My new book ‘Fat’


My latest book Fat has just been published as part of Routledge’s Shortcuts series.

In contemporary western societies the fat body has become a focus of stigmatizing discourses and practices aimed at disciplining, regulating and containing it. Despite the fact that in many western countries fat bodies outnumber those that are thin, fat people are still socially marginalized and treated with derision and even repulsion. Medical and public health experts insist that an ‘obesity epidemic’ exists and that fatness is a pathological condition which should be prevented and controlled.

Fat is a book about why the fat body has become so reviled and viewed as diseased, the target of such intense discussion and debate about ways to reduce its size down to socially and medically acceptable dimensions. It is also about the lived experience of fat embodiment: how does it feel to be fat in a fat-phobic society? Deborah Lupton explores fat as a cultural artefact: a bodily substance or body shape that is given meaning by complex and shifting systems of ideas, practices, emotions, material objects and interpersonal relationships.

Fat reviews current scholarship and research into obesity discourse and politics, drawing upon critical perspectives offered in the humanities and social sciences and by fat activism and the size acceptance movement. It will be an engaging introduction for the interested general reader, as well as for students across the humanities and social sciences.

Is being fat bad for your health? Obesity sceptics disagree

Obesity Campaign Poster

Obesity Campaign Poster (Photo credit: Pressbound)

For some years now,  obesity sceptics have argued against the mainstream medical and public health perspective on obesity. Writers such as Paul Campos (2004), Michael Gard and Jan Wright (Gard and Wright, 2005; Gard, 2011)  have published closely argued critiques of the obesity science literature. They persuasively identify the many inaccuracies, distortions, misleading assumptions and generalisations made in scientific and epidemiological research which have contributed to the idea that obesity is at ‘crisis’ or ‘epidemic’ levels and that being over the arbitrarily defined ‘normal’ BMI automatically damages people’s health.

Some specific points obesity sceptics make are as follows:

  • It is not the case that there are far greater numbers of fat people now compared to several decades ago. While there has been a modest increase in average weight, this does not represent an ‘epidemic of obesity’.
  • Life expectancy in western countries has risen, not fallen, despite alleged growing rates of obesity and the supposed life-threatening health conditions caused by obesity.
  • There is no statistical evidence that being fat necessarily equates to a greater risk of ill health or disease. Statistics show that only those people at the extreme end of the weight spectrum (the ‘morbidly obese’ in medical terminology) demonstrate negative health effects from their weight. The data show that higher body weight may even be protective of health in older people.
  • The epidemiological literature has been unable to demonstrate that significant weight loss improves fat people’s health status. Indeed continual attempts by fat people to lose weight can actually be negative to their health status if it involves extreme diets, being caught in a cycle of losing and gaining weight or poor dietary habits.
  • Fatness is often a symptom rather than the cause of ill health and disease.
  • There is no consensus from the scientific literature that people in contemporary western societies are less active now than in previous eras: indeed many people, particularly those from the middle-class, are highly physically active.
  • No clear association has been found between activity levels and childhood overweight and obesity, or between children’s television watching habits and their body weight.
  • Nor have studies conclusively demonstrated that relative levels of physical activity influence health status. Medical research has not been able to show how much exercise should be undertaken and how often to achieve and maintain good health and which diseases are affected or prevented by taking regular exercise.
  • It is also very difficult to demonstrate scientifically the relative influence of genes in body weight.

In all these areas there are many contradictory and conflicting findings from research studies, making it difficult to anyone to make confident statements about these issues. As these obesity sceptics point out, many of the generalisations made by obesity scientists and public health experts simply disregard the lack of consistent, clear or conclusive evidence for such statements as ‘obesity is caused by lack of exercise and eating too much’ and continue to reiterate these assertions.

What obesity sceptics present, in essence, is a detailed critique of the ways in which political agendas and pre-existing assumptions shape the reporting and interpretation of medical and epidemiological data relating to body mass. Quite apart of its relevance to debate about whether the obesity epidemic exists and how serious it is, such an analysis is valuable in drawing attention to the work practices and knowledge claims of medical and public health researchers.

The assertions and critiques of obesity sceptics have failed to make an impact on mainstream obesity science, government health policy and anti-obesity public health efforts. Journal articles concerning the dangers of obesity continue to appear in medical and public health journals with monotonous frequency. Alarmist predictions continue to receive attention in the mass media. Governments in western countries have also continued to invest large sums to fund health promotion campaigns seeking to counter obesity. For example, the American ‘Let’s Move’ campaign, directed at controlling childhood obesity, was launched by First Lady Michelle Obama in early 2010, while on the same day President Obama created a Taskforce on Childhood Obesity. The Australian ‘Swap It, Don’t Swap It’ anti-obesity campaign commenced in early 2011. It would seem that there are powerful political and career investments in continuing to ignore the arguments of the obesity sceptics.

References

Campos, P. (2004) The Obesity Myth. New York: Gotham Books.

Gard, M. and Wright, J. (2005) The Obesity Epidemic. London: Routledge.

Gard, M. (2011) The End of the Obesity Epidemic. London: Routledge.

Loving yourself in a fat-phobic society

The 2012 season of the Australian The Biggest Loser focused on the loneliness and despair endured by the contestants.  Not only were the contestants forced to expose their semi-naked bodies to the viewing audience as part of the ritual weighing-in process, they were also encouraged to bare their souls. Thus, for example, a promo for the series showed one of the male contestants sitting on a stool gesturing to his fat body and saying “Look at me – no-one loves this!” Another male contestant said, “I’m ready for love” and the words ‘Love yourself’ scrolled across the screen.

The episodes featured the now-familiar visuals of the contestants pushed to exercise hard, shown sweating, red-faced and out-of-breath, grimacing in pain, crying and losing their temper as the hard-bodied and hard-faced instructors shout at them to force them to persist. Scenes involving the temptation of the fat people were also part of this series. The contestants in one episode were faced with a room full of junk food and sweet treats – chocolates, cakes and the like — as a means of testing their self-control and ability to resist temptation.

The underlying meanings of this program are all too clear. Fat people are lonely, unloved, emotionally volatile and sad; they deserve punishing exercise routines and stringent diets as part of their weight-loss efforts; they are childish and need a stern authority figure to force them into proper weight-loss habits; they find their gluttonous desire for treats difficult to resist. The focus on love in this season combines two ideas: that fat people do not love themselves, or else they would not have allowed themselves to become fat, and that no-one else is sexually attracted to them because of their fat bodies. Such people are represented as objects both of pity and contempt.

Recent critiques in the social sciences and humanities have drawn attention to the ways in which obesity is represented in medical and popular culture. In response to massive publicity given to obesity in western countries, including Australia, new areas of study focused specifically on the social and cultural aspects of obesity have emerged, entitled variously ‘critical obesity studies’, ‘critical weight studies’ or ‘fat studies’. They refer to a ‘fat-phobic’ society, in which fat people are excoriated and humiliated for their size, where it is assumed that fatness is the direct result of greed and lack of self-control and that fat people are inevitably unattractive to others.

Members of the fat acceptance movement have engaged in political activism in the attempt to overcome this discrimination and to reclaim the term ‘fat’, which they prefer to the ‘o’ words – overweight and obese.

Some social scientists and nutritionists have examined the obesity science literature and argued that much of it is characterised by generalisations and speculations, and that the contention that overweight (as distinct from morbid obesity) automatically poses health risks has not been scientifically proven. It is further argued by these critics that continual attempts by fat people to lose weight can actually be negative to their health status if it involves extreme diets, being caught in a cycle of losing and gaining weight or poor dietary habits.

Partly as a response to this critical position, a movement called Health at Every Size has emerged which champions the idea that good health may be experienced at a range of body weights if attention is paid to regular exercise and eating healthy foods. From this perspective ‘loving yourself’ may well involve relinquishing the desire to lose a lot of weight and instead acknowledging that a healthy lifestyle may be achieved even if one does not conform to the cultural ideal of slenderness.

The critical position and the Health at Every Size movement raise important questions for how the public is educated about the health effects of overweight and obesity. In the meantime, programs such as The Biggest Loser continue to profit from perpetuating negative representations of fat people in a fat-phobic society and humiliating and punishing their contestants for their sin of being fat.

Further reading:

Fat Studies journal (http://www.tanf.co.uk/journals/UFTS)

Michael Gard and Jan Wright (2005) The Obesity Epidemic: Science, Morality and Ideology. London: Routledge.

Michael Gard (2011) The End of the Obesity Epidemic. London: Routledge.

Deborah Lupton (2012) Fat. London: Routledge (due for publication in September)