Expertise is Not Social Justice: Reflecting on the “Ob*sity Epidemic”
It’s past time the academy reckons with its use of marginalized people for its own gain.
The current spotlight on structural racism’s impact on Black lives has resulted in the allocation of resources intended to support expertise in this area. Many universities have started initiatives to finance the current wave of racism-focused research, like University of South Florida’s $500,000 fund or Columbia’s similar seed-grant program. Yale’s School of Public Health recently advertised an opening for a tenure-track faculty position in Racism and Health. Stanford Law School has a new Center for Racial Justice and is planning to hire 10 new faculty as part of a “Impacts of Race in America” cluster hire. The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine also seem to be preparing for a $1.5 million study that examines racism in academia.
These actions in response to national unrest and the continued genocide of Black people by the police and the state reflect the nature of our training in the scientific and academic professions. We see problems and, of course, want solutions, so our time, money, and attention goes straight to research, highly-competitive, hyper-specialized funding streams, and peer-reviewed publications.
This is the way science operates at any given moment. However, for some reason, when these activities are related to race, blackness, Black people, or state-sanctioned violence, they are immediately referred to as acts of social justice. The everyday work of the academy is, somehow, advocacy when racism is a variable.
To be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with the new resources I’ve mentioned and academic activities can be advocacy when done by conscientious individuals. In fact, we need even more opportunities for anti-racist work. I am also glad that there has been more attention on the marginalized scholars — particularly, the Black female scholars — who have been doing this work for years before it was trendy. Still, these facts do not change the reality that expertise is not inherently social justice or advocacy or even helpful.
To equate research, data, tenure-track positions, centers, programs, or funding streams with helping marginalized people is to be mistaken.
If we’re not extremely careful in how our work takes form from this crucial moment, we will continue to make this mistake to the detriment of the communities we are aiming to serve.
For an example of how this error hurts people, we can look to the public health field’s preoccupation with the “obesity crisis” and the results of that unrelenting focus. Throughout the rest of this post, “obesity” will be written in quotes or censored like in the title.
“Obesity”, or the medicalized notion of over-fatness, has been a main focus of the public health field for decades. Ob*sity has long been referred to as an “epidemic” both in the United States and worldwide. As such, the public health force has developed many interventions intended to promote weight-managing behaviors at all ages with unparalleled zeal.
These interventions were mainstays of my life as I grew up in the Bronx. My Body Mass Index, a popular and flawed measurement of fatness, was printed in red on a report card-style letter. I was weighed in gym class and my size was written on a chart for all to see. I viewed nauseating advertisements of congealed fat being poured from a cola bottle courtesy of the NYC Health Department. I remember every “culturally-sensitive” diet program, every beheaded image of a fat person captioned by a flame-fanning news story. I remember it all — a bombardment of images on pamphlets and posters that looked exactly like my body next to assertions that there was nothing more hazardous than those bodies. Nothing more life-threatening than the body that holds me together, that cradles my insides, the shields me from disease and the elements.
I own the specific context of my pain and the specifics of its consequences, but these experiences are not unique by any stretch of the imagination.
Any “obesity”-diagnosed person can tell you about the results of this preponderance of expertise and intervention on “obesity”. For the record, according to the CDC, the prevalence of “obesity” has only continued to rise. That is because weight is complex and affected by a host of genetic, economic, and political factors that are routinely ignored by public health work. Still, I would often argue that none of that is important in the face of the systematic dehumanization of fat people. The work of “obesity experts” has tormented fat people for years and provided a scientific basis for justifying weight stigma, or the overwhelming social rejection and degradation of those who are fat.
By the time I started my doctoral program and actually reviewed the scientific literature, I was not surprised to find that weight stigma has only increased in the United States over time and is connected to a host of consequences for fat people, such as chronic social stress, limited work and education opportunities, poorer quality of health care and exposure to antagonistic providers, and higher likelihood of disorders like anxiety and depression. After all, these are hardships that I and others in my community have experienced firsthand. However, what I did find shocking was that even those doing research on weight stigma in public health were often doing so to inform further stigmatizing “obesity prevention” efforts. Many weight stigma researchers in the health sciences perpetuate the misplaced panic about the “obesity epidemic”, continue to uncritically uphold the fallacy of an “ideal” body weight, and utilize misleading measures like the BMI to further the reach of their research regardless of the harm it does to those most impacted by weight stigma. In addition, weight stigma research focuses almost exclusively on the experiences of fat white people, which completely ignores the inherent connection between anti-Blackness and fatphobia.
Weight stigma research in public health is often just a more covert reiteration of the “war on obesity”. And, as written by Jennifer Hansen in the Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics, “from a fat person’s perspective, the ‘war on obesity’ is a war on fat people.”
The casualties of this war are a lesson in what happens when advocacy and social justice are not pursued with intention in research and intervention. Research or expertise on a problem isn’t equal to actually solving a problem. Even if one goes to the length of applying research through data-informed action, it is still not inherently beneficial to the people in your data. Your work can hurt individuals and communities for generations. It doesn’t have to, though.
Social justice is about dismantling the structures that create disparate social experiences. To do that effectively, you must work directly with people whose lives are marked by the issue that you are, more often than not, only connected to through grants, papers, and protocols. Ask those people about their hopes, their visions for the future. Does your work, as is, help get them there?