Students, Activists Tackle Body Size and Equity Issues at New College Panel

Katie LeBesco was the main course at the New College Global Food Equity initiative’s public lecture on obesity politics, but the pièce de résistance was the panel that followed.

First to speak was Asam Ahmad, coordinator of It Gets Fatter, a body-positivity project serving people of colour dealing with fat issues, who launched with a zinger: he said he was working to make the world a fatter place.

Laughter is the best remedy for many things, and maybe it’s part of the cure for people of all sizes worried sick about their body size, whatever it is.

An equity perspective on obesity is crucial because “most fat people are not indulgent or gluttonous, but poor and racialized,” Ahmad said. “Their alienation from good food is a sign of colonialism and capitalist power relations.”

Ahmad said his aim to promote “body positivity” is no easy matter when ads everywhere blast out a lean and muscular computer-generated image of the perfect body.

Indeed, obesity had, until relatively recently, been associated with wealthy “fat cats” who lived off the fat of the land. But since the rise in low-cost, high-calorie foods, obesity is more commonly linked to poverty.

Throughout the Global South, obesity is almost as likely as extreme thinness to be a sign of poverty, and a resulting dependence on low-cost, filling – but empty – calories. This trend, coinciding with junk food companies’ dependence on Global South markets to fuel their corporate growth, has produced what’s called the “nutrition transition”. Low-income countries where large numbers of under-nourished people are either obese or skinny face a “double whammy” of compounded health problems: infectious diseases that feed on undernourishment, and, at the same time, chronic diseases that feed on malnourishment.

Nicole Davis, a third-year New College and Equity Studies student who volunteers with Harvest Noon café and the Equity Studies program’s Global Food Equity initiative, presented a dramatic and personal account of her own teenage problems with eating disorders brought on by advertising messages about body size. (Read Nicole’s complete speech.)

Kavita Bissoondial, who manages a helpline for LBGT youth, said she would like to see a food movement that respects “body autonomy”.

She prefers the term “body autonomy” instead of “body positivity” because it leads to the question: “what are the systems that make body autonomy impossible?” Bissoondial said some systems make integration of people with physical disabilities extremely difficult, for example, and argued some systems make body autonomy extremely difficult for people of different sizes as well.

She said the body mass index, the standard measuring stick for determining if people are overweight or obese, is one barrier to people feeling good about themselves, and the Eurocentric model of what beautiful bodies look like is another.

Panel moderator Lori Stahlbrand, food systems coordinator for New College, thanked the three panellists for opening minds in this first-ever New College public lecture about the relationship between equity and body size issues. Whatever conclusion we come to, Stahlbrand said, “it’s clear that fat people have been made a scapegoat, targeted and held responsible for a series of deeper social problems that need to be brought out in the open for debate.”

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