Bruce Bawer is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
One of the curiosities of the cable network TLC – and this observation is hardly original with me – is that its program schedule has, for several years, included two popular series whose messages could not be more precisely antithetical. On My 600-Pound Life, now in its eighth season, Houston surgeon Younan Nowzaradan (“Dr. Now”) preaches to his morbidly obese pre-op patients about the vital importance of exercising and getting their eating habits under control. If they’re not able to prove to him that they’re sufficiently capable of long-term self-discipline, he won’t operate on them, and they’ll die – and he’s not above shaming and scaring them in order to get them to move their tochises. Meanwhile, on My Big Fat Fabulous Life, now in its seventh season, a young woman named Whitney Way Thore who’s pushing four hundred pounds seeks to inspire viewers with her determination not to let her Falstaffian dimensions keep her from leading a rich and fulfilling life – dating, dancing, partying, traveling, running in a footrace, participating in a fashion show, and designing a logo for a “No Body Shame” campaign. Yes, Whitney experiences setbacks – for example, a physical collapse that leads to an emergency-room visit and, in turn, to bleak news from a cardiologist – but she doesn’t let anything get her down. No, sirree!
Of course, you can’t have it both ways. Either you take seriously the menace posed by morbid obesity or you support the “fat acceptance” movement and the related field of academic Fat Studies, both of which deny that obesity’s a problem at all. It’s a question of plain fact coming up against an ideology that, in good postmodern fashion, has little regard for fact. It’s not unlike the transgender athlete thing: either you back M-to-Fs who want to compete as women, or you recognize this demand as a revolt against biology and a threat to women’s sports. In the same way, there’s no reconciling the medical perils of corpulence with an ideology that deems the truth “fatphobic.” In the year 2020, alas, it can be dangerous to voice objective truths, however well-established, that are at odds with an academically approved ideology and purported insensitivity to an academically anointed victim group.
Recent reports, then, that excessive flab may be a leading indicator of susceptibility to the novel coronavirus are problematic indeed. Here are the specifics so far: as Melissa Healy reported in the Los Angeles Times last week, two new studies, both out of New York University, show that young and middle-aged COVID-19 sufferers with high body-mass indexes (BMIs) are “twice as likely as their non-obese peers to be admitted to the hospital for acute care instead of being sent home from the ER.” They’re also nearly twice as likely to end up in the ICU. (Among patients over 65, interestingly, these distinctions disappear.) One of the studies suggests that Americans’ generous waistlines might help explain why COVID-19 illness and mortality statistics are “higher in the U.S. than in South Korea, China and Italy.” Meanwhile, the other NYU study concluded that the three “most potent predictor[s] of hospitalization for COVID-19” were (1) being over 75, (2) being between 65 and 75, and (3) exhibiting “severe obesity.” Persons in this last category, it turns out, are “more than six times more likely to be hospitalized” than thinner individuals. “Even a history of heart failure,” wrote Healy, “was less likely to land a COVID-19 patient in the hospital” than a major problem with paunchiness.
For most observers, these findings will merely confirm that – hello! – being exceedingly overweight is unhealthy. But Darci Thoune, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and a big name in the ballooning Fat Studies racket, has another angle. As reported by Campus Reform’s McKenna Dallmeyer, Thoune was fretting way back in early April that the global spread of the Wuhan virus would be bad news for persons of chunk – not because it’d kill them at higher rates, but because the tendency of some people to overeat while in lockdown would lead others to “shame” them for “not going to the gym, [for] eating ‘too much,’ for getting fat, and for not starving ourselves at the end of the world,” thereby fanning the flames of “fatphobia” and advancing the nefarious goals of the “diet culture.” Addressing fellow fatties on her blog, Thoune advised: “Your trauma is real. You do not need to suck it up. We need to seek solace and comfort where we can, and for some folx [sic; apparently this is how the word folks is spelled at institutions of higher education in Wisconsin] that solace and comfort will be in food. AND, THIS IS OKAY.” In short, treat the pandemic as an excuse to pig out.
Weighing in at Metro UK the other day, Mel Ciavucco, a feminist writer and self-described member of the “body positivity movement,” made the same argument. The lockdown, she revealed, has triggered her own long-suppressed angst about avoirdupois: “My thoughts sometimes run wild – what if I’ll never be able to get up the hill again? What if I eat all the food in my fridge in one go?….I wonder if anyone will ever find me attractive again if my belly swells even more, my arms wobble and my chins take over my face.” But she’s vanquished those worries. Her weight, she realizes, isn’t her problem. In fact, it’s not a problem at all. Especially during a pandemic! The idea that it’s a problem is the fault of – yes – the “diet culture,” which is insidiously designed to plump up the wallets of diet-industry CEOs. It’s that culture that’s the real problem – that culture, and the guilt and self-loathing it engenders among the seatbelt-extender set. Ergo, the best thing a chubby self-quarantiner can do for herself while in self-quarantine is to embrace the fact that weight gain, under the present circumstances, is “just your body adjusting to change. You don’t need to control it.”
And whatever you do while you’re binging guilt-free on cake and ice cream, don’t dare joke about it. On April 12, NRK’s Emrah Senel reported that Norwegian “body activists” Carina Elisabeth Carlsen and Wilde Siem have been calling out social-media users who jest about their own overeating and weight gain while in lockdown, using such terms as “corona body,” “corona kilograms,” and “quarantine fat.” This kind of language, Carlsen and Siem complained, attest to profound anti-fat prejudice and a “narrow ideal of beauty.” Amy McCarthy agrees. Writing in a magazine called Eater, she condemned the proliferation of comic memes “about gaining weight during quarantine,” calling them “body-shaming at its most insidious” and attributing them to – you guessed it – a “diet culture” that’s all wrapped up with “classism, body shame, and a multibillion-dollar industry that stands to profit from all of us deeply hating ourselves.” Keep in mind, McCarthy scolded her readers, that when you share weight-gain quips online “you let the fat people in your life know exactly what you think of them — that their bodies are disgusting, and you’ll do just about anything…to avoid looking like them.” In these unnerving times, McCarthy suggested, we should be “a little bit nicer to both our own bodies, and the bodies that we are told are not good enough.” Psychologist Renee Engeln preached essentially the same sermon in Psychology Today, cautioning readers to “think carefully” before posting lockdown-related gags about weight gain; such material, she warned, sends “a clear message to everyone whose body is bigger than yours – and it’s not a nice message. You’re using the bodies of people heavier than you as a punchline.”
The wet-blanket policing of weight-related drollery has become so widespread that there’s actually been pushback. In the Independent, Valentina Valentini wrote that she’d recently gotten flak on Twitter for a bit of levity to the effect that “I’m gonna get so fat self-isolating because I don’t know how [to] (or won’t) ration.” She noted that she’s not alone: “people like me are now being ‘called out’ en masse.” For example, “plus-size model” Tess Holliday “blasted people for talking about their potential weight gain in quarantine.” But Valentini refuses to be guilt-tripped into silence. Explaining that she’s fat herself (albeit “not fat enough for many in the body positivity movement”), Valentini asked: “Isn’t that what body positivity is all about anyway? Being able to objectively look at our own selves and say whatever we want about it?” Nope, not in this era of humorless, rigorously enforced groupthink. (And I’m speaking as someone whose ain’t exactly Calista Flockhart, either.)
While some fat activists have been slamming fat-shamers and would-be weight wits, others have been freaking out about the dread specter of fatphobic triage. As early as mid-March, some high-profile social-media users were spreading the apparently baseless rumor that “coronavirus patients with high body mass indices [were] being denied ventilator treatment” in the U.S. “I predict,” tweeted Lindo Bacon, “that in a year, doctors [will] point to higher death rate for fat people from COVID and say, ‘See? I told you so!’ BUT THEY ARE LITERALLY CAUSING IT NOW.” Who is Lindo Bacon? None other than the author of the 2010 book Health at Every Size, which popularized the extraordinarily irresponsible notion that weight has virtually nothing to do with health. Thanks to Bacon, the phrase “Health at Every Size” – which is a registered trademark, and is often shortened to “HAES” – has become a Fat Studies mantra. (Incidentally, Health at Every Size was written under the name Linda Bacon; the author – in what can only be considered a triumph of intersectionality – now identifies as a man, hence the name change.) Of course, the NYU studies of COVID-19 risk factors have underlined the already manifest absurdity of the “Health at Every Size” paradigm, making the current pandemic a deadly reality check for the professionally obese. If fat people do turn out to be overrepresented in the COVID-19 death statistics, then, it won’t be the fault of doctors but of people like Bacon herself, whose reckless writings have given 10XL types the green light to gorge themselves on goodies.
But will this reality check spell the end of Fat Studies and the “fat positivity” movement? Will it even cause a few of the movement’s leaders, such as Bacon, to slink in shame away from the lecterns and back to their fridges? Fat chance, given that, like other victim-group “studies” and “movements,” this whole fraudulent field never had anything to do with reality in the first place. Which means that, after this lockdown is over, Bacon and company – who know, after all, which side of their bread is buttered – will almost certainly resume telling the morbidly obese that nothing about them is their fault, that everything about them is beautiful, and that the only dark cloud on their horizon is the harsh voice of dietetic truth. We can only hope that in the wake of this quarantine, which is giving all of us a hefty helping of reality, at least some of the out-of-control eaters who’ve swallowed this swill will finally vomit it back up.