Weight Loss Industry Masks Its Economic Interests With Bogus Health Concerns

By Esther Rothblum

For several decades, scholars in the social sciences have shown that when it comes to people’s attitudes about weight in the United State, thin is good and fat is bad. Fat people suffer from harassment and discrimination; thin people live in fear that they will gain weight and lose status. The scholarly field of fat studies critically examines the negative associations that Western society projects onto fat and the fat body, and advocates respectful treatment of all people regardless of body size. Fat studies scholars ask why we oppress people who are fat and who benefits from that oppression, arguing that weight, like height, is a human characteristic that varies across any population. Fat studies, then, resembles other academic disciplines that question discriminatory practices based on race, ethnicity, gender or age.

My own research has focused on weight and discrimination in education and employment settings, where fat people experience a lot of discrimination. One woman reported that when she was in high school, her guidance counselor advised her not to go to college because she wouldn’t fit into the classroom seats. A fat man was told by his doctor, “If I looked like you, I would take a gun and shoot myself.” A fat woman sought out a lawyer, who stated: “If I had one dollar for every pound you’re overweight, I could pay off my mortgage.” No one should be subjected to this kind of abuse. All people, regardless of weight, should be treated with fairness and respect in educational, employment, legal and medical settings.

Fat studies scholars in the health and medical sciences have examined the economic interests, masquerading as health concerns, that fuel the thin-is-better industries. Americans spend about $58 billion a year on weight-loss programs, diet foods, diet cookbooks and weight-loss drugs. Are these programs working in the long run? No. People are getting fatter – and living longer. The life expectancy for Americans born in 1930 is 58 years for men and 62 years for women. Life expectancy for those born in 2004 is 75 years for men and 80 years for women. This means that we are outliving our thinner grandparents by about 20 years!

A number of factors are associated with longevity, such as access to fruits and vegetables free of toxins, a secure job, access to health care, adequate sleep and a supportive community of family and friends. Fat studies is associated with the Health At Every Size (HAES) movement, which focuses on enhancing health rather than on a specific “ideal” weight. HAES advocates for availability of nutritious food and opportunities for physical activities that are joyful rather than regimented. Most of all, HAES recognizes that we cannot tell people’s health and fitness by their appearance.

Fat studies, like other liberation movements, also has an activism component. Back in 1973, two members of a group called the Fat Underground wrote “The Fat Liberation Manifesto,” which stated that fat people are fully deserving of human respect and equal rights. The authors viewed the struggle to end fat oppression “as allied with the struggles of other oppressed groups against classism, racism, sexism, ageism, financial exploitation, imperialism and the like.” Their message still applies. Everyone deserves to eat nutritious food and engage in fun sports and activities. No one should be treated with disrespect for the way they look. Let’s love and enjoy our bodies.

Rothblum is professor of women’s studies at San Diego State University and co-editor (with Sondra Solovay) of “The Fat Studies Reader.”

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