Weight stigma, citizenship and neoliberal democracy

Kathryn Hicks and Sharon Stanley argue that the contemporary moral panic around obesity emerges from and exacerbates neoliberal tendencies that diminish democratic institutions and imaginaries. Given historical associations between race, gender and fatness, the ostensibly neutral language of health deepens existing lines of democratic exclusion

Many contributors to this Science of Democracy series have called for greater focus on marginalised peoples. We write, therefore, in response. Here, we explore the complex relationship between the moral panic around obesity, neoliberalism, and deeply entrenched mechanisms of democratic exclusion.

Ultimately, we find that the civic denigration of fat subjects simultaneously emerges from and amplifies the neoliberal erosion of democracy. It reduces democracy to a politics of austerity, self-denial, and sacrifice.胼

Historical development of fat stigma

Fat was not always a preoccupation in European society. It emerged in the 17th century to maintain racial, class and gender hierarchies, with the rise of industrial production and mass-consumption and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Ethnographic accounts of non-Europeans and the public display of Saartjie Baartman, the 'Hottentot Venus', formed strong associations between fatness and racial otherness. Applied to Europeans, fatness was evidence of degeneration. In the context of slavery in the US, thinness was associated with Anglo-Saxon racial superiority. Early medicalisation of fat involved scientific surveillance and management of white womens bodies for racial reproduction.胼

Cultural notions of fatness as moral and aesthetic failure are a recent phenomenon, with their roots in 17th century efforts to maintain racial, class, and gender hierarchies

Cultural notions of fatness as moral and aesthetic failure were central to health-related discourses throughout the 20th century. These notions have culminated in the current war on obesity. During WWI, the US FDA produced propaganda to encourage food conservation for the war effort. Fatness demonstrated unpatriotic hoarding, and lack of capacity for self-control and full citizenship. The Progressive Era also marked the transformation of food into calories, the introduction of home scales and emergence of statistical links between body size and mortality.

By the mid-20th century, amidst anxiety over communism and the need for engaged citizens and fit soldiers, fatness had come to be viewed as an addiction rooted in psychological disorder and lack of self-control. This brief history underscores the longstanding relationship between anti-fatness and democratic exclusion.胼

Fatness and democratic exclusion

Despite sharp differences, liberal, republican, deliberative, and agonistic theories of democracy converge in requiring that participating citizens have particular civic capacities and dispositions. First, active citizens must lead independent lives. Second, active citizens must have the capacity for thoughtful reflection.狼hird, active citizens must express solidarity with others through an empathetic disposition or at least a formal recognition of their equal membership in the polity. 胼胼

Throughout the modern democratic era in Western states, these requirements have been weaponised along lines of race, gender and class to exclude members of disfavoured groups from full democratic rights.特till, informal exclusions from social membership persist along these lines.We argue that the contemporary depiction of fat subjects as 'lazy, gluttonous, greedy, immoral, uncontrolled, stupid, ugly, and lacking in will power' exacerbates these informal exclusions.

This cultural meaning of fatness interacts with neoliberalism to eviscerate democratic practices and imaginaries.胼

Democracy and fatness in neoliberal times胼

Our account of neoliberalism derives from Wendy Browns Undoing the Demos. For Brown, neoliberalism is a comprehensive 'governing rationality'. It applies competitive free market principles to all domains of human life, including non-economic domains such as romantic lives, parenting philosophies, and personal health and fitness. In every domain, people seek to maximise their competitive 'value' through rational self-investment.

Failure to do so indicates a severe failing of personal responsibility. Such failure produces feelings of shame and worthlessness while obscuring structural conditions that constrain the real possibility of individual self-transformation.

Citizens who detract from the neoliberal state's goal of GDP enhancement can be legitimately shed or sacrificed when necessary

In a collective context, the goal of the neoliberal state is 'GDP enhancement'. Citizens who detract from this mission through irresponsible personal behaviour 'can be legitimately shed or sacrificed when necessary'. Subjects deemed dependent, irrational, undisciplined, and greedy are most likely to fall into this category. 'Sacrifice' doesnt mean that people lose their formal citizenship status. Rather, the protective guarantees associated with legal citizenship can and will be stripped away in the name of economic necessity.

The expendability of citizens and the imperative to oversee economic growth at all costs are two pillars of neoliberal states. They create a permanent politics of austerity that pose an existential threat to genuine democracy. The demos loses its universal scope ('we the people') and its core attribute of sovereignty because the common good is predetermined as boundless economic growth.

Fatness and civic fitness

Fatness is central to contemporary neoliberalism in three ways

  1. Julie Guthman illustrates that although the obesity crisis is socially constructed, extreme exploitation, industrial food production and mass marketing make fat bodies more common;
  2. Fatness serves as a powerful visual indicator of civic unfitness;
  3. Despite the apparently neutral focus on body weight as a health concern, the racial, gendered and class meanings of fat mean that it can be used as implicit reference to and amplification of other stigmatised identities.

As Rachel Sanders argues, a recurring focus in public health on disproportionate fatness among black women helps maintain these associations. It reinforces the precarious citizenship of women and people of colour.胼

Perfect health can never be achieved, and so the neoliberal imperative to maximise our value demands our perpetual vigilance, foreclosing political engagement and democratic imagination

Susan Greenhalgh illustrates these dynamics in her study of young people in California who came of age during the war on obesity. Constant institutional surveillance of bodies leads people to view their BMI as both individually controllable and fundamental to identity. Even many in the normal BMI category take on a fat-subject position. They are consumed by constant efforts to lose weight, and become depressed and socially withdrawn when these efforts fail.

Perfect health can never be achieved. Perpetual vigilance and management, of oneself and others, is therefore necessary. The neoliberal imperative to maximise our value as human capital forecloses political engagement and democratic imagination. Many people face constant exclusion based on body size. Many also come to internalise and accept their own unworthiness to make political demands. By so doing, they reinforce this empty view of democracy.

We therefore argue that intersectional, critical fat studies, and fat activism are essential components in making explicit and challenging the logic of neoliberal democracy.

No.99 in a Loop thread on the science of democracy. Look out for the  to read more in our series

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Contributing Authors

photograph of Kathryn Hicks Kathryn Hicks Associate Professor, Interim Chair, University of Memphis More by this author
photograph of Sharon Stanley Sharon Stanley Professor, University of Memphis More by this author

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