Eighteen years ago, in an article titled “Losing Weight: An Ill-Fated New Year’s Resolution,” the editors of the New England Journal of Medicine took the US American medical establishment to task for its promotion of weight loss dieting. The editorial noted that, for most people, permanent weight loss is not possible; and, they observed, evidence suggesting that dieting confers health benefits is “limited, fragmentary, and often ambiguous.” When this editorial was published in 1998, it was already old news that diets don’t work. For decades, fat activists had been pointing out that the medical literature shows diets to have a failure rate of 95% or higher. What’s more, diets make people fatter over the long term, and repeated attempts to lose weight may raise the risk of developing serious illnesses—the same diseases that, ironically, are commonly blamed on “obesity.”

Yet every day we are inundated with news articles, books, blogs, and advertisements urging us to embark on the arduous and (don’t we know this by now?) almost always futile project of losing weight. The key to success, we are told, is to make “healthy choices.” Eat more kale! Cut back on carbs! These imperatives uphold two closely related ideologies: neoliberalism and fatphobia. Most of us on the Left know that rhetoric about individual choice is frequently used to support neoliberalism; by claiming that individuals have the power to shape their own destinies, defenders of the current social and economic order foreclose critiques of systemic injustice. Since false claims about the power of individual choice animate both neoliberal and anti-fat ideologies, one might expect the Left to have mounted a strenuous critique of fatphobia. But unfortunately, this has not been the case. For example, the left-wing columnist Paul Krugman is unwittingly complicit with neoliberalism when he makes the fatphobic claim that “bad choices” (such as eating too much pizza) are to blame for a supposed crisis of fatness in the US.

Photo courtesy of Jaxx @ jaxxisbuttons.com

Photo courtesy of Jaxx @ jaxxisbuttons.com

When leftists take up arms in an international war on “obesity,” they ignore major financial conflicts of interest between the diet industry and the so-called experts who pathologize fatness. The former US surgeon general C. Everett Koop’s Shape Up America! campaign, which launched the “war on obesity” in 1995, received funding from Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, and Slim-Fast; the American Obesity Association, whose claims are treated as authoritative in the media, is funded by pharmaceutical companies that sell, or are in the process of developing, weight loss drugs; and the International Obesity Task Force, which was instrumental in developing the World Health Organization’s guidelines for defining “obesity,” receives most of its funding from Hoffman-La Roche and Abbott Laboratories, the makers, respectively, of the diet drugs Xenical and Meridia. As the political scientist J. Eric Oliver has observed, “it is difficult to find any major figure in the field of obesity research… who does not have some type of financial tie to a pharmaceutical or weight-loss company.”

These anti-fat authorities have helped the diet industry get rich. Currently, the weight loss industry in the US is worth $61 billion; globally, the total value is approximately $586 billion. That’s great news for diet corporations. But for consumers seeking long-term weight loss, the old news remains unchanged: diets still don’t work (even if they are packaged as “permanent lifestyle changes”). As the New York Times science writer Gina Kolata has documented, body weight is primarily determined by heredity and over the long term is not subject to individuals’ efforts to choose their sizes. Some dieters may manage to lose large amounts of weight, but one’s biologically determined “setpoint” ensures that within five years almost everyone regains the lost weight. [1]

And that’s a good thing: Fatness is a form of human variation that should be celebrated, not a disease to be subjected to specious cures. Of course, many on the Left are wary of pointing to genetic causes for any form of bodily or mental difference. This is understandable, given the racist, sexist, classist, ableist—and, indeed, fascist—uses to which claims about heredity have historically been put. But fat activists who highlight the hereditary aspects of body size are hardly eugenicists. On the contrary, the fat justice movement’s focus on genetic diversity directly opposes the eugenic project of sorting individuals into hierarchical categories. Boldly asserting that “a diet is a cure that doesn’t work for a disease that doesn’t exist,” fat activists spotlight the scandalousness of the weight loss industry’s immense profits. Their interventions make it clear that a one-size-fits-all, “never say genes or biology” approach is not a viable strategy for leftist political movements that take fat justice seriously.

And the Left should take fat justice seriously. Doing so not only honors our commitment to seeking justice for oppressed groups; it also strengthens our critiques of neoliberalism. At the heart of both fatphobia and neoliberalism is a fantasy of infinite corporeal malleability. According to this fantasy, one can be or become whatever one wants, as long as one is willing to keep trying, or keep buying. The fat justice slogan “Diets don’t work” shatters this fantasy of limitless agency, a fantasy that is routinely invoked to authorize the mistreatment of people who are fat, economically oppressed, or both—groups that in western capitalist societies comprise the vast majority of people. Indeed, fat justice could be described as a movement for the Ninety-Five Percent, after the approximate number of diets that fail. Like the ninety-nine percent of the Occupy movement, fat activists give the lie to the neoliberal value of “personal responsibility.” Their insights are urgently needed if we are to respond effectively to arguments by conservative commentators such as Jason L. Riley, who lambastes food stamps for supposedly “making the poor fat,” or, in the UK, to Tory politicians’ plans to cut disability benefits for fat people “unless they submit to treatment”—that is, unless they go on weight loss diets, which, as we know, don’t work.

Even people who support fat justice sometimes uphold the neoliberal value of individual choice. Each time that I have published articles challenging the assumption that body size is a matter of choice, I have been asked: Can’t we defend fat people without saying that diets don’t work? Perhaps, but fat justice is about more than “defending” fatness by convincing thin people that fat people are okay. Rather, the fat justice movement aims to end fat oppression; and such a project would be impossible without a sustained critique of the cultural imperative to diet. To make the (inaccurate) claim that “fatness probably is a choice, and probably does cause all kinds of diseases, but should still be supported as a valid decision” fails to address the ways that fatphobia functions in the actual world, where fat people daily receive the message that their size is a choice that’s likely to kill them. In the face of these threats, it is vital to share the information that diets are harmful, ineffective, and unnecessary.

Some fat-positive people worry that saying “diets don’t work” risks stigmatizing those people who, it seems, do choose to be fat. Responding to an article on fat justice that I published for Bitch, a commenter asked: “So what if [being fat is] a choice? …I like to eat and I don’t like exercise. I choose to live my life in a way that I enjoy. That involves eating cake and watching TV. …Others choose differently—they choose to restrict their diets and run on treadmills.” Without a doubt, cake-eating, television-viewing, and other enjoyable choices need to be affirmed. But do such decisions constitute a choice to be fat? If you are hungry enough to eat cake but instead you snack on a carrot and then go running at the gym, is this choice really sustainable over the long term? Will you be able to keep up your treadmill-running-while-hungry regimen day after day, all the way past the five-year mark—the point after which almost every diet fails? You won’t if you are one of the Ninety-Five Percent.

To describe body size as a choice elides an important reality: It is possible to be hungry and fat at the same time. To many thin people, this idea seems nonsensical. In analyses of food poverty, it is common to draw a contrast between the “overfed” and the “underfed”—that is, between people who are hungry and people who are fat—as if these two groups were mutually exclusive. Tell that to Mary Frances Neely, a fat woman who could not shrink her body to a so-called healthy size until she forced herself to follow a diet featuring cigarettes, black coffee, and salad (without dressing). Or to Wendy Shanker, who survived on packets of Optifast powder and “mountains of Metamucil” for four months but still remained fat. Or to the millions of fat people who have dieted and lost large amounts of weight, only to regain it, for this simple reason: Like the rest of the Ninety-Five Percent, they got too hungry to keep dieting.

“Let them eat celery instead of cake,” fatphobic thin folks say about fat people, who, they tell themselves, can’t really be that hungry. In this era of extreme economic inequality—an era in which fourteen percent of US households are food insecure, formerly middle-class people in Spain are forced to scavenge food from trash bins, and food poverty is creating a “public health emergency” in the UK—the capacity to ignore other people’s hunger is not a skill that the Left should be cultivating.

For too long, we have been seeking ill-fated personal solutions in weight loss dieting. Even if diets did work, they would do nothing to change the interconnected political problems of anti-fat stigma and economic oppression. Perhaps, then, it is time for a new social movement: could fat activists and critics of economic inequality unite to form a coalition of the Ninety-Five Percent? Working together, we might begin to dismantle the damaging social structures of neoliberalism and fatphobia.

[1] Although genetic factors are the most important contributors to body size, they are not the only ones. Indeed, some readers may wonder: If body size is hereditary, then why have populations of many wealthy countries become larger in the past few decades? No one knows for sure, but the assumption that we eat more and exercise less is questionable at best. Other possibilities include: a decline in smoking rates (smoking makes people thinner); better childhood nutrition and higher rates of vaccination; the increase in popularity of weight-lifting (statistics about “obesity” are based on BMI, a ratio of height to weight, and this system of classification categorizes George Clooney as “overweight” and Dwayne Johnson and Matt LeBlanc as “obese”); an increase in the use of SSRIs and other mental health medications (many of which cause weight gain); the proliferation of environmental pollutants (many of which are endocrine disruptors and may therefore contribute to weight gain); and, paradoxically, the fact that more people are attempting to lose weight (dieting makes people fatter in the long term, as most dieters not only regain the weight that they lost but also gain additional weight).

 

Portions of this blog entry are excerpted from “Fattening Austerity,” a longer essay by Anna Mollow and Robert McRuer, which can be accessed at http://bodypolitics.de/de/das-aktuelle-heft/. “Fattening Austerity” contains more in-depth discussions of the political and scientific arguments presented in this blog post.

About the Author

Anna Mollow

Anna Mollow

amollow@gmail.com

Anna Mollow recently received her Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. She is the coeditor, with Robert McRuer, of Sex and Disability (Duke UP, 2012) and the coeditor, with Merri Lisa Johnson, of DSM-CRIP (Social Text Online, 2013). Anna’s articles on disability and fatness have appeared in Hypatia: Journal of Feminist Philosophy, Bitch Magazine, The Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies, WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly, MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, The Disability Studies Reader, Autostraddle, and Huffington Post.

» More articles by Anna Mollow

  1. We are the 95%! Fat or thin, all of us who have been taught to hate out bodies, rather than to question weight oppression, and its direct ties to racism, classism, homophobia, sexism, gender binarism, ableism, ageism, and other tools of the 1%/5%. Thanks for a fabulous argument, Anna!

  2. Thank you Anna for this truly excellent piece of writing! I especially appreciated you (SO rightly) pointing out that “fat justice is about more than ‘defending’ fatness by convincing thin people that fat people are okay” and reminding ALL of us that “a sustained critique of the cultural imperative to diet” is central to fat justice. YES!

  3. Great essay! Maybe once the left swears off fatphobia, it will also jettison that other avatar of new-age puritanism, the demonization and persecution of those who use tobacco.

  4. Saying that 95% percent of people fail at when they try to lose weight dieting and therefore it is not possible for many people to lose weight is like saying that 95% of people who learn chess never advanced beyond a certain level of ability and it is therefore impossible for them to properly learn chess when infact all it would take is to educate yourself and show some level of discipline

  5. Anna Mollow
    Anna Mollow says:

    Actually, it probably is true that most people have a certain limit as to how good they will ever be at chess, regardless of how much they practice and “educate” themselves. If as a society we decided to make excelling at chess a primary measure of people’s value, then we would have much the same situation that we now face with fatphobia: there would be a U-shaped curve, with some people being much better than average at chess, others being “below average,” and everyone else being somewhere in the middle. Those who never got very good at chess, no matter how much they practiced, would be stigmatized for allegedly failing to show, as you put it, “some level of discipline.” Fortunately, we do not live in this kind of “chess supremacist” society; but in some ways, the thin supremacist society that we do live in is even worse. Because while practicing chess may be enjoyable for some people, dieting is not. Weight loss diets make people sick and cause psychological distress—and, in the long run, they make one fatter than one would be if one had never dieted in the first place. (Not that it is bad to be fat; but if the purpose of dieting is to make people thin, then diets certainly don’t work!)

  6. These connections between neoliberal and fatphobic emphasis on choice are super important to make and I agree completely. For me, challenging this emphasis on individual choice and responsibility means looking at systemic issues that may be affecting body size, hunger, and nutrition, and that means looking at how economic inequality and government policy has shaped a foodscape the makes unhealthy food the most accessible for many. Is bringing up a comment like this contributing to the fatphobic rhetoric? I mean to do it in a way that shows further systematic barriers to the neoliberal ideal of free choice, not in a way that says everyone should just eat more kale and things would be fine.

    • Anna Mollow
      Anna Mollow says:

      Hi Shannon, I appreciate your thoughtful question. Yes, I would say that the “foodscape” argument on the Left does reinforce fatphobia. Although this argument means well, it upholds the incorrect assumption that the size of a person’s body is a reliable indicator of what, and how much, one eats. To say that people are fat because they have access only to “unhealthy food” not only creates the false impression that there is consensus about what constitutes “healthy” food (actually, there are widely divergent views on this); it also implies that eating healthy food (however that is defined) automatically leads to being thin.

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