I remember attempting to watch Super Size Me when it came on television. I say attempting because I couldn’t actually get through the documentary. I remember finding the entire thing utterly disgusting. I was living in Botswana, the only country I have lived in longer than the United States. Botswana did not even have a McDonald’s; they still don’t to the best of my knowledge. The incidence of relatively high poor populations in African nations may be a factor but indeed so is culture.
For many Africans, eating fast food is just not something most families grow up doing. And my parents being particularly healthy eaters who believe in home-cooked, sit-at-the-table family meals, were no different. Being Nigerian especially, where there is a running joke that Nigerian parents rarely eat out because, “there’s always rice and stew at home,” eating outside your home was considered a treat. Desserts were a treat. Soda was a treat. And although to some Americans, this may seem a bit “excessive,” food and how one approaches it is culturally informed as much as anything else.
Now I have lived away from Botswana for going on eight years, and most of those years have been spent in the United States Midwest. And in my initial years of moving here, I had not heeded to my parents food upbringing. I was on a college campus in a new country, with a slower metabolism partially because of differing school systems schedules. (In Botswana, I had finished my last senior year exam in October 2006. But I wasn’t to start university in the States until August 2007.)
I wasn’t eating fast food in the lay sense but I was eating without thinking. So much freedom to eat whatever I wanted. So much lack of knowledge about food production in the country. So much senselessness. It showed. When I visited family, they did not hesitate to inform me of this. Most Africans appreciate a strong set of thighs, and a plump derrière on women. But Africans, even those who can afford to, cannot be said to believe in “fat acceptance.” I think what many Americans would now refer to as daily occurrences of “fat shaming,” are not seen as such. (Even in South Africa which might be the only African country with an obesity problem.) Culture dictates reality and experience, doesn’t it?
In my junior year, I became a vegetarian, which lasted a few years. Now that I am more in charge of the food I purchase, prepare, and eat, I choose conscious-consuming as I call it. But I am also aware enough to know that I can make the choices I do because of education, access, and to a large extent, class privilege. And even when for a time you may unknowingly “rebel” against your parents upbringing (in my case to my detriment), I find myself making the same food choices my parents would, right down to eating Weetabix for breakfast. But in America’s fast food culture, these aren’t easy choices for anyone.
In the social sciences, McDonaldization, a term coined by sociologist George Ritzer, and is the process by which the society takes on the properties of a fast food restaurant – efficiency, standardization, calculated processes, etc. These all sound like good things, but the consequences as Ritzer and other scholars have noted, is that it becomes an irrational process where the human element is ignored and taste is not accounted for. We can see the consequences of fast food culture not just in how we eat, but how we work, how we make friends, and how we love. I do not mean to digress, but I have said it often and I usually say it about the devil incarnate, Monsanto, which greatly contributes to the poor state of food production in many parts of the world with GMOs and harmful systems – but if you can control food, you can control humanity.
In the United States, that control of humanity has manifested itself in bigger people. That is simply factual. Women are bigger and men are bigger. Obesity is said to be a bigger problem than hunger in the United States. Which to my African ears, sounds absurd until I put it in an intercultural context. The consequences of McDonaldization in society, combined with a food production system that puts profit above the health and wellness of its citizens, can only lead to a citizenry that is unhealthy in its practices and most likely overwhelmed or underwhelmed by its choices. It is not enough to hold individuals accountable, even when they bear some responsibility. But the society and the systems that provide the people its choices must too be held responsible for the environment they create. And we always judge any aspect of a society not by what is available to those who are better off, but firstly by it’s average citizen, and secondly, by it’s poor. The jury is out and the system is guilty.
Now when you have a society in which people are getting bigger and where food is plenty, social science tells us thinness is most likely to be privileged. Just like when you have a society where food is more scarce and people are thin, “being bigger,” becomes privileged. Of course, culture still informs this. For example, you’d be hard-pressed to find a person from the Masai people of Kenya and Tanzania, no matter how well-off, who desires anything other than a muscular slender body type. But in the United States for example, slender is privileged because it seems scarce. And because you can’t have privilege without having disadvantage, fat is shamed.
Now I will admit that I have never been fat. I am about half the size of the average American woman, if we take it for granted that the average American woman is a size 12. At my biggest, I still did not reach this average. So I cannot claim to understand the personal experience of what it’s like to be fat or fat-shamed. And without an intercultural lens, I may not even see fat-shaming or describe it as such. But with an intercultural lens, I am able to analyze how all the messages of society essentially boil down to: Fat is bad. Fat is ugly. You are ugly and bad if you are fat. In everywhere from the workplace to dating to everyday encounters, I can imagine that there are a great many negative experiences those who are fat have to face. And I can empathize. I can argue that scientifically our DNA does contribute to our health (not as much as other factors, but it still does). And indeed I can fundamentally understand the premise of a response to this negativity by creating a fat acceptance movement. But I am certain that response is not good for the society at large.
Of course I know this will rub some people the wrong way. Fat acceptance is supposed to encourage “body positivity,” and support notions that health and size do not correlate, and because this is America, ultimately, make people feel better. I say that last part not as a nasty comment but as an observation: Americans don’t like to “feel” bad. (Even when some observers would argue, they should, in order to create positive long-term outcomes.) And in as much as I find it problematic that we equate thinness to beauty, I advocate the reconstruction of our perceptions of bodies not as signifiers of beauty, but possible indicators of well-being, and not just to the naked-eye. Thus ultimately the fat acceptance movement does not encourage healthier bodies or healthier minds for that matter. I think it is taking on a polar opposite but nonetheless extreme position of the same problem.
In my conversations with medical professionals and health and wellness experts, the reality is you simply cannot be healthy at any size. That is not to say being thin automatically makes you healthy – because it doesn’t. And there are a host of problems in that corner of health and wellness as well. But to claim that fat acceptance is good for everybody or for the society at large, is to do the society the disservice of justification of unhealthy behaviors and lifestyles. Forget beauty. This is a matter of health. And it is a matter of food and food production and lifestyle and culture. It is easy to accept fat in this country because the culture ultimately makes it possible, even when it ironically makes it undesirable.
So where do we go from here? I, for one, do not have all the answers. But I do know that either extreme of society – fat acceptance and fat shaming, ultimately hurts the society. We need a society of healthy bodies, and we also need a society that is accepting of diverse healthy bodies. But we don’t need a society that lies to itself in any extreme. Like most big problems, no pun intended, they take individual consciousness as well as systematic change. It is easy of course too, to buy into false notions of health in a system where “organic” doesn’t always mean what you think it means, and people want gratification from health like every aspect of society, to be as easy as taking pills. If you take those falsehoods into consideration too, the problem almost seems insurmountable.
But faced with any problem, big or small, the key is to ask the right questions in order to find the appropriate solutions. And two questions that I keep coming back to are, “How do we create a society that is aware of its systems in order to demand better from it, so people of all backgrounds can make good choices? How do we create a society that understands diversity in healthy bodies but does not unhelpfully seek to make every body healthy?” We must look closely at the fast food culture, that as we well know, is not just a matter of fast food.