Thinking through the Human Condition: Arendt and Anthropology
Common wisdom has it that the U.S. now faces an “obesity epidemic.” Ample statistical evidence would seem to support this claim. According to recent research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, sixty-eight percent of adults, and thirty-two percent of children and adolescents, qualify as obese or overweight as determined by the Body Mass Index (BMI). The BMI is the biomedical measure of “healthy” and “unhealthy” weight currently employed by most doctors, researchers, educators, and policymakers in the U.S. (and a growing number of other countries).
The public health response to this state of affairs, initially launched by Surgeon General C. Everett Koop in 1997, has been promoted as a “war on obesity” or a “war on fat” that echoes the militaristic rhetoric of other governmental campaigns (against poverty, drugs, and terror[ism], for example). This war effort has consistently conceived of obesity as a medical abnormality or disease that can be remedied through concerted social and political intervention. Health professionals and policymakers have regularly enjoined Americans to diet and exercise so that they might achieve—and then maintain—a normative body weight and shape. In addition, political figures like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and First Lady Michelle Obama have publicly thrown their support behind measures that encourage healthy eating and regular physical activity.
Public reactions to the war on fat have varied a good deal. Most of its advocates argue that the campaign is a necessary response to a serious threat to the nation’s health and health care system, while some of its detractors contend that, at its extreme, it unduly interferes with individual Americans’ ability—or right—to eat, drink, and otherwise attend to their bodies as they find appropriate. Other critics focus on what I consider to be a more significant issue: the lived consequences of the war on fat, particularly for those young people who are its main targets.
To my knowledge, Hannah Arendt never directly engaged with the state’s role in the biomedical health of society and polity, but I suspect that she would have regarded the current campaign with skepticism. If her essay “Reflections on Little Rock” is any indication, she would be troubled by the ways that today’s children and adolescents are being asked to scrutinize their food choices and physical activity and thus bear the burden of a public health problem that ultimately derives from this country’s political economy of food production and consumption. In addition, she might well insist that children are “first of all part of family and home” and should therefore be shielded “against the demands of the social and the responsibilities of the political realm” (pp. 241-242 in The Portable Hannah Arendt). Indeed, she might even consider the war on fat to be a troubling infringement on parents’ private right to “bring up their children as they see fit” (p. 242), a right to which they are entitled even if they fail to conform to society’s prevailing conventions and customs.
This line of argument certainly possesses its own consistency and coherence. But I would suggest that it remains open to question on two (if not more) counts. First, it implies that young people’s diet and exercise are ultimately matters of private discretion in a fashion that is troublingly close to some industry objections to the war on fat. It thereby offers little basis to challenge the ways that corporate “big food” has invoked individual choice to defend dietary habits and tastes that it has not merely cultivated, but profited from handsomely. Second, and more broadly, this line of argument proposes a sharp distinction between public and private that prevents us from grasping the ways that young people—whether we like it or not—are implicated in larger political debates and struggles. Moreover, it does not really equip us to grasp how public discourse, including government-sponsored injunctions to diet and exercise, can mold individual sentiments, attitudes, and sensibilities.
This last issue is a central concern in anthropologist Susan Greenhalgh’s article “Weighty Subjects,” which appears in the most recent issue of American Ethnologist. Much of Greenhalgh’s argument turns on her analysis of student essays written for “The Woman and the Body,” a lecture course she taught at the University of California, Irvine from 1995 to 2011. Inspired by Michel Foucault’s work on governmentality and bio-power, Greenhalgh argues that the ultimate product of the war on fat is not a large number of thinner, fitter bodies, but rather a great deal of intimate and public “fat talk.” Such fat talk either instructs heavyset people about how they can attain a normative body or else derides their “excessive” weight as a mark of personal shame and failure.
In Greenhalgh’s analysis, this pervasive stream of fat talk induces all too many young women and men to adopt a “fat” subjectivity, even if they do not formally qualify as obese or overweight according to the BMI.
Building on a close reading of several students’ essays, she asserts that these “fat subjects” come to treat their weight as an essential component of their selfhood and social (un)acceptability. They engage in forms of exercise, dieting, and more extreme self-denial that may result in some temporary weight loss but which often pose major health risks in the long run. And they internalize the moralizing idioms of fat talk to the point where they ultimately hold themselves responsible for their weight and their frequent inability to achieve a normative body. Fat talk and the larger war on fat thereby resonate with the broader neoliberal turn in American public life, which holds individual self-governance, not industry regulation and other structural measures, as the preferred response to pressing social problems.
In sum, Greenhalgh’s objections to the war on fat ultimately rest not on the notion that local, state, and federal government is intervening (illegitimately) in a realm of private decision-making, but rather on the evidence that the preoccupation with obesity is creating significant emotional suffering for a considerable number of people. Like many other anthropologists, she thereby underscores how the political realm does not merely impinge on intimate senses of self and personhood, but actually works to produce them.