‘We’re kind of devolving’: Evolution and Obesity Discourse

by Dr Francis Ray White

Introduction

[slide 1] title and Boivin pic.

I can’t remember now where I first saw one of these images, but it was one of those moments when you’re taken aback by how a number of already taken for granted, but unfounded, discourses about obesity coming together to produce a new level of the dehumanisation of, and indeed cruelty towards, fat people.

A bit of digging around on the internet revealed more of these images, including this one used in a TEDtalk by Dr Dean Ornish, a clinical professor at the University of California, San Francisco, which gives us an indication of how such images might be used:

…we’re kind of devolving…wow.

We are not, of course, devolving that is. Even those accounts that assert the facticity of the obesity ‘epidemic’ and attempt to explain a contemporary increase in obesity levels as a form of evolutionary maladaptation, do not suggest obesity is a ‘kind of devolution’, or that obesity is indicative of speciation in progress. Yet, Ornish is not alone in deploying this ‘fat (d)evolution’ image in the context of an argument that seeks to establish obesity as both an epidemic and a serious individual and public health concern. Over the past decade numerous versions of this image have graced book covers, weight-loss websites, media articles and even t-shirts.

[slides 2-11 with images here, end on Boivin]

Today I want to attempt to offer a brief exploration of the proliferation of such images, and ask how it is possible for them to make ‘a kind of’ sense. Suggesting that fat people are a species somewhere between human and pig is, of course, literally dehumanising. But there is more going on in these images than that. This dehumanisation is taking a particular form. Therefore, I

am interested in why evolution/devolution is the frame in which these images are made. I am interested in why they always depict a white, male figure, and I am interested in why that figure is often bald, and quite likely to be wearing saggy underpants. My aim is not to impose a singular or fixed meaning on the images, rather, it is to understand them in relation to existing discourses and representations of evolution, obesity, gender, race and class.

To conduct this analysis I assembled a sample of 18 different versions of these fat (d)evolution images. I included images on the basis that they depicted a series of figures ‘marching’ from left to right, beginning with an ape-like figure, followed by a number of intermediate figures of increasing bipedalism and uprightness preceding the figure of ‘modern man’, and then subsequently one or more fat figures and in four cases, a pig. I then drew on existing analyses of the original ‘march of progress’ illustrations, as well as some content analysis surveys that have been conducted on images used in media coverage of the obesity epidemic in order to guide my coding of the fat (d)evolution images. The sample images were coded for indicators of progress and (d)evolution, gendered, raced and classed traits, and for props such as clothing, tools and foodstuffs. From this I have divided the analysis into two main areas – the first is of the contexts in which these images emerge, namely in discourses of evolutionary progress and environmental and evolutionary accounts of obesity. The second examines how discourses of gender along with race and class are deployed.

(D)evolution and the ‘march of progress’ [slide with regular MoP]

First off, it seems almost too obvious to say that the fat (d)evolution images ‘work’ because they parody the well-known iconography of the ‘march of progress’. Dating from the 1960s this image presents human evolution in the form of a linear progression from ape to modern man. This representation of human evolution constructs the process as both linear, and rhetorically suggests that developments over time are also improvements in quality. This is visually conveyed in the format of the ‘march’ image that depicts figures in motion, striding from left to right (never statically facing the viewer), and in order of ascending height and uprightness. Such a view of evolution is profoundly ‘Homo sapiens-centric’ in that it positions Man as the pinnacle, indeed as the purpose, of millennia of species evolution, and as the standard by which all others are judged. Thus, it becomes possible to view any deviation from this standard as ‘devolution’.

[back to slide 11 - Boivin]

The fat (d)evolution images depict just such deviations employing visual cues to convey the message that ‘we’re kind of devolving’. In over half of the images I analyzed the fat figure was significantly shorter than the ‘modern man’, producing a literal peak and decline in the profile of the figures. What is notable about this feature of the images is that decreasing height is not cited as a related factor in the ‘obesity epidemic’ or evolutionary accounts of obesity thus its inclusion in the fat (d)evolution images serves the rhetorical purpose of suggesting devolution within a context where increasing height has been presented as analogous to qualitative progress.

Supporting this allusion, in around half the images the fat figure is shown with a downward gaze and a slumped or hunched posture, [slide 9 Brentwood] as opposed to the modern man who is always fully upright with head held high and shoulders confidently thrown back. In addition to this, in the majority of images the fat figure ‘marches’ with a shorter gait or stands still [slide 11 Boivin]. Where the figures behind appear to be speeding up, the fat figure is positioned as halting that ‘progress’.

If this is insufficient to signal the decline in quality between modern and fat man, then, in the minority of images that depict the figures in clothing, it is overwhelmingly only the fat figure who is dressed, usually with a grossly distended belly spilling over a tight waistband [slide 13]. The somewhat Biblical allusion to the fall from grace does little here to trouble the secular evolutionary narrative. However, what it exemplifies are the multiple rhetorical devices deployed in the images to illustrate fatness as devolution that are not only largely unrelated to the actual fatness of the body, but suggestive of certain moral or ideological messages.

[slide 14] The obesogenic environment

For the fat (d)evolution images to successfully constitute fatness as devolution not only must they do it within an evolutionary logic that equates evolution with progress, but also within a cultural context that views fatness as inherently negative. It is no coincidence, therefore, that the fat (d)evolution images have emerged at a time and in places where fatness has been recast as the social problem of ‘obesity’, and where a particular environmental approach to obesity has shaped this thinking. Said to characterize most Western societies, an obesogenic environment is one in which large numbers of people will become obese due to lack of access to spaces/facilities for physical exercise, increasingly sedentary work and leisure pursuits, urban planning that privileges car use, and most of all the high availability of ‘junk’ foods and caloric beverages. In recent years both anti-obesity researchers and government research and policy have utilized the idea of the obesogenic environment to explain the emergence of the obesity epidemic.

Environmental accounts of obesity do not directly suggest that fat people are devolving. However, the explanation of why an environment becomes obesogenic is often made via evolutionary accounts of obesity. The arguments goes something like this:

[on slide 15]

Human obesity is an inappropriate adaptive response to modern living conditions. The ancestral genus Homo evolved from scavenger-gatherers to become hunter-gatherers and eventually agriculturalists. Their descendants are now patrons of fast-food restaurants. There is a mismatch between our evolved biology and our modern life. The advantages of fat storage in the past have become significant disadvantages today (Power and Schulkin, 2009:11).

This kind of explanation has assumed the status of common-sense in the type of books featuring fat (d)evolution images on their covers. What it boils down to is the idea that we are maladapted to life in contemporary environments because our ‘thrifty genes’ want to store energy for lean times, which of course, will now never come.

Returning to the fat (d)evolution images, elements of an obesogenic environment approach are clearly evident within them. Most frequently it is symbolized by the presence of fast food – in nine of the eleven images that feature the fat figure holding something, that prop is a burger or fizzy drink, or picturing the fat figures with laptops, or driving/with car keys. [slide 16 – lazy and greedy]

Obesogenic environment accounts of obesity are supposed to offer structural explanations for obesity that remove blame from individuals, and lead to collective rather than individual ‘solutions’ to the obesity epidemic. However the environmental approach has been heavily critiqued as falling back upon precisely the kinds of individualist frames it was meant to replace, and ultimately reinscribing the construction of fat people as lazy, greedy and undisciplined. Kirkland argues that,

[on slide 17]

The environmental approach to fighting obesity is supposed to be collective, not responsibilizing. Responsibilizing individuals is not really environmental in the obvious sense of the word, after all. But because the animating problem is that poor people are fat, the focus on weight loss becomes the metric of success. The aim, then, is to get the poor and the fat to make virtuous personal choices to combat a contaminated world (Kirkland, 2011:467).

Thus environmental accounts fall back on castigating those who cannot (or will not) remain/become thin. This is frequently justified with reference to the large percentage of the population of even the most obesogenic environments who manage to not be fat. Subsequently, by conveniently disregarding any references to thrifty genes or environmental maladaptation, the ability to remain thin can now be attributed almost entirely to effective, rational control of one’s food intake.

Barry Popkin provides a clear example of this. He argues that although, ‘obesity is so widespread and intractable,’ it is still the case that ‘individuals can make a major difference’. How? ‘Clearly, we can all make better choices that will help us to be thinner and healthier’ (2009, p. 145). He then recommends eating less and eliminating caloric beverages, desserts and fried foods from one’s diet (p. 146). [slide 18 Popkin] Where does this leave the fat, fizzy drink consuming man depicted on the cover of Popkin’s book?

His fat body becomes symptomatic not of a genetic shift in the Homo genus, but of his lack of control and failure to tame his fat and sugar hungry genes. As Kirkland suggests then, the ‘obesogenic environment’ is mooted, only to be constructed as something which can and should be mastered by the weight-loss oriented, wilful individual.

Fat white men [slide 19]

So, so far the construction of fatness that I’ve been talking about in the images has been rather general, however, a ‘fat figure’ is never just fat, but is, among other things, gendered, raced and classed. In the fat (d)evolution images, the already gendered, raced and classed narratives of both evolutionary theory and contemporary obesity discourse mark fatness in specific ways. To begin with, the ‘march of progress’ image that these images parody have been subject to intense feminist criticism for their masculinist and ethnocentric bias and how they construct the fully evolved, rational human as both white and male in character. It is rare, if not unheard of, to see a ‘march of progress’ image where the final figure is not Caucasian or male, indeed Melanie Wiber argues that, [slide 20]

Women, children, ‘coloured’ racial categories and the ‘primitive’ are all grist for the mill which links the adult, white, male, Euro-american with evolutionary progress. All others are coded as contrasting to some degree or other with that exemplary progress (Wiber, 1998:108).

The fat ‘march of progress’ images also reproduce a central white, male figure, however, what they suggest is that when a body is male and white, but also fat, it joins the ranks of those ‘others’ unable to achieve ‘exemplary progress’.

This ‘otherness’ of the fat male body is also constructed through the deployment of various gendered and racialized characteristics within the fat (d)evolution images.

[slide 21] In all but two of the images analyzed the fat man’s body is exaggeratedly fat, offering a stark contrast to the slender and well-muscled figure that precedes him. The accentuation of rolls of flesh, especially on the belly, chest and buttocks has a distinctly feminizing or at least emasculating effect. I think we can also see this in the marked differences in the hair patterns of the figures, namely that in many of the images the fat man has lost the body hair and beard of the ‘modern man’, creating a smoother, less ruggedly masculine effect. In a slightly different way, the frequent depiction of the fat figure with a balding head, also works to imply a loss of virility in the fat man.

What I think this association of fatness with a failure to ‘do’ gender correctly suggests is that the undesirability of devolution is constructed not only in the fatness of the fat body but in its erosion of the gender binary that has produced ‘progress’ as a specifically masculine accomplishment. Thus the fat (d)evolution images articulate a specific threat is posed by white, male, but not female, fatness, a threat apparently to the future of the species! Indeed it is interesting that the only diet book I found featuring a fat (d)evolution image on its cover is a diet book for men (Harcombe 2011). Thus, masculinist evolutionary narratives simultaneously produce men as the pinnacle of evolution whilst simultaneously burdening them with the responsibility for preventing devolution and, ultimately, species extinction.

Conclusions

By parodying the ‘march of progress’ the fat (d)evolution images stage fatness as a threat to human evolution in a very particular way, and the absence of women or non-white people is far from coincidental. What fatness is figured to threaten is the masculine and ‘civilised’ ability to master oneself and one’s environment, hence as women and racialized ‘others’ have never symbolically possessed these abilities, it is not their fatness that is troubling here.

Thus, the fat in the fat (d)evolution images could thus be read, not as a general threat to humanity, but as specifically threatening the dominance of Western, white, middle-class, reproductive masculinity. The ostensible fear of the end of progress illustrated in the images masks a profound conservatism and fear of progressive change.

Ultimately, the fat (d)evolution images are so compelling because they appear to offer such a simple disciplinary warning, ‘we’re kind of devolving’, but in fact have to tangle with some of Western culture’s core binaries to do so, exposing their limitations in the process. If in an obesogenic environment we must ‘curb our instincts’ to remain thin, how can thinness also be our natural state where fat is cast as unnatural and pathological? And if the fat man is less than Man, but not quite woman (or pig), is gender still strictly binary? While few may take seriously the superficial implication that ‘obesity’ will end the human race as we know it, and others may dispute that these images will have any consequential influence, they nevertheless offer a fascinating insight into the elaborate and complex stories about ‘obesity’ circulating in contemporary Western societies. The more these stories are revealed and understood, the greater the possibility that new and better stories about fatness will evolve.

Works Cited/Selected References

Boivin, P., 2005. Evolution (image) [online]. Available from: http://forums.cgsociety.org/showthread.php?t=252254 [Accessed 25 July 2012].

Gard, M. and Wright, J., 2005. The obesity epidemic: science, morality and ideology. London: Routledge.

Harcombe, Z., 2011. The Harcombe diet for men. Monmouthshire: Columbus Publishing.

Kirkland, A., 2011. The environmental account of obesity: a case for feminist skepticism. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 36 (2), 463-485.

Ornish, D., 2006. The world’s killer diet [online]. Available from: http://www.ted.com/talks/dean_ornish_on_the_world_s_killer_diet.html [Accessed 25 July 2012].

Popkin, B., 2009. The world is fat: the fads, trends, policies, and products that are fattening the human race. New York: Avery.

Power, M.L. and Schulkin, J., 2009. The evolution of obesity. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Roberts, I. with Edwards, P., 2010. The energy glut: the politics of fatness in an overheating world. London: Zed Books.

Wiber, M.G., 1998. Erect men, undulating women: the visual imagery of gender, “race” and progress in reconstructive illustrations of human evolution. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

White, F.R., 2013. ‘We’re kind of devolving’: Visual tropes of evolution in obesity discourse. Critical Public Health, [forthcoming].