Tuesday, July 31, 2007

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.

The Evolution and Human Behaviour study suggests this is part of a deep-seated behavioural reponse [sic.] designed to help detect and avoid those with infections."

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.


Ruth said...

I just read Wheelchair Dancer's post. Excellent. I'd like to add a comment about how people seem to get stuck on this issue regarding disability- don't mean to ignore the obesity issue but I feel strongly about this.

I've seen heated arguments where AB people say that feeling "repulsed" by disability (and I suppose they would add obesity) is a "normal" reaction which they have to take energy to cope with and so they avoid being around disability to protect themselves. They go to great lengths to describe,in detail, how they feel repulsed, disgusted, etc. But what I haven't heard them talk about are ways to resolve their issues (which, by the way, I consider to be their issues). Nor are they very open to hearing about my experiences as the subject of their "repulsion" - they dismiss them and go back into a loop about their gut reaction, normalizing it. Some imply that I am being selfish by not understanding what they are going through when around disabled people. I do understand it- I just feel that staying stuck there is an untenable position.

I find this to be a very dangerous approach to take and I do challenge it. Beyond an initial (perhaps uncomfortable) reaction to meeting someone whose appearance may be different from the norm,(which I do understand as an experience although, lets face it, it depends on how much you're around disability) - I think people can get invested in staying "stuck" there . This leads to an utter failure to go beyond that initial discomfort by even being around the disabled.

Unknown said...

Extremely facinating post. Also, there has been some publicity in the press about a recent study by Harvard Medical School which "proves", "Obesitity us "socially contagious" with people who have an overweight fat friend facing a dramatically increased risk of becoming similarly fat". YES...we fatties are coming o get you all!

Unknown said...

you can read the article at http://news.scotsman.com/scitech.cfm?id=1164472007

Mary said...

*pokes head above parapet*

I don't know if "disgust" is the right word and I certainly have no idea whether it's instinctive or cultural or learned or what... but, like it or not, there are certain things which I, as an individual, find distinctly unappealing. This includes rolls of uncovered flab, lager louts, the smell of candyfloss, and pretty much anything to do with eyeballs.

I feel confident that a person's size wouldn't play a part in whether I gave them a job, or was friends with them, but I must confess that morbid obesity would put me off developing a sexual relationship with a person. Physical attraction is important there, to me.

Naturally I accept that this makes me a hideously intolerant person and I await being shot down by those more perfect than me who have never had (or voiced) such an appalling, prejudiced opinion in their lives. Meh.

Anonymous said...

As a person whose spent much time exposed to the general public, and who would by many standards be considered "obese", I can speak to the social prejudice which you describe. It's not that a person is heavy, it's how they comport themselves: those who expose their excess flesh for all to see, those who smell because they don't clean themselves up, those who pay little attention to their grooming...that's what may be disgusting. The same is true for thin people.

I also think there's some connection to our respectively warped cultures (in both Europe and the US) that seem to idealize the anorexic as a standard of beauty (size zero, anyone?) and yet over half of the populace is overweight or obese. So I think the repulsion is heavily learned (no pun intended) and not instinctive, particularly since there are human cultures where fat is prized, and in fact the standard even goes in cycles in the Western world (think of Rubens versus today). Personally, I say if you're clean and presentable, that's all that matters. Some thin people are scraggly and stinky; give me a clean, well-dressed fat person any day over that.

The Goldfish said...

Ruth, absolutely. I imagine (hope) we all get those where to look moments around people who we're not used to, but short of rounding up everyone who is "different" in any way, shape or form, it is entirely up to individual to address this stuff.

Anne - Thank you. I was kind of hoping the Harvard study would let us all off the hook and we could merely attribute any weight issues we have to our large friends and family members.

Mary, you are a hideously intolerant person, aren't you? ;-P

We only need to address our negative emotions where they influence behaviour which causes a problem to other people. It is perfectly reasonable that you have your own criteria for sexual attraction - nobody can complain about that, however specific you might be. Similarly, in our culture, it is perfectly reasonable to desire to be able to walk down the street without all your neighbours coming out of their houses with no clothes on. Thank goodness!

One might argue that this distaste for nudity, for example, isn't rational and there's nothing gruesome about the naked body, but since most people are happy wearing clothes most of the time, we don't have to address that one.

However, we do have to address those behaviours, however strong the emotions which influence them, which cause us to exercise prejudice.

As Ruth says, there are some people who feel extremely uncomfortable around disabled people for different reasons. This isn't acceptable; you can't refuse to work with disabled colleagues or not allow disabled people into your presence. And yet some people continue to regard this revulsion as natural. And if it's natural, they argue, then it's okay.

This isn't about keeping every thought we have sparkling white, but making sure we behave as fairly as possible.

Medrecgal - you've very right about the contrast between the average and the ideal. And indeed, cultures where the aesthetic ideal (in women at least) is a high Body Mass Index, tend to be ones where access to food resources is variable, and carrying a little weight suggests better health and survival prospects.

However, in the West, so much hinges on advertising and consumerism, and so much of that depends on making people feel a little miserable and unsatisfied. If we all felt okay about our bodies tomorrow, there are entire areas of industry which would collapse...

Anonymous said...

I'm a little out of my league here, but I still feel quite strongly that so much of it is just timing. We've all seen the Rubenesque representations = wealth, success, leisure, of a bygone era.

Similarly when we were in South Africa many years ago, skinny was considered to be unattractive and also an indication that you were hard up.

But whichever continent you're on and whatever age you live in, we're probably better off adopting and adapting our own set of values to align with a broader perspective than 'quick fix' stereotypes.

Mary said...

Yup, I'm inadequate, but I like myself :)

Anonymous said...

As an CFB (certified fat bastard) myself, I think I ought to shove my sweaty oar in here.

I'll hold my hands up and admit to my own prejudice in this matter. It's correct to say that I don't find extremely overweight women attractive.

But I'd would probably be more likely to find an over- than under-weight woman attractive. I suspect I'm not alone in the male population to have that thought. It'd be nice if you believed us once in a while, though :-)

I realise that's probably showing my own shallowness despite being a CFB myself, but what the hell, at least I'm honest.

And I don't expect anyone to be 'the body beautiful'. What makes a person beautiful - and in particular what makes a person sexually attractive is more to do with the way they project themselves: confidence, eye contact, openness, cheerfulness and so on.

It may be hard to achieve these qualities if you're worried about your physical appearance, but if you can, it makes a hell of a difference...

Wheelchair Dancer said...

So right. Fat prejudice is something I have only just (3-4 years) become aware of. A friend had to educate me. It's miserable what we do to each other.


Gone Fishing said...

I was curious, did othe rpeople extrapolate the obese bit to their own experience with other forms of challenges.

So I posted Goldfish's link and an interesting reponse has come about

Simple - there is quite a big difference between self abuse and the abuse of victims. Fat people have no relationship to those who were savagely or sexually abused by society's dysfunctional people.

Now being me I have ben a little naughty and posted more should you also wish to comment on the thread use the log in as many do, simple and my password is also simple.


Gone Fishing said...

That's Goldfish's link to the BBC article.

My comment on the reply
There is a quite a big difference.....

Can only be there is none so blind as those who cannot see
Hugs to all!