On 28 February, Sofie Hagen, a London-based comedian, winner of the 2015 Best Newcomer award at the Edinburgh Fringe, and proudly fat, tweeted: “How the fucking fuck is this okay?” She was responding to an advertising campaign by Cancer Research UK that read: “OB_S_ _Y – Guess what is the biggest preventable cause of cancer after smoking.”
You can run through the probable, ensuing string of arguments yourself. People on the right were enraged by the idealism, virtue-signalling, naivety, snowflakiness, inability-to-look-hard-facts-in-the-face of the left; people on the left were enraged by the heartlessness of the right. I was equally enraged by the rage of the two. “Rage never helps,” I raged, and then stopped in recognition of the irony. What then – entirely without rage – can you make of the matter?
First the hard fact: obesity, the NHS tells me, increases the risk of type two diabetes, coronary heart disease, some types of cancer, and strokes. Why, then, when I write this, do I feel like I am scolding a fat person? Why do I feel like I am casting stones? I don’t think I am shamed into these self-recriminations by leftist populism - my feeling is that I am genuinely hurting someone.
Hagen disagrees with the “hard fact” of obesity’s harmfulness. In a Guardian article, she explains why she is “giving up January diets for life”. Her arguments, however, are confused. In one paragraph, diets are unhealthy and health cannot be judged by appearance, while in another the entire concern for physical (as opposed to mental) health is beside the point. More interesting than the incoherence of the arguments though, is her attitude towards the world around her. “Women’s magazines tell you how to become prettier and better”; TV shows and capitalism want to “make you feel bad about yourself”. The world, in short, is against her. “I’m not listening to it any more,” she writes. “Eat what you want.”
This is not ideal. When you refuse to listen, when you choose to ignore other people, you also refuse to educate them. People only learn when they feel that their capacity for compassion is acknowledged, respected, and called upon. So we can take two arguments then: one, obesity harms your health and two, you should not refuse to listen – and then start pounding our arguments against Hagen’s head until she, in tears, succumbs.
Or should we? Hagen’s Guardian article is most interesting when she writes about her pain: “I put the photo I hated the most of myself up on the fridge to discourage myself from eating anything at all.” Suddenly, we are more hesitant. I am reminded of another Guardian article, an excerpt from Roxane Gay’s memoir Hunger: “There was a boy. I loved him. His name was Christopher. […] I was 12 when I was raped by Christopher and several of his friends in an abandoned cabin in the woods where no one but those boys could hear me scream. […] I remember eating and eating and eating […] so my body could become so big it would never be broken again.” We see that there are real, live, thinking and feeling people beneath these arguments.
In a Daily Mail article, Hilary Freeman writes about her decision “to keep her child away from fat teachers”, anxious that “they could become an unhealthy role model”. There is the compulsory nod to mental health (“Yes, some do have complex psychological or emotional issues that cause them to overeat.”). Otherwise, Freeman does shame fat people, writing: “Rolls of fat are not attractive — I shouldn’t be scared to say that.” One can only write such frivolous, vulgar sentences in ignorance of people’s pain. The same ignorance makes us construe people’s pain as sin. It is in its nature that pain debilitates. Yes, a person’s fat is a burden on the NHS; yes, the depressed person who can’t go to work today is not contributing to the workforce; yes, the boy with the terrible stutter is holding up the queue at the till. Yes, all these are a strain on society in some way, but who should cast stones?
Those who demand that you need only look the “hard facts” in the face (eat less, get out of bed) ignore how very difficult life can be. Whether you accept that or not, the hard fact stands. “Weight-stigma,” Hagen writes, “kills.” People throw themselves off bridges when life has come to seem impossible. Maybe it is time then to reconsider – as we all are at some points obliged to – one’s prejudices of “virtue-signalling”, of “people-who-are-just-too-lazy”, of “I-manage-it-why-can’t-you”. Maybe we can see the hard fact of other people’s pain even earlier – before they throw themselves off bridges, before they put that photo they hate on their fridge.