Obeasts go viral

by Carl Dyke

Since I have nothing much to say lately, I’ll brag on Rachel instead. Fresh off a glowing local review of her MFA installation of the Obeast project (including a full-size taxidermied Obeast!), the news got picked up by Jezebel, where it has gotten almost 90,000 page-views.

The work is a humorous but pointed challenge to the common stigma around obesity. Rachel addresses the diminished humanity (or ‘spoiled identity’, as Goffman put it) of fat people by casting herself as the North American Obeast, an endangered species of terrestrial biped descended from large manatee-like aquatic ancestors and hunted almost to extinction for food, blubber oil, and sport.

From Jezebel the story went viral, showing up in a host of aggregators and provoking reactions from admiration to fretting in the blogosphere. The action in the commentary includes a cross-section of attack and defense strategies; it’s always interesting to see how fluidly people slide around among normative discourses seeking intellectual cover for their ‘ick’ responses. And because Rachel’s project is a meta-commentary on normative discourses, it stimulates a lot of anxiety for people stuck in the mirror-traps of reciprocal judgment. In her responses to the responses Rachel calmly declines to play that game.

Incidentally, a theme of the work is the questionable naturalization of fat by turning it into a medical condition, ‘obesity’. This is an interesting instance of the dynamics of information channeling or linkage Jacob and I have just gestured at. Fat tends to be a ‘double-whammy’ stigma, to use the technical jargon – it is physically gross, but then is further linked to chosen moral failing: gluttony and self-indulgence. In this sense fat works a lot like homosexuality and mental illness, so that for each, in a first moment stigma managers react strategically to seal off the moral linkage by drawing on the normative discourse of Nature, asserting that we did not choose but are born this way as part of the diversity of the natural order. And fair enough. However, no move is ever the last move, so what is first celebrated as normal variation can just as easily be restigmatized as medical pathology, complete with contagions, epidemics, quack cures and the whole range of grimly heroic interventions from castration to lobotomy to lap-band surgery. Hey, whoops, not that Nature, the other Nature!

2 Comments to “Obeasts go viral”

  1. On my walk this morning I saw an actual dead vole, soaking wet (it’s been anomalously rainy around here lately), lying on the edge of the sidewalk. I don’t know what talismanic meaning it conveys, but I knew that I had to report it to you all.

  2. I don’t know either, but I stayed inside all day today just to be on the safe side.

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