A National War on Fat & the Value of Young Voices

America’s war on fat has wreaked havoc on its target demographic. Young Americans are now speaking up about the trauma this health-promoting agenda has caused.


| December 2015



girl's weight loss progression

In today’s fat-obsessed, thin-ideal world we hear little about the dangers fat-talk has on individuals and society at large.

Photo by Fotolia/olly

In recent decades, America has been waging a veritable war on fat. In Fat-Talk Nation (Cornell University Press, 2015), Susan Greenhalgh tells the story of today’s fight against excess weight by giving young people an opportunity to speak about their experiences. The following excerpt, taken from Part 1 “The Politics and Culture of Fat in America,” offers a brief history of the national war on fat and how it has affected the campaign’s main target: young America.

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By all accounts, America is in the midst of an obesity epidemic of catastrophic scale in which rising proportions of the public—now two-thirds of adults, and one-third of children and adolescents—are obese or overweight. Between the late 1970s and 2012, the proportion of Americans who are obese rose from 15 to 34.9 percent among adults and from 5 to 16.9 percent among the young. Although the rate of increase has recently slowed or stabilized in some groups, the now-heavy burden of fat, influential voices maintain, continues to threaten the nation. In the dominant story told by government, public health, and media sources, the country’s fatness is eroding the nation’s health, emptying its coffers, and threatening its security by depriving it of fit military recruits. The response has been an urgent, nationwide public health campaign, officially launched by the U.S. surgeon general in 2001, to get people—and especially the young—to eat more healthfully and be more active in an effort to achieve a “normal” body mass index (BMI). Toward that end, the surgeon general’s office and other government departments concerned with the public’s health have repeatedly urged all sectors of American society—from parents to elected officials, to school administrators, health-care professionals, leaders of nonprofits, and private companies—to help reduce the burden of fat. First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign, which aims to “solve the challenge of childhood obesity within a generation,” is only the latest initiative in what has been the nation’s standard approach to remedying the problem of growing girth for the last decade and a half.

American antipathy toward fatness is nothing new. For roughly the last 150 years, being fat has been seen as a cultural, moral, and aesthetic transgression that marked one as irresponsible, immoral, and ugly—“grotesque” in the indelicate language of former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop (who served 1982–1989). In the last few decades, however, there has been a critical cultural shift in our concern about fatness, from “self-control” (or virtue) to “health.” The now routine definition of excess weight as a disease, the rapid growth in medical research, and the proliferation of news on obesity and overweight mark this cultural shift. As the sociologist Abigail C. Saguy argues, the biomedical frame for understanding obesity has become so naturalized that people do not even realize it is a conceptual frame, one among many possible frames.

While weight as an attribute has been medicalized, that is, defined as a medical condition requiring diagnosis, two categories of weight—overweight and obesity—have been pathologized, treated as diseases in themselves. No longer are chunky and fat people merely “lazy”; in the current discourse they are also biologically defective; chronically ill; at risk of yet other, obesity-related diseases; and in need of ongoing medical treatment. It is this “diseasification” of higher weights, and its framing within a narrative of obesity-induced national decline, that has justified our government’s intervention in the obesity “epidemic” and the use of taxpayer dollars to support these interventions. With two-thirds of American adults and one-third of children now deemed abnormal and in need of remediation, there would appear to be strong grounds for taxpayer-supported government involvement, including not just public health actions but also financial support for a mushrooming research enterprise devoted to understanding the causes and consequences of this new disease. This disease model of weight, requiring government management, has not replaced the moral model of body size but has built on it in ways that greatly intensify the already heavy pressures to be thin.

Because personal health in our culture is a mega-value, equivalent to the good life itself, the medicalization of weight has had huge societal consequences. In the national anxiety that has grown up around the obesity problem—what sociologists such as Natalie Boero call a moral panic, marked by exaggerated concern about the threat to core American values—these broader consequences of treating heaviness as a disease have received scant notice. But they deserve our closest attention. The shift to health as the primary grounds for concern about adipose bodies has led to a dramatic expansion of the social forces seeking to intervene. The result has been an explosion of fat-talk of all kinds. By fat-talk I mean communications of all sorts about weight—spoken words, written texts, visual images, and moving videos—along with the associated practices, such as dieting, exercising, and many others. Where do we hear fat-talk?