Friday, July 13, 2012

Neoliberalism and Weightism: Weight Bias in American Society

Check out this website I found at

The CDC uses this phrase and encourages bias against diverse body types.
In schools, teachers have lower expectations for overweight students, and college admissions officers don’t consider overweight students as likely to succeed in academia (Minnesota Department of Human Rights, Weight Bias: The Next Civil Rights Issue?, In the medical field, “nurses harbor negative biases towards [overweight] patients”, and “more than half [of doctors surveyed] viewed obese patients as awkward, unattractive, and noncompliant”, which may affect how they treat that patient (Minnesota Department of Human Rights, Americans view overweight or obese people as lazy, unproductive, and weak-willed, which creates biases and stigmatization now dubbed weightism. Where and why did weightism start? And how does our American culture affect our view of people as overweight?
In her book “Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism”, Julie Guthman discusses the supposed problems and causes of obesity, moving away from dominant discourse about obesity involving the energy balance equation. In the chapter “How Do We Know Obesity Is a Problem?”, Guthman explores obesity as “the medicalization of fatness”, which can both “provide access to resources to treat unwanted conditions” and “turn nonnormative conditions and behaviors into problems in need of biomedical solution[s], and subject people to scrutiny regardless of their desires” (Guthman, Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism, 26). She looks at measuring obesity through BMI critically, asking, “How did it come about that a weight to height ratio could measure adiposity, much less describe (or prescribe) optimal body size? Changing techniques of body measurements have generally reflected changing cultural ideas of optimal size as well as new scientific ideas” (Guthman, 27). In addition, BMI does not take into account “variations in bone mass and density, or somatic difference more generally”, nor can it differentiate between “lead body mass (muscle and bone) and fat body mass” (Guthman 28). Through the obesity “epidemic” and its causes, society, led by the idea of norms of body weight, “reveal[s] an aesthetic preference for the thin and tall” (Guthman, 43). In the science of obesity, “we seem to feel compelled to explain fatness, just as we do homosexuality, while thinness (and tallness), like heterosexuality, is generally taken for granted” (Guthman, 43). Finally, Guthman discusses healthism, or the idea that health “relies on various ideas and assumptions about what constitutes a healthy body and then demands obtainment. Since health can never be achieved one and for all, it requires constant vigilance in monitoring and constant effort in enhancing” (Guthman, 52). Health, which became the way to “prove self-worth and flexibility in the increasingly competitive political economy”, also “indicates self-efficacy and self-control” (Guthman 53). In this chapter, Guthman critically examines the obesity “epidemic” and opens the audience’s eyes to the biases associated with fatness.
Throughout this chapter, Guthman introduces us to the idea that the rising levels of obesity brought more than just problems of health. It created a new problem: the idealization of thinness, which led to weight bias. Weight bias is a problem in multiple arenas, such as medical and academic arenas, and for all ages. A Yale Study shows than “discrimination against people who are overweight is as common as racial discrimination” (Minnesota Department of Human Rights, Overweight workers “earn less than non-overweight people in comparable positions, are less likely to be hired in the first place or considered for a promotion, and are often viewed as lazy or lacking in self-discipline by employers and coworkers” (Minnesota Department of Human Rights, At the same time as overweight people suffer from weightism, they are encouraged to participate in weight loss diets, diets that host infomercials that “reflect stereotypic beliefs that heavy people are gluttonous, lazy, and lacking in willpower, and they tell viewers that weight is a women’s “problem” (Selling Stereotypes: Weight Loss Infomercials, Sexism, and Weightism, Blaine and McElroy, 5). But what made people dislike, or fear, fat?
One reason connects the rise of fat hared with the changing American workplace in the 20th century; “companies began to offer snacks to employees, white-collar jobs became more prominent, and fewer people exercised. As thinness became rarer… it was more prized, and conversely, fatness was more maligned” (America’s War on the Overweight, Dailey and Ellin, This time period was also the time when companies began producing ready-to-wear clothing, which “encourage[d] a comparison amongst other people” (Dailey and Ellin, World War I complicated the matter; American citizens thought that overweight people “were hoarding resources needed for the war effort” and feared that “overweight American men would not be able to compete globally, participate in international business, or win wars” (Dailey and Ellin, In the chapter, “Whose Problem Is Obesity?” Guthman acknowledges this issue by looking at the effect of the neoliberal mentality, saying:
As neoliberalism matured as a set of cultural values, its social Darwinist underpinnings, which made individual achievement, entrepreneurial prowess, and competitive spirit markers of worth, became more explicit. As they relate to the care of the self, bodily practices that seem to indicate self-efficacy and self-control were readily associated with personal qualities that lead to both individual and collective success. (Guthman, 53).
Both authors relate being thin to American ideals; as Dailey and Ellin say, “Ours is a nation that values hard work and discipline, and it’s hard for us to accept that weight could be not just a struggle of will, even when the bulk of research-and often our own personal experience-shows that factors leading to weight gain are much more than just simple gluttony.” If, as Dailey, Ellin, and Guthman suggest, we know that obesity isn’t just a struggle of will, why does the nation continue to promote thinness?
Fear of being obese has been the catalyst to a shockingly successful thirty-three billion dollar a year dieting industry in our capitalist society (Women and Dieting Culture: Inside a Commercial Weight Loss Group, Stinson, 3). On one hand, the diet industry is successful because it produces “food products that do not act like food,” such as food commodities like Nutrigrain bars or low-fat chips (Embodying Neoliberalism: Economy, Culture, and the Politics of Fat, Guthman and DuPuis, 15). These foods pass through the body without allowing the body to gain weight, and “these products allow producers to sell much more of these products per person, ultimately speeding up the circulation of capital- another crisis fix” (Guthman and DuPuis, 15). The original problem of inelastic demand of the human body is fixed because a person can endlessly eat diet food products.
At the same time, the neoliberal mentality stresses the importance certain ideals that Guthman points out: “individual achievement, entrepreneurial prowess, and competitive spirit”, which is seen through thinness. We come to have “contradictory impulses” to be both and “out of control consumer and [a] self-controlled subject” (Guthman and DuPuis, 18). And so comes the second fix, participating in a weight loss diet. For a certain amount of money, a person can pay to be a part of a fad diet that claims that, through cutting out certain foods, a person can go from overweight to thin. By being controlled through eating, one can lose weight and gain empowerment. Weight loss dieting is so pervasive that 84% of American women having at some point dieted with the intention of losing weight (Stinson, 4). Some popular diets include the Atkins diet, Jenny Craig, Nutrisystem, the Paleodiet, the South Beach diet, Skinny Bitch, the Kind Diet, and Weight Watchers.
However, both of these dieting methods ignore what Guthman discusses, which is that obesity isn’t just about the energy in-energy out balance. Obesity has roots in more than just calories. In general, literature about obesity and literature about the food movement fails to acknowledge reasons other than the energy balance model for obesity, and they also fail to mention “the cost of dieting or other attempts to be thin or the mental health costs of poor body image resulting from the incessant drumbeat demanding perfect body size and shape. The extra-economic mental health costs just in frustration, guilt, and self-hatred are incalculable” (Guthman, 48). But while this causes huge problems in self-esteem and self-worth, the dieting industry makes billions of dollars. As long as weight loss diets and dieting products make so much money, people making the money will want to keep making that money. And to keep making that money, the weight loss industry relies on the language and biases of obesity, and on unstable mental health.
I argue that alongside looking for sustainable, healthy, deep foods, we should be looking to not only the physical health of our fellow Americans, but also their mental health as affected by being deemed obese, and thus lazy, unproductive, and ugly. Our neoliberal mentality had led us to believe in the norm of thinness, and to believe that we should seek out thinness no matter what. Literature that speaks to the cost of obesity should also look at the cost of the weight loss diet, and the mental health costs of poor self-esteem. In pairing this with the food movement, we will help to acknowledge the wrongs done, and hopefully prevent further problems of self-esteem.
* The author prepared this for partial fulfillment of requirements for the course, ANTH 361 - Anthropology of Food, University of Washington (Winter Quarter 2012), taught by Professor Devon G. Peña.

Works Cited

Blaine, Bruce, and Jennifer McElroy. "Selling Stereotypes: Weight Loss Infomercials, Sexism, and Weightism." Sex Roles 46 (2002). Web. 26 Feb. 2012. .

Dailey, Kate, and Abby Ellin. "America's War on the Overweight." The Daily Beast. Newsweek/Daily Beast, 25 Aug. 2009. Web. 26 Feb. 2012. .

Guthman, and DuPuis. "Embodying Neoliberalism: Economy, Culture, and the Politics of Fat." Mendeley Research Networks. Web. 26 Feb. 2012. .

Guthman, Julie. Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism. Berkeley: University of California, 2011. Print.

The Minnesota Department of Human Rights. "Weight Bias: The Next Civil Rights Issue?" The Rights Stuff: The Minnesoa Department of Human Rights (2010). Minnesota Department of Human Rights., 2010. Web. 26 Feb. 2012. .

Stinson, Kandi M. Women and Dieting Culture: Inside a Commercial Weight Loss Group. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2001. Print.

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