I recently had a debate with someone very close to me. The topic was body positivity. My friend and opponent, a feminist.
A disclaimer: I’m not against the body positivity movement per se. If “body positivity movement” is taken to refer to using healthy alternatives to challenge the ludicrous body standards promoted by many media and fashion organizations, you can count me on board.
However, more and more I’m seeing body positivity being used to celebrate unhealthy body types – specifically, obese bodies. How, I asked my friend, can you justify such celebration?
Because, she said, celebrating an obese body is a slap in the face to the patriarchy. The patriarchy, after all, is responsible for creating such body standards, and so by refusing to conform to them one makes a radical and positive statement.
I mulled over her response, but I wasn’t convinced. Indeed, my friend’s response would only make sense if empowering women is the only important thing in the world. To a feminist, empowering women is the most important thing in the world, and, thus, for many feminists, seeing an obese woman celebrate her body is an unquestionably good thing.
But I’m not a feminist. Not because I take issue with the majority of feminist ideas, but because I’m wary of all “isms”. Indeed, strict conformance to any body of beliefs (or ideology) often results in warranting what are, by virtue of common sense, ridiculous conclusions.
For example, utilitarians (for whom the principle “the greatest good for the greatest number” guides all moral decision making) have a notoriously hard time arguing against slavery. The argument runs like so: it could be the case that by enslaving, say, ten percent of the population, the benefit conferred to the remaining 90 percent would outweigh any suffering experienced by those enslaved, and thus, slavery can be permitted.
Similarly, for Marxists, class conflict is thought to be the most significant aspect of human life and key to understanding all human history and behaviour. Though any good theory can be illuminating (gains were, after all, made through Marxism, if only its providing the jargon for much of modern economics), such a narrow view excludes many other important factors – such as ideas, culture, and other aspects of what Marx called the “superstructure” that are just as, if not more, important to the course of society.
The point I’m trying to make is that, when theory is confused with reality, we can end up in some very strange places. The world is infinitely complex. Ultimately it consists of trillions and trillions of interactions between sub-atomic particles. Physics, though by no means complete, offers our best current understanding of reality. Everything else – from chemistry, through biology, through psychology, through sociology, through politics, and so on – relies of some amount of generalisation and simplification.
Theories which deal with the macro world, such as feminism, Marxism, and utilitarianism, should not be taken as all-encompassing descriptions of reality. They are theories, and they are as limited as we can expect such human creations to be. As creatures living in the macro world, I think it’s important that, every now and again, we take some time to consider this fact. No current theory offers a complete description of reality; they only offer us more or less useful perspectives.
Returning to body positivity, the feminist perspective stated by my friend is just that – a perspective. And it is a limited one. The reality of promoting obesity includes health factors (in my own country, obesity already places a huge strain on the NHS, and causes an estimated 300,000 deaths per year in the United States); moral factors (promoting an unhealthy lifestyle could, in a very real way, increase suffering and death); environmental factors (Western consumption places a huge strain on the environment – promoting obesity will only increase these pressures); economic factors (we live in a world with scarce resources and widespread global poverty – with that in mind, flaunting obesity seems to be both irresponsible and cruel); social factors (families and friends will not be untouched by a relation’s obesity); corporate responsibility factors (do companies have consumers’ best interests at heart when they run campaigns that promote obesity?); normative factors (is making a particular demographic feel comfortable more important than the damage done by that that demographics’ lifestyle choices?); and even feminist factors (celebrations of obesity are largely conducted by, and aimed at, women, and it is women that will, on a personal level, suffer the greatest consequences); as well as many more besides.
Obesity is a problem – that I strongly believe. So, whilst celebrating female obesity may be a slap in the face to the patriarchy, can we really accept all of the baggage that such a victory brings along with it? And, more generally, isn’t there some more nuanced way to view the world than through the black-and-white lens of some established “ism”? Wouldn’t it be better to embrace the world in all of its complexity, accept that certain theories can help us address certain problems, and remember that progress will depend on entertaining more than one perspective? Wouldn’t that mean that we’d reach conclusions that are a little less crazy?