Philosophy Has a Body-shaming Problem

1. “Diet Culture is Unhealthy. It’s Also Immoral.”

In a recent New York Times article, Kate Manne pointed out that philosophy has a body-shaming problem. She focused on fat-shaming, but one can extend her arguments to disability-shaming. Just as fat bodies are stigmatized, disciplined, and marginalized in philosophy, so are disabled bodies. Indeed, many of Manne’s claims apply straightforwardly to disabled bodies.

2. Fat, Health, Disability, & Scientific Racism

First, the relationship between disability and health is, as Manne says of fatness, “far from straightforward”; many disabled people are “healthy” and many nondisabled people are “unhealthy.” But more importantly, “you don’t owe it to anyone to be healthy in general.” Indeed, I would say that you owe it to yourself and others to reject western society’s toxic health and beauty standards, which come from colonial, patriarchal, and ableist power relations.

In “Fearing the Black Body” (2020), Sabrina Strings explains that fat-phobia comes from 18th-Century scientific racism, which depicted white people as naturally thin, intelligent, and civilized, and black people as naturally fat, hedonistic, unintelligent, “lazy and thieving” (95). In this spirit, Georges-Louis Leclerc, a naturalist and white supremacist, held that “the bulky frames of blacks were due to the ready availability of food, combined with their lack of the mental capacity needed to devote themselves to activities other than eating” (Strings: 95). Hence, the race science of the time coded the black body as not just fat, but also (cognitively) disabled. The cultural association between blackness, disability, corpulence, and grotesquerie ensured that the thin, nondisabled, white body would become the standard of beauty, as well as moral purity. White women in particular were expected to discipline their bodies to achieve a thin physique, not merely for the sake of “personal hygiene,” but also to protect the white race from degenerating into a lower state. The standard of “good health” was based on the science of racial differences, and the moral imperative to differentiate oneself as much as possible from the fat, disabled, black “other.” As Strings puts it, “the fear of the imagined ‘fat black woman’ was created by racial and religious ideologies that have been used to both degrade black women and discipline white women” (14). The low-calorie diet was marketed to white women as a way for them to uphold the health, fitness, and superiority of the white race.

String’s analysis reveals that society’s moral, aesthetic, and scientific norms are what Foucault would call an “apparatus of power,” or “a dispersed system of power that produces and configures practices toward certain strategic and political ends” (Tremain 2017: 21), which, in this case, disciplines subjects to respect, aspire to, and reward the white, thin, nondisabled body, thereby reproducing 18th-Century power relations (racism, sexism, ableism…). These ideals continue to be propagated by scientists who reignite fears about the black body by fixating on “black women’s obesity rates,” which reinvigorates “the association between fatness and black femininity” (Strings: 223). This focus also resuscitates the association between blackness and disability, but under the guise of “impairment.” By medicalizing the black body (as “obese”), corporations can capitalize on society’s racial-ableist anxieties to market individualized “treatment plans” like diet pills and weight-loss programs. Strings points out that the “‘obesity epidemic’was due in no small part to the lobbying of private organizations, several of which were affiliated with weight-loss clinics, to place the issue of obesity on the national agenda, an action that would give them access to more federal funding for research and treatment programs” (223). Modern-day diet culture is still fueled by fear of the black disabled body.

3. Exclusions & Elitism in Philosophy

Returning to Manne’s article, she wonders how much of her “self-directed fatphobia owes to [her] career as an academic philosopher,” and comments on the “dearth of fat, female bodies” in philosophy. There is also a dearth of disabled bodies in philosophy, with disabled people making up, on Tremain’s calculation, only “about 1% of full-time philosophy faculty in Canada and only marginally better in the United States, although, by most credible estimates, disabled people constitute about 25% of the general population of North America.” Disabled people are discouraged from pursuing a career in philosophy because of the ableist “architecture” of the profession, which includes the homogeneity of the faculty, the hegemony of the medical model (which defines disability as “impairment”), and the scarcity of jobs in the specialization of critical disability theory. These structural exclusions can lead to insecurity, alienation, and fatigue. (For more on the social construction of chronic fatigue, which I have, see my earlier post).

Manne continues, “we praise arguments for being muscular and compact and criticize prose for being flabby, flowery and, implicitly, feminine.” Similarly, we praise arguments for being strong, sturdy, “having legs,” and we criticize them for being weak, lame, feeble, myopic, stupid, and not having a leg to stand on. The go-to example of akrasia in philosophy, Manne points out, is the incontinent person who cannot abstain from eating a cookie or a piece of cake. The cookie-eater is a morally flawed person, and a cautionary tale for the reader: fat is a sign of moral depravity. The fat person is also frequently coded as disabled, which explains why she is immoral. According to Steven Pinker, the akrasic “‘succumb[s]’ to ‘myopic discounting’ of future rewards,” which Manne correctly assesses as “an (ableist) term for short-term thinking, illustrated with a fatphobic example.” The fat person is too “impaired” to perform correct long-term reasoning. Once again, we see the fat body parsed as disabled, and disability used as a justification for contempt. It’s not just the fat body, but the disabled body, that elicits Pinker’s scorn.

Indeed, ableist examples, arguments, and definitions are rampant in philosophy. Licia Carson notes that disability is generally excluded from philosophical discourse, except when it is presented as a “deficit” or “marginal case” of personhood, full citizenship, and moral worth (2021: 74). In the history of philosophy, disabled people are presented as “‘idiots’ and ‘imbeciles,’” and in contemporary theory, “they are placed at the margins of philosophical inquiry and of personhood itself” (ibid). The construction of the archetypal person as nondisabled perpetuates dehumanizing stereotypes and maintains ability privilege in academia.

A moral agent is also a responsible agent, and responsibility is associated with the nondisabled brain. As Matthew Talbert indicates in the Standard Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the general consensus is that “normal adult human beings may possess the powers and capacities [required for responsibility], and non-human animals, very young children, and those suffering from severe developmental disabilities or dementia (to give a few examples) are generally taken to lack them.” That is, the paradigmatically responsible agent is a “normal” (nondisabled) human being. Affirming this, P. F. Strawson states that a responsible agent is capable of participating in “normal inter-person relationships” and “the moral community,” which he takes to exclude people with “innate incapacity, or insanity, or other less extreme forms of psychological disorder” – that is, cognitively disabled and neurodivergent people. Without naming names, I can assure you that contemporary philosophers still take “mentally retarded,” “psychologically disordered,” and “insane” people (sic) to lack the qualifications for responsibility and moral citizenship. Those deemed “non-responsible” can be gate-kept out of “ordinary” (i.e., nondisabled) relationships, and their disability can be used as a justification for that exclusion. (Note that Strawson says that being structurally excluded from these relationships makes one’s life not worth living). Is it any wonder that disabled people are not welcome in the ivory tower?

The word “normal” is doing a lot of work in the philosophical construction of personhood. What is a “normal person”? Rosemarie Garland Thompson says that the figure of the normal person – which she labels the “normate” – “embod[ies] the form, function, behaviors, and appearances that conform to all of the culturally valued traits in the social systems of gender, race, class, sexuality, and ability” (2017: 135). Put differently, the normate is white, thin, straight, nondisabled, and therefore a recipient of social capital. The archetype of the “normal person” functions to oppress, marginalize, and exclude the “abnormal.” As Charles Mills remarks, “historically and still currently, most humans were not and are not socially recognized persons, or, more neatly and epigrammatically put: most persons are non-persons.” Amongst those historically denied recognition as persons are women, racialized groups, and disabled people. Contemporary philosophical statements about how “normal people” are moral agents, unlike the “retarded,” “insane,” and “psychologically disordered,” do not help us move past the identification of personhood with the archetype of the nondisabled, thin, white, straight, body.

4. Disciplining Fatness and Disability

In her article on diet culture, Manne explains that “the constant deprivation and, sometimes, sheer hunger of someone who sticks to a rigorous diet is envisaged as an unambiguously good thing and as an achievement, even a virtue,” even though it contributes to a body-shaming culture. There are similar pressures on disabled people to render their bodies more “normal” and appealing to the nondisabled gaze. One might feel pressure to hide an “invisible” disability and “pass” as nondisabled in order to participate in mainstream society or hold down a job. One might feel ashamed of being cognitively disabled in an academic job that fetishizes intellectual ability. One might try to overcompensate by performing as if one were nondisabled. Rather than changing the ableist architecture of the university, disabled people are made to feel that they should normalize their bodies to accommodate the nondisabled majority. The myth that you can and should change your body applies to fat and disabled people alike.

One of the most powerful disciplinary techniques in diet culture is the imperative to be “healthy” by scientific standards. Becoming (or passing as) “healthy” is one of the most effective ways of escaping the harshest forms of body-shaming. Alison Reiheld explains that fat people who appear “healthy” are rewarded as “good fatties” who have adopted a virtuous lifestyle. Likewise, disabled people who appear “healthy” are rewarded as “good cripples.” The stipulation that one must be scientifically healthy to be seen as valuable and deserving of respect is called “healthism,” an ideology that protects white, thin, able-bodied privilege. If “unhealthy” people are to blame for their fat and disabled bodies, then society doesn’t have to create accessible and inclusive conditions to accommodate their existence. It’s up to individuals to discipline and punish their bodies to achieve society’s standard of health (even if this is impossible). When we embrace healthism, we become complicit in the body-shaming regime.   

5. Conclusion

Manne draws much-needed attention to the systemic fatphobia in academic philosophy, but her analysis also hints at the systemic ableism in the field. Why is philosophy so fatphobic? Strings reveals that it is partly because fat is associated with blackness and disability, and blackness and disability are heavily stigmatized due to the legacy of slavery, colonialism, and ableism. If we want philosophy to become more inclusive and accessible, we have to reflect long and hard on the arguments, examples, and idioms that we use, and where they come from.

About Mich Ciurria

Mich Ciurrial (She/they) is a disabled queer philosopher who works on intersectionality, feminist philosophy, critical disability theory, and justice studies.

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