Yuck! Buerk! Igitt! Bleah! ¡Puag!
|BBC News reports that discrimination against fat people may be subconscious.|
"They found, for some people, the sight of obesity sparked strong subconscious reactions, such as disgust.Hmm. Now I would hate to be so arrogant to think I know my evolution and human behaviour better than some experts in the news. But perhaps my old friend Charlie has more standing;
"In Tierra del Fuego a native touched with his fingers some cold preserved meat which I was eating at our bivouac., and plainly showed utter disgust at its softness; whilst I felt utter disgust at my food being touched by a naked savage, though his hands did not appear dirty."Mr Savage is grossed out by an unfamiliar food product that appears to be raw meat, and therefore knows - because he's been taught it or learned from experience - is unhealthy to eat. Meanwhile, Darwin is disgusted because of an entirely learned prejudice against a man whose skin colour and dress is differenet from his own. Darwin's disgust is less rational, but both men are making a mistake.
Disgust is deeply felt but it is extremely difficult to work out what is learned socially, what is learned through experience and what is instinctive. We just don't know; so far, we have not been able to solve this nature vs. nurture conundrum on even those substances which pose a real hygiene hazard. You'd think our disgust for feces is so fundamental that even before a rudimentary understanding of bacteria, nobody would shit in the same river from which they took their drinking water. And yet, if you care for a baby, you cannot afford to throw up at the sight and smell of poo or vomit (and most babies don't seem to care at all). Similarly with blood if you are a woman.
And people with prejudice attempt to provoke the most visceral response. In the olden days (I don't know - the 1950s?), Continental Europeans were supposed to to stink of garlic and Central Asians were supposed to reek of curry - back when these smells were so unfamiliar to Britons that they caused revulsion. Foreigners of all variety have been cast as having poor general hygiene and it's only weeks since I most recently heard the urban myth about dogs and cats being found in the refrigerator of a Chinese Takeaway.
It is even argued that the principle purpose of dietary restrictions within religious groups was tribal cohesion; if you are taught that cabbage (or whatever) is unclean, for example - and the word unclean is the one so often used - when you meet a group of people who eat the stuff, you will probably think them a revolting bunch and won't wish to run off and join them.
The same applies to sexual practices; homophobes seem totally preoccupied with anal sex and demonstrating what a revolting practice that is. Famously, VD used to be known as the French Disease, the English Disease, the German Disease and so on, depending on which European country you were in. In Lady Chatterly's Lover, anal intercourse is referred to charmingly as in The Italian Fashion. And how many relatively poor rural populations are reputed, by their wealthier neighbours, to have sex with sheep or other domestic animals? It's all a big joke now, but it is a joke which works with disgust for the other.
So if you think about the stereotype of a fat person - I mean the really hateful one - size is just one small aspect. You're going to have to excuse me here while I say things I don't mean;
A fat person is unwieldy, an unstable mass, without grace or composure. She takes up all the space, lolloping along, causing vibrations through the ground and threatening to knock down buildings and squish passers-buy. Her clothes don't fit well, and despite her attempts to constrain her bulk, there are lumps and bumps and bubbles of pale flesh protruding at unsightly angles. A fat person sweats a lot and, because she doesn't care about such things and doesn't wash very often, she smells rather badly. Naturally, she has an extraordinary diet, eating more than would make you or I throw up, but always disgusting foods; she eats lumps of lard in chocolate sauce or an entire chicken with all it's insides intact, all in one sitting!An innate fear of infection? I don't think so. The only reason I feel the need to be so explicit about this - and so very horrible - is to prove that the disgusting bits are all complete bullshit. An obese person can move gracefully and wear clothes that fit. She does not smell bad and most likely eats the same sort of things as everyone else. It is only when people respond to a big person as a stereotype that they experience disgust.
Beside which, there is a also the compelling fact that we are not completely grossed out by underweight catwalk models. An unhealthily low body mass index, as well as the symptoms of malnutrition which these ladies may exhibit are far stronger indicators of infectious disease that excess weight. Excess weight may imply disease, but where it does, this tends to be some long-term glandular malfunction as opposed to anything contagious. It seems that cultural reactions to weight - including those covering such things as seemingly basic as sexual attraction and disgust - vary significantly. This is not about instinct.
The reason I'm so motivated by this is because there is little difference between the way we look at bodies affected by obesity and those affected by different sorts of impairment. This is a subject coincidentally covered by Wheelchair Dancer who reviews an article about a ballet troupe made up of obese dances (who apparently "thump gracefully across the floor").
But I'm also concerned that the thing which we are failing to learn about prejudice is that it can be profound and feel like instinct, but this does not mean this isn't something we can and ought to address.