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Time Bomb: Youth, Health, and Lifestyle in the Aftermath of the Childhood Obesity “Epidemic”
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To set the problem in these terms is to imagine a different sense in which vital phenomena, in their multiplicity and indeterminacy, are political.... At stake for policy in this hypothesis is not only the distribution of scarce medical resources, but the distribution of claims to rationality in speaking on matters of health.

Monica Greco “The Politics of Indeterminacy and the Right to Health

Obesity’s Veracity and the Politics of Knowledge

During what are often called the golden and silver ages of comic book production—the period spanning the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s in which characters like Superman, Batman, and Captain America became icons of graphic heroism—a small publisher called the American Comics Group invented a character named Herbie Popnecker whose superhero alter ego, the “Fat Fury,” could not have more flagrantly perverted the notion of superheroes as the charismatic saviours of nation and community. Investing the character with an arbitrary mélange of supernatural abilities, including the ability to fly, speak with animals, and render himself invisible, Ogden Whitney draws the Fat Fury as a rotund, somnolent boy who is widely stigmatized for his body size. The first pages of the issue of Forbidden Worlds where writer Richard Hughes created Herbie sets the superhero up as the antithesis of national vigour, hegemonic masculinity, and capitalist progress. The opening scenes represent a pta meeting in which a figure of authority—a comptroller, principal, or public lecturer—is explaining that boys in particular are the “leaders of tomorrow” (O’Shea 17). What we need, the pedagogue exclaims, are “Real boys … boys of action, boys who are always out doing things!” Herbie’s father takes the diatribe to heart and laments after the meeting to his wife that, while there are so many “men who make America great,” all they have is their indolent son Herbie (O’Shea 19).

Throughout its run, the Fat Fury comics revolved around bizarre scenarios in which the eponymous hero takes on enemies terrestrial, extraterrestrial, astral, and geopolitical using the unlimited genetic powers he augments by eating magical lollipops derived from “the Unknown.” Beneath layers of zany comedy and absurdist irony, however, Hughes’s comic also gestured to the inescapable banality of fat phobia that was renewed as part of the cold war American militarism which sought to celebrate the fictive unity of a patriarchal state. This is nowhere more evident than in the inaugural issue: Herbie’s father leaves the pta meeting despondent but arrives home angry and ashamed. He surveys the neighborhood and, seeing svelte boys in active play, turns to confront his son. Incensed with seeing him sitting sedentary on a chair, staring vacantly into the middle distance (today one might worry that Herbie is preoccupied by Facebook or a gaming console), the father chides our hero for being a “little fat nothing” and orders him outdoors, where, unsurprisingly, he is berated and banished by the boys whose normative masculinity inspired loathing and longing in his father.

No doubt Herbie was hiding in his home from precisely this sort of caustic weight prejudice, but his father, impelled by the idea that masculinity is made by risking the body in performance and that real boys are ones whose embodiment mimics the gusto of entrepreneurs, innovators, and athletes like the legendary ballplayer “Stan the Man” Musial, cannot control his temper at his obese son’s apparent inability to “do anything.” What is the cause of the father’s indignation? And, more importantly, what does Herbie represent, and why is he outcast? Herbie’s transgression is self-abnegation: rather than performing the kinds of exercise made redundant by his unsurpassed superpowers, the boy remains a “little fat nothing” in his father’s eyes, because he seeks refuge from the pervasive jingoistic valorisation of self-discipline as a quality written on the male body. The deeply gendered discourse of civic responsibility Herbie’s family is forced to face is one in which the vitality of a country is wedded conceptually to the fitness and physical capacity of its citizens.

The Fat Fury is, in other words, a figure that anticipates the contemporary crescendo of state-focused anxieties regarding the fat child in public discourse. In this...



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