Hey guys! As you know, I am very interested in the different frames we use when discussing obesity, health and beauty. A decade ago, I was interested solely in losing weight. I had been indoctrinated into a belief system whereby fat is morally reprehensible, ugly and something to “fix.” Once I “fixed” my fatness, I still felt “fat.” Why? The answer to that question is complex and warrants a dedicated post, but think about it- if you identify yourself as something and your place in the world hinges on this identity, even if the physical descriptor changes, you still feel this way. So, even if you are suddenly getting the benefits of a new-found thinness – you may still feel “othered” simply by virtue of the memory. Or, like me, you may be resentful toward a world that scorned you and see the new “benefits” of “thin” as artificial, shallow and conditional. Or, as I now worry, is my ability to maintain a significant weight loss playing into the belief that all fat people should try to lose weight too?
Anyhow, this is all to say even in the age of seamless technology, mobility and instantaneous access to information, we’re certainly not in an age of reason. If we look at the way we view obesity and fatness, we can quickly see that our nation’s disposition for othering and disenfranchising people based on physical characteristics, is still alive and well.
Despite the recent study that made headlines about less women dieting, the weight loss industry is expected to grow 4.5% in 2013, to a value of $66.5 billion. The reason for this seeming contradiction is, we presume, that less women are calling diets “diets” and instead using the phrase “lifestyle change,” which as I’ve mentioned before is baloney and Judith Matz does a great job at pointing that out too. I’d like to take a moment to draw attention to a HARO query from NBC reporting on this study that sought “a woman who is sick of dieting and refused to diet.. must not be obese.” Why do you think? Honestly, think about it.
So, why is the weight loss industry going to continue to grow? This is simple though the press release linked above says it for me: “as consumer discretionary income increases, new diet drugs enter the market, and the large players such as Weight Watchers boost enrollments. We see good growth in medical programs, and heavy advertising that should fuel demand.” What it doesn’t seem to grasp is how profitable stigma is. So much so, that even if consumer “discretionary income” does not increase, we will still see the industry boom because doctors, government, et al, will continue to bully citizens into thinking that if they are fat, they are bad people, a drain on society and must be “fixed” at all costs. For example, check this out:
[seen here] Not yet on the market or FDA-approved, this rudimentary stomach pump may soon find its way into your doctor’s office. Clincal trials have been, and continue to be, conducted. Basically, you eat, and then pump your food out (participants have noted that many foods get stuck).
As someone who was bulimic for a year…and as someone who is a HUMAN BEING….this depresses and angers me. What messages do we continue to get about obesity?
- you must lose weight at all costs, even if it means acquiring an eating disorder to lose weight or killing yourself from said eating disorder
- if you don’t take an “all or nothing” approach to weight-loss, you are a gluttonous, lazy, immoral, drain on society
- As Caitlin from Fit & Feminist mentions in the comments section, we’re continually told to distrust our bodies and to see food as this necessary evil that should be manipulated for the sake of weight loss, rather than to see food as just plain NECESSARY. Rather than learning to listen to our own biological hunger & satiation cues, we learn to fear our bodies for being these behemoths that need food. Caitlin writes: “I feel like our whole culture has lost touch with the fact that food/calories/nutrition are essential parts of our existence and instead replaced it with this video-game mentality where you try to see just how few calories you ingest (and if that means taking in grody faux-food chemicals in the process, so be it), with the ultimate goal being to, I don’t know, live off Cheeto-scented air or something.”
Or, take it from the Biggest Loser, which continues to teach viewers that fat people deserve to be shamed and nearly killed all in the name of a purported health goal. If you haven’t read Dr. Freedhoff’s piece here, please do. It shows how watching people shame fat people can actually influence you, the viewer, to also view fat people as in need of shaming. What’s interesting from a weight-loss/maintenance perspective is the recorded inability of BL participants to keep weight off for an extended period of time (with physiological reasons for this being found & documented). If you’re familiar with set-point theory, this is no surprise. By the way, if you haven’t read Biggest Loser participant Kai Hibbard’s tell-all on Golda’s blog, here, go for it!
What is frightening to me is that many doctors don’t seem to care much for ethics. They’ve been too long locked in the laboratory of their Ivy Towers to learn much critical theory or to really consider how larger forces shape “research,” “science” and the reasons we frame things the way we do. For example, this bioethicist believes we should all shame fat people into losing weight, as politely as possible. Or, perhaps, many doctors are too comfortable getting kick-backs and grants from the weight loss industry and Big Pharma.
Something else to pay attention to in 2013, and I’ve written about this before, is how Big Food will play into and frame its role in obesity. If Coca-Cola is any indication, Big Food will continue to draw attention to how it has lowered calories and shift blame back to the consumer, noting the same bullshit we’ve heard before: it’s calories in, versus calories out; if you don’t want to be fat and yet still want a Coke, have a Coke, but eat 160 calories less, or, better yet, have as much Diet Coke as you want! Coke introduced two new ads recently – one called “Coming Together,” which congratulates the beverage industry for coming together to “combat obesity” (god, I love that phrase >;( ). How? By offering more low- and zero-calorie beverages. According to Coke, the average calories in products made by the beverage industry is down 22%. Wow, congrats, you guys! You found a way to feed Americans shitty drinks, pat yourselves on the backs, and then put onus back onto the consumer. The second ad, called “Be Ok,” highlights the ways that you can burn the calories in a Coke. Because the horrors of obesity can be solved if people simply KNEW how to burn 160 calories. *bangs head against wall* If you’ve read my review of What’s Wrong with Fat? you can see that Coke, of course, takes obesity for granted by participating in the public health dialogue.
So, in 2013, consumers will undoubtedly continue to demonize Big Food…
HYPERBOLE, HYPERBOLE, FAT, HYPERBOLE
…And I feel conflicted about it. In one breath, I get it – Big Food is an insidious monolith that in many ways holds us captive (you can see above that clearly I despise Coke). In another breath, if we’re demonizing Big Food for making us fat, I can’t get on board because it just furthers fat-shaming, sanctioned discrimination, and governmental intervention. I suppose I despise Big Food for its spin. As a PR person, I can smell spin from a mile away (and perhaps this is reflective of my own inner conflict about what PR typically entails) – but I despise when companies jump on the obesity-fear-mongering wagon. Why? Because it usually means they will reformulate products to be low-cal and/or low-fat (and chock-full of artificial shit) and then call it a “solution” to obesity. This all, of course, furthers the myth that a) obesity is a legitimate health threat and b) that the solution is all about “energy balance.”
Another thing to notice is how Big Food continues to co-opt messages that might otherwise put them out of business. For example, Special K has craftily began a messaging campaign whereby they are not selling “diets” with their Special K, no no, they are selling body-positive messages by stealing fat-activist Marilyn Wann’s “Yay! Scales.” So even though their slogan is “what will you gain when you lose?” they depict women getting on scales that read out positive phrases and attributes rather than their weight.
Kellogg’s spokesperson Jesper Lund Jacobsen said, “It truly is not what the numbers on the scale read, but how you feel about yourself that allows you to project beauty and confidence to the world.” So then why are they selling weight loss? It’s like being a company that sells skin bleaching agents and then has their PR rep say, “it truly is not the color of your skin that matters, but how you feel about yourself …” So then why the eff are you selling a product that tells me otherwise?! Why is Special K selling low-calorie shit products so that you can lose 6 pounds in a week? It’s one of those sly marketing techniques where instead of saying what they’re actually selling (an eating disorder? shitty artificial foods?), they tell people they are selling a feeling. Can you even do that? Yes, that’s what profitable companies do! This is why they invest tons of money in PR and ad campaigns. Think about why someone spends tons of money on name-brand clothes; it’s rarely because of the “quality” of the actual clothes, but rather the feeling of having those clothes.
If you think “nutrition” is a cut-and-dry science itself, consider how easily experiments can be manipulated to produce specific results or how those who we trust to tell us what is nutritious can be bought out by Big Food (sometimes unknowingly). For example, The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), the world’s largest organization of food and nutrition professionals, is sponsored by Abbot Nutrition, Aramark, Coca-Cola, The Hershey Center for Health and Nutrition, National Dairy Council, General Mills, Kellogg’s, PepsiCo, and Unilever. And, anti-obesity sentiment makes it easy for Big Food, as I’ve shown, to get a green light from people – even Registered Dietitians – because they play on our collective fear of, and disdain for, fat to tell us how they’re cutting calories. You can read more about this here. And, remember, even the govt is in bed with special interests. Just look at the USDA and its love for dairy.
So, as the first month of 2013 wanes and we look to the future of 2013, remember not to take anything for granted as “fact.” Remember to “follow the money” and to question “research.” Remember that health is a personal endeavor. Most of all? Remember this: when you feel shame about your body, there’s usually a classist and sexist hegemony at stake and invested in keeping you shamed and compliant…
The Cranky One