- Fat-Talk Nation: The Human Costs of America’s War on Fat by Susan Greenhalgh
It seems apropos that as I was finishing Susan Greenhalgh’s Fat-Talk Nation: The Human Costs of America’s War on Fat, when vlogger Nicole Arbour (2015) uploaded her rant, “Dear Fat People,” on YouTube and incited uproar across media platforms. Arbour called for people to practice “fat shaming” to “motivate” weightloss. Like many small media events that burst upon the public sphere and then fade, the Arbour incident was nonetheless emblematic of the deeper and more persistent issues around bodies, size, morality, and value that Greenhalgh expertly tackles in her recent book. Drawing on an underused anthropological approach, autoethnography, Greenhalgh focuses her keen ethnographic eye on the personal narratives and the local moral worlds her students shared with her about their bodies and their struggles with fat. In a down-to-earth, accessible style, this book systematically details the many costs and unintended consequences of America’s “War on Obesity.” Greenhalgh analytically draws on her students’ experiences to ask her readers to think beyond the individual stories to larger cultural and political issues that circulate about fat across the US. She asks readers to critically examine and then dispose of some of their most cherished explicit and implicit beliefs (or biomyths) about fatness, fat people, health, and citizenship.
Fat is an area of study with a history of research among biological anthropologists (Brewis 2010, Brown and Sweeney 2009, McGarvey 1991, Ulijaszek and Lofink 2006) and rich anthropological work on body size (Becker 1995, Gremillion 2003, Kulick and Meneley 2005, Nichter 2000, Popenoe 2004, Sobo 1994). Until recently, cultural and medical anthropologists have been late to take on fatness/obesity as a field of inquiry as [End Page 1285] compared to sociologists, psychologists, feminist scholars, and other fat studies scholars who have produced compelling literature on the biopolitics of fatness in North America. Greenhalgh’s book takes on such a task. Fat-Talk adds needed depth to the work in fat studies, which often lacks a critical understanding of culture or how people actually live with and think about food, bodies, and identity in everyday life. In analyzing the “war on fat” itself, Greenhalgh theoretically and ethnographically advances an important area that has been unevenly engaged within anthropology (Greenhalgh 2015). Following Greenhalgh and fat studies (Wann 2009), I use the term “fat” in this review over “obesity,” which is considered more objectifying and a tool of medicalization.
Greenhalgh begins Chapter 1 with a review of previous literature on fat, fat subjectivity, healthism, etc. She also introduces a set of terms: fat-talk, biocitizen, biomyth, biobullying, biopedagogy, etc. She has developed these terms based on her research and literature in the field, and she uses them to discuss fatness, bodies, popular renderings of scientific research, and the everyday practices of “health” in America. Greenhalgh’s real contribution lies not in her literature review, but in her next step: she reconciles and codifies past research findings with her own work in this volume to succinctly present six biomyths that underpin fat-talk. These biomyths are the following: 1) weight is under individual control, 2) parents or caregivers can control the weight of young people, 3) BMI is a good, reliable measurement, 4) obesity and overweight are not only risk factors for disease, they are diseases, 5) “normal” weight signifies good health and “abnormal” weight is associated with disease, 6) obesity and overweight cause a host of diseases that are serious and life threatening (30). A biomyth, per Greenhalgh, is an assumption about body, weight, and health based on cultural commonsense ideas that persist despite the contested status of many of these ideas in the scientific community (30). Building on social theory (Rose and Novas 2005), Greenhalgh fleshes out and contextualizes her use of the terms “biocitizen” and “biocitizenship” by linking them explicitly to healthism and the thin, fit body as the model to which citizens, as biocitizens, should aspire.
In Chapter 2, Greenhalgh contextualizes her research through an exploration of Southern...