What if you lose weight the “easy way”? (Reflections on Weight Loss and Weight Loss Surgery, Part 1)

In Germany, the show Big Diet locked contestants into a house to lose X number of pounds.  In New Zealand, an official proposal to tax food based on fat content was put forward in order to ‘cure’ fatties. In England, a child was sent home from school with a “You’re too fat” note while a couple was told they are “too fat” to adopt. In America, shows such The Biggest Loser suggest if you are big (re: fat) you ARE a LOSER and The Swan surgically removed fat from the bodies of already relatively thin contestants, revealing liposuction as (female) necessity.

These examples are only a minute offering of the continued abhorrence of fat in many (most?) cultures around the world. While many societal institutions and beliefs contribute to the ‘thin-is-in’ aesthetic, the media and the multi-billion-dollar ‘diet industrial complex’ are two of the greatest perpetrators of this fat-hating vitriol. Bombarding us with the equation that thin equals beauty, will-power, and success and fat equals failure, gluttony, and ill-health, the media consistently projects negative attributes onto fat bodies. Fat hatred and its ugly sister, anorexic approval, abounds not only in reality television, but in EVERY form of media. Seen any fat news anchors? Been encouraged to admire any flabulous films? Listened to any fat-positive songs? Not likely (unless, that is, you are an active fat acceptance person and purposefully seek out fat positive media – and, even then, it ain’t that easy to find).

Judging by this widespread fat-hatred, it seems the thin-loving media would have embraced the relatively new “cure” for fatness – weight loss surgery (WLS). Yet, coverage of such surgery has been largely negative.  Broadcasting surgical horror stories and framing those who opt for surgery as cop-outs, the media suggests  that being thin takes hard work, sacrifice, and will-power – that surgery is ‘the easy way out’. The now thin post-surgical body may be hailed for its newly acceptable appearance, but the words used to describe WLS from ‘drastic’ to ‘draconian’, from ‘last resort’ to ‘effortless,’ from ‘quick fix’ to ‘surgically induced self-control’ all connote WLS as cheating.

Perhaps the most-outspoken celebrity mouthpiece of this media doctrine is Bill Maher. In the following, he blasts WLS, suggesting that fatties are food addicts:

No more celebrating gastric bypass.  Carnie Wilson, Al Roker and now Starr Jones are all being heralded by the media for stapling their stomachs shut. They shouldn’t be.  They’re not making a brave choice to change. They’re giving money to doctors to reroute their ability to turn food into crap. It’s like kicking cocaine by crazy gluing your nostrils shut.

Drawing on the widely held erroneous belief that fat people are gluttonous, Maher makes it clear that he believes if you’re fat, it’s your own damn fault. However, despite his claims to the contrary, WLS is hardly praised in the media. Rather, typical before and after shots celebrate newly attained thinness while guffawing at former fat grotesquerie. They frame the pre-WLS body as out of control and GROSS. The post body is then dissected for evidence of quick weight loss – saggy skin, chin folds, upper arm sags – with an implicit message that if these fatties had done it right – or the ‘hard way’ – they wouldn’t have to suffer the post-op baggy-body-syndrome.

Thus, while our culture wants us to be thin it wants us to suffer to do so. Moreover, it wants us to be thin at all costs – with the emphasis on cost – to buy diet pills, exercise machines, diet food, etc, etc. Apparently the cost of surgery (which was for several years covered by various health insurance companies) was not generating enough profits for the weight loss industrial complex.

Oprah Winfrey, like Maher, is in line with the media’s message that WLS is the easy way out. Her mantra seems to be, “I did it the hard way, so can you” – yes, the ‘hard’ way with a personal trainer and full-time chef. Embracing her new thin self, and famously espousing that losing weight is her greatest achievement, she still supposedly wants to teach us to love the bodies we are in. Oprah seems to have fallen victim to the idea that the female body must be disciplined into proper shape. Relentlessly shedding her former fat self, she emerged as a new and improved cultural icon of female will-power. Yet, this shedding was, as it is for the vast majority of bodies that are not born to thinness, temporary. Now Oprah is “embarrassed” about her lack of discipline, embarrassed her body is back at the 200+ mark.

Oprah’s sidekick, Dr. Phil, also characterizes weigh loss surgery as the easy option, advising members of his “Weight Loss Challenge” group “If you want a quick fix, get your stomach stapled.” This idea that surgery is easy (and that in order to count, weight loss has to be a challenge) has been widely adopted by the media. Fat people are not supposed to have a cheaters way out, damnit! They should be made to suffer for their self indulgence, laziness, and constant eating! Never mind the fact that many thin people eat as much or more than their fat counterparts, many exercise less or not at all, many have just as many or more health problems. Never mind that such surgeries are hardly ‘easy’ (nor do they work for everyone) and YET they are more successful than yo-yo dieting, pills etc. This is not an endorsement of WLS (nor is it a condemnation) – rather, I ask, WHY does the media only champion certain types of weight loss? Why pick on people who have “chosen” – either for health reasons or for aesthetic reasons – to opt for surgery while celebrating others who make the very same “choices” but do so with pills, extreme exercise regimens, or starvation diets?*  Seems like a double standard… Does it perhaps come from the fact that the diet industrial complex’s main goal is for people to FAIL and that, as of yet, WLS has been one of the most successful ways in which fatties become skinnies? A drastic way – to be sure – but a way that has a much higher ‘success’ rate than obsessive colon-cleansing or chomping down acai berry pills…

While I am all for loving the bodies we are in – and loving all types and sizes of bodies – I understand we live in a world that force feeds us the message we must NOT be fat. As such, many, many people are constantly trying to lose weight. THIS is the problem – yet, too often I have seen people who have been brainwashed into believing they must be thin to be happy/healthy baring the brunt of attack from all sorts of places – including from fat positive activists. Shouldn’t we, as body lovers, be attacking the system and NOT the people who are its victims?

Up next, part 2, in which I consider the fat acceptance movement and condemnation of WLS…

—-

*I put chosen and choices in scare quotes to indicate the idea of free choice is a bit of an oxymoron given the level of fat-hating cultural indoctrination.

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28 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. This is an overall excellent post. You put into words a lot of the things that I think, but have never actually verbalized about fat-hate in America.

    I’m glad I took the time to read it.

  2. Thanks Amelia! So glad you liked it.

  3. Thank you for a great post on fat phobia. This is an oppression that hits close to home. Like so many other women socialized in this fat-hating patriarchy, I have to live with an inner demon which tells me I have to look a certain way. Even though I “know better” I still have that inner monologue.

    I believe fat-phobia is so closely linked to capitalism and patriarchy, that we cannot undue one without the others (although I suppose this is true of all oppressions). I guess that this means that indeed the personal is political, and our lived experiences and inner demons are important to be analyzed and reflected upon.

    On a side note, dr. phil’s weight loss book always makes me laugh. On the cover, he is by no means our society’s “ideal” figure and yet he is professing to others how they should look. I would say that he has his own internalized fat phobia, but find it hard to be empathetic when he is hurting thousands and thousands of people – and making millions off of it. Don’t get me wrong, he isn’t the worst offender by any means, but I do believe that when we buy into the fat phobic mythology, and not only perpetuate it but profit off of this perpetuation, we are doing serious harm.

  4. Shermanvolvo,
    Hey — I think we have similar inner demons. Perhaps they are friends…?
    I agree about fat-phobia being perpetuated by patriarchal capitalism. And, about Dr. Phil being a demon in his own league!
    Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

  5. Nice post. It reminds me how I have friends that are underweight and eat about 3x what I do. Not really an issue for me. I don’t want to spend that much money on food anyways.
    Anyways, I don’t understand why biologically larger bodies get such a bad rap. I’m 6’1″ and 190-195 lbs, curvy, and I’m a bit more solid than most women. I consider my self “average” yet every time I play Wii Fit, I get labeled as over weight… I know you didn’t mention it, but the BMI system is completely screwed up. I know better than to believe it, but what about those people (mostly women, I expect) who see things like Wii feedback comments and start themselves on a health risking diet? Scary.

  6. LynneSkysong,
    Great point about BMI being “totally screwed up.” That and all the other height/weight charts are very damaging… I remember my mom had the scarsdale diet book when I was a kid and it had some wrist measurement system where you were supposed to be within a certain weight range according to height and wrist measurement or you were “obese.” I fell into the obese category and knew this was NOT GOOD — I must have been 8 or so I am guessing… Girls that are 8 now get this type of message 24/7 – no wonder diets are now common amongst third graders!!!
    As for Wii Fit, I have heard its praises sung many times, but it sounds like a nightmarish practice in self flagellation to me. How is that “fun”? I think the entire “overweight” and “obese” categories are completely harmful — size and weight should not matter as there is no direct correlation with health, yet this lie has been so drummed into our heads that we take bmi or the number on the scale as a measure of our health… I know a lot of women thinner than myself that I could kickbox a mile around and others fatter than me that could out-cardio me ten times over… You can’t tell how fit or healthy someone is by the numbers – and that is the message wii fit gives it seems.
    Thanks for reading!

  7. I am in.After reading the passage,I feel fat is very phobia.And now more people want to lose weight.But losing weight is not easy ,it needs correct ways ,and I have read more available ways to lose weight on adultbbwmatch . c o m .If you want to keep a slight body ,I advice you to have a look at the site.Wish you have a slender body.

  8. My issue with WLS is that it doesn’t address the underlying cause of a given patient’s obesity. You’re right when you say gluttony isn’t why people stay fat. In many cases of obesity, there *is* an issue that leads to individuals making bad food choices. In my case, it was sexual assault when I was 12. Once I worked my way past that, I was able to start making better food choices and lost 137 pounds over the course of two years. WLS treats a symptom, not the problem, which is why I don’t think it’s a good solution in most cases.

    As for the general issue of fat acceptance, it’s getting a little better where I live: I’ve seen overweight news reporters and anchors on the local news. And QVC, as much as I think their products are crap, does an excellent job of using fat and obese models to show off their women’s size clothing lines.

  9. I don’t do much TV watching, so maybe I’ve missed the evolution of WLS from “the wave of the future” to the backseat to diets. But the only place I’m aware of discussion of the tremendous downsides of WLS is within the fat acceptance community. (I avoid diet blogs and such, though, so it’s possible I’m missing it.)

    Shouldn’t we, as body lovers, be attacking the system and NOT the people who are its victims?

    This line hits home for me. In a way, I think “YES!” but also, I think it’s important to recognize that it’s not quite that easy, because in many ways the victims are reinforcing the system. It’s like most social structures, where our performance is not separate from the structure. The way I perform gender, the way I perform fat, the way I talk and think and write – all of those are related to the system. There’s certainly someone in the diet industry rubbing their hands together and cackling over “fooling” people into paying out, but there’s also large numbers of people in the diet industry who are victims, and genuinely believe Fat is Death. The selective acceptance of science (by scientists) is stunning, and a good example of how culture shapes science.

  10. I think your comment on, “while our culture wants us to be thin it wants us to suffer to do so” is really interesting. I’ve given this a lot of thought lately, especially in regards to shows like The Biggest Loser. On The Biggest Loser the contestants get weighed weekly in front of everyone… but what’s worse is they have to do it shirtless – the men in shorts and the women in sports bras. There’s a whole element of shame and guilt that goes into just that practice alone that i can’t wrap my head around. I just don’t see the necessity in asking the contestants to get almost naked and weighed in front of a million viewers if the show’s main goal is to create emotionally and physically healthy Americans…?

  11. I agree that the Biggest Loser is all about fat shaming for exactly the reasons mentioned. Contestants aren’t scantily clad for viewers to admire the human form. They stand almost naked for viewers to be repulsed. I suppose they would argue that they do this to demonstrate the effects of weight loss, but even still, this is so we can view their bodies become “better looking” by losing fat, because fat can never be beautiful.

    elementalv, I agree that there are people who are fat due to underlying psychological issues. In fact, I was thinking about individuals affected by sexual assault during this discussion, and how disordered eating (eating much more or much less than our body in fact wants) is very much affected by trauma. Sexual violence is fundamentally about losing control, and controlling what we put in (or don’t put in our bodies) is one way of feeling like one has control.

    I work as a sexual abuse/assault therapist, and have seen clients believe they were sexually assaulted because they were “too fat” and thus develop anorexia; I have also worked with individuals who believe that if they become fat, they will be protected from future assaults/abuse. And bulimia is often about invoking dissociation – disconnecting from our emotions and bodies so that we don’t feel pain – and can thus also develop as a result of trauma.

    But I want to add that people are also fat due to genetic reasons, not just their “food choices”. There are many psychologically and physically healthy fat people, and I think that this point is missing in our thin-obsessed society.

    While it is important for us to name our own experiences for ourselves, we can never assume the reasons for others’ experiences/situations. (BTW, I wasn’t suggesting you were naming others’ experiences, elementalv, just making a general speculation).

    I have a problem with terms like “overweight” because they define what is the “norm” or “ideal.” I prefer the word “fat” over “overweight” but I also don’t think this is the best word because “fat” has such negative connotations in our thin-obsessed society (although I am all about the reclaimation – THANK YOU fat activists!!)

    Are there other words that are being used? Or should we just focus on reclaiming the word “fat”?

  12. I think reclaiming the word fat is an important step in promoting acceptance, its hard to do though. I’m always exasperated when discussing weight with my friends; yes, your ass is fat, and it looks damn good too. Even though I think reclaiming fat is important, I’m reluctant to use it sometimes. Curvy, vivacious, or vulumptous sound much better most of the time and don’t have as much emotional baggage attached.

  13. Exactly. I am always cautious about calling another person “fat” lest I set off their inner demons/triggers.

    A few weeks ago, a friend of mine put together a zine on body image called “you’re so fucking fat (aka awesome!)” and she sent me an email asking if I would submit a pic of myself. Now, I identify as fat and consider myself a fat activist, but nonetheless it started all sorts of inner yuckiness. That I should “know better” and do “know better” was no help!

    I agree that we should just keep at reclaiming “fat”. My dream is that we will reach a point where we can call ourselves or others fat without it stirring up anxieties/self-hatred.

  14. Sweetyan,
    Not sure if your comment is perhaps spam?

    The point is to question wanting to have what you call a “slight” body — not giving people sources with which to achieve what shouldn’t be a goal in the first place!

    Elemantalv,
    Does there always need to be an “underlying cause” though? Doesn’t that very framing set up fatness as disease? It reminds me of the search for the “gay gene” — by trying to find a “cause” we are in effect saying that this (fatness, gayness, whatever) is a defect…

    I agree that people can have disordered eating or food addictions and the causes can be many. Further, the result is not always fatness… And, though fatness can be related to personal trauma/assault etc I think it is important that we don’t automatically treat fat as a “problem.” Yet, I see your point about WLS seeming to treat the “symptom” — and agree that for some people fatness “insulates” them from their emotions/bodies, etc. But, this is not the case for all fat bodies. I also wonder, if we didn’t have such rampant fat phobia in our culture, would people still manifest disordered eating to “solve” or deal with these traumas? If fat was acceptable and just one of the many variations of the body, would it “work” to use fat as a sort of psychological shield?

    And, I would agree that fat acceptance is becoming a LITTLE better — but we have a long way to go.

    Anita,
    I think your observation that “the only place I’m aware of discussion of the tremendous downsides of WLS is within the fat acceptance community” is right on target.

    I agree with you entirely that “in many ways the victims are reinforcing the system. It’s like most social structures, where our performance is not separate from the structure.” Yet, I do wonder if there is a way to blame the system more and individuals less — it seems to me too often that we attack or are critical of individuals rather than of the system. I am guilty of this myself. For example, I have been very critical of Oprah for jumping (again and again) on the weight loss bandwagon. Yet, according to my own argument, I should be critical of the system that makes her do this… This is a very tricky one — and an issue of course that feminists/social justice workers deal with on so many levels. We are part of the very system we are trying to bring down — when/how can we do the important work of dismantling/re-envisioning, and when are we only perpetuating things as they are?

    And I love your final point:
    “The selective acceptance of science (by scientists) is stunning, and a good example of how culture shapes science.” I think we so often forget this — the very word “SCIENCE” oozes with notions of objectivity and truth when, in actuality, science is profoundly shaped by culture…

    Feministgal,
    Great points about Biggest Loser. I’ve watched a whole of about three minutes of it — just can’t stomach it (no pun intended). But the images I have seen certainly seem to be all about shaming — as does the very title of the show!

    Shermanvolvo,
    Seeing fat as not-beautiful is so culturally sedimented that it will take a lot of work to de-program ourselves… Even though there is more fat acceptance on some levels, it is still only fat of a certain kind — ie not “too much” and it must be accompanied by a “pretty face” etc.

    You raise a key point — that people are fat for many reasons — and that many times they are HEALTHY and fat. This is what seems to be missing from the discussion – that fat is not always a “problem” – that it can and very often is just another bodily variation. Imagine if we treated really thin bodies in the same way — ie if we were alwy\ays trying to suggest they were genetically or psychologically “damaged”…

    Your points about reclaiming the word fat are very appreciated. I struggle with this too — can words with such negative baggage ever be truly reclaimed? I hate the word overweight, I hate the word obese, I don’t like euphemisms like “big” — but what are the alternatives to fat? As of yet, I don’t think we have any — though I like Marilyn Wann’s use of “flabulous”!

    Oleander,
    Thanks for weighing in (ha!) on the fat word…
    I like curvy and voluptuous but they seem to me to also be evasions… I wish we could use the word fat without it seeming like an insult — to ourselves or to others. I also like the words “fleshy” “round” “soft” and “godess-like.” (With that last one, isn’t it so fitting that godess-like can connote fatness, while god-like does not? But that is a whole separate discussion — how fat is gendered!)

    Shermanvolvo,
    I agree. Unless I know the person has a fat acceptance mindset, I won’t use the term.
    Thanks for sharing this story about how as a fat activist you still struggle when the term “fat” is directed at you. Internal colonization is so damn strong!!!

    I share your dream!!! To a fat loving future!

  15. “Does there always need to be an ‘underlying cause’ though? ”

    When you hit morbid obesity, yes, I think there has to be something that drove the individual to make the worst possible food choices (and continue making them, even if they have WLS). It’s possible the underlying cause is physical illness, but I believe it’s more likely to have its roots in emotional distress. However, I’m not including fat or mildly obese people in that group. I’m not finished losing weight — I’d like to drop another 40 pounds or so. But when I get down to my ideal weight, I’m still going to be at least 30 pounds heavier than what medicine believes is healthy.

    I think that’s where one of the major disconnects is in our society, the assumption that even slightly overweight people are always at risk, regardless of how healthy they are based on standard indicators (blood pressure, cholesterol level, blood sugar level, etc.).

    “If fat was acceptable and just one of the many variations of the body, would it ‘work’ to use fat as a sort of psychological shield?”

    I don’t think it would, but there are other weapons available to keep people at a distance, and I’ve used them all when it was clear that fat didn’t always work to do the job.

  16. Prof – Yeah, I’m guilty of the Oprah shaming, too. On one hand, I totally get it, but if anyone should get it, it’s the super privileged person who is (in some areas) involved in social critique.

    Curvy and voluptuous are also used to describe women – I don’t think further excluding (or feminizing) fat men is a good way to go. They get enough of that on their own. That doesn’t mean they couldn’t reclaim the word, but it’s nice to have a short, gender neutral (at least on the surface) word. Bonus points because it’s the first descriptor most kids/English students learn, so they don’t have to learn the appropriate term for fatness.

    elementalv, I find the statement that there’s a certain level of fat where people *must* be fat because they make poor food choices to be incredibly insulting. After all, that’s what people say about me (solidly obese, but probably viewed as a semi-normal Midwesterner – fat but not out of place). And since you don’t indicate any basis for this view that fat people *you find unacceptable* (or are you going for the BMI of 40? Either way, it’s an arbitrary point) are fat for any reason except making “bad” food choices, it seems like just another flavor of fat hatred. I think it’s on the fat bingo card, in fact – “Oh, I don’t mean you, you’re not *that* fat, I mean the *REALLY* fat people.” It’s bullshit – the same bullshit that’s said about slightly fat people, obese people, even thin people. (Also on the bingo card? “Good” and “bad” food – because they’re moral choices that reveal what sort of person you really are, not conglomerations of basic atoms arranged in little molecules that get broken down even further in your body.)

  17. Using terms like morbid obesity, overweight, and obese buy into the fat as a pathology disease to be cured and treated BMI system, and frankly, that’s bullshit. Fat, please. Please use the word fat.

  18. Elementalv,

    Like Anita, I question your characterization of eating along good/bad lines. In terms of “worst possible food choices” I think we all eat things that are healthy and not so healthy for our bodies. But, why don’t we demonize alcohol (or drugs even) in the same way we demonize food? I think this type of framework is rooted in the religious history of food. I read a book years ago (can’t think of the title, sorry) about these links. It argued that many religions saw denying food (like denying the flesh) as proof that one was more holy… This is only one aspect of our demonization of eating, though. I think another goes back to Descartes and the whole mind/body split — rational people are supposed to be able to control their bodily desires, to rise above the flesh, so to speak. So, my question is this, why do we blame and shame fat above many other things that can lead to ill health and do so more readily? We are a fat hating culture for many reasons. If we were not such a culture, we would not care so much about weight. And, by not caring, we could all be at our “ideal weight” with each person having a set weight that works for their bodies… By HATING fat, we cause more bodies that are not at their own set point — either above or below, this is not ‘natural’ but is the culturally induced body — whether one is below set point due to extreme diet regimens or above due to yo-yo dieting, etc.

    Anita and Whit,
    Good point about curvy and voluptuous as feminized terms Anita! I think (like Whit) that fat is the best term, but I also think we have a lot of work to do to reclaim it. We have to strip it of its insulting aura, which will not be easy…

  19. Well, as long as one is comfortable with their own body then I guess its ok. Being thin or too fat can have their bad effect on the body. Things like BMI are only used as a guage of what should be a healthy body. Ultimately its still up to individual, and how comfortable they feel about themselves.

  20. Ah, the BMI. I had a good laugh the other day when I participated in a study measuring fitness.

    I am a vegan who regularly runs, does yoga, lifts weights and all sorts of other things that I believe help my body release stress. According to the BMI, I am “overweight”.

    I got a little pamphlet that told me that I am at risk for all sorts of things because of my body weight. Including problematic cholesterol (which doesn’t exist in the vegan diet. Duh.)

    Of course, it doesn’t take into account all of the positive things I do which significantly decrease this risk and the things I do which increase health risk (like smoke).

    What an absolutely useless measure, IMHO.

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