How “woke” are you? No matter how attuned you may be to social-justice ideology, you’re probably not as woke as Maxine Ali. She is the kind of young feminist who spells “women” as womxn while slinging around academic jargon about “normative gender binaries.” Ms. Ali does most of her “activism” on her Instagram account, which, until a few years ago, was a typical sort of “influencer” account about food and exercise. But that was before Ms. Ali got herself a master’s degree from King’s College London, where critical theory is a central component of the curriculum. Critical theory is to cultural Marxism what a hammer is to carpentry; Ms. Ali is now qualified to identify systemic oppression wherever it may be found, which is to say, everywhere.
Only from such a warped perspective can it be claimed that the obese are being collectively victimized by what Ms. Ali terms “healthism.”
“The social construction of the ‘healthy’ body promotes norms that preserve white supremacy,” Ms. Ali proclaimed last month in an Instagram post, which detailed at length how BIPOC (black, indigenous, people of color) are oppressed by the “white normativity” involved in “discourses of health”:
When people talk about health and refer to a “healthy body,” Whiteness is often assumed because it is what we have always seen in visual representations and performances of health.…
The prevailing dietary and lifestyle practices that constitute “healthy living” glorify White middle-class standards of food consumption and living as the singularly correct standard. Within this is also an inferentially racist logic that only by embodying White norms, and by downplaying ethnic difference, can BIPOC achieve a state of health and success.
White dominance is bolstered by healthism. The strategy of charging individuals with a moral duty to stay well obscures the effects of structural racism that underpin society and produce health inequity.
Discourses of health function to re-secure white privilege. The conflation of the thin, white “healthy” body with beauty, morality and desirability aims to preserve racial hierarchies. Health discourses position Whiteness as “good” and “pure,” whilst simultaneously devaluing Brown and Black bodies and framing them as “bad,” deviant and pathological.
We cannot use the term “health” uncritically. We cannot have conversations about Wellness without acknowledging how its structures and performances facilitate the exclusion, marginalisation and harm of BIPOC. It’s time to call it out. [Emphasis added.]
As with most critical-theory writing, it’s difficult for a casual reader to discover exactly what is meant by all that academic gibberish. Perhaps our “inferentially racist logic” prevents us from understanding it. But Ms. Ali appears to be saying that the adjective “healthy” is a racist code-word signifying an effort to “preserve white supremacy” by promoting norms that assume whiteness and thereby facilitating harm to BIPOC. Thus, to the lengthy indictment of historic evils that white people are accused of perpetrating, we can now add the sin of bolstering “white dominance” by “healthism.”
Readers may be tempted to dismiss Ms. Ali’s rant as the silly ramblings of a young fanatic with too much time on her hands, but our universities are producing quite a lot of these fanatics nowadays. The anarchist mobs besieging major cities with “mostly peaceful” protests are sufficient evidence that such silly ramblings have an impact, and who knows where the pursuit of social justice may lead them next? In fact, the claim that “discourses of health” are oppressive to minorities has already gained traction in the mainstream media.
The New York Times in May published an op-ed column by Sabrina Strings, a sociology professor at the University of California-Irvine who is author of Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia. Noting that obesity had “surfaced as an explanation” for the above-average death rates of African-Americans from the COVID-19 pandemic, Professor Strings harrumphed, “The cultural narrative that black people’s weight is a harbinger of disease and death has long served as a dangerous distraction from the real sources of inequality, and it’s happening again.” After some discussion of the data, Professor Strings then got to her main theme:
Promoting strained associations between race, body size, and complications from [COVID-19] has served to reinforce an image of black people as wholly swept up in sensuous pleasures like eating and drinking, which supposedly makes our unruly bodies repositories of preventable weight-related illnesses.… My research showed that anti-fat attitudes originated not with medical findings, but with Enlightenment-era belief that overfeeding and fatness were evidence of “savagery” and racial inferiority.
Well, far be it from me to question the validity of a professor’s research, but it’s a rather long leap from (a) identifying a statistical disparity in health outcomes, and (b) claiming that the source of this disparity is “anti-fat attitudes” dating back to the 16th century. Perhaps I’ve misunderstood her argument, which later references “the centrality of systemic racism in current racial health inequities,” but her field of academic expertise is not viral epidemiology or public health. Nowhere does Professor Strings explain what fighting “anti-fat” attitudes (racist or otherwise) has to do with reducing “health inequities.” Her argument is a non sequitur, in terms of protecting black people from COVID-19 or any other disease.
Of course, much of the “research” emerging from our universities is at best useless, in terms of solving real problems, and is often mischievous, in that the critical-theory obsession with “systemic” injustice is a distraction from practical approaches to social problems. Critical theory ultimately amounts to a denial of individual agency, portraying people as members of categorical castes trapped in collective roles as either “privileged” oppressors or victims of various forms of oppression. Only from such a warped perspective can it be claimed that the obese are being collectively victimized by what Ms. Ali terms “healthism.”
Like so much of social-justice rhetoric, these claims are focused on the consequences of emotion, the belief that hurt feelings are the root cause of social problems. We need not argue with Professor Strings about racial attitudes that were prevalent three or four centuries ago to ask, what difference does that make to any African-American in 2020? Black people are dying from coronavirus, not from prejudice, and yet every attempt to discuss disparities in the COVID-19 pandemic keeps returning to racism as the automatic one-size-fits-all explanation.
Opinion columns in the New York Times will not solve “health inequities,” any more than rants about “whiteness” on Ms. Ali’s Instagram account will improve the health of her 20,000-plus followers. This is what I mean by describing critical theory as analogous to a carpenter’s hammer. When the only tool you’ve got is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. When the only tool you’ve got is critical theory, every problem looks like systemic oppression. Social justice ideologues are very good at finding problems by defining everything as racist, sexist, homophobic, etc., but when it comes to solutions, they offer nothing useful. Now excuse me while I finish eating my pizza. No one can accuse me of “healthism.”