Joyce Fegan: Peterson's 'not beautiful' comment highlights outdated obsession with thinness

'While some split hairs over the ideology of beauty, many, many others quite literally split themselves in two in the pursuit of it'
Joyce Fegan: Peterson's 'not beautiful' comment highlights outdated obsession with thinness

Yumi Nu, who appeared on the front cover of ‘Sports Illustrated’. Picture: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty

This week a 59-year-old white man tweeted a photo of a 25-year-old Asian woman, declaring her “not beautiful”.

The woman was Yumi Nu, an American-Japanese singer-songwriter. The photo in question was of Nu, in her “bigger body”, in a pair of black swimming togs on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine.

The man making the public service announcement was Jordan Peterson, a controversial psychologist with a social media following of millions.

He’s been simultaneously described as “the most-influential public intellectual in the Western world right now”, “dangerous”, and as a “culture warrior”.

And so this week, another culture war ensued.

As Peterson and his followers made their pressing contributions to the essential debate on female beauty standards, most women simply added the familiar rhetoric to that well-established alarm centre in their brain that sirens: “Do not be fat, be anything but fat.”

Yumi Nu attends the Yumi Nu 2022 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Cover Reveal on May 11, in New York City. Picture: Mike Coppola/Getty Images for SI Swimsuit
Yumi Nu attends the Yumi Nu 2022 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Cover Reveal on May 11, in New York City. Picture: Mike Coppola/Getty Images for SI Swimsuit

And other people listened on with their active eating disorders. In America, 10,200 deaths are the direct result of eating disorders every year, with about 26% of people with eating disorders attempting suicide.

But yeah, let’s discuss women’s bodies like they’re an objective piece of publicly owned property. Let’s loudly debate what they should look like for us, deaf to the consequences of our conversations. And if anyone has a personal problem with our ideological sparring, let’s flip roles and play the victim.

While some split hairs over the ideology of beauty, many others quite literally split themselves in two in the pursuit of it.

Why?

It was this very question that led Sabrina Strings, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California, to discover that it is actually racism that underpins our society’s centuries-old fatphobia.

A petty online culture war in 2022 disintegrates into its rightful place of irrelevance when you realise the racist origins of our desire to not be fat.

Strings, whose grandmother grew up in the segregation of the Jim Crow south, remembers her saying: “These white women are killing themselves to be thin. Why are they doing that?”

Her grandmother’s observation stayed with her. But for Strings, she didn’t just encounter the phenomenon in white women.

Almost 20 years ago, Strings was working in a HIV clinic, where she encountered women sacrificing their health to be thin.

“I had spoken to a couple of women, both HIV-positive, who refused to take their HIV medications for fear of gaining weight,” said Strings. “And that blew my mind. And it immediately took me back to conversations I’d been having with my grandmother.

“Like, oh my gosh, she was onto something so important. You know, when she was talking about it, she saw it as largely a white phenomenon. But the women I interviewed that day were both women of colour.”

The academic would go on to research the topic and write a seminal and multi-award winning book on it Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia, published in 2019.

And what did she find?

There were of course the big magazines of the 1800s, such as Harper’s Bazaar, warning upper-class white women to watch what they eat.

“And they were unapologetic in stating that this was the proper form for Anglo-Saxon Protestant women,” said Strings. “And so it was important that women ate as little as was necessary in order to show their Christian nature and also their racial superiority.”

That’s all well and good for white women to track the origin of diet culture for them, but what was driving that kind of media 200 years ago?

It was about black people and white people, and what characteristics could define each, and therefore separate them.

“One of the things that the colonists believed was that black people were inherently more sensuous, that people love sex and they love food, and so the idea was that black people had more venereal diseases and that black people were inherently obese because they lack self-control,” writes Strings.

“And of course, self-control and rationality, after the Enlightenment, were characteristics that were deemed integral to whiteness.”

Body size linked to freedom

Body size, therefore, became a characteristic that was used to suggest who deserved freedom, and who didn’t, argues Strings.

Irish bodies feature heavily in Strings’s book. The thinkers, speakers, and public intellectuals of the 1800s weren’t too fond of our bodies, our restraint, or apparent lack of it.

The Irish predilection for overeating was constitutional, believed Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle, whose work existed around the time of the Great Famine.

“It was a deficiency that proved their inherent, intractable racial inferiority,” writes Strings in her book. She explains how the Irish were deemed an inferior European race in the 1800s by the authors of new racial theories.

Anglo-Saxons were the “pure” white race, whereas other Europeans, principally the Celtic Irish, were deemed an inferior or hybrid European race.

British doctor and ethnologist James Cowles Prichard, who died in 1848, treated the Irish as “part African” and “part Asiatic”.

Now, hundreds of years later, the racist origins of diet culture have been somewhat disguised and we have culture warriors naively debating notions of beauty.

Jordan Peterson quit Twitter after he was criticised for calling swimsuit model Yumi Nu ‘not beautiful’. Picture: Rene Johnston/Toronto Star via Getty Images
Jordan Peterson quit Twitter after he was criticised for calling swimsuit model Yumi Nu ‘not beautiful’. Picture: Rene Johnston/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Not unless you are someone like Strings, or Da’Shaun L Harrison, author of Belly of the Beast: The Politics of Anti-Fatness as Anti-Blackness, or those who work in the area of bodyliberation such as Marquisele Mercedes, @fatmarquisele or Lindley Ashline, @bodyliberationwithlindley.

But there will always be the gaslighting, the obfuscation, with people now arguing that the desire to be slim at all costs, has nothing to do with racism, and everything to do with health.

A study of 11,000 people might debunk the claim that slim equals healthy.

In the US study ‘Healthy Lifestyle Habits and Mortality in Overweight and Obese Individuals’, researchers wanted to understand the impact of health-promoting behaviours on disease risk.

They measured the 11,000 people’s weight, alongside four other behaviours: Eating five or more fruit and vegetables daily, exercising regularly, consuming alcohol in moderation and not smoking.

What did they find? A lot.

Engaging in just one of the four behaviours cut disease risk in half. And engaging in all four behaviours meant disease risk was roughly the same, regardless of weight.

This isn’t the only study — far from it — proving you can exist in a bigger body and be healthy at the same time.

Adipose tissue isn’t the issue, oppression, via racism and misogyny are. Diet culture and its proponents are achieving exactly what in the world? Personal notoriety and pounds in their pockets.

Imagine all the things you could expend your precious energy on if you no longer kept such vigilant check on your body.

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