Short Cuts: Weight Watchers and obesity stigma for all! edition

By | May 13, 2011


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Triumph of Bacchus (Museo de Prado, Madrid), by Cornelis de Vos (1584–1651). A fat and glowing Bacchus reclines on a chariot pulled by tigers, surrounded by adoring wood sprites and humans.

Fat dudes get all the best stuff. Where's MY tiger-drawn chariot?

David Sirota is a columnist over at Salon, and a couple weeks ago, he wrote an article about the cultural differences in how fatness is perceived in men versus women, inspired by Weight Watchers’ recent announcement that they plan to start targeting men explicitly in their advertising. It seems men are an untapped group in the diet marketplace, and Weight Watchers wants their money too!* Sirota is astonished by the low numbers of men in weight-loss programs, when men are markedly more likely to be fat than women, and rightly blames a culture that holds women to different standards of appearance than men.

For a far-reaching outlet like Salon, this is probably kind of a radical idea. Unfortunately, Sirota’s solution seems to be that fat men need to lose their “privilege” in the face of horrendous cultural stigma and be subjected to equal-opportunity fat hatin’. He proceeds to list all the fat dudes who have it too easy, from Chris Farley to Rush Limbaugh.

Similarly, in big-time sports, our male superheroes are often super-fat. Harvard University, for instance, found that 55 percent of Major League Baseball players are overweight, while the University of North Carolina found that 56 percent of National Football League players are obese. These whales, of course, are interposed on TV between beer commercials featuring super-thin female models and are often playing in front of impossibly dimensioned female cheerleaders.

Whales indeed. This was the part where I facepalmed pretty extremely. Here Sirota unwittingly illustrates the intellectual paradox of obesity hysteria. He cites studies showing that many pro athletes qualify as overweight or obese by current standards, and uses this as further evidence that fat men are not held to task for their size. Amazingly, it does not seem to occur to him that maybe the yardstick by which the weight (and by unspoken extension, the health) of these professional exercisers is measured may be inherently flawed. It does not cross his obesity-terrified man-brain that the problem may not be with the individual athletes, but with the so-called “healthy weight” standards we are applying to their incredibly active and muscular bodies. This is a stark reminder that obesity hysteria has nothing to do with health—no one cares how much you exercise or what you eat, really, if you continue to qualify as fat according to the BMI. Alleged “healthy habits” really only count for something if they manage to make you thin.

Sirota followed this up a couple days ago with another column dissecting women’s obsession with weight, replete with astonished observations about these crazy chicks’ priorities. He identifies the toxic nature of body culture and references eating disorders, cigarette-smoking for weight maintenance, and dangerous diet drugs. Like you do. The core of the piece is a University of Arizona study that found women would rather be almost anything else, other than fat.

…[O]ne in four women would prefer to be severely depressed rather than overweight, and nearly one in six would prefer to lose their sight rather than face the same fate. These are truly stunning numbers — but, then, they come as responses to hypotheticals…

The ASU study, then, confirms just how powerful this pressure really is — and how it’s become so intense that women may now be willing to endure far more than eating disorders and smoking in the pursuit of thin.

I hate these kinds of studies, because even though they may have fairly well-meaning roots in psychology or cultural anthropology or whatever, once they hit the headlines they take on a gruesome and candid ableist vibe. We need to remember that when we cite numbers like the above with aghast horror, we’re suggesting it’s unfathomable that someone might rather be blind than fat, because we think of blindness as a terrible terrible fate. In this manner we are valuing able-bodied fatness over non-fat disability. There are lots of blind folks who might take exception to that, and using blindness (or any disability or other social stigma) in this way serves as yet another marginalizing force on folks who are already classfied, like fat people, as the other, outside of acceptable norms.

As a general rule, it is a good idea not to assume anything about the experience of people living in bodies that are unfamiliar or even scary to you.

Sirota solves all our problems by saying we must address the Obesity Horror by focusing not on aesthetics, but on health, and in so doing demonstrates how shallow his comprehension of the complicated nature of cultural body politics really is. Thanks, David! What would we have done without you.

Seen any other fattery-related links in need of deconstruction? Hit me up in comments.

*I will ask anyone inclined to assert, “But Weight Watchers isn’t that bad!” to remember that Weight Watchers is not a nonprofit organization. They are in this to make money. While I support the autonomous right of anyone to use Weight Watchers as they see fit, I also think calling Weight Watchers “not that bad”—something I hear often—is like pointing out the most lethargic poisonous deadly snake in a writhing pit of enraged poisonous deadly snakes: you still don’t want it to bite you. Just my opinion, yo. [Edited to clarify a poorly-placed pronoun.]

Hat tip to commenter Kendra for the above links!


36 Comments

Twistie on May 13, 2011 at 2:25 pm.

I’ve noticed several WW commercials of late that show couples and one that features a man talking up the wonders of the online version of the program. It’s a very lightly-tapped market, and I’m amazed it’s taken this long for WW to decide to go for the guy bucks.

And I have to say I love how on the one hand Sirota wants men to start freaking out about their weight, but is horrified at the fact that women already do suffer from astonishing levels of self-loathing behaviors because of the amount of energy society requires them to use up in ultimately futile efforts to be thin enough to be ‘good.’

It’s almost like he hasn’t thought any of this through.

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Christine on May 13, 2011 at 2:29 pm.

It’s a shame, because the heart of it is that fat or otherwise “unattractive” men ARE treated differently than their female counterparts. I mean, heaven forbid that the homely female character get the hot guy using her brains, charm, what have you. No, no, the homely female gets made over (takes off glasses, shakes out hair) and is suddenly gorgeous and possibly, maybe smart, and then gets the guy. But in media portrayals all over the fat, short, old, or funny looking guy can date/marry/sleep with a good looking woman based on wit, money, etc.

And that sucks! But the answer isn’t in shaming these “other” men to take on a portion of the shame, it’s getting rid of all these stigmas in the first place.

Oh hell. In any case, happy Friday, all!

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Arwen on May 13, 2011 at 2:30 pm.

“the most lethargic poisonous deadly snake in a writhing pit of enraged poisonous deadly snakes: you still don’t want it to bite you…”

Yeah, plus, Weight Watchers totally has Nice Guy Syndrome. “I’m a great diet. I’m nice! I’m reasonable! I’m about your health!” it says, “Only all those fat chicks dump me eventually.” Then it sniffs and bitches about Atkins being a dick.

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Katryn on May 18, 2011 at 1:43 pm.

Ha, right on!

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Rebecca on May 13, 2011 at 2:37 pm.

I have a link for you!

BBC: Drug trial to prevent obese kids.

I just, I can’t even.

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Christine on May 13, 2011 at 3:32 pm.

Rebecca, that study is horrifying. I hope that these “obese” women are educated enough to refuse to participate in this study.

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Kaite on May 13, 2011 at 4:07 pm.

I find it odd that you champion weight acceptance for all yet those who choose to join weight watchers to either improve their health or lose weight are looked down upon. At least that is my read of things. Perhaps I am wrong but I think acceptance means acceptance period. Just like everyone my body and what I do with it is none of anyone’s business. If I choose to loose weight or choose to eat myself up to 900 pounds that is my choice.

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Lesley on May 13, 2011 at 4:22 pm.

Hi Kaite! Maybe you missed the first part of that sentence. I’ve bolded it below to point it out.

While I support the autonomous right of anyone to use Weight Watchers as they see fit, I also think calling them (i.e., Weight Watchers) “not that bad”—something I hear often—is like pointing out the most lethargic poisonous deadly snake in a writhing pit of enraged poisonous deadly snakes…

Maybe you thought that “them” referred to the people, and not Weight Watchers itself?

To clarify: Weight Watchers does not give a fuck about anyone’s health. Weight Watchers cares about making money. Again, I SUPPORT THE AUTONOMOUS RIGHTS OF INDIVIDUALS TO DO WHAT THEY LIKE WITH THEIR BODIES, but that doesn’t mean Weight Watchers is a kind and loving institution.

I am criticizing Weight Watchers, because I think they prey on people’s insecurities and, honestly, on the widespread but inaccurate belief that weight loss always and unfailingly imparts happiness to everyone.

I am not criticizing any individual who goes to Weight Watchers, because I support the autonomous rights of individuals to do what they like with their bodies.

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flufficat on May 13, 2011 at 7:30 pm.

I remember something you wrote a while back on this same idea, that Weight Watchers is in the business to make money. I had done the program off and on for years, and never thought about that until you pointed it out. Very much a lightbulb moment for me.

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thirtiesgirl on May 15, 2011 at 11:51 pm.

Per Wendy Shanker, in her 2003 book The Fat Girl’s Guide To Life, Weight Watchers spends more than $30 million each year on advertising. Jenny Craig spends $20 million. (I’m sure those amounts have gone up with inflation in recent years.) In addition, former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop funded his Shape Up America campaign with more than $2 million from Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig.

Wendy further goes on to say that if Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig didn’t have repeat business (i.e., clients who lose weight, but then gain it back and return to WW or JC to drop more lbs), they wouldn’t be very good business models. I mean, how else are they supposed to maintain a successful business if they don’t have repeat customers?

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Shoshie on May 16, 2011 at 10:33 am.

“Wendy further goes on to say that if Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig didn’t have repeat business (i.e., clients who lose weight, but then gain it back and return to WW or JC to drop more lbs), they wouldn’t be very good business models. I mean, how else are they supposed to maintain a successful business if they don’t have repeat customers?”

THIS. Weight Watchers encourages weight cycling because it makes them money. You lose weight fairly quickly, so you think that it works. But all it does is allow you to lose weight in the short term. If Weight Watchers actually allowed people to lose weight, they’d be far less successful in terms of business and profits. But we’re conditioned to believe that lack of weight loss is a personal failing, not the failing of the people telling us how to lose weight or whether to lose weight in the first place.

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Veronica on May 13, 2011 at 4:29 pm.

I love that Mr. Sirota’s message is completely devoid of logic. He starts with
“[...] while the University of North Carolina found that 56 percent of National Football League players are obese. These whales [...]” Whale being a word I’m assuming he wouldn’t use about healthy people. And ends with “Sirota solves all our problems by saying we must address the Obesity Horror by focusing not on aesthetics, but on health [...]“. Despite the obvious flaws, this is the same kind of massage that is trumpeted everywhere, mostly completely unchallenged.

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kbryna on May 13, 2011 at 6:20 pm.

Oh, goddamn. I used to LIKE David Sirota, a lot, back when I could still read political columns and essays without creeping into a daylong depression.
Speaking of which, women who’d rather have depression than be fat have clearly never actually suffered any depression. (And also, obviously, don’t know about the very frequent weight gain that accompanies depression. Heh heh. I detect a trick question!)

And lolz @Twistie, who (intentionally, I think) made me laugh by writing “It’s almost like he hasn’t thought any of this through.”
It really IS just like he hasn’t thought any of this through.

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Twistie on May 14, 2011 at 2:15 pm.

No, no, I was hoping someone would get a giggle out of that. Thanks! You just made my day.

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JupiterPluvius on May 15, 2011 at 9:25 am.

Speaking of which, women who’d rather have depression than be fat have clearly never actually suffered any depression.

I disagree with this, actually. Women who would rather have depression than be fat may well be women who have experienced, or are experiencing, both depression and an eating disorder. One of my best friends is in that category, and has on more than one occasion stopped following an effective course of treatment for her depression because the concomitant weight gain was intolerable to her as a person with an active eating disorder.

I’m also someone who has experienced/is experiencing both, but I feel fortunate that I haven’t found the issues interacting in the same way.

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JupiterPluvius on May 15, 2011 at 9:30 am.

And that was one thing I especially hated about Sirota’s piece, because it disappeared the women for whom those choices weren’t hypothetical.

I also know two women who have shared stories of being fat-shamed by their primary care doctors, and when they pointed out that they were on meds that were helping them manage serious mental illnesses and which are known to have weight gain as a side effect, the doctors insisted that they get off the meds. Because, yeah, it’s so much more unhealthy to be fat than to have uncontrolled bipolar or schizophrenia–not!

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Meowser on May 13, 2011 at 9:16 pm.

“Going blind,” though, is much different from being blind. “Going” implies a sudden and permanent loss of eyesight after being a sighted person for decades. That WOULD be very disorienting, and very upsetting to most people, much more so than having been blind from birth or early childhood, or even losing one’s sight gradually. Any drastic and permanent change from one’s baseline, no matter what it is, is bound to throw people off; the same might well be true for a blind-from-birth person who suddenly found xyrself with eyesight for the first time well into adulthood.

But yeah, I think how they phrase those things is a bit finky. When most people think of “depression,” they probably don’t think of the kind of depression I had, the kind where you stand more than a fair chance of doing yourself in. They’re probably thinking of TV-style depression, where you take to your bed and mope until your fairy godmother shows up, or something like that.

The point is that, of course, if people have never actually experienced a certain condition — no matter what it is — they can’t possibly know for sure how they’d handle it. I used to think being the size I am now would be the worst possible thing that could happen to me — until it happened.

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rebecca on May 14, 2011 at 1:51 am.

Coming Soon – Fat Girl in a Strange Land (Anthology): A call for submissions thinks its progressive but doesn’t sound especially progressive to me.

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rebecca on May 14, 2011 at 1:53 am.

In case it’s unclear, I’m linking that for possible analytic fodder, not recommendation.

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Judy S on May 14, 2011 at 12:18 pm.

“Although speculative fiction is all about navigating uncharted territory, fat remains a relatively unexplored frontier. With Fat Girl in a Strange Land, we’re taking fat places it’s never been before.”

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Judy S on May 14, 2011 at 12:20 pm.

I do not have a good feeling about this. It has that “best of intentions, but fails miserably” overtone. Maybe I’m wrong.

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InTheWild on May 14, 2011 at 6:58 am.

A very dear man-friend was just telling me about getting over a week-long intestinal bug that had him out of commission (very uncharacteristic for him). He included all sorts of gory detail, and really had been sick. But he ended his recitation with “But, on the up side, I lost 4 pounds!” Which sadly reminded me of every woman I’ve ever known who was going to have a hysterectomy and wondered how much weight she would lose with the absence of that offending organ. Gah.

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kbryna on May 14, 2011 at 6:03 pm.

In The Wild: thanks for mentioning this; my mom had to have a hysterectomy last fall (because of cancer), and I was kind of furious when one of my idiot aunts (dad’s sister) told her, by way of encouragement before the surgery, that the hysterectomy would remove 3lbs of weight.
It is beyond effed-up that we think this way.

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Christina on May 14, 2011 at 8:59 am.

Hi Lesley! Great post. I wanted to add my two cents about Weight Watchers. When I was 13, my mother signed me up and I lost 20 pounds following their program. I went from 128 pounds to 108 pounds. I guess Mom was embarrassed to be seen with a 128 pound daughter. It was the 1970s. Anyway, in the next few years, I became anorexic. I can’t blame it all on Weight Watchers, but I think they had a role.

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crookedfinger on May 14, 2011 at 12:45 pm.

The only things I got from Weight Watchers is the knowledge that I apparently eat less than I’m “supposed to” most of the time and a slight point-counting obsession. Oh, and a loss of $120. They can kiss my ass.

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JupiterPluvius on May 15, 2011 at 9:27 am.

Hey, a 75-pound loss! (At today’s exchange rate.)

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Erinlala on May 16, 2011 at 6:59 pm.

Hey,
wasnt sure how to let you see these links without commenting on another post but here we go!
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-1387545/Big-Beautiful-Plus-size-model-Tara-Lynn-stars-new-H-M-campaign.html
check out some of the horrendous comments!
she proposes to be a size 16 (uk) and one of the commenters said that “she would look better at least 6 sizes smaller!”
i’m sorry. but, maybe im missing something.
Here we have a clearly SMOKING hot babe and someone is proposing that she would have to starve herself to a uk size 6 (us size 2…right?) in order to look good.
It just angers me how warped attitudes can be. Plus we all wanna check out a hot ‘plus’ size model in a swimmie! or is that just me? ;)

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Violet on May 17, 2011 at 12:45 am.

“Speaking of which, women who’d rather have depression than be fat have clearly never actually suffered any depression.”

It’s already been pointed out, but this is definitely not true. I know more than one woman who who won’t properly take meds because of weight gain, including one with a pretty severe bipolar/schizophrenia one-two punch. She has tried both and determined that she would rather live with the mental illness than the weight, which is really sad.

And while I totally agree with your ultimate point, Lesley, there are fat athletes. For a lot of large athletes the weight is definitely mostly muscle, but lifestyle and diet can certainly lead some of them to be fat, despite what they do for a living (pitchers in particular). For football linemen, starting in high school there is pressure on them to keep their weight up as high as possible, they often do things like load up on junk food and high fat food items and drink a lot of beer, whatever they see as the quick way to pack on pounds. It’s sort of a weird opposite from the rest of society where these kids are encouraged to be as big as possible (without being told how to do it in a healthy way). Not only are they fat, but they end up struggling with adjusting their lifestyle and with health problems later in life when they are no longer expending the same amount of calories all the time, and the physical impact of bashing into people for a living is added on top of that to their health.

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Meowser on May 17, 2011 at 3:09 am.

Speaking of pitchers and junk food, Tim Lincecum — who won back to back Cy Young awards in 2008 and 2009, and has always been very thin — decided to try to gain 10 pounds over this past winter in order to get stronger, and his nightly dinner — just dinner! — was something like this:

Three Double-Doubles. Two fries. A chocolate-strawberry shake. Ketchup please, but hold the lettuce and tomatoes.

“I’m not a big vegetable guy,” he says.

Harrumph.

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kbryna on May 18, 2011 at 12:42 am.

well, isn’t ketchup a vegetable?? at least by Reagan-era school lunch standards, it was…..

And those of you who have disagreed with me about fat vs. depression – I think I agree with you. I don’t mind being wrong, though this is a, er, depressing thing to be wrong about.
Weight gain due to depression and/or antidepressants is something that’s been an issue for me for a long time – for quite awhile, I wished someone could just prescribe me some speed or something that would cause me to lose weight, because it seemed to me, then, that my depression would disappear once I was “thin.” I have revised this opinion, fortunately, but the correlations between weight and depression and antidepressants seem to be many and complex and often troubling for a lot of people in a lot of ways.

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Jak on May 28, 2011 at 12:58 am.

I know this comment is late, but I feel like I really have to leave it.

Your friend not taking her meds is also complicated by the bipolar diagnosis as well. It’s not uncommon for people with bipolar disorder to not take their medicine because they feel like the lows (depressive phase) are worth it to experience the immense high (manic phase).

In any case, the choice to decide that depression is better than being fat is a horrible one.

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Novel deVice on May 17, 2011 at 12:38 pm.

I’m going to wonder how many of the professional athletes (in baseball and football, for pete’s sake) he’s citing as “super fat” are guys like Ryan Howard of the Phillies, who’s, yes, a big dude but swings a bat really damn hard and still manages to get on base pretty often. Or Carlos Ruiz, who’s a short stocky dude but still a world-class athlete. Not that I’m a Phillies fan or anything.

But the point is, if you are a professional athlete, your body has developed for the sport you make your living at, and if you are bigger than social norms would like to allow, first of all there’s probably a good reason, and second of all, it clearly doesn’t impede your ability to make a ton of money at a physical pursuit.

I honestly don’t understand this tendency for people to assume that we could all be ectomorphs with great big heads and tiny little bodies if we just tried hard enough.

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Justa Notha on May 18, 2011 at 11:34 am.

My son is bone-thin and my daughter is heavy-set, but they both came home from school with notes calling them obese. How can I put any credence in the BMI scale with results like that?

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William on June 4, 2011 at 7:17 am.

It is obvious that David Sirota has no knowledge of Fat Men beyond what he has read about Fat Male Movie Stars and Celebrities.

He needs to interview a average Fat Guy you would see at COSTCO or on the street.

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