The Protestant Work Ethic mythos and its presumed moral superiority have taught us that discipline should be projected onto everything, including bodies and sexualities.
By Maz Hedgehog
One of the core myths of Anglo-American capitalism is the Protestant Work Ethic. The belief that Britain and America earned the wealth hoarded by their ruling classes through hard work, delayed gratification and careful discipline is a powerful one. This Work Ethic fallacy was born of post-Reformation patriarchy and white supremacy, providing intellectual justification for the colonial and industrial wealth acquisition of the 18th and 19th centuries. However, this mentality extended far beyond the fence around a plantation or the factory owner’s front door, but seeped into every aspect of the Anglo-American psyche.
The ‘Work Ethic’ and its presumed moral superiority taught these countries and these cultures that discipline could be projected onto everything. Just as settlers and imperialists brought other nations and the land they occupied under their control, they believed—and continue to believe—that peoples’ bodies and desires could be similarly tamed. Anglo-American capitalism presumes that everything can be made predictable, coherent and reliable. Like an industrial loom or set of train tracks, capitalism believes that human beings, with their endless variation of bodies and desires and needs, can be turned into an asset: providing endless growth and limitless profits.
This, of course, is a fiction, one which requires the subjugation of a wide range of states of being including, but not limited to: fatness, queer genders and sexualities, disability, old age and even death itself. This article will focus on fatness and bisexuality but the others cannot be ignored and any rounded view of anticapitalism must take these into account.
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Our societal preoccupation with becoming and remaining thin has precious little to do with taking care of people’s wellbeing. Study after study have shown that the weight cycling caused by intentional weight loss does not produce positive health outcomes over the long term. Instead, the obsession with lifelong thinness is an obsession with the idea that our bodies can be made compliant. It says that—by eating only the correct foods and moving in the proper ways—all bodies can be thin bodies. In the way of the Protestant Work Ethic and its associated asceticism, it turns taking pleasure in food into a sin and generates guilt and shame around eating ‘incorrectly’. It says that fatness is a failure of self control, the sign of a weak will. It produces diet culture, which says that by purchasing certain products (diet plans, superfoods, gym memberships, diet pills and weight loss surgery etc), “bad” fat bodies can be turned into “good” thin ones. It constructs thinness as the stable ideal against which fatness is defined as a temporary failing.
Similarly, heteronormativity teaches that desire can be controlled and contained. The dangerous pleasure of queerness, seen in its stereotyping as excessively hedonistic and hypersexual is contrasted with the sedate responsibility of cisgender heterosexuality. Cis- and heteronormative communities are careful and vigilant in keeping queerness outside its boundaries. Intimacy is strictly policed, especially amongst men and people perceived as men, to ensure that no sign of queerness (and its associated potential for pleasure) is allowed to persist.
Whilst most nice liberal spaces concede that homosexuality is a valid way of experiencing romantic love, it often does so with a narrative which reifies the boundaries between straight and not. ‘Born this way’ rhetoric only really accepts queerness if it is entirely unavoidable and discrete from cisgender heterosexuality. It does little to push back against parenting mores which insist that children must be kept under strict control, or against social pressure for adults to adhere to set sexual scripts, lest they become/are read as gay.
Heteronormative life planning—get married/monogamously partnered, have children, work to provide for those children etc.—is designed to create neat units of production. Contemporary nuclear families serve as easily identifiable categories to whom products can be sold, from whom profit is extracted and along which wealth passed on. Queer ways of creating kinship are less clear, less delineated and, therefore, less useful for capitalism. Heteronormativity, in part, enforces itself by insisting that there can be neat boundaries placed around desire, that sexuality is coherent and stable, that queerness can always be readily identified and marked out for punishment.
Fatness shows that bodies cannot be tamed, that they are destined to differentiate, to change size and shape as we grow and age. Fatness is a sign that body size is not controllable. Whereas bisexuality, pansexuality and other multi-gender attractions show that desire cannot be tamed, that experiencing (apparently) heterosexual attraction does not preclude queerness, that sexuality is not inherently static and readily classifiable. In the face of this, fatness and bisexuality become spectres, signs of defect or incompleteness or immaturity to be feared and rejected. They become temporary categories which must be disciplined into maturity and coherence, lest the whole edifice fall apart.
Much of fat and bi activism emphasises that fatness and bisexuality are mature, stable and coherent. They assert that they are ‘natural’ states of being which are not chosen, and generally cannot be chosen. I must stress that this work is important. This article is not meant, in any way, to devalue the fat and bi activists doing that work. Getting people to understand that diet culture and conversion therapies do not work as advertised and instead cause immeasurable suffering means asserting the fact that fatness and bisexuality exist and cannot be deleted through any amount of discipline (i.e. abuse).
But I fear so much time is spent asserting the ways fatness mirrors thinness and bisexuals are similar to non-queer people that we risk missing the fundamental lie in thin/hetero logics. Within fat and bi politics is the potential to open up different ways of being which reject the Protestant Work Ethic and the capitalism it underpins.
Fat politics asserts that fat people should be allowed to exist freely in the bodies we have now. Fat politics can also make the argument that, if we are unable to control what size our bodies will be, then performances of dietary virtue—through ‘proper’ eating and exercise—become pointless. In such a framework, dietary virtue itself becomes meaningless. The body size has nothing to do with (Anglo-American capitalist) ‘self control’, and everything to do with a blend of genetics, environment and random chance.
Thinness then, is not a marker of good moral character and has no philosophical meaning beyond that which is projected onto it. Rejecting food as pleasure does not guarantee thinness. So that rejection, and the diet culture it creates/sustains, becomes pointless. By demanding that fat people be allowed to enjoy full lives today, rather than waiting for a thin future that will never come, fat politics can take the performative morality out of food and movement. The way we eat and how much we move cease to be fatphobic shorthand or sorted into a moral hierarchy to be packaged and sold to us.
Bi politics argues that people should not be bound by the way they experienced love and attraction in the past. Bi politics asserts that, if ways of engaging in romantic/sexual intimacy can vary and change across a lifetime, then insisting on the purity/primacy of one attraction over another is doomed to fail. The idea that someone is heterosexual and so will follow the script laid out by heteronormativity unless definitively proven otherwise is shown to be inherently flawed. As queerness—often understood as rigid homosexuality—cannot be easily recognised and kept at a distance, heterosexuality cannot be a safe/easy default presumption. Since experiencing apparently heterosexual desire does not inherently purge queerness, then conversion therapies and other forms of enforced heterosexuality are not the safeguards they claim to be. Bisexuality has the ability to bring queer ways of being into apparently heterosexual unions. This means that the idealised heteronormative life plan—(cis)gender segregation, marriage until death and the associated children—and the stable unit of production it generates, cannot be inherent or automatic, even within heterosexual appearing partnerships.
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In these ways, the rejection of pleasure—in food or desire—cannot reliably turn a fat or queer person into a thin or cishet one. Therefore, fat and bi politics invite us to embrace pleasure now. We can understand that food and inactivity and desire and sex are sources of pleasure, that pleasure is to be appreciated and enjoyed. Fat and bi politics understands that we should not reject our present selves in favour of (thin) futures or (hetero/homosexual) pasts.
In a society which uses the past behaviours to create present assets which are projected into future products, embracing change, fluidity and unpredictability can be a site of resistance. Rejecting consumer capitalism, which binds us to discrete groupings to sell us ‘aspirational’ lifestyles, requires the rejection of thinness and heteronormativity as inherent goods. Understanding that much of our lives is out of our control, that all we can do is experience it, opens up space to show solidarity for one another as no way of being can be inherently superior to another.
Faced with this truth, we are invited to reject the lie of the Protestant Work Ethic and therefore the idea that the size of our bodies or shape of our desires can be markers of virtue. We can instead confront the ways that vast swathes of the worlds’ population are cut off from pleasure: either through inaccessibility or punishment.
In a world which seeks to silo us, divide us between the deserving and the undeserving, turn power and privilege into moral superiority, make control over capital a sign of virtue, fat and bi politics has the potential to provide important ways of rejecting/resisting/dismantling these power structures.
Maz Hedgehog is a UK based poet and theatre maker who’s produced work for organisations like Penguin, the Royal Exchange Theatre and Blue Peter. When she’s not writing, editing or performing, you can generally find Maz knitting, baking or tweeting too much. Find her across social media @MazHedgehog
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