I first saw the story of Tammy Jung, a young woman who is intentionally gaining weight in order to attract an internet audience, posted on the Feminism subreddit. Tammy’s main audience is the “feeder” audience. Feeders (from what I understand based only on what I’ve garnered from the internet), including her boyfriend, gain sexual pleasure from over-feeding their partners and making them gain weight.
In the scheme of “feeders,” Tammy and her boyfriend are small potatoes, with her weight at around 250 pounds at the moment of the article. According to this report, Susanne Eman, 728 pounds, is eating 22,000 calories a day in an attempt to become the Guinness Book of World Records heaviest woman in the world.
The person who posted the story originally asked: How do you tell someone like this they are wrong without fat-shaming or is this okay?” A flurry of subreddit discussion followed.
Granted, the original source was the UK’s Daily Mail, which I take it is — ahem — not a highly regarded news source. I found more on the Huff Post “Weird News” site. So yes, I know, I know, this is not the most well-researched post you will find on our blog. But bear with me because I find the original poster’s question to be worth thinking about, first, for its assumption that Tammy is doing something wrong, and second for its concern that to call her out on it might be fat-shaming.
I want to think about that, and also to think about whether this raises any other relevant feminist issues.
But first, let me put something else on the table as contrast, something so disturbing that, like the thigh gap stuff that’s out there, I can’t bring myself to include the link. It’s the world of the pro-ana and pro-mia communities, that is, communities that are pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia and think of these not as diseases but as lifestyle choices.
Taken together, Tammy Jung’s intentional quest for obesity and the pro-ana and pro-mia followers’ intentional quest for thinness via starvation present an interesting study in contrasts. They are the equally disturbing ends of the eating as a form of body-modification (or body-control) continuum.
The discussion about Tammy Jung and fat-shaming on the feminism subreddit had some interesting dimensions to it, but a lot of them side-stepped the fat-shaming question altogether in two polar opposite ways. On the one hand, lots of people said that it’s her choice, she gets to do what she wants, and no one has a right to challenge her goal of becoming 420 pounds. On the other hand, other people criticized her decision on health grounds, saying that she is intentionally killing herself, and she shouldn’t have a right to health care insurance.
One person said that if we saw a similar story about a young woman intentionally starving herself on the internet to make money and satisfy men’s sexual fetishes, we would have more to say about it.
I have mixed feelings about her quest. I like that she feels sexy despite being, or even because she is, obese by society’s standards. I like too that there are people out there who find that sexy. Her desire to be paid for her weight gain by admirers who fetishize it is a form of sex work, broadly construed. I have no strong reservations about non-exploitative sex work and believe that it is possible to engage in sexual activities and pursuits for money (i.e. as work) without being exploited. That is not to say that exploitation never happens, but it isn’t an inherent feature of sex work (see philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s fabulous chapter on sex work in her book Sex and Social Justice for a compelling discussion of why sex work ought to be considered work).
It’s a simple fact that from a health perspective, what Tammy is doing is very likely to shorten her life. Her doctor has said as much. But it’s not clear to me that we have an imperative to be healthy. And it’s also not clear to me that resorting to a claim about health risk isn’t a covert way of fat-shaming.
We’ve seen in past posts that the assumption that people who are larger than average are necessarily unhealthy or unfit is false. Moreover, do we really have a right to judge people for making choices that don’t promote health or longevity, or that involve risks?
Despite my concern about invoking health as an imperative, I confess that it is the slow suicide, bad-for-your-health feature of anorexia and bulimia that make it so difficult for me to read “tipsheets” that outline in painstaking detail how to starve yourself or how to make yourself vomit — and in both cases how to hide this from friends and family.
Beyond the physical health of it, I see both extremes as fostering psychological obsessions with food and body. Whether the obsession is with gaining or with losing extreme amounts of weight, the pre-occupation with food and body is not healthy. In fact, both anorexia and bulimia are regarded as eating disorders, illnesses requiring treatment. The same might be said of extreme overeating.
The choice issue enters into the picture because the women themselves frame their behavior as chosen. Let’s say for the sake of argument that they are engaging in this behavior by choice. Do we have a right to pass judgment on these choices? That is, is it correct to assume that there is something wrong with those choices?
Eighteenth Century philosopher Immanual Kant argued that among our moral duties included duties to self. He believed that suicide was wrong and that, on a more positive note, we had duties to “promote our own talents.” So, according to Kant, not only is it wrong to kill yourself, it’s also wrong to do things that hinder the development of your personal gifts. Roughly, Kant believed that no one could consistently engage in self-defeating behavior (this really oversimplifies his point, I confess, but that’s the gist of it).
I disagree with Kant that suicide and not developing our talents are morally condemnable. But I do think that we can back off from the moral judgment while still recognizing that there is something disturbing or even just plain sad going on when anyone engages in behavior that fosters obsession and is overtly self-destructive.
Do I want to go so far as to say that these women should not be able to make choices about how to treat their bodies? Is it not a significant part of feminist ideology that women are in control of their own bodies and ought to be permitted to choose as they see fit? Absolutely.
There are all sorts of choices that women ought not be denied and that yet, at the same time, do not help the cause of women’s equality. Think of these choices not so much in terms of their impact on the individual women who make them but rather in the broader context of social structures that systemically disadvantage women and stand as obstacles to women’s equality.
Starving ourselves as a lifestyle choice promotes a bodily aesthetic that puts women’s lives in peril. Much to the misfortune of women living in the Western world at this historical moment, that aesthetic is represented in media as normative. Therefore, if starvation for women is indeed a lifestyle choice, then it’s a choice that is just plain bad for women as a group because it buys into rather than challenges normative femininity as ultra-thinness.
On the other side of this, force-feeding ourselves in order to gain attention and for the express purpose of appealing to men with a particular fetish also puts women’s lives in peril. In this case, the systemic issue is less that it promotes a normative aesthetic (clearly, obese women’s bodies are not normative in the present cultural context) than that it promotes the idea that we should shape our bodies according to male desire.
I do not mean here to be negatively judging men who find large women attractive. Instead, we need to question the idea that women need to take extreme measures to modify their bodies so that said bodies are attractive to men.
Ultimately, then, to the extent that these extremes are defended as choices, I believe they are (a) choices women have a right to make and (b) choices that are bad for women in general because of the social messages they perpetuate. They can make them, but for the sake of all of us, I really wish they wouldn’t.
[photo credit: MSU Grad Life]