Superheroes XXL

By Robert Gugutzer26.12.2014Culture and Society, Science

For defying our terrible health norms, fat people are actually heroes – which tells us a lot about our society.

The question of the “ideal person” or rather the “ideal body” is simple to answer: there is no such thing as either an ideal body or an ideal person. There are only “ideological” positions regarding what these might be. Ideologies are socially constructed systems of ideas that transport no explicit, irrevocable truths, but rather standpoint-relative views that one can either accept or not accept. Ideological positions are relative, because they are based on specific values, which in turn serve as the basis for normative perceptions about what’s “right” or “wrong”, “good” or “bad”, and so on.

The current discourse over the “ideal” body, the “right” body weight, or “fat” children is therefore a good example of one, based around one of our central social values: health. To the question “What is most important in your life?”, people in prosperous nations like Germany have been answering “health” for years. One’s (un)healthiness is seen less and less as something accidental or luck-dependent, but as a condition one can maintain… and must maintain. Health has become a duty imposed by society on the individual. One _must_ worry about one’s own health!

Highest civic duty

Conversely, therefore, those who defy the dominant health imperative are in need of legitimation. Even more: if one were to say that movement and exercise are unimportant, that one would rather lie around, watch lots of TV, and eat junk food, it’s possible that that person would be discriminated against. In a neoliberal society asserting that health protection is the highest civic duty, the overweight, especially _really_ fat people, are a disgrace. Their bulky, lumpish, flabby bodies are an affront to society, since they symbolically flaunt our societal flaws: idleness over activity, excess over discipline, passivity over initiative.

The theories and ideologies on the “correct” way to handle one’s body (or the “correct” body volume) are generally decided by a group of people who are awarded “expert” status and given the prerogative of interpretation by society. In our culture, these are primarily doctors and other so-called “health experts” whose knowledge of all things corporeal is passed down primarily through the mass media to the general public, and it’s then generally accepted as correct because (in most cases anyway) it’s scientifically based.

Now, however, a look either at the history of medicine or at other cultures teaches us that notions of “correct” or even “ideal” body upkeep vary widely. What today is taken to be ideal – a BMI of about 23 – was in earlier times, or still is in other regions of the world, in no way ideal, and that is not just because it’s a bad idea to determine unhealthy body weight by just one number, as Body Mass Index (falsely) – still a relatively young concept in western academic medicine – suggests we do.

Doubts raised

By what right can we expect someone to make an arbitrary, albeit socially dominant, body and health ideal his or her own? Is it not just as legitimate to say: “My body and my health belong to me, and they aren’t at all important to me, at least not as much as others say that they should be”? What right do we have to stigmatize or sanction people who deprive themselves of this body and health imperative?

A popular answer to this question is that they harm the common good. Through their fatness, their lack of movement, and their “wrong” diet, they get sick more often than the average person, which means larger medical bills for the other taxpayers to take care of. Therefore, all who let themselves go and don’t worry about their health are seen as asocial.

Even if it’s appropriate to say that these lumbering fast-food junkies do the economy more harm than other segments of the population, it still needs to be clarified whether that alone is sufficient grounds for condemning them. I have my doubts. For one thing, there are other individuals, groups, and organizations that put a relatively big strain on the economy without likewise being defamed and financially sanctioned. What’s more, it’s crucial to be wary of the present commodification of the private and the common through one another, particularly when it involves cuts into individual freedoms and life preferences.

But in the background there emerges the question as to whether all people who defy the dominant cult of the body, the delusion of skinniness, the terror of health, might actually be the heroes of the present. But then, what should we think of a society in which a heroic stance amounts to not worrying about what dress size one wears?

_Translated from German by Ben Hill_



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