By Susan Greenhalgh
By all accounts, America is facing a catastrophic obesity epidemic. A rising number of people are obese or overweight. The heavy burden of fat is eroding the nation’s health, emptying its coffers, and even depriving the country of fit military recruits.
This is the dominant narrative of the obesity epidemic.
This narrative focuses on the health and economic costs of the obesity epidemic to the nation. In the early 2000s, when talk about obesity and the war on fat were sweeping through the nation, I wanted to better understand how this talk affected the lives of individuals. I offered the students in my course “The Woman and the Body” extra credit for writing an essay on how diet, weight, and the body mass index (BMI) play out in their own lives or the life of someone they know well.
I was unprepared for the responses I received. The essays were eye-opening, disturbing, and, in many cases, heartrending to read. They were full of tales of childhoods dominated – and often devastated – by battles over weight and by body hatred. Equally distressing, many wrote that they had never told anyone — not their moms, not their siblings, not their friends — about their daily struggles and suffering on account of their weight. “If … I happen to gain weight, even just one or two pounds, I flip out and feel disgusted with myself. I can feel the disgust manifest in the pit of my stomach like it has a voice, and with every growl and every grubble, it is like a knife [boring] into my self-esteem.” — 20-year-old Caucasian woman
Reading my students’ essays helped me understand that waging a war on fat carried both human costs to individual Americans and social costs to American society. I began working on a project to give voice to those who had been long shamed into silence and to share my growing awareness of the politics of fat.
Hidden Costs of the War Itself
In my new book, “Fat-talk Nation: The Human Costs of America’s War on Fat” (Cornell, 2015), I argue that the intense concern about the obesity epidemic is producing a parallel epidemic of “fat talk” aimed at educating, badgering, and ridiculing heavy people into shedding pounds. Young people are inundated with messages that looks, body size, and shape matter above all else. This constant din of fat-talk is profoundly changing young people’s understandings of who they are and their identities.
The stories my students told reveal that the war on fat is creating an entire generation of self-identified “fat subjects.” A fat subject is different from an obese person. An obese person has a BMI of 30+. A fat subject is one who identifies as fat and organizes his or her life around that sense of self.
As they struggled with this new socially-imposed identity, the young people I worked with developed four shared characteristics that added up to “fat personhood.” First, the fat subject saw himself as biologically flawed, morally irresponsible or unworthy, and/or aesthetically unappealing — a person who is bad and unlikable. Second, the fat person obsessively dieted and exercised in an effort to lose that degrading weight. Faced with incessant ridicule and social rejection, the fat subject retreated socially, for example, skipping parties or eating in private to avoid censure. Finally, the fat person endured emotional suffering, including depression, low self-esteem, and pervasive insecurities that in some cases have lasted their entire young lifetimes.
If the War on Fat Is Causing So Much Harm and Not Even Reducing Obesity, What Should We Do Now?
Despite the monumental efforts of so many social forces – not just parents, but also health care providers, teachers, coaches, and others – the essays make clear that our current approach of making self and society primarily responsible for weight is not even achieving the campaign’s primary goal of reducing obesity. A tiny handful of my students did shed pounds and keep them off, but they were the exceptions. The vast majority were frustrated weight-losers who, despite failed efforts to lose pounds, kept on trying. Why did their attempts fail? Because heavy weights don’t stem from individual laziness or laxity, but from complex and deeply rooted emotional, biological, and economic problems that all the coaxing and badgering could not address.
The dominant narrative stresses the costs of obesity to the nation’s health and economics. The emotional, social, bodily, and relational harm inflicted on individual Americans in the name of fighting fat is not even counted. Indeed, such costs are not even measured and thus remain invisible to the public and policymakers alike. The essays I gathered provide stark evidence that the approach we have now is doing real, measurable damage to our selves, our psyches, our relationships, our families, and especially to our young people. What if these invisible costs of the war on fat could be measured and tallied up?“I’ve cried many times about my appearance. I’ve counted calories, gone on crazy diets that hardly last, made myself throw up, starved myself, and done tons of research just so I can make myself lose weight. This insecurity [about my weight] stops me from being the person that I am or want to be.” — 21-year-old Filipino American woman
The war on fat is an especially critical issue for feminists not only because girls and women are disproportionately victimized by all the fat-talk in our environments. It is critical too because we are also perpetrators, who are urged to educate, coax, and even bully others to diet, exercise, and lose weight in the name of promoting health — even though these efforts almost invariably fail. If we – as women, as feminists – have been made so central to the war on fat, what can we do now? How can we respond?
People in many quarters are now pushing back against entrenched messages about obesity. Professionals in some fields are finding new ways to think about fatness and health. Television is featuring women with some meat on their bodies, such as Lena Dunham, star of the HBO series “Girls” or Mindy Kaling, star of Fox TV’s “The Mindy Project.” Fat positive and fat pride photos and postings abound on such sites as Pinterest, Jezebel, and the Huffington Post. Fat fashion is becoming more mainstream. And there are thousands more points of light.
These are all promising developments, but much more is needed. The war on fat needs to be wound down and brought to an end. Ramping down the war of fat is a huge and vastly complicated project. It is hard to know even where to begin. But there are positive steps that we can take. Among other things, we can start by examining our own fat-talk – our self talk as well as the talk with use with families and friends – to see how much of our energies are being dissipated by worrying about extra pounds. Just as important we can start launching campaigns against fat bullying, so that in time sizeism and weightism will become just as intolerable as sexism, racism, and homophobia are today.
Susan Greenhalgh is a professor of anthropology and the John King and Wilma Cannon Fairbank Professor of Chinese Society at Harvard. Previously, she was a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Irvine and, before that, a senior research associate of the Population Council in New York City.