The Color of Fat: Racial Biopolitics of Obesity
MetadataShow full item record
This dissertation employs the analytics of biopolitics, critical race theory, and feminist theory to explore the racial and gender dynamics of the political and medical construction of the American `obesity epidemic.' Its two-part structure enables me to critique `obesity' both as a legitimate public health concern whose higher prevalence among minorities is an embodiment of racial injustice and as a problematic construct that serves biopower, gender retrenchment and colorblind white dominance. Chapters 1 and 2 use the Foucauldian optic of biopower in tandem with Agamben's concept of `spaces of exception' and the work of urban sociologists to analyze segregated urban enclaves as the racially delineated spaces in which biopower, despite its signature commitment to supporting life, represses black life chances. Drawing on epidemiological theories of embodiment and public health research, I argue that higher rates of obesity among American minorities are an embodied outcome of structural racism and should be apprehended as a form of `structural violence' to prompt recognition that the outcomes of structural racism, if not its implements, are physically harmful. Staking a critical distance from the pathologization of fat, Chapter 3 analyzes how the construction of America's `obesity epidemic' fortifies both biopower and status quo gender arrangements. This construction authorizes a vast `assemblage' of both institutionally bound and individually administered health and lifestyle surveillance programs. I argue that the medical and political promotion of `fat panic' re-enlists women in new self-disciplinary `body projects' that complement regimens already prescribed by what some feminists call the `fashion-beauty complex.' Thus framing obesity as a public health problem not only serves benevolent public health goals but also extends the knowledge-gathering capacity of biopower and aids gender retrenchment. Chapter 4 analyzes political, public health, and cultural discourses that recursively emphasize the higher prevalence of obesity among minorities in general, and among African American and Latina women in particular, as a contemporary `racial project.' I argue that because they play out in a political context marked by the convergence of neoliberalism and `the politics of disgust,' these discourses are constructing a new-but-old `controlling image' of American obesity that harnesses the most deplored traits of the welfare queen. This repurposed stereotype of the insatiable, undisciplined, and freeloading fat black woman serves as a receptacle for white anxiety over the vulnerability of white privilege as obesity rates rise among all racial groups and national anxiety over the `tribal stigma' of fatness as it engulfs the country at large. In its entirety, this project contributes to and builds new connections between multiple disciplines and interdisciplinary fields, namely political theories of biopower, social scientific scholarship on racial inequality, critical race and gender studies, epidemiology and public health, and fat studies.
- Political science