A curious conversation about ‘the war on obesity’ and biopolitics

This month, I am using the blog to work through some sticking points I encountered during my month off of writing. This one is about biopolitics and race.

Over the past year, I have had the opportunity to attend two presentations by Susan Greenhalgh about her new book, Fat Talk Nation.  (How one ends up at the same presentation twice in a year is basically a story about scholarly obligation and ‘face’ that I don’t need to get into, but yeah).  I’ve been prompted to write about it because it’s a series of talks that has *bugged* me, so much so that I found myself talking about it over lunch with colleagues, riffing off it in the office kitchen with graduate students, and having this sort of ongoing monologue with myself about it. Yet, I haven’t found myself running to the bookstore or library to read the thing. A shame, because it might be even more generative than the talks. So little time.

The first time I heard Greenhalgh’s Fat talk, I was stuck on her methods. Greenhalgh calls the research ethnographic, but in her hour-long presentation, she primarily describes a bundle of essays her students at UC Irvine wrote in a course about gender and the body. It seems that she asks her students to write ethnographic essays about body image (but her presentation doesn’t exactly cover her precise methods. I assume the details about the terms of the assignment are in the book). During her talk, she read heart-wrenching accounts by students — largely Asian-American women from southern California — about having their weight and eating habits “policed” by their families, and their worth and value being strongly associated with body size. Based upon her presentation, it also appears that she analyzes US government documents and anti-obesity campaigns (and when prompted in Q&A, she suggests that she analyzes the policy discourse related to black and Hispanic youth. See also: how critics responded to the film Precious and Gabby Sidibe).

But of course, I was left wondering what she really knew about her students’ lives vis-a-vis these stories (which she asked them to write for class (an extra credit assignment?)) The stories were moving. But what do we learn from them about the so-called ‘war on fat,’ except that it sucks to be treated like shit by your parents, grandparents and friends — especially when that shitty treatment appears to be motivated by their dissatisfaction with your weight, body size, etc. Some members of the audience wanted to know if preoccupation with weight and body size were proxies for *other* familial and social dynamics to which she had (or, at least, appeared to have) little to no access. I wondered the same thing. She never quite answered that question. But I do think this book covers some of these issues quite well.

There’s also anthropological literature about eating disorders, body image, beauty and obesity that covers this ground. (Even as Greenhalgh suggests that there’s not.)

The second time I heard the talk, I got stuck on her theoretical framework. If I understood her correctly, the US ‘war on fat’ is essentially a war on fat people — one that divides people into good and bad citizens, based upon their body mass index and appearance. Individuals internalize these designations, and deploy them to assess and berate/praise others. During Q&A, I posed a question about race: how does this ‘war on fat’ articulate with racialized and gendered notions of citizenship in the US? Are there other ‘wars’ on segments of the population that disturb or complicate her good-bad citizen binary? Are there segments of the population for whom the ‘war’ never comes? Is it possible to talk about a US at war with itself without grappling with the specific populations under siege (fat or not)?

She responded with some examples of how poor black and Hispanic children have been the targets of anti-obesity campaigns and how their parents are vilified and blamed in the literature. She addressed the anxieties about immigrants’ health that may be wrapped up in obesity anxieties (e.g. Haitian diabetes, or whatever). But, no, she quickly added, there’s no race theory in the book.

Right there. That’s where I got stuck. I wasn’t really asking whether she was using critical race theory. I was telling her that she was. By virtue of engaging ‘biopolitics’ to talk about connections among US public/population health, the health, fitness and beauty industries, and the state ‘at war’ with its citizens, it seemed that it would make perfect sense to address questions of race. In other words, biopolitics *is* a critical race theory. To subsume that element in her analysis was to ignore not only what is explicit in biopolitical theories about race (state racism), but also to (unwittingly) negate the intellectual genealogy of Foucault’s ideas about biopolitics (Black Panther Party and prison abolition movement literature).

That is all.

(well, not really. an update: I meant to link to Welehiye’s fine book about race and biopolitics.)

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