he was considerably different than the picture lead me to believe. The first thing I noticed was his face. In the picture, he looked happy and cheerful, but now looks depressed. Conversations attempted by me and my brother lead to awkward silences, and he declined to eat anything my mother offered him. We finally was able to made a small but lengthier conversation regarding football, though I know almost nothing of it. Rob’s mother told me that he used to be a very happy person, making jokes all the time and lightening the mood of the people he was with. Looking at Rob now, it’s hard to believe he used to be the person his mother described him to be. He was only 19 years old, and the joyousness of being enrolled in a developed country’s university has been robbed off of him.
In a culture where individualism is viewed as the epitome of a Utopian society, the status of obesity seems to be more heavily connotated with negative attributes than many of the medical conditions associated with weight, such as bulimia and anorexia. What, then, set obesity apart from these other medical conditions that warrants for its heavier negativity? An underlying reason behind its negative connotations must exist beyond that of the medical field, which I speculated to be lie in the field of culture and politics. LeBesco, author of “Revolting Bodies” wrote in her book that the word obesity has been “mobilized by medical health beauty establishment in order to stigmatize people who do not conform to an absurdly restrictive concept of ideal weight.” Perhaps then, the culprit behind the negative connotations of obesity in mainstream society does not lie in the fact that it is a simple medical condition, but lies in the non-conformity, or revolting nature of those that are obese. People who are obese does not uphold the standards of beauty upheld by society, and is then referred to as ugly. This stigmatization of obesity, according to LeBesco, is “responsible for many of the health problems associated with obesity.” The problem then becomes the question of how to detach this stigmatization and deconstruct it where Obesity will be more accepted and less criticized in society. LeBesco, throughout her book, proposed that society’s abhorrence towards obesity were fronted by the medicalization of such, which tries to intervene by means of different treatment that, according to statistics provided, never seems to work 98% of the time. This is similar to Foucault’s anecdote regarding mental illnesses and psychiatric hospitals, whose treatment of the mentally ill does not work in alleviating the sickness, but only serves to torture them into conformation. Just as the de-psychiatrization of mental illnesses and the adoption of an alternative method by which to treat it became a model treatment for the mentally ill, the demedicalization of obesity and the recession of medical interventions that attempts to fix it as well as the adoption of the idea that obesity is not an issue will bore an important pathway by which the problem can be fixed.
According to LeBesco, As LeBesco explained, “the outright stigmatization of fat needs to be fought on multiple cultural front, with the medical field being the most significant.” Although the demedicalization of obesity can certainly open a pathway in which its acceptance may exist, underlying reasons for obesity’s negative connotations exist in the form of cultural and political ideologies. One of LeBesco’s anecdote involves a woman by the name of Angela Kennedy, who states that fat people are “fighting the wrong enemy.” Obese people are viewed with abhorrence and disgust, largely due to the societal binaries that exists due to the fact that the concept of obesity does not fit the standards of beauty upheld by society, made worse by its classification as a medical condition. LeBesco remarked that “the borders of beauty are well defined and exceedingly narrow” and this “paradigm of beauty” must be questioned. As one of LeBesco’s guest speaker, Chapkis, had said, the concept of beauty is something that cannot be forsaken, and the acceptance of obesity into its “well defined borders” can only occur if said borders are, in metaphor, destroyed, erased and redefined. Redefinition of such a well defined meaning can only occur if the idea of being obese is reinvented, by making it something to be proud of instead of that to be shameful about. The first step to resolving a political issue is to show pride in the face of difference. Once society deconstruct the binaries that it created between obesity and beauty, the stereotypical reasoning for it will wither with its negative connotations.
Foucault, M. (2008). Psychiatric power: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1973-74. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
LeBesco, K. (2004). Revolting bodies?: The Struggle to Redefine Fat Identity. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.