How an Obsession with Obesity Turned Fat into a Moral Failing
Shame on US
illustration by Joe & Kathy Heiner
To be fat in our culture is to be labeled not only a glutton, but also a vessel of disease. Sinners incapable of keeping food from their mouths, say waistline watchers in the media, government, and health industry, are literally weighing society down. Demand for supersized coffins is on the rise! Tubby tykes are clogging schoolyard slides! A costly health crisis looms . . .
We are obsessed with obesity. We have become hysterical. Yes, people have gotten a bit heavier, but we’re not committing mass suicide by doughnuts. The once ubiquitous mantra that “overweight” Americans have higher mortality rates than the “normals” has been debunked in the pages of the Journal of the American Medical Association. And the standards that peg some 66 percent of us as overweight or obese are not only arbitrary, they’ve shifted: Some 31 million people became overweight in 1997 when the top end of the body mass index’s “overweight” category was lowered from 27 to 25.
If the problem of obesity is overstated, the solution—self-willed weight loss—is science fiction. As recent studies have shown, to abandon the ranks of the overweight or obese, an American must achieve some Herculean combination of the following: overcome a genetically predisposed weight; starve through the hunger that naturally stems from exercise; resist the savvy marketing cues that trick us into consuming ever larger portions; and move into a better neighborhood, one with access to fresh foods, fewer fast food joints, and safer sidewalks.
We continue to treat obesity as if it’s either an original sin we’re born with and must repent or a cardinal sin we choose to commit. “At best, fat people are seen as victims of food, genetic codes, or metabolism; at worst, they are slovenly, stupid, or without resolve,” writes Julie Guthman, an associate professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who tracks the politics of obesity (see “The Food Police,” p. 44).
Take the reaction to a study published in a July issue of the New England Journal of Medicine that found that obesity can “spread” among social networks as people (primarily males) relax their norms about what constitutes an acceptable weight. The findings set off a new wave of media panic (Are your friends making you fat? Can you catch obesity?), which made Slate’s national correspondent William Saletan frantic. If we start thinking of obesity as literally contagious, he warned, we’re letting fat people off the hook for their bad choices.
The reader response to Saletan’s harangue was so fervid that he banged out an apology a week later. His line of thinking: Some people, the good fatties, can’t help being obese; they’ve just “been dealt a bad hand” by genetics. But the bad fatties, the ones who give in to their friends’ insidious notions that being fat is OK, they need a good, hard shamin’. For them, “the current level of stigma isn’t doing the job.”