Assistant Professor of Women’s & Gender Studies
Pace University, NYC
In a paper I gave at the 2015 annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Chicago, I presented on “discursive entanglements” in narratives on weight-loss surgery (WLS) by Girth & Mirthers, which both interact with, and disrupt, the dominant discourse on WLS.* In interviews with members of “Girth & Mirth” (G&M), a nationwide social club for big gay men, I explored the men’s perspectives on WLS. While G&M as a national social movement organization declares no official position on WLS, I gathered personal opinions on the topic from members in a local chapter. G&M was founded in the seventies to call attention to weight discrimination in the gay community. It provides life-affirming activities to assuage big gay men’s experiences of the shame of fat stigma, as they feel marginalized not only for their sexual orientation, but also for their size in gay society. G&M treats being big as “normal,” and offers a haven free of the usual hassle of weight-loss sermons (Whitesel 2014). Members are accepted as they are, without having to make drastic body alterations.
In doing a discourse analysis of the interview transcripts, I noted discursive knots where some arguments the men made about WLS were entangled. Karen Barad’s (2007) term, “discursive entanglements,” was useful for describing and unpacking the big men’s tenuous perspectives on WLS, which overlap and conflict, yet the men demonstrate a remarkable ability to creatively manage these entanglements. Their positions on WLS range from respect for others’ personal choices, to soft opposition to invasive surgery, comparison to sadomasochism, and to matters of attraction.
Most Girth & Mirthers personally opposed weight-loss surgery, but believed people should be free to choose for themselves. Members assumed a more-power-to-them attitude that seemed to be a recurring theme in many interviews, thereby creating a discursive entanglement between tolerance for personal choice and the club’s mission to be fat & happy. One member, a nurse, said: “I absolutely refused gastric bypass when my doctor asked me about it because I’ve cared for numerous patients over the years who’ve had the surgery, and were brought in for complications, and a number of them died of perforations. Besides, I don’t want a scar from my pelvis up to my sternum.” He went on to say: “If it worked for people, more power to them.” This speaker also could not help but reveal his deeper opposition to WLS. Adopting the dominant discourse he said, “My personal preference, not as a nurse, I think it’s the easy way out – I believe it’s a psychological thing. You have to retrain your stomach and let it shrink on its own.”
While this speaker scrutinized personal choice, he entangled it with issues of willpower and self-control. He asserted these surgeries are “the easy way out,” the unspoken being that fat people have not done the hard work of dieting and exercising. At the same time, he refused one dominant discourse, that of the medicalization of fat bodies that are in need of surgical intervention, but then fell back on another equally dominant discourse, that of psychologizing and individualizing fatness, and then blaming the “victim.” When those who are critical of weight-loss surgery individualize blame like this, they overlook the role that cultural stigmas play in the lives of fat people. They neglect to understand that one’s seemingly “personal and individual” choice to undergo major surgery is made under duress. Those who opt for WLS do so, from a set of options that are severely constrained by the extant system. One perhaps would not resort to WLS if the medical community were to make a practice of offering sustainable alternatives like the Health-at-Every-Size approach.
The Girth & Mirthers I interviewed also compared WLS to sadomasochism. This created a tricky discursive entanglement, because they also would not want to put down the kink community that engages in S&M. One Girth & Mirther made an analogy between WLS and being confined to a cage. He regarded it as constraining one’s pleasure of eating. Furthermore, like the nurse quoted above, he saw it as the easy way out: “It’s a cop-out. It’s like saying ‘I can’t do this on my own, but I’ll let you force me, so all I can drink is an ounce of fluid at a time and let my stomach process it.’ ” This big man likened undergoing the surgery to being forced into having one’s intake rationed. In creating a distinction between the willful, do-it-yourself weight-loss and the “cop-out,” coerced surgery, he rejects what he regards as total domination of the fat person by the medical industry, with its presumably “easy” solutions.
This big man went on to compare weight-loss surgery to being imprisoned in a cage, which is another illustration of a discursive entanglement. He said, “It’s basically the same as if somebody has put you in a cage. I knew someone who was gonna do it, and I said, ‘So, when did you get into S&M?’ I said, ‘Well, I’m not into that. But you’re getting into it.’ It’s the same principle as me putting you in a cage for a few months, and I ration you food, and whatever I don’t give you, you don’t eat.”
With the S&M metaphor, the speaker shifted the discourse from the dominant medical one of fat being dangerous, to a counter-discourse of the surgery itself being far more dangerous. His comparison of WLS to a cage went beyond personal choice equaling control of one’s own body, to include ceding control of one’s body in S&M, recalling Weber’s “iron cage” of bureaucratic domination and destruction. The speaker regarded WLS as not corrective, but destructive. The position of the WLS candidate he articulated, of “I can’t do this on my own, but I’ll let you force me,” echoes Weber’s account of how the ascetic choice turned into a willingness to become part of a rational, mechanized culture, trading a “light cloak” for an “iron cage” (1953: 181). The speaker regarded those considering WLS as being unaware of inducing their own suffering and mocked them for getting pleasure out of literally punishing their bodies from within. His S&M comparison also relates to Freud’s moral masochist, who simultaneously occupies the roles of “both... victim and... victimizer,” both “pain-enduring” and “pain-inflicting” (Silverman 1992: 196). Similarly, those who undergo WLS as a last resort seem to be both punishing themselves and being punished by the external world.
Girth & Mirthers belong to a body-acceptance group: in theory, they aspire not to judge someone else’s body as imperfect; yet, for example, in the interviews the subject of sagging skin following WLS occasioned an entangled position of both opposing weight-loss surgery, and favoring cosmetic surgery down the line to tuck the loose skin. One big man said: “They should either finish the job, or put the weight back on.” This speaker’s opposition to WLS and support of body contouring surgery unwittingly placed him in a discursive bind. His words hearkened to the tragic irony that people have these weight-loss surgeries to be accepted and reinstated into society, but they may find that their bodies are still “unacceptable” and in need of cosmetic surgery, lest the excess skin make their bodies even more “undesirable.”
In recent years, Fat Studies has become a powerful, counter-hegemonic voice by not shying away from biomedical data on weight, but instead attending to it, to see what reconfigurations become possible. While the subject of this emerging field has often been women, I wanted to give voice to Girth & Mirthers regarding WLS. Weight-loss surgery is medically imposed and it contradicts the big gay men’s self-validation and acceptance of their fellow members’ size. But overall, the interview data reveal that despite facing stigma and so much rejection, the men extend their discourse of fat acceptance to a larger and crucial insistence of respect for people’s choices, even those less than palatable, which is consistent with “progressive” neo-liberal attitudes toward the body.
* For a longer treatment of this topic, see Whitesel, Jason and Amy Shuman. 2016. “Discursive Entanglements, Diffractive Readings: Weight-Loss-Surgery Narratives of Girth & Mirthers.” Fat Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Body Weight and Society 5:1 (in press, January issue).
Barad, Karen. 2007. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Butler, Judith. 2004. “Doing Justice to Someone: Sex Reassignment and Allegories of Transsexuality.” In Undoing Gender, 57-74. New York, NY: Routledge.
Silverman, Kaja. 1992. Male Subjectivity at the Margins. New York, NY: Routledge.
Weber, Max. 1953. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York, NY: Scribner.
Whitesel, Jason. 2014. Fat Gay Men: Girth, Mirth, and the Politics of Stigma. New York, NY: NYU Press.