Back in April, my Salon column pointed out that though women are far less likely to be overweight than men, they comprise 90 percent of customers in the commercial weight-loss industry.
The bottom line is both obvious and indisputable: Women may indeed be less overweight than men, but they are more socially persecuted for their weight, as evidenced by a hypocritical society that so often celebrates the Fat Guy while denigrating the Fat Lady. Because of this dynamic, women solicit weight-loss programs more frequently than men, and weight-loss companies target their advertising more aggressively toward women than men.
Now, two weeks after my column was published, a new Arizona State University study tells us just how successful that advertising and social stigmatization have been in making many women psychologically obsessed with weight — even to the detriment of other health priorities. As the study documented:
[Women] were asked to choose whether they would rather be obese or have one of 12 socially stigmatized conditions, such as alcoholism or herpes. In many cases, the women would rather have more of the other conditions, with 25.4 percent preferring severe depression and 14.5 percent preferring total blindness over obesity.
You read that right — one in four women would prefer to be severely depressed rather than overweight, and nearly one in six would prefer to lose their sight rather than face the same fate. These are truly stunning numbers — but, then, they come as responses to hypotheticals. So the key question this study raises is: Do the results mean anything in real-world practice?
In a word, yes.
Whether from ubiquitous waifs on highway billboards or from the tabloid fetishization of celebrities’ emaciated bodies, women are pressured by a chauvinist culture to prioritize the thin aesthetic over genuine wellness — and that pressure has consequences. It is, for example, one of the roots of eating disorders. It also fuels a market for weight-loss drugs that can have toxic side effects. And it can also be a major factor in smoking — and specifically, the decision by women not to quit for fear that doing so will make them fat.
The ASU study, then, confirms just how powerful this pressure really is — and how it’s become so intense that women may now be willing to endure far more than eating disorders and smoking in the pursuit of thin.
Obesity, of course, is a serious national health crisis and it should be treated as such, regardless of the powerful food conglomerates that have a stake (or steak) in continuing the culture of fat, and irrespective of whom such an aggressive health-focused posture might offend. But that’s the thing: Addressing weight as a health issue is different from addressing it as an aesthetic — and mostly female — concern. The former really shouldn’t offend anyone. It’s the latter that should outrage everyone — especially because that perspective remains today’s regrettable norm, and with increasingly horrific consequences.
I often tell a story about a conversation I observed in a feminist theory seminar that I participated in about a decade ago. A white woman was explaining to a black woman how their common experience of oppression under patriarchy bound them together as sisters. All women, she explained, had the same experience as women, she said.
The black woman demurred from quick agreement. “When you wake up in the morning and look in the mirror,” she asked the white woman, “what do you see?”
“I see a woman,” responded the white woman hopefully.
“That’s the problem,” responded the black woman. “I see a black woman. To me race is visible, because it is how I am not privileged in society. Because you are privileged by race, race is invisible to you. It is a luxury, a privilege not to have to think about race every second of your life.”
I groaned, embarrassed. And, as the only man in the room, all eyes turned to me. “When I wake up and look in the mirror,” I confessed, “I see a human being. The generic person. As a middle class white man, I have no class, no race and no gender. I’m universally generalizable. I am Everyman.”
Lately, I’ve come to think that it was on that day in 1980 that I became a middle class white man, that these categories actually became operative to me. The privilege of privilege is that the terms of privilege are rendered invisible. It is a luxury not to have to think about race, or class, or gender. Only those marginalized by some category understand how powerful that category is when deployed against them.
“Hollywood hates labor, and hates shows about labor worse than any other thing. And that’s why you won’t be seeing another Roseanne anytime soon. Instead, all over the tube, you will find enterprising, overmedicated, painted-up, capitalist whores claiming to be housewives. But I’m not bitter.”—Roseanne Barr (via chukwuma)
“The nation is not a home or community, not the singular place in which one might be born and reared, but a generalized or abstract place, which we inhabit through acts of patriotic
imagination.”—Richard Slotkin, Unit Pride: Ethnic Platoons and the Myths of American Nationality