The Mia Freedman Debacle, or, Why Moral Panics Need Strawmen

Bri King of Fat Lot of Good, fellow Fat Acceptance blogger and general advocate, recently came under fire as she found herself daring to push back against a so-called body image activist allowing virulently anti-fat comments on a recent post about feederism.

Bri has since been asked to comment for articles in several Australian news outlets. (students of sociology, pay close attention to the language used in the titles of each of these articles—five extra brownie points for some analysis, if you wish to provide it!)

1. Herald-Sun: Body blogger Mia Freedman gets heavied

2. Today/Tonight: Heavyweight fury

3. A Current Affair: Mia’s fat fight

The article is the fairest, though uses some cheap fat-mocking ‘colorful’ descriptive language here and there. Both of the other segments I watched briefly without the sound so that I could get a sense for the kind of imagery they put forth, and it’s immediately problematic — headless and legless fatties, thinner people who get attractive straight-on headshots, and so forth. But I think others can go through the segments with a bit more of a detailed analysis, what I want to talk about is what really went down, here, and why this is an example of how the strawman effect is the most powerful foundation block of a moral panic.

For Bri’s explanation and links to Mia’s post and its comments, please see her posts here (ordered by date):

1. This Angry Fatty won’t just shut up and go away…

2. still Angry Fatty

Freedman has since come back to explain that, in fact, she wasn’t talking about fat people in general but was highlighting the feederists, which we can all agree are bad, bad, bad! And why don’t us regular fatties just shut up about it, what, do we think that kind of behavior is good or something? Of course, the arguments being made against Bri are chock full of logical fallacies (extra points for those who list which ones!). And it shows either a great deal of ignorance or intellectual dishonesty on the part of a so-called body image advocate to claim that highlighting feederism in the midst of a moral panic where fat people are the folkdevils isn’t harmful to fat people in general.

Here are a few facts to chew on, in case you’re still not convinced:

  1. Feederism wouldn’t seem as horrifying if society wasn’t already panicked and disgusted by fat people in general. The natural bigoted question being, “Can you believe there exist people who not only like being fat but want to get fatter?”
  2. Feederism wouldn’t seem as horrifying if the common wisdom wasn’t erroneously that people with few exceptions have the ability to control their body weight. The natural bigoted question being, “Can you believe these people want to be fat when they could be thin if only they got their priorities straight or were sufficiently shamed, and further, that they want to be so very fat indeed?”
  3. Feederism wouldn’t seem as horrifying if the nanny-state wasn’t continually making its version of ‘health’ a public responsibility (thus placing people’s bodies into the black box of common ownership and hence critique). The natural bigoted question being, “Can you believe these people are irresponsibly choosing fatness when it’s my wallet on the line?”

Let’s further the analysis, for those who still aren’t clear on the connection between these points — demonizing feederism in the context of a moral panic where fat people play the part of folkdevil — and why such a blog post, made by a so-called body image advocate, furthers general sizism and worsens general hate of all fat people.

Feeders/Gainers, and those who are seen as clearly choosing to get fatter, are the strawmen of the ‘obesity epidemic.’ Because one of the fundamental lines of reasoning behind the moral panic of fat is that the vast majority of fat people choose to be fat. Hence, in the common-wisdom narrative of the ‘obesity epidemic’ all fat people are, to some degree, feeders/gainers.

So demonizing feeders/gainers in the context of the ‘obesity epidemic’ moral panic is the same as demonizing the vast majority of fat people.

And the comments on Freedman’s site prove this point to be true, as do many of the comments on the Herald-Sun article linked above. Those commenters don’t care if Freedman was talking about feeders/gainers in particular — to them regular fatties aren’t really that different from feeders/gainers. So what Freedman has written has the effect of only reinforcing the bigoted notions of fat put forth by the common-wisdom narrative, reinforcing people’s disgust over fat people. What Freedman has written reinforces their horrified sensibilities concerning what and how it is proper to consume food or think about wellness and how they believe ‘proper thought’ to be inextricably tied to a particular ‘proper’ size. What Freedman has written reinforces the idea that it is okay to hate and ‘be against’ this behavior, which to them is only an extreme version of what they believe all fat people do.

Freedman, a so-called body image advocate, is doing nothing more than promoting the ‘proper’ body — one that isn’t too fat — by means of what she surely believes is well-placed concern about feederism.

Still don’t believe me? Take the tenor of the comments on any article which treats this debacle (including comments on Freedman’s blog). The high level of outrage and disgust signify rage and panic over someone daring to be an outspoken member of a deviant class. This is traditionally how moral panics police their deviant classes. If most of these commenters came in with honest curiosity or concern over health, I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt the level of emotion would be quite a bit lower.

In conclusion, I would like to reiterate a comment I made on Bri’s blog about this whole debacle, in particular the backlash against her take on the situation.

Remember, the ‘obesity epidemic’ is a moral panic, and by being an outspoken member of the deviant class you threaten the status quo and that’s obviously ruffling some feathers.

In fact, congratulations are in order: it seems you’ve advanced your particular message to the third stage of activism. For as Gandhi said, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

They’re definitely fighting you. Cheers, Bri, keep on!

EDIT (5/13/10, 11:30p EST): Please also take a look at Spilt Milk’s current Freedman post. She replies to a comment Mia Freedman made to Spilt Milk’s blog—it’s really fantastic, please read it!

NOTE: If you have come to submit the comment, “But don’t you know that feederism is bad? What, are you promoting feederism or something?” I might actually publish it, just to get laughs. But I request in any case that you re-read this post — and again, if you’re still scratching your head — and if you can’t get it after that, congratulations! You’re a bigoted pawn of the moral panic. Or should I say, I send my deepest regrets to your friends and family.

Quick Hit: Americans Are Just as Fat Now as 1999-2000

…you know, just after the BMI categories for overweight and obese were revised downwards several points, in effect making millions of Americans overweight or obese overnight.

One-Third of American Adults Are Obese, but Rate Slows

Figures from the National Center for Health Statistics showed 34% of American adults age 20 and older were obese in 2007-08 while 68% were considered overweight or obese. In children ages 2 through 19, 17% were considered obese while 32% were considered overweight. Broadly, the figures are similar to rates seen in 1999-2000.

But don’t worry, just in case you were starting to get the idea that the obesity epi-panic’s drama was largely constructed to profit a wide variety fear/hate-mongering groups and body-hate industries, the next paragraph in the piece reminds you that once again that if you’re fat, ur gonna die.

“Obesity remains high and is a significant public-health problem in the U.S.,” said Cynthia Ogden, one of the main researchers involved in tabulating the data and an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s health-statistics unit.

And then, a little later on, a funny kind of quote:

“I see this as relatively good news,” said William Dietz, the director of CDC’s division of nutrition, physical activity and obesity. “It suggests we’ve halted the progression of the epidemic.”

And how is it that you’ve “halted the progression of the epidemic”? Because I certainly don’t remember all those anti-fat vaccines being offered in schools and the workplace. And I don’t remember dieting suddenly starting to work. And WLS not only doesn’t work in the majority of cases but also makes people sicker (and hence more costly from a public policy perspective). So, right. All that — stuff — we did, that uh, didn’t have any effect, well it sure has slowed/stopped the epidemic!

How about this: There was never any obesity epidemic. But there was panic. And there is still panic. So don’t think this is going to stop us from hating you and wanting to eliminate you, fattie. Because you’re still a threat.

Case-building: Making Fatties the Deviants

In every good moral panic one needs a deviant group on which to blame the ills of the current moral (financial, political) crisis. Since moral panics seek to fix some broken part of society, it makes sense that a group of people is singled out to symbolize the ills associated with the crisis.

Since the late nineties (around the time of the last BMI revision in 1998), the number of news stories about the so-called “obesity epidemic” increased exponentially, reaching a fever pitch in 2004. Check out the timeline chart on the top of the Google News results for “obesity epidemic”:

Frequency of "obesity epidemic" in news stories from 1990 - 2009, via Google

(I can’t find the chart, but I think this somewhat parallels, oddly, the average BMI increase in that same time period, which topped off in 2004 or 2005)

A recent example of the creation of a deviant group to take the brunt of the latest healthism/healthcare panic is the assertion that cases of diabetes are going to keep rising, with a concomitant soaring of costs. (h/t Andy Jo)

Blaming rising healthcare costs on us fatties is one way of covering one’s ass when one isn’t willing to institute any meaningful healthcare reform, just new entitlements.

This is case-building: so that when people are pissed off that healthcare costs haven’t dropped under a new system of entitlements, they direct that anger at some deviant group, rather than where it belongs — at the philosophy of entitlement with its false utopian vision, and the proponents of that vision.

I’ve said it before, and will say it again. When you make your body the financial business of your neighbor, get ready for your neighbor claiming the right to have say over your body. In other words, making healthcare a public financial burden makes your body public business, and thus erodes the most fundamental right of living in a free society.

This is merely the tip of the iceberg, folks. The government takeover of healthcare hasn’t even passed in the Senate, yet, and there’s already talk of reigning in costs by discriminating against particular groups of people, in this case a popular deviant group of the Healthistic moral: fat people. Do you think it’s going to stop at higher taxes for fat people, if that isn’t bad enough? I predict it will not: forced interventions, children being taken away from their parents, fat people being practically barred from some kinds of  employment, and the ultimate loss of the freedom to pursue happiness in the confines of liberty will be the end result of this government takeover of healthcare. And it will start with fatties, but it won’t end with us, because we are not the source of all healthcare-related ills.

Stay tuned. It’s going to be one helluva ride.

WSJ on Fat People: Many Greats in History

I have a few other feeds that I maintain, one which is a news feed. I’m very used to my news feed having little to do with fat in it (though when it does appear, it’s reasonably positive). But a Wall Street Journal piece poking fun at people who demonize fatties? It sounded too good to be true, but here it is:

Stop Picking on History: Throughout history the rotund have made the world go ’round

There are definitely problems with this piece, which reduce to the usual scienterrific myths about fatness. However — and I can’t stress how important this point is — is that the author, even accepting those myths, is telling people in a clever, funny way that picking on fat people is stupid and counterproductive. And he holds up a lot of great examples of fat leaders and artists — I have to say that, overall, it’s a very positive piece.

Because when it comes down to it, people can believe whatever they want about our health, but that shouldn’t have anything to do with how we’re treated. That’s what Queenan is going for: we’re respectable, hardworking, creative members of society that have done (and will do) great things. The idea that health has been braided into our moral fabric to such a degree is, in Queenan’s eyes (and rightly so), absurd.

What do you think?

When Other People Pay For It, They Can Claim the Right to Control It

I’ve said this several times before, but it bears repeating: when other people can make a reasonable argument that they are paying for the choices you make about your body (even if those choices are only perceived choices), then they can claim the right to have a say in your choices.

Take the furor over the Stupak amendment to the recently passed House healthcare bill. I was walking through Harvard Square last afternoon on my way to my weekly voice lesson, and there were congregated at the mouth of the stairs to the station a group of protesters, who desired to get the Stupak language stricken from the (potentially) reconciled House and Senate bill.

I didn’t stop; I’m rather used to Harvard Square protesters. Let’s just say they’re not a particularly rare occurrence.

But I couldn’t help shaking my head and thinking, as I descended the stairs into the station, how those pro-choice, body-freedom people on the left are finally discovering that the greatest threat to their personal choices and freedoms isn’t some corporation or private entity, but widespread government control.

I’ve long heard fauxgressives waxing philosophical about how greater government control at the federal level would loose certain states from fascist, body-controlling regimes. They claim that those who don’t want to use taxpayer dollars to subsidize abortions in some way are the extreme fringe social conservatives, who I agree are fairly nuts. But this goes way deeper than that. The abortion debate has never really been about fending off nutty social conservatives, in my opinion. And it’s not just about abortion as a choice; it’s a symbol for the much greater question of government control vs. body autonomy.

That question is at the center of the debate on government’s role in healthcare.

The Stupak amendment clearly illustrates that with few votes to pass it, late at night on a Saturday when most people aren’t watching C-SPAN (though I was, dammit), a large swath of your freedom can be subverted. And though the Stupak amendment didn’t go as far as banning abortion outright, it did quite plainly single out a behavior that was unpopular and discriminate against it.

In the free market, if there’s demand, there’s availability. In a controlled market, there’s a hell of a lot more white noise between demand and supply. It’s not enough that you and your neighborhood wants it, your representative has to want it, too. And then he’s got to be powerful enough that he can band up with other reps, who need to be part of a majority in the country. And that’s assuming that your reps are listening to you at all, and you’re not a lonely city in a gerrymandered district that is locked into political representation with which you fundamentally disagree.

In a free market, if you buy a boat and never use it, and you have a mariner neighbor who would love a boat but can’t afford one for whatever reason, that neighbor can’t blame you for his lack of a boat. However, in a system controlled by the government, there’s a single pie. If you take a bigger piece, you’re necessarily taking from somebody. So your mariner neighbor could claim that you did, in fact, diminish his ability to buy a boat. He might then be in favor of a law which only allows boats to be sold to mariners, since that would be his only recourse. In a free market, next season you might find out that they replaced expensive parts with less expensive parts, and turned out a model of boat that was more affordable, because they realized there was an untapped market for cheaper boats. Everyone wins.

In a free market, if I ruin my health due to various behaviors, my neighbor has no stake in it. If I get an abortion, it doesn’t affect my neighbor at all. If I eat ten steak-and-donut sandwiches a day and suck down more opium than oxygen, it doesn’t make a single bit of financial difference to my neighbor.*

The point of all of this is, those of you who really believe that giving government greater control over healthcare is going to give you more freedom over your body and health choices can take the Stupak amendment as a warning shot. And if you think they’re not going to come for the fatties next or soon, you’re dreaming. As soon as costs rise (and the projected healthcare spending as a percentage of GDP will rise if the current bills on the table pass), and people are getting taxed at higher rates, fined for not having acceptable coverage, or even thrown in prison with up to a fine of $250,000 for not having acceptable coverage, they’re going to clamor that costs can be forced down by regulating the behavior of those with perceived preventable conditions.

Healthcare reform isn’t a fantasy; there are real reforms that can be made which would make buying plans cheaper, give greater access, and yes, even help cover those who have slipped through the cracks, without shackling citizens to some bureaucracy with the threat of imprisonment if they don’t comply (though there’s certainly a larger Constitutional question in all that). But what’s being put forward by Reid and Pelosi isn’t healthcare reform. It’s a giant grab for power and a threat to your freedom to choose.

REFERENCES**

My Body, Their Choice – Reason.com

House Bill Increases Healthcare Costs – Politico.com

Listing the New Taxes in the Senate Healthcare Bill – Wall Street Journal

Mandatory Insurance is Unconstitutional – Wall Street Journal

Stupak Amendment Threatens the Rights of Every American – The Huffington Post

Rationing’s First Step – Investor’s Business Daily

* Those who assume the insurance system we have now is a free market system are way off the mark, so arguments about the current state of insurance risk-pooling are irrelevant. Additionally, the argument that the uninsured rack up hospital costs for the rest of us ignores that emergency rooms are required to treat those who can’t pay, which is government, not market, intervention.

** Please do not poison the well.

Benefit of Large Thighs – Study

There is a lot of interest swirling around the study that showed a larger thigh circumference may add years to one’s life.

To start, I want to remind everyone that the strongest predictor of your lifespan is the various lifespans of your parents, siblings, and grandparents.

To continue, I wanted to first link to the full text of the study itself. Please take a little time to read through this, take a look at the graphs, think about how the sampling changes based on what is being looked at (in other words, sometimes the author is only talking about the group of people who died during the study period, which instead of 3000 people, is closer to 300).

Another point is how the study is being marketed. A great example is this “caveat” tacked on to the end of an MSNBC article:

She was quick to add, however, that the study should not be interpreted as a free pass for people who want to skip the gym. In this case, much bigger was not better. The protective benefits of heftier thighs didn’t rise when thighs grew larger than 60 centimeters. “There’s no further advantage there,” Heitmann said.

This is the usual media/study author obesity-study-lie-by-omission (can’t give those fatties any reason not to loathe themselves, or for thinner people not to loathe the fatties). If you look at the charts in the original study, you’ll notice that though the supposed benefit is maximized at a thigh circumference of 60 cm, there is no marked decrease of benefit with larger thigh circumference. That is, at 70 cm one enjoys every bit of the benefit enjoyed at 60 cm.

However, I encourage you to come to your own conclusions about this study, based on the text itself. The text author is an out-and-out obesity researcher: his bread and butter is trying to show correlations to health indices based on weight, BMI, body fat, etc (just do a search for his name and institution on Google Scholar).

Washington Journal – Highlighting “costs” of obese existence

My husband and I like to watch C-SPAN’s Washington Journal on weekend mornings (yep, we’re nerds).

The moderator this Sunday morning decided to highlight a Pittsburgh paper’s front page story on the so-called extra costs of obesity: Obesity’s costs emerge as major concern

Of course, we all know that the obeses are merely being scapegoated as the reason the cost of healthcare has been on the rise for so long, and that nearly every major chronic disease is unfairly attributed to the scourge of the obeses. Age-related diseases especially (like heart disease, stroke, some cancers, and Type II diabetes, arthritis), which have been on the rise due to an aging population, have each been nearly fully attributed to the frothing, contagious, dangerous, zombie-like, obeses.

No one has really spoken about it yet — or taken the bait, if you will — though one caller had something to say about the provisions of the healthcare bill:

“I think the first mandate coming out of Congress would include the fact that members of the Congress would have to be insured by policies that those members make.”

I completely agree. If the Congresspeople want to scapegoat the obeses and the olds, then they themselves (some who are obese and/or old) should have to comply with every provision in standard policy they want for the rest of us. That is, if they’re looking to convert the sickness-care based healthcare system we have currently to a wellness-care based system, then they should have to be monitored, weighed, tested, poked, prodded, demeaned, death-marched, starved, etc with the rest of us.

(As an aside: though a wellness-based system might seem on its face a way to save money, in fact, it costs much, much more than a sickness-based system. While there are some diseases that can be prevented — smoking-related, sun-bathing-related, dysentery from bad water, spreading viruses from lack of basic hygiene, etc — the diseases and accidents in our modern age that cost the most money to treat aren’t a result of behavior/hygiene/and so forth, and hence can’t be prevented, even by the most fascist regime (unless we were just all chained to our beds…even then!). So switching to a wellness-based system won’t save much money off the bat, and then add the very high cost of many of these so-called “preventative programs” — the weight loss industry, as an example, rakes in $6 billion a year. Imagine that, plus inflated costs due to extra bureaucracy, plus extra since all those people who before chose not to take part in the industry would now be compelled to, coming out of our tax dollars instead. The mind boggles!)

Oh yes, and if you want to take a stab at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article in the comments here, please, be my guest! I think all the points have been neatly rebutted in different places all over the Fatosphere (and most eloquently, in my opinion, on Sandy’s Junkfood Science blog), but it’s always good to practice using one’s rational faculty.

Not Sorry for MeMe Roth

If you’ve been reading about the recent irrational statements by MeMe Roth like I have, you are likely not surprised. MeMe Roth has been featured on news shows as an “expert” on obesity, since she purportedly has a fat family and is herself thin (and conventionally attractive and young enough to appeal to the talking news-Barbies and -Kens).

I’ve been scanning through the comments on the wonderful posts about MeMe Roth’s telling comparison (overeating is like raping your own body) and disordered confession (she refuses to eat until she runs four miles, which at the time of the interview – 330pm – had not yet occurred), and I noticed a good bit of anger, as well as much pity.

Where do I stand, as a victim of abuse and recovering disordered eater?

Not. Sorry.

Why?

Because she’s hurting other people. If she kept it inside or amongst friends and family (though NOT children), I’d feel sorry for her. I really very truly would. But the idea that she goes on national television, lies consistently about her one-person “organization” so that she can pander her hate agenda in front of millions of people already damaged by the misinformation fed to them by a culture that worships thin, makes me very assuredly shed every last particle of pity I could potentially feel for MeMe Roth.

Regardless of what one’s issues are, and how they were obtained, one NEVER has the right to harm someone else. Psychopathy is no excuse for murdering souls. The idea that MeMe Roth (Meredith Clements) was ever given a informational platform in the first place lets you know how sick and fatphobic our media culture is. Sure, she was likely put on not because the journalists producing the shows actually agree with everything she says, but because she’s “good TV.” However, it’s not like they could put someone on who they thought the public would perceive as a total raving lunatic, and certainly not multiple times. That means that they themselves buy into at least some of her rhetoric.

And that, folks, is the scariest part of this whole mess. Get Meredith Clements off the screen and into counseling, please! I will never be sorry for someone who foists their issues onto others in such a destructive manner. We all have stories, but not one bit of what has happened to us gives us the right to hurt others.

Suspected suicide’s weight loss chronicled in articles

I guess there’s no situation left too sacred for trumpeting a before-and-after weight loss success story.

Not even when reporting on a suspected suicide.

The first few lines from HeraldTribune.com:

The family of a Winter Haven woman who apparently fell from a cruise ship issued a statement Monday saying they fear she took her own life.

And the last paragraph:

Raymond Seitz searched for his wife, the statement said, but could not locate her, so he and his mother-in-law notified ship security about 3:30 a.m. that she was missing.

The couple met in a weight-loss support group. Both had undergone bariatric surgery. She chronicled her weight loss journey for an Orlando TV station and for some time kept an online journal of her battle to lose weight and keep it off.

At one undated point in the journal, she said she was down to a size 10 from a size 28.

At the Garden Grove Oaks, Seitz’s neighbors in the well-kept mobile home park were hopeful she is alive.

The weight loss success story is tacked on the end, going into strange detail for a story about a suspected suicide. It’s at best an attempt to grope for a motive, and at worst a suggestion that her great life success had been getting “down to a size 10 from a size 28.” Wouldn’t that be something to have on your tombstone, eh? At any rate, it’s an illustration of how weight- and size-obsessed the mainstream media, and by extension, our culture, is.

Many of the stories I’ve read about this mentions her weight loss in some way. And the sadly ironic part of the story? Even if her self-hatred is what killed her, it’s the very mainstream media reporting her suicide that promotes the thin and fit ideology that makes someone of a larger size automatically a lesser kind of person.

From WESH Florida 2 News:

On the Web site obesityhelp.com, Seitz had dozens of entries.

One reads: “Had a minor breakdown this afternoon after taking a shower and realizing how scarred and gross my body looks right now.

From the Associated Press:

The couple met in a weight loss support group; both had undergone bariatric surgery. She chronicled her weight loss journey for an Orlando TV station.

She was also a freelance writer, having written articles for The Tampa Tribune, The Ledger in Lakeland, and an online article titled, “Battling the Bulge Onboard,” about how not to gain weight while aboard a ship.

There are many, many more.