Sunday, February 05, 2017

The Great Fat Liberal Civil War

Via David Codrea, I read a Facebook commenter:

Oh haha. I love this shit. Haven't even read the linked article. It's all the BS 'gun owner' bravado and jingoistic 'blades of grass' enthusiasm that gets me. Most 'gun owners' wouldn't do shit. Most are fat untrained fudds. You talk about 1776 but those guys were not burger munching blimps! This has nothing to do with whether or who anyone would win. It has everything to do with Facebook Meme Patriotardism, backed up by nothing by untrained bloviating fat fucks. [Emphasis added.]

This reminded me of an episode from the NPR show This American Life from last June, "Tell Me I'm Fat" (transcript here), the upshot of which was to agitate for "Fat Acceptance". It featured several fat or formerly fat people telling their tales of suffering societal discrimination. (I'm making this sound more lame than it actually was; TAL pushes a hard-Left agenda, but it sounds reasonable in the NPR style.)

From Act IV of the transcript:

It's so common to judge people on their weight. And of course, so often there is this moral dimension to it that is just gross-- this idea that you're fat because you're weak, you can't get control of your own life.

Today on our program, we're saying maybe that is not the most accurate or the most helpful way to look at this. This next story is about a very specialized example of this kind of moralism. You may know that there's a Christian weight loss movement. And it's big, with seminars and books like Help Lord, the Devil Wants Me Fat.

Let me interrupt for a moment. First of all, don't read too much into this. Almost everything in popular culture has a "Christian" version. We have books on Christian dating. Christian financial management. Christian rock music. (Come to think of it, the only thing I haven't seen is Christian porn, but I'm still looking.) So it shouldn't surprise us that we see Christian weight-loss. These books and seminars are written and read, presented and consumed, by Christian and secular audiences for the same reason: people want to not be fat. Their existence do not represent some kind of deeply-rooted theological position on obesity.

But TAL finds an anecdote anyway, quoted here at length:

[Physical Education instructor Paul Brinson] got a call from the brand-new Oral Roberts University asking him to head up their new phys ed program. Paul was a Pentecostal Evangelical Christian. And Oral Roberts was maybe the most famous televangelist and faith healer in the world. Two of the biggest things in Paul's life were coming together-- God and exercise. So Paul and his wife moved out to Tulsa.


Oral Roberts wanted to teach a lifestyle to his students, what he called the whole man philosophy-- mind, body, spirit. They would all have equal importance at the school. Here's how the provost from back then, Carl Hamilton, explains it now.

Carl Hamilton: Our bodies are the home of the Holy Spirit. Making that home a fit one is one of the ways to glorify God and the Holy Spirit.

Paul would be in charge of making that home a fit one. In the fall of 1974, he took over the school's aerobics program at a brand new $2 million center with a fancy indoor track. Every student had to get a certain number of aerobics points per week. They might get a point for walking a mile or two for playing doubles tennis or five for bouncing on a trampoline.

Remember, this is 40 years before Fitbits. Back in 1974, just the idea of regular exercise was cutting edge. Jogging had only just become a thing. Aerobics was brand new. And here was ORU with all its students running around in headbands and tube socks. Then Oral Roberts had another idea-- to push the fitness program even further. Here's Paul.

Paul Brinson: At the graduation ceremonies of 1975, at the end of my first year there, Oral Roberts observed several students who graduated that he saw were obese. And within the next few days, he contacted Dr. Carl Hamilton, the provost of the university-- and this is, I understand, how this took place-- and said, I really don't want to see significantly overweight, obese students graduating, because it indicates that they have not met the goal of the university to be physically disciplined. And please develop some guidelines or some criteria so those students make progress or do not graduate. Maybe do not graduate is too strong a term, but that, anyway, something is done about that.

In that moment, something changed. Paul's fitness program wouldn't just keep tabs on students' exercise. Now he'd make sure they weren't fat. Suddenly how you looked mattered.

Personally, none of this sounds particularly scandalous. On the contrary, I spent both college and the first 20 years of my professional life living under physical fitness standards. The specific requirements have come and gone over the years, but Body-Mass Index (BMI) measurements have always been among them. And the last few years of active duty included actual waist measurements.

The military's interest in maintaining physical performance requirements among its soldiers and airmen is pretty obvious. And to the extent that actual data show correlations between being overweight and healthcare costs, then it follows that keeping troops at a healthy weight is worthwhile financially. But these are not the service's only reasons. They have never made a secret that "professional appearance" is one of the goals as well. For instance, the Army's Officer Evaluation Report (OER) has a single rating category for "fitness and military bearing".

So while it might surprise me to see a civilian institution take an interest in how its students' appearance reflects on their school, it doesn't strike me as especially heinous. But my objection is that while the "Pounds Off" program is an interesting bit of ORU folk history (although the school still has a physical fitness requirement -- now monitored by FitBits -- the "Pounds Off" program was discontinued in 1978), it has almost nothing to do with the battle over fatness in the current decade. Forty years ago, when America at large was just coming into awareness that the new era of cheap calorie abundance would require lifestyle adaptation, body type didn't have a class dimension. Today, it does.

Let's look at another example from the program, a conflict over fatness between radio host and author Dan Savage and blogger Lindy West:

West: Then Dan wrote a blog post entitled "Ban Fat Marriage." He was responding to some Republicans' argument that gay marriage should be illegal because gay people supposedly die younger.

Here's Dan. Quote, "Why stop with gay people? Iowa should ban fat marriage. There are, according to the state of Iowa, more than 1.4 million obese people living in Iowa. The social costs of Iowa's obesity epidemic are pretty staggering. And those costs include premature death and lower average life expectancies for Iowans."

In response, I threw up a quick blog post. "Hey, Dan. So now that you're equating the stigmatization of fat people with the stigmatization of gay people, does that mean you're going to stop stigmatizing fat people on this blog?" Nothing. I waited a few days. Nothing.

No exchange better encapsulates how the cause of fatness is strictly a civil war among liberals. On the one hand, Dan Savage wants to weaponize fatness in his status competition with the lower classes in Flyover Country. The appeal of this is obvious: the inverse correlation between body weight and social class among women is well documented from the General Social Survey, probably among other sources. (The record is more mixed in the case of men; lower class men show greater body variance -- more fat and more skinny -- while upper class male body types are more clustered towards "average".) Meanwhile, a large (ha!) faction of feminism -- and if you read the transcript, all the fat people weighing in (see what I did there!) in favor of fat acceptance are women -- want for fatness what homosexuals have: a seat at the progressive table as a designated victim group.

Since TAL, at least in this context, is taking the side of feminism, then as a rhetorical strategy, trying to link the public push for weight control to an ORU program forty years in the past looks like a smart move. But we should recognize that strategy for what it is: just rhetoric, and having no basis in present reality. Neither I nor Christianity have a dog in this fight, and none of the belligerents are on my side.

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