We have differing opinions on fat, yet few people have ever explored this subject in depth. There is clearly an aesthetics of fat, because we’ve seen from the Venus of Willendorf, or the sistine chapel to today’s fashion models, that views on fat have changed over the millennia. But we do not have a non-aesthetic philosophy of fat as of yet.
A simple reason for this could be that either the interest in the Philosophy of Body is a subject much more in line with philosophy of mind and epistemology, treating the philosophic study of the body not as an end of itself, but as a means for other conversations.
But these other conversations don’t tell us much about our possible opinions on fat, let alone all possible suggestions of what they may mean with regards to other views we might have. A historical analysis à la Foucault would certainly illuminate how we got here, but for this there must be fat studies in the first place, which are few and far in between.
So let’s try and come up with a first philosophy of fat. The central question this early in the study, is “what is fat?”. Fat, I think, is the only substance in a body that we can control the growth of. Hair, fingernails grow in any conditions. The liver has this same property, but is considered to be an organ, rather than a substance that our bodies generate naturally (organs in most definitions fulfill vital functions). Muscle, as will be explored later in the article, is similar to fat, because we can control how much muscle we build, just like we can control how fat/skinny we become, and it affects the way our body is shaped on the outside.
The difference with muscle however, is that we control the growth or deterioration of it by exercising instead of eating. Therefore, a definition of fat may be “a specific biomass in a subject, that can be controlled by the subject via oral consumption, that affects the shape of the subject by an observer”. Note that this does not include blood, extremities, puss, stomach acid, brain fluid, etc., which gives us clear separation between fat, and other bodily substances. Also note, because this is an article on fat, building muscle by, say, drinking protein shakes, is not of concern here.
So if we can control fat (and muscle), it seems like with hair and fingernails, it is in-line with other aspects of fashion, such as clothes we wear, hair styles we create, and how long/short we grow our finger nails. This veers in the direction of lifestyle, fashion, aesthetics and so on, which is what I am avoiding. Fat as self-expression deserves its own article. Let us focus on fat as fat.
I also want to exclude discussions of fat in animals: We are mostly agnostic about fat in animals, which makes the subject rather boring. However, one caveat to this, is the fat that is stored in our pets, which is what we try and control by walking our dogs for example, or feeding them certain foods. It turns out, discussions about fat in household animals are similar to discussions about fat in people, while fat in livestock, as well as wild animals are different conversations altogether, and are open to exploration.
With this out the way, let’s classify a few views: In general, we differentiate between three different views on fat: Fat gainism, fat lossism and fat agnosticism. A gainist sees fat as something to gain, a lossist sees it as something to lose. People who hold these two views literally want to either gain or lose fat, regardless of their health, attractiveness, or any other measure, with the exception of life and death, as this is a sort of ultimate boundary which individuals will generally not step over. Of gainists and lossists, there are arguably very few in the world. Notice that people with eating disorders are not automatically in these two groups. Untreated anorexics for example, may be gainists while being (brainwise) chemically predisposed not to consume fat, while obese people who continue to eat might be lossists, while also not being able to lose fat.
Anyone with a different view, is in the third category, fat agnosticism, i.e. they neither support gaining or losing fat for the sake of such. I classify two sub categories of fat agnostics: The true fat agnostic, who truly, really doesn’t care how much fat people or themselves have, and measure fat agnostics, whose opinions on fat depend on some measures. The measure agnostics are split into two more categories: the materialist measure agnostics and the social measure agnostics.
True fat agnostics have no view on fat. Like our opinions about the Zarthal people on Planet Xibitiu (not a real thing), true fat agnostics simply don’t have a view either way, which leaves us with the measure agnostics. Materialist measure agnostics use measures such as BMI, cardio health, energy conservation in apocalyptic times, weight and so on, to decide what amount of fat is “good” and what amount is “bad”. Social agnostics use other people to determine how fat they/others should be. For example, we might look at models as a measure, and think that our imperfect bodies should have less fat, or more muscle.
Which measure is better over another one, is however a very difficult question to answer, one that would require significant research and argumentation. There are fat people who are happy and what most of us consider “good”, and there are not fat people who are considered “bad”, and skinny people who are both as well.
This may be one of the reasons people still have discussions about the morals of fat, because the measures are not agreed upon. I would imagine that most of us consider the amounts of fat that we have on our bodies to be good or at least acceptable, seeing that by default, we have an optimistic view about ourselves. Yet objective moral discussions about fat should not care about our opinions, but should approach the problem with some philosophical basis in mind. Let’s take a look at the morality first two categories of fat in more detail (gainism & lossism) before we tackle the agnostic categories, which in my opinion are trickier to deal with.
Moral Gainism, Lossism
To recap, we are talking about fat gain and loss, regardless of what is consumed. Therefore, we cannot discuss veganism/vegetarianism with regards to these two positions. Seeing that fat is a resource, we can however discuss the consumerism/anti-consumerism of resources, or even rephrase fat, to mean capital.
After all, fat is individually owned, is controlled individually and the work that is done with the fat, is done for the subject. Thus, we can somewhat tie fat gainism to capitalist philosophy, and lossism, being the opposite of gainism, we can tie to whatever the opposite of capitalism is (Socialism? Hegelianism?). A relinquishment of resources is rather fatalistic, as fat lossism (and so capital dissipation) leads to a body and a subject that is predisposed to perform less work. Work in the fat senese, less movement and mental/physical labor.
A similar thing can be said about muscle: Little muscle allows you to do less things, e.g. climb Mt. Everest or lift heavy weights. This is only because muscle differentiates itself with fat in terms of how it is created, not how it is used: If the body does not have fat, it actually atrophies muscle to use as energy. This is why I believe the same conclusions about fat can apply to muscle.
Now, because fat lossists can perform less work, and because statements about fat can apply to statements about muscle (without making a careful logical argument), then both fat and muscle lossists reject the freedoms they would have with these substances. Fat and muscle gainists face a similar problem: If one is too overweight to walk, or too muscular to be flexible, gainists accept the loss of these freedoms. Lossists are unlikely to succeed in climbing tall mountains, as it would require a mixture of fat and muscle. Subjects in both positions however, forego some freedoms related to their bodies, so the acceptance of physical restrictions for people who are either camp, is less than for the agnostic, who is taking the middle ground between the two positions, a view that would be in line with Aristotle’s thinking.
A social aspect of gainism/lossism can also be taken into consideration. If your loved one is a fat gainist/lossist, there is a clear acceptance of reduction in her freedoms as well. If one is too fat to move, the loved one might have to take care of the obese/skinny partner, which means there can be a reduction of freedom in others around the gainist/lossist. In other words, our food and exercise choices can determine the freedoms of other people around us, which means that we have a moral obligation to choose the view that best suits our family and friends in our lives. This statement does relate to veganism/vegetarianism, as these views can restrict the freedoms of the people around us.
Both gainism and lossism reject and accept certain freedoms. Even if they may be making different claims, fat gainist and lossist positions do not differ much in essence: Both do not reject definitions of health or disagree with truth statements about their health or social status or other measures, and are independent from many truth statements, which is why these two positions are vital to any philosophy of fat.
The True Agnostics
As said before, most of us are agnostic, as either a true agnostic, or as a measure agnostic. Let us think about the true agnostic first.
A true fat agnostic, given the discussions above, would neither reject nor accept the freedoms that the lossist or the gainist give up, or accept. For them, however much fat they or others have, is neither good, nor bad. Gaining/losing fat does not, or should not, affect our freedoms. Seeing that most of us are not on either extreme of being severely over or underweight, and climbing tall mountains or swimming long distances are skills that in our day and age are not as useful, in addition of the fact that most of us regulate our weights naturally, it is not far fetched to believe that most of us are true fat agnostics. There seems, after all, little incentive to think about fat, while there are far more pressing problems that we are facing in our professional, personal and societal lives.
Thinking about fat translates just as well into thinking about muscle. Beyond a handful of people that I have met feel strongly about losing or gaining muscle, usually gaining muscle, few of us hold strong views about it. I have yet to knowingly be introduced to a muscle lossist. Both fat/muscle true agnostics also seem to agree that health is an aspect of one’s life that is not worth considering, or at least don’t have any opinions on a subject: A doctor could tell a true fat agnostic to lose weight, and they might do so. But it doesn’t change their final opinions on whether it makes a difference. True agnostics in fact, would agree that losing fat or gaining muscle is irrelevant (unless they are starkly faced with a life or death choice). On the outside, it would only seem that they changed their opinion on the matter because a person in authority told them what to do.
In the same way, we might want our politicians to push through certain policies, while also accepting, living through and enforcing the decisions that our representatives/authorities make. We don’t know all the things that are happening in world politics for example, but we generally trust our politicians, that they are doing the right thing. More simply said, true agnostics do as they’re told, not as they think.
And once we start a discussion on the politics of fat, we open a fun can or worms. Political instability, misinformation and trust in our governments translate into topics of refusing the advice of health experts, suggestions that not thinking about it is somehow better for you and believing that our doctors, spouses etc. have ulterior motives that clash with our own. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why people in the US are still very fat on average. They don’t trust authoritative figures, in addition to the ability to consume high fat food.
Discussions about true fat agnosticism therefore, seem to be similar to apathy and ignorance about the world around us, from political and social topics, to, therefore, environmental and protectionist ones. This then, is similar to theistic agnosticism: Religion has tenets, social rules and understandings, suggestions on how to deal with the environment around us, and what to do if we encounter others that don’t agree with our fundamental beliefs, etc. that people need to abide by. Fat agnosticism then, just like with theistic agnosticism, while it may still accept the central ideas behind fat (such as capitalism), rejects any sort of building of a society from fat.
This still leaves the individual though. Should the individual really reject any fat philosophy for themselves? I think it is wrong for the individual to be a true fat agnostic, and here is why. Suppose you are a true fat agnostic, and let us also suppose that everyone wants to increase their quality of life. Then, because you are a true agnostic, you hold that you don’t care how fat or skinny you are. But if you are too fat or too skinny, given the plentiful research that authority figures have collected, one can decrease one’s quality of life, which is a contradiction. Therefore, true agnostics either don’t exist, or they don’t understand the underlying realities (social or materialist ones) of being overweight/underweight, or they don’t want to increase their quality of life. Wanting to not increase quality of life, and succeeding at it, I would argue increases it, because you achieve your desires, so only the first two positions can be true. Additionally, if people are reasonably educated in bodily health, we must then conclude that people are not true fat agnostics, and ideally, no one should be a fat agnostic because we know it to cause harm.
For this reason, it would therefore be reasonable to say that fat gainists and lossists should (in an ideal world) also not exist, if they are educated on the basis of health.
There are of course exceptions to consider, like suicide and the desire thereof, what things we hold important in our lives such as our families, and so on. These cases would need to be handled one by one.
Finally, the last positions on fat are measure agnostics, which we can split into two more groups of positions: materialist measure agnostics, and social measure agnostics. As said before, materialist measure agnostics are guided by the results that scientists and researchers provide. I, for example, think I am a materialist fat and muscle agnostic, as I believe that we should conform to a healthy body mass and fitness. Taken in combination, which is my own view, we can account for sumo ringers who don’t suffer the problems associated with fat for example, because they train the muscles enough to negate these effects. Thus, their health is in fact, relatively high given their BMI, which might suggest they are unhealthy.
Social measure agnostics however, don’t look at scientific data, but take the opinions and cues of people in their social circles into account. One might think that if they are surrounded by materialist agnostics who keep a regular amount of fat, that they would functionally tend to the same view, but this is not the case. Unconscious messaging from other people and society at large (such as advertisements) can contradict what we think we believe.
And so, social measure agnostics, any agnostic really, can be bombarded with unusual beauty standards and advertisements that tell us how to feel. Social measure agnostics then, might also be convinced to become muscle gainists and/or fat lossists in the worst cases, or more commonly, feel uncomfortable in their own bodies at best (assuming that they don’t naturally look like models).
Then again, if social agnostics consume the right media, or even none at all, and are accepted from their social circles, then no matter how fat or how skinny they are, they might masquerade as a fat/muscle agnostic, while in truth being a social one, and their position never being challenged. Materialist agnostics would similarly be limited in knowing who they are: I’m overweight, but do I really care to lose a few kilos, if everyone around me accepts me as I am? I don’t know.
Both positions are intertwined with one another, to the point where they can seem indistinguishable. How to separate them, would be a task for social philosophers, as they attempt to deconstruct micro-politics and understand the idea of sociology, or as Germans would put it, “Das Soziale”. Either way, sociality is important for quality of life, which is why arguing for one measure agnostic position over another, would require supreme effort in trying to find where we should abide by social standards, and where by scientific ones. A calculus that combines the two views would more likely represent the realities we face, and would guide us towards our ideal fat/muscle content in our bodies, that works for each person individually.
This, I believe, covers most views on fat, and in turn, also muscle. It is unfortunate that the conclusion we have come to, is in hindsight rather obvious, but it is necessary to have a solid foundation on which to build further theories of fat. Whichever way we go, whatever views we hold, we do all agree that we need fat for survival, as well as at least a little muscle. What you do with this information, whether it be for your own benefit, or to sound smart at dinner table conversations, is up to you. Bon appétit, and happy exercising.