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

By | May 13, 2011

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!


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