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Food and Identity 2

2014 June 19

War on Fat:
Since roughly the year 2000, the United States has declared a “war on fat,” stamping excess weight as a “disease”, and regarding the some 68% of adults and 32% of children who are overweight to be “abnormal”. What does this mean for people who are overweight? It means that they are labeled as being “sick”, having a tangible illness that can be “treated” or ‘cured.’ This is absolutely not the case, and as Greenhalgh notes throughout the article, can lead to serious mental instability as a person struggling with their weight is left to wonder why they can’t ‘cure’ their obesity. There are many factors that can contribute to a person being overweight, including genetics and other illnesses. As Greenhalgh notes, “the medical model has not replaced the moral model of body size but has built on it in ways that intensify the pressures to be thin.”In the United States, thinness and fatness are innately associated with character traits on opposite ends of the ‘moral spectrum’. Where thinness is associated with self discipline and self control; Fatness is associated with self-indulgence and a lack of self control. In this article Greenhalgh really digs to reveal the casualties of this so called “War on Fat.” This includes the consequences of “Fat Talk” on the public’s emotional health, the exploitation of the human psych by corporations, and the alienation of “fat” people from the rest of society.


Fat Talk:
Greenhalgh takes a broader approach to the term “fat talk”, deeming it as the conversational component of fat discourse. Today’s fat talk begins by the use of the BMI calculator to initially determine whether a person is “Underweight,” “Normal,” “Overweight,” or “Obese.” Despite studies that have proven this to be a somewhat inaccurate and therefore ineffective means of measurement, it continues to be used. As Greenhalgh points out, the BMI calculator is therefore normalizing [as it sets a standard for ‘normal’ and urges people to attain this level]. In this article, Greenhalgh included excerpts from personal essays she received as extra credit from her students on their struggles living in Southern California to adhere to the “thin” culture that is so prevalent in Orange County. All of the subjects were of an ethnicity other than white, and one of the subjects was a male. This was to prove that the mental effects of “The War on Fat” are not discriminatory. April is an African American girl, Tiffany is a Chinese American girl, Anahid is an Armenian American, and Bihn in a Vietnamese boy. All stories had accounts of the subjects desire to feel accepted in a society where thinness are beauty are at the forefront of happiness. And all stories had accounts of depression, questioning self-identity, and borderline eating disorder characteristics. These accounts only skim the surface of the serious negative implications that fat talk and “The War on Fat” are having on our youth and young adults in the US.

Personal Accounts:
Growing up in a Persian family, the idea of “image” has always been a topic of extreme prevalence between the women in my family. From a very young age I can remember my mother and my aunts commenting about their weight, hair, makeup, clothes, etc. and further commenting about other peoples weight, hair, makeup, clothes. Constantly. My younger cousin [who has struggled with her weight as long as I can remember] has dealt with my family’s “fat talk” her entire life, and this topic is one that strikes a nerve with me. Like the girls Greenhalgh’s journal recounts, some of *Lexi’s biggest offenders of bio-pedagogy and fat abuse came from members of our own family. She dreads holidays, because it means all of our extended family is together and commenting on how she looks. What’s worse, is that they compare her to me [and we have completely different body types]. Her ability to block out the pressure and simply live a healthy lifestyle is a quality I admire in her everyday. But she and I are too familiar with the realities of societal pressure on a person to be thin and beautiful.

Food for Thought:
What does it really mean to be healthy?  How can the United States maintain a balance between the “war on fat”, Big Food, and supporting the idea of self-confidence when it comes to body image? Why are’t more companies doing campaigns like Dove, in supporting a healthy body image? What are your thoughts on the implications of Fat Talk on our youth versus young adults our age?

Thanks for reading! Looking forward to reading the comments. -Alina


10 Responses leave one →
  1. Maggie Roth permalink
    June 19, 2014

    As both Alina and Susan Greenhalgh point out, obesity is an epidemic affecting millions of people in America and across the world. The coverage of this issue over the last decade, while attempting to help people and raise awareness for the consequences linked to obesity has actually had negative effects on society; creating a society obsessed with one’s body image. This obsession can be seen both in the media (pointed out by Greenhalgh in shows like “The Biggest Loser” or “I used to be Fat”) and in everyday life. Now more than ever, people are concerned with their body image, and not for health reasons, rather how one looks.

    Mimi Nichter’s study, “Fat Talk: What Girls and Their Parents Say about Dieting” addresses the consequences of girls verbalizing their inadequacies of their bodies. A new epidemic has now overtaken obesity (in my opinion) and instead of focusing on being healthy, the focus is solely on being skinny. Now more than ever, “fat” does not have a clear definition. BMI does not seem to matter, and people are more concerned about how other people see them– according to the personal stories located in Greenhalgh’s text.

    While this is especially concerning, the war on “fat talk” has now come to head by both professionals and the media. Campaigns such as the Dove Real Beauty Campaign is turning away from underweight models and publicizing “real” beauty Which I second Alina, why aren’t there more companies pushing this message forward?

    JMU has also taken a stand against fat talk, which can be seen in the link below:

    I think what is most scary is that this issue is not just affecting girls which is what is stereotypical view on the matter. Boys, are even having problems with “Fat Talk”– Which is an interesting topic as we spoke about gender issues yesterday.

  2. Frank Saunders III permalink
    June 19, 2014

    I am going to piggy back on what Maggie is saying. Body weight and body image is a global epidemic that affects us all of us equally. I know every singly one of us have thought when looking in the mirror “I don’t look good right now” or “maybe I should work out more” or even “would you hook up with that?” I struggle with my body image all the time, and I would consider myself a fit human being. I definitely agree that boys are starting to have the same body image issues as girls. Coming from a personal standpoint, I have roommates who will buy ‘diet’ food in the attempt to lose weight or make themselves look better.

    This brings me to my next point, are these ‘diet’ products really a healthy alternative. Most of the time they aren’t, and most food items are loaded with sodium and are extremely processed. They may contain less calories, and you may be able to lose weight while strictly consuming these products, but you aren’t doing your body any favors. To tie back into what Maggie said, American’s are focused on being skinny, rather than being healthy.

    To wrap things up, I believe that our country is making a conscious effort to promote a healthy lifestyle. The more companies that promote truly healthy campaigns, and not try to sell ‘skinny’, the more our society will oblige and make the transition. It won’t happen overnight, unfortunately.

  3. Robert Bamsey permalink
    June 19, 2014

    Frank brings up a good point that is often overlooked – are these diet products actually healthy? As we can see with Diet Coke which instead of sugar it contains aspartame (linked to cancer) and other artificial sweeteners or diet products that just replace one ingredient with an equally harmful one but with less calories. Another food fad to spread that was deemed super healthy by “experts” was gluten-free food. Most people who eat gluten free food have no real idea what gluten is, but don’t want to eat it because it is associated with healthiness or skinniness. Perfect example was an elderly women who asked me while serving if a salad dressing had GLUTEN in it…the chef shook his head in disappointment when I asked because clearly it did not (if you have any idea what gluten is), but for the customer she most likely thought it was just something that is bad for you.

  4. Lindsay Kagalis permalink
    June 19, 2014

    In response to Frank and Robert, I completely agree that many times people don’t really even know what they are considering to be bad for them before giving into these diet or skinny products. Kind of going off of what Robert just said, it’s insane that there are people who even KNOW that products like Diet Coke are more harmful, yet they still drink them or eat them simply because they don’t have calories. I used to be horrible about counting calories, but you come to realize that that isn’t all that matters. I also think that it’s wrong to just look for the alternative, such as the gluten free snack products. Even though your leaving out gluten, you’re only putting more harmful and unhealthy ingredients into your body, most of them completely processed. I think one of the main things that people, and this is especially prevalent in the United States, is that there is a need for instant gratification and results and therefore instead of changing one’s lifestyle to get the right nutrients and minerals in their bodies to look and feel better, they take the easy way out and just go for the “fat-free” or “low-calorie” product.

    I know that things are beginning to shift towards a more healthy lifestyle, including properly educating people of nutrients and minerals and how effective exercise can be. Along with this, do you all think there is any other way to have people push away from these “fat/calorie/carb/gluten-free” fads? Is one answer to simply stop selling products like this, which may force people to change their habits?

    • Stephen Klier II permalink
      June 19, 2014

      Yeah I couldn’t agree more with you on this. I watched Food Inc. last year (which I think we will watch in this class) and I learned for the first time what was actually in the diet sodas. As a heavy diet soda drinker..I was mad that I was just then learning of it. It made me change my habits…for 3 weeks. Then water became boring and I was back to buying 2 liters of Diet Mt. Dew in no time. Even being fully aware of what was in it, I still desired it because “at least its 0 calorie” I would tell myself. I remember a part in Food Inc where they discuss the addictive properties in diet soda..yup..I believe it.

  5. Stephen Klier II permalink
    June 19, 2014

    Great summation of the article Alina,
    When it comes to “fat talk” I think the implications for mental health problems are a great risk. I feel that the greatest hindrance to American’s gaining healthy habits, is that due to fat talk, everyone is now an “expert”. A person feels that they can take one look at a person walking down the street and judge how healthy of a lifestyle that they live. As Alina pointed out, critical people don’t just make observations, they observe then attach a character trait to the body type, fat=uncontrolled or undisciplined skinny= anorexic, trying too hard muscular=athletic, gym rat. These stereo types are dangerous and, as stated, can lead to deteriorating mental health.

    So much wants to be made of the role media plays in categorizing people and making people feel poorly about their body, but that mind set allows us to shrug off our role in the process. Its a greater societal problem that food brings to light, but sadly does not end there; rather, it extends to other areas in society especially on a college campus. People want to be heard and they pay no mind to what comes out when they speak. Our campus has seen this full well in the last few days as people rush to make their voices heard and state wild conclusions, even before the totality of facts are revealed and presented. In the same way, “fat talk” enables those with no filter to judge those whom bodies are atypical of the American standard.

    • Brooklyn Steele permalink
      June 19, 2014

      You make such a good point about how much people are judged upon your weight. Fat=no self-control or skinny=self-control. It is so unfair and can really mentally damage a person. It is said that obesity is a disease, but the effect of things such as fat talk destroying mental health is not usually spoken of.

      Media has seemed to strongly categorize people. You don’t see too many people on tv shows or movies that are over weight. And I think it does allow people to think its okay to judge people and mistreat them because of their body type. I have also heard of people not getting jobs because they appear over weight because of the assumption they are lazy and have no self-control.

  6. Charlotte Harnad permalink
    June 19, 2014

    I agree with much of what Alina discusses. She, like Greenhalgh and many others, are recognizing that there is a ‘war on obesity’ occurring in America. Our country needs to face the facts: we are a fat nation that has a lot of health issues. We, the nation who has drivethrus in every town, the $1 burger, competitive eating television shows, have an obsession with food that needs to be controlled.

    Alina poses the question “what does it really mean to be healthy?” I interpret this question to mean both physical and mental health. Many forget that healthy does not necessarily mean fat. Since every single person on this earth is different, there is going to be a different standard of healthy for each person. Typically, however, healthy should be focused upon a relatively balanced and healthy diet. This does not mean that someone cannot go to Kline’s every week for every Flavor of The Week, but mostly means making sure to cover all food groups and to avoid eating in excess. Another aspect of being truly healthy is executing an exercise regimen. Does this mean exercise two to four hours a day every day? Absolutely not. Getting at least three hours of exercise a week was three hours of exercise that people previously did not have. Exercising at a moderate level every week can increase agility, resting heart rate, fight off different diseases, build strength, gets one ‘in shape,’ and releases endorphins that benefit other fields of everyday life. As both Greenlaugh and Alina discuss, there are several tests that are supposed to ‘measure fatness.’ However, there is no single test that is completely reliable or stable, leaving the question of appropriate weight up in the air.

    Of course I am not expert on eating healthy or healthy lifestyles. I follow many different food blogs and social media accounts for health reasons. I love to find new recipes to make with different healthy ingredients because it provides ideas that I would not think of on my own. Everyone has different taste and budgets, and that does play a larger role in eating healthy than our nation wishes to admit. I am also no expert on exercising, even if I do spend more time than I would like to admit running. However, I think that if the nation were to open their eyes to the facts and not the fear and ignorance that is seen all over the media and news channels, we could dramatically transform into a healthier country.

  7. Brooklyn Steele permalink
    June 19, 2014

    I hate the whole BMI measurement! People do have different body types and some people that might be a little bigger can be completely healthy and then also people that are thin can also be healthy. The most important thing should be living a healthy lifestyle instead of what you look like. America encourages unhealthy eating, but also expects people to be thin.

    Obese people should not be counted like they have a disease, because most of the time it is reversible with hard work. However, I do not agree with child obesity. Depending on how big the child is, is certain circumstances I would almost see it as child abuse. Small children cant really fend for themselves, so they eat what the parents feed them. I think it is a parents responsibility to try and keep their children as healthy as possible.

    I totally understand where your cousin is coming from. I was extremely active when I was in high school. When I went to college I did gain some weight. I was harassed several times by my family and at work about me gaining a few pounds. Its very offensive and can really destroy a persona self image and self esteem.

  8. Cassidy Clayton permalink
    June 20, 2014

    The “fat talk” phenomena is a bit frightening to me. What I mean is that the average person is thinking and talking about themselves in such a negative matter that it is affecting their well-being. The problem is that their are judging themselves too harshly, especially if they’re using the BMI as a reference. It continues to poorly affect people now because everywhere we look there are new ways to “lose weight”, but are any of these ways healthy? There is an entire aisle in CVS of weight loss supplements. Really? There are more supplements these days than there are people and none of them are providing healthy lifestyles for people who believe they are obese. Instead of trying to find the next “quick fix”, we as a society, need to take the time to educate ourselves on what is truly healthy and chase that, regardless of how long it takes.

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