Monthly Archives: August 2007

“Everybody Knows …”: The Obesity Context

Debbie says:

Sorry to have been away for so long. Laurie is, of course, traveling, and I was out of town at a wedding (which I really want to write about) and then I’ve been a) catching up, and b) a little sick. But I’m here now, and I have tons of juicy links to blog about over the next few days.

Let’s start with a foundational post by Fillyjonk at Shapely Prose. This will resonate with anyone who has done fat activism (or any activism) for years, and keeps running into the same familiar walls.

… a study is just a fucking study. Deflate it, and you’ve got a deflated study. Analyze and critique the paradigm that devised, interpreted, reported, and incorporated it, and you’re getting somewhere. Many studies are problematic in and of themselves; others are problematic because they’re being interpreted either in a vacuum or in an unsuitable framework.

Now, the anti-fat crusaders at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation have been kind enough to collate and illustrate this unsuitable — and irresponsible — framework for us. No guesswork here; it’s the full gamut of anti-fat prejudices and misconceptions in one handy PDF.

Fillyjonk goes on to point out some of the context. I have to say that I’m not sure that she and Sandy Swarc are completely correct that the Johnson Foundation benefits financially from the sale of drugs and medicines: what I am sure of is that drugs and medicines are the original source of the Foundation’s funding, and its point of view. So even if the exact financial information is incorrect, the point is accurate.

The rest of the Shapely Prose post points out a few egregious flaws in the RWJF report. My horror starts even a little deeper than Fillyjonk’s does, however. She didn’t mention that the underlying context in this report goes so deep that the authors, contributors, and peer reviewers see no need whatsoever to defend, or even define, their basic positions:

–there are endless statistics on obesity and “overweight,” but there is no attempt to prove a relationship between those conditions and poor health.
–the report relies entirely on BMI, a completely meaningless number which provides the support for most data on obesity and “overweight.” It is described as “a mathematical formula,” but is not defined further or analyzed
–the report also falls apart if you examine the implicit (and incorrect) assumption that physical activity and weight have a direct correlation in individuals.

Of course, there’s more, and just about all of it follows (if poorly) from the unexamined assumptions above. As fillyjonk says,

It’s hard to even begin on what’s wrong with this report, and it’s impossible to end. Because it doesn’t end: this is our at-a-glance look at the real problem, the incredibly flawed foundation on which everything else is built. Forget the individual studies that lean on this foundation, which would be constructed differently but might have similar results in another context; they are necessarily incomplete, and it’s the cracks in the foundation that are showing through. This is what we’re up against: the fallacies so old that they’re being treated as common sense.

Poking fun at studies is one of my favorite spectator sports, and I don’t intend to stop. At the same time, this is a good reminder that each time Body Impolitic pokes fun at a study, we can also bring out the battering rams and pound away at the foundation which shores those studies up.

Thanks to Stef for making sure I saw this one.

fat, obesity, overweight, size acceptance, body image, science, junk science, BMI, Body Impolitic

Daddy and I: White Fathers, Asian Daughters

Debbie says:

I’m out of my comfort zone blogging about photography without Laurie. At the same time, I don’t want to leave this one alone for the month or more that she’ll be gone.

O Zhang is a photographer from the People’s Republic of China. I didn’t know her work before today.

photo from Daddy and I

Her latest series, “Daddy and I” showcases adopted Chinese girls with their Caucasian fathers. The artist’s statement says:

What is the nature of this complex relationship, especially when different ethnic and cultural backgrounds are introduced? Through the relationship of the emerging feminine power of the adolescent girl to the mature father, each image explores the relation of the two often divided cultures: East and West.

Like the girls adapting to their new situation, China is learning from the West to grow its economy. Is its emergence from regional power to global economic force a change that will be accepted and encouraged? Or will it be seen as a rebellion against the rules that the West has established for others to follow?

Likewise, as the girls grow up, will they remain innocent adoptees under the tutelage of their western patriarchs? Or will their progression to maturity disturb the relationship’s equilibrium?

Great questions! And yet, at least to my Western eye, the photographer’s responses seem to underscore distressingly stereotypical notions of feminine power and Western patriarchy. Fathers wear ties, or button-down shirts. More of the girls than I would expect are wearing clothes that echo traditional Chinese dress, others are in “cute schoolgirl” outfits. In all photos, father and daughter touch, usually a close hug, but occasionally just the touch of a hand. Look at how the father in the photograph below is grasping the daughter’s wrist with both hands, as if he was afraid she would run away.

photo from Daddy and I

Very few pictures show or even indicate any physical activity. Everyone, without exception, looks straight at the camera, not at each other. I know from working with Laurie that if the models were looking at each other, they would be more likely to be comfortable and relaxed. Particularly given the artist’s statement, O Zhang may very well intend us to feel discomfited by the photos, and to believe that we are picking up on discomfort in the models.

What we can’t know without more information is whether she also intends the understatedly eroticized flavor of the series. Many of these photographs, taken alone, would appear completely harmless–and they probably are. We live in a time where genuine father-daughter affection, an experience of extraordinary value, is far too frequently misconstrued into something more sinister. Nonetheless, viewing the photos as a group is unsettling. I know from other series on the website that Zhang is no stranger to erotic imagery. What I can’t know is what she means here, and especially what these photographs look like in a Chinese rather than a western context.

One oversimplified implication that can easily be drawn from these pictures is that Zhang is simultaneously subtly feminizing China in relation to the patriarchal west and encouraging adopted Chinese girls to use their feminine mojo in relation to their fathers’ power (as, of course, girls across cultures have done for millennia). I expect it is far more complicated than that. In any event, I very much appreciate the way Zhang is raising these questions both in words and in photographs, even if her “answers” don’t sit comfortably with me.

Thanks to Racialicious for the pointer.

photography, China, adoption, interracial adoption, fathers, daughters, Body Impolitic