On being heartless

The battle of the bulge is back in the headlines in New Zealand as we head to the polls to elect our next government. This was kicked off by One News story about Uaina Pupulu, a super fat man, who allowed cameras to follow him for over a year as he moved from his family home to a nursing home for weight loss care (the story notes that the District Health Board was involved, but it is unclear if he and his family made this decision themselves, or if this was a forced intervention). He decides to have weight loss surgery with hopes he can return home after addressing his issues with physical mobility.

Uaina Pupulu

Uaina self identifies as being addicted to food, and “ate his way” to 300kg; the narrative bellies into the trope that the act of feeding is a love style in South Pacific cultures. The story speaks to his limited physical mobility, and attributes his health issues (like diabetes) to his weight. He is understood to be a burden on his family, and a burden on the larger society. His wife cries as she speaks of the neglect to their children as the family has been focusing on his needs; his teenage son tells of the harrowing experience of having to lift his father off the shower floor after a fall. His bariatric surgeon speaks to the resource cost of having the equipment in the hospital to be able to provide care to super fat patients.

The next morning, National leader Judith Collins was invited to comment on the piece and she responded that obesity was a matter of personal responsibility. When I was invited to speak to Collins’ comments on NewstalkZB later that day, my aim was twofold. First, to note that Collins is simply reproducing the same neoliberal line that conservatives have been using for decades: fat people are fat because they make bad choices and they deserve the bad things that happen to them. Not our problem or responsibility. Before you begin thinking that liberals are any better, I assure you this isn’t the case. From the left we get a paternalistic fatphobia: Fat people are fat because they are unable to make good choices; poor fatties just don’t know any better or cannot afford better food or to exercise.

The paternalistic attitude in action can be found in the Uaina Pupulu story on One News, thanks to the contribution of Professor Boyd Swinburn. Swinburn insists that New Zealanders are getting fatter and yet the country is not doing anything to address what he frames as the ‘obesity epidemic’. Swinburn acknowledges the negative stereotypes associated with fatness and suggests that individuals are not responsible for their food choices (and resulting fatness) in the current environment. He speaks to the cost of fast food vs the cost of fresh food, the advertising of fast food, and the number of fast food outlets found in lower income communities.  While rejecting the neoliberal positioning of fatness as a result of fat people making bad choices, he instead adopts the paternalistic positioning of fatness as a result of fat people being unable to make good choices. Professor Swinburn has made several media appearances since the remark from Collins, and he keeps pushing her to explain the “global collapse of willpower” that has led to increased rates of fatness around the world in the past several decades.

As I try to dodge the additional news coverage, the fatphobic messages continue to seep through my shields and I hear the common messages we always hear about fatness. Fatness is bad. We are too fat. Who will think of the children?!

An image from The Simpsons: The pastor’s wife is clasping her hands and pleading, “Won’t somebody please think of the children”

What has been absent from the narratives in the media is that when we talk about obesity, we are talking about fat people. People. Your fat family members, your fat friends, your fat neighbors, your fat members of Parliament. These are people we are talking about, not a talking point or a political football. A war on obesity is a war on fat people.

A screenshot from NewstalkZB

Which brings me to my second purpose in responding to Collins– and what really mattered to me as a superfat person, Fat Studies scholar, and fat activist – which was to highlight how heartless her response was. Uaina allowed us into his life to share his experience – and the bravery that takes, knowing that he will be met with disgust and scorn, is incredible. But his bravery is ignored. As is his pain. His very humanity is overshadowed by his physical size for Judith Collins. She pays him no attention in her rhetoric; not his pain, his needs, his life. Only his size is relevant as a talking point. It is heartless to be confronted with a person who is in pain, physical pain, emotional pain, spiritual pain, and to have no empathy for them.

The One News story relies heavily on dehumanizing imagery of Uaina; we see him being negotiated into an ambulance, as he makes his way to a nursing home for care. At the nursing home, we see his naked body being washed by a carer. When he travels to see the anethestis, his wheelchair cannot fit through the office door (and the it breaks under the stress of his size). He is shown only as his bulging abdomen during the surgery, with laparoscopic tools impaling him and amputating his stomach.

The dehumanization of fat people by the media is common; fat activists even have a name for the image that usually accompanies stories about fatness: headless fatties. The headless fatty is the fat person who is presented without heads, often only as a bulging abdomen. Take a look at most of the stories in the news about this very story, and that’s what you’ll see as the cover image or used as b roll. These images dehumanize fat people, which contributes to fatphobia and fat oppression. Politicians, talking heads, and lay people, alike can share their opinions and thoughts about fatness without ever thinking about fat people because we have stripped them of their humanity.

In stripping away their humanity, fat people become less than human: they become a problem to solve. And many believe the solution to this problem is amputation. Like many, Uaina makes the decision to be amputated; many super fat people see this as their only way to humanity. The bariatric surgeon in the piece, Dr. Richard Barbor suggests they do around 150 bariatric surgeries a year at Auckland Middlemoore hospital; there are approximately 600 people on the waitlist. He argues, “Unless we do something about it, they are going to have short and miserable lives”. The “they” he speaks of is assumed to be fat people. The evidence to support his statement is unclear. Others have made similar claims; perhaps most famously were Dr. William KIish of Texas Children’s Hospital and scholars Jay Olshansky and David Allison.

Dr. Klish told the Houston Chronicle in 2002, “If we don’t get this epidemic [of childhood obesity] in check, for the first time in a century, children will be looking forward to a shorter life expectancy than their parents”. When he was asked by the Center for Consumer Freedom for the evidence to support his claim, he had to admit that it did not come from any evidence, but his gut. Three years later, Jay Olshansky, David Allison, and colleagues published a piece in the New England Journal of Medicine that claimed obesity would cause, “youth of today may, on average, live less healthy and possibly even shorter lives than their parents”. The scholars did not provide evidence beyond their “collective judgement”. When pressed for evidence for an article in Scientific American, David Allison hedged, “These are just back-of-the-envelope, plausible scenarios…we never meant for them to be portrayed as precise”. I’m not planning to ask Dr. Barbor for the evidence that supports his claim, but who wants to guess that it’s his collective judgement (or maybe his gut) speaking, rather than empirical evidence?  

A screenshot from RNZ

 In the days since the initial interview, Collins has doubled down on her message: fat people are weak people and need to take responsibility for their fatness. Anything negative they experience due to their fatness is their own fault. Various news outlets are running stories about additional comments made by Collins, and the responses from other politicians, including the Prime Minister, about whether they believe fat people are irresponsible and weak (all of the responses given can be categorized into the neoliberal or paternalistic buckets; all of them accept the framing of the question that fatness is a problem to be solved, and to solve a problem, you need to understand the origin(s)).

A screenshot from The Guardian UK

It’s all fatphobic nonsense to me, as the real question is not whether fat people are responsible for their fatness, but how can we as a society ensure that fat people have equitable access to healthcare, to employment, to housing, to clothing they love, and hobbies they enjoy? How can we ensure that fat people are allowed their full humanity in New Zealand? Which party will commit to amending the Human Rights Act of 1993 to include physical size? That’s a question worth asking each political party this election season.