Performing Moral Stories through Bodyweight
27 March, 2017
Editor's note: In this month's Backchannels reblog, we feature a piece by Michael Penkler that originally appeared on Reflections, the blog of the STS Department at the University of Vienna. The original post can be viewed here.
In June, the United States Food and Drug Administration approved a new weight-loss device: AspireAssist. The device is surgically inserted into the abdomen and allows patients who have failed at losing weight by other means to drain ingested food from the stomach. After eating, users go to the toilet, plug in a tubing set into a tube that leads to the stomach, and “aspirate” (or, less prosaically, pump) up to 30% of their meal into the toilet.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this new device has prompted an uproar on the internet. Science and Technology Studies (STS) have often shown how technological artifacts are “good to think with” (Turkle, 2007, p. 4), and devices like the AspireAssist certainly spur moral imagination. Next to concerns about how this device could resemble bulimic practices, many commentators have been especially concerned with the device being a ‘convenient’ solution for people who cannot ‘control’ themselves. As one voice put it, it allows people to “gorg(e) (themselves) at the buffet only to dip into the bathroom for fifteen minutes to drain the deep-fried goodness.” The outcry created by this new device not only resembles well-entrenched moral discourses and ideas about proper and non-proper ways of losing weight. It is also one of the newest instantiations of a news cycle that appears to be constantly fascinated with all matters connected to bodyweight.
Fat is good news. But where does this fascination with bodyweight stem from? In a study that I have conducted together with Kay Felder and Ulrike Felt, we have hinted at a likely answer: The media’s fascination with bodyweight is at least partly tied to how it allows for the fabrication of moral stories. “Fat avalanche,” “land of the fat,” “Our society is getting sicker and fatter,” “ticking time bomb:” Austrian newspaper are not stingy with hyperbole when it comes to reporting on the so-called ‘obesity epidemic’. But such media stories turn out not to be just stories about a biomedical condition, but also stories about society and its moral state. They offer what we have termed ‘diagnostic narratives’: narratives that not only frame a particular health phenomenon in a specific way but that produce at the same time a diagnosis of society. In reporting on how “we” get “fatter and fatter,” they offer a story of moral decline, in which the loss of traditional values and social orders is blamed for a society in disarray that results in broadening waistlines. Importantly, the seemingly objective terrain of health reporting allows to formulate a fairly conservative critique of contemporary society and calls for returns to traditional orders (like for moms to stay at home with their children) that would not be as easily formulated in other contexts.
The moral fecundity of bodyweight is also apparent in the ubiquity of ‘fat talk’ (Greenhalgh, 2015) in everyday life. As I have traced in my dissertation, bodyweight is a rich source of ‘moral stories’. In talking about their own and others’ bodies, people “not only narrate and negotiate themselves as rational actors and accountable persons, but also hold one another accountable” (Penkler, 2016, p. 181). These stories are not mere talk, but literally performed through one’s body. Attaining a slim body that corresponds to hegemonic ideals is a way to show that you are disciplined, responsible, and rational. Bodyweight is far more than a matter of aesthetics: it is a question of embodying the virtues of how we nowadays understand that a person should be.
To phrase it differently, working on one’s body is a means of becoming a subject that corresponds to the hegemonic norms of late capitalist societies. Bodyweight is hence for many of us so emotionally charged because within everyday life, our moral status as a subject is tied to how we and others perceive our body. We are so constantly bombarded with slogans like “one life – live it well” that even the most reflexive social scientists might catch themselves thinking that changing their body-shape might change their whole life. Such thoughts are not merely irrational but contain an element of truth: peoples’ narrations show that losing weight is often experienced as a tremendous change in a person’s life.
The irony here is that contrary to common belief bodyweight is hardly consistently changeable: the vast majority of conservative weight-loss attempts fail in the long run. And the flipside of how bodyweight is tied to moral status is that bodies who do not comply to body norms are often positioned as normative failures: as a sign of a self that is not disciplined, responsible, and rational. The fear of being fat can thus at least partly be understood as the fear of not being able to position oneself as a strong subject that corresponds to hegemonic norms of subjectivity. At the same time, it is important to bear in mind that bodies are not destinies: Fat activists and the body positivity movement are actively engaged in challenging the hegemonic norms surrounding fatness and in creating novel and more positive forms of fat identity.
Bodyweight gains its significance within everyday life practices through the moral stories we tell and live. This has important consequences: for how we treat it as a health phenomenon (e.g., how many patients seek a ‘technical fix’ like the AspireAssist that seemingly frees them from responsibility – see Felder, Felt, & Penkler, 2015), but also for how we could and should politically engage with the issue: I argue that a comprehensive and deep critique of bodily norms must go beyond a focus on ‘body ideals’. Rather, we need to ask how bodies are tied to normative assessments within a specific historical context. Bodyweight is but one strong example for how biomedical phenomena and scientific facts are enmeshed with moral evaluations and lived, embodied realities. Through its rich conceptual repertoire, STS is uniquely well positioned to trace how values, norms of subjectivities, biomedical knowledge, and body norms circulate and are assembled into stories of who we are and what distinguishes us from others. And it can help us raise the questions: Who can tell what kinds of stories about our bodies? How can we trace the fluid links between our subjectivities and our bodies as carved out in different cultural and societal sites? And how could successful interventions into the often highly destructive contemporary processes of embodiment look like?
Felder, K., Felt, U., & Penkler, M. (2015). Caring for Evidence. Research and Care in an Obesity Outpatient Clinic. Medical Anthropology (online first). doi:10.1080/01459740.2015.1101100
Greenhalgh, S. (2015). Fat-talk Nation: The Human Costs of America’s War on Fat.New York: Cornell University Press.
Penkler, M. (2016). On Gaining and Losing. Performances of Bodies and Selves in Bodyweight Narratives (PhD Thesis). University of Vienna, Vienna.
Turkle, S. (Ed.) (2007). Evocative Objects: Things We Think with. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Michael Penkler is a postdoctoral researcher at the Munich Center for Technology in Society at the Technical University of Munich. In his work, he traces the intersections of knowledge making in the biosciences, biomedical practice, biopolitics, and everyday life, with a focus on epigenetics and metabolic diseases. This blog post is based on his dissertation and on the findings of two research projects in which he collaborated at the Department for Science and Technology Studies at the University of Vienna: "Perceptions and Imaginations of Obesity as a Socio-scientific Problem in the Austrian Context" (PI: Ulrike Felt, funded by BMWF/Gen-AU) and "From Lab to Intervention and Back: Doing and Undoing Diversity in Obesity Research, Treatment and Prevention" (PI: Ulrike Felt, funded by the Vienna Science and Technology Fund).