How an Obsession with Obesity Turned Fat into a Moral Failing

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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.”

Short of burning obese people in effigy, it’s hard to imagine how we could stigmatize fat more in this culture. Body hatred is regarded as a feminine virtue. An estimated 8 million Americans–a million of them men–already wrestle with eating disorders like bulimia and anorexia nervosa, the country’s deadliest mental illness.

Last fall, the Ad Council and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services skipped the shaming tack and took a more enlightened approach with their latest “Small Steps” campaign, which offered encouragement to be more active. The ads even had a sense of humor: Two kids poked at a belly shed by someone walking on the beach; a man coaxed his dog away from a butt lost by someone playing with his kids in the park.

The health police weren’t laughing. The Associated Press parroted the backlash, noting that, while antismoking ads featured tumor-ridden corpses and antidrug public service announcements portrayed users wallowing in loserdom at their parents’ houses, the fat ads offered no horror or villains. “For example,” the AP relayed, “none have offered a surgeon’s view of fat, or dramatized a death from type 2 diabetes, or shown a person complaining about how a fat neighbor’s medical bills are costing taxpayers.”

Righteous myopia has a pathology of its own; it stems from our unyielding faith in self-determination and our quickness to judge others’ moral shortcomings. “While talk of the obesity epidemic is everywhere, honest conversation about our knee-jerk disdain for fat people is nowhere,” writes Courtney Martin in Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body (see excerpt, p. 38).

And that is the real shame, because our inability to see past our obsession with fat is making things worse. We’re sending people into prisons of self-loathing that have them seeking refuge in yo-yo diets that feed a multibillion-dollar weight-loss industry but do nothing to keep the pounds off and, in fact, often contribute to health problems later. Our narrow vision has other side effects, too. As the Ecologist reported in 2006, there are other culprits–endocrine disruption caused by pollution, increasing sleep deficits, the surge in prescription drugs–that may be contributing to obesity, and we desperately need to be researching them.

The plain truth is that fat people make easy targets in public policy and debate, just as they do on the playground. And until we are able to view our bodies as something more than never-ending renovation projects, we won’t be able to make sense of our weight, no matter what the science tells us.

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