Last week I wrote a post in response to the article Fat City, by Dr Karen Hitchcock, an article which has been described as compassionate and courageous. The use of the term ‘courage’ is popping up a lot and I want to talk about why it’s not an appropriate word, and I’ll use her essay as an example.
Dr Hitchcock is a physician working in a bariatric practice, though not a bariatric surgeon herself, as I understand it. She is also author of a book of short stories, and seems to be interested in using her medical experience for her literary career. Her article Fat City is one result, which chronicles her time working in a bariatric clinic dealing with obese and morbidly obese patients who are being considered for weight loss surgery.
Now, I’m not sure how experienced a doctor she actually is, as an article she wrote in 2012 describes her journey to find a specialisation to settle into – in that essay, she eventually chose general medicine. In 2012 she was a registrar, which means she hasn’t yet qualified as a specialist. Yet, here she is one year later, writing a lengthy piece about the obesity epidemic, from the position of an expert in the field.
Despite its patina of compassion, the essay is extraordinarily mean spirited. Dr Hitchcock spends a lot of time discussing how ugly fat is, and how society will never accept fat people as beautiful, as though that has any bearing on the medical consequences of fat. She also pretty much accepts the notion that obesity and morbid obesity are the consequence of people scarfing down junk food. She compares this behaviour to her own ability to lose weight easily, just from putting down her fork.
In other words, what she dishes up is the standard, popular idea of obesity as a failure of willpower by ‘them’, the others. ‘They’ are ugly, smelly and lacking in self discipline. ‘They’ do not exist as human beings embedded in any kind of context.
Contrast this with the work of two Canadian obesity specialists, Dr Arya Sharma and Dr Yoni Freedhoff, who are both regular bloggers. They are genuine, long-established experts in their field and one thing they are both acutely aware of is how stigma affects their patients. They’re also aware that ‘obesity’ is not one thing, and may see weight stabilisation as a worthy goal, rather than weight loss to reach some socially-prescribed ideal. In their writings, their patients are real people, who are active participants in their treatment. In Dr Hitchcock’s world, patients are ‘them’ – caricatures of flesh who don’t really have any existence apart from their gargantuan adipose tissue.
So what’s my point?
It’s that Dr Hitchcock has expended more than 5,000 words (many of them in highly literary combinations) to present a stereotype of fat people. What she’s offered up is pretty much what any commenter on any article about obesity offers – that ‘they’ should just put down the fork. Eat less, move more. Simples. And that ‘they’ are costing ‘us’ (virtuous, non-fat people) lots of money.
This kind of tired thinking should never have been able to reach such a prominent platform. Yet not only was the piece published, but commenters and letter writers lauded it as ‘courageous’:
This subject has been examined intensively in the lay and scientific press in the past decade but the unpalatable and unvarnished truth has seldom if ever been exposed as clearly as this.
(From a letter to the editor.)
It’s exactly the reaction that Nick Ross got when he said that rape was ‘complex’ and that ‘rape isn’t always rape’. Read the comments on the many articles about it – people saying that here, finally, is someone with the courage to say the truth.
What’s going on is that writers like these give people permission to embrace stereotypes. They rebuild a comforting old-fashioned world where women really are gold diggers, women really do cry rape for no reason, fat people really are gluttons who need to be scolded and shamed, and headscarf-wearing immigrants really are all just terrorist incidents waiting to happen. They reinforce entrenched power structures. It’s full-on permission to be narrow minded and indulgent – and that’s always a tremendous psychic relief. It makes the world simple again. It makes us secure in our self righteous positions. It reinforces privilege.
So what would real courage look like? Real courage is saying the unpalatable. It’s whistle blowing. It’s speaking truth to power and taking blows on behalf of the marginalised and the oppressed. Real courage is Turkish journalists willing to go to jail for reporting the truth, or Greek journalists being harassed for revealing the rotten heart of power. That’s courage.
This other stuff is just entertainment. Of a particularly nasty sort.