Friday, September 4, 2009

The Obesity Justification

Dr. Jon LaPook asks over at Huffington Post, "Could the Obesity Fight Backfire?" -- as in, could it create a hyperawareness of one's weight and lead to an uptick of eating disorders?

Well, duh. It doesn't take an M.D. to recognize that the demographic that is vulnerable to restrictive eating disorders will jump upon the antiobesity train to justify their own behavior, and that those with nonrestrictive eating disorders -- specifically binge eating disorder -- are not going to be helped by the antiobesity's focus on portion control and food choices. (The problem for most of those eaters isn't nutrition ignorance; it's addictive behavior, and without addressing that, the idea of three square meals a day goes out the window.)

But more specifically, what I've seen is an ever-widening justification of the overwhelming body focus in women's magazines. The surge of eating-disorder awareness in the '90s meant that most of these magazines had to shape up their nutrition coverage. They never stopped telling you to lose weight, but in the past decade I've seen advocacy of liquid diets replaced by advocacy of wholesome meals. The glossies' words are telling us what our doctors are: Eat balanced meals and exercise, ta-da! (The magazines' images tell a different story, naturally. As much as editors crow about how they're forced to use thin models because designers make samples in size 4 -- maybe that's why size 12 Glamour model Lizzie Miller was naked? They couldn't possibly find clothes to fit her! -- the deeper reason is that if women suddenly started feeling like they didn't need to change their appearance, they'd stop buying the goods that the magazines advertise.)

Then along comes mass awareness of the obesity epidemic. Suddenly, instead of couching weight loss in terms of fitting into your college jeans, magazines could soberly proclaim that really, it was about your health all along. Instead of focusing on waistline measurements, a new set of statistics are of importance: cholesterol, body mass index. It's no surprise that the circulation for a magazine titled Women's Health has skyrocketed 30% in the past nine months (this is an enormous spike). Looking inside Women's Health, though, it's the same-old, same-old. Lose your belly (join the magazine's "Belly Off Club")! Conquer your cravings (food producers engineer processed foods to be addictive -- so make these cheesy fries instead! That'll conquer your cravings, right? But wait -- the website hosts a list of the "125 Best Packaged Foods for Women," so don't get too tied to the idea that you should be making your own meals)!* Ad pages for Women's Health competitors have dropped during the same period, despite containing similar content. It's possible that editors at Women's Health are sharper than the average bear; it's also possible that the mere presence of the word "health" makes it more appealing to the first-time reader. (A friend of mine was given a gift subscription by her aunt, an avid magazine reader who said, "I know you don't like women's magazines, so I got you this instead!")

This should all be good news, given that 2/3 of Americans actually are are overweight (and logically a good percentage of the readers of these magazines are as well); ideally the "health" tips surrounding weight loss would be targeting them and not the readers who don't need to lose body fat for health reasons. But women are reading these articles in fashion magazines, where "overweight" is invisible -- even the now-famous size 12 Glamour model, at 5'11" and 180 pounds, qualifies as "overweight" on the BMI scale by exactly one pound. So the weight-loss material pointed at the "overweight" reader is pointed at someone who isn't visually represented. Since "overweight" in our culture isn't neutral but a synonym for everything from sloppy to out-of-control to poor, all readers are left swimming in a sea of "health" advice. I think back to a conversation I had with my doctor at my last checkup. Like some magazine had directed me to do, I'd written out The List of questions I had about my body so that I wouldn't forget to ask them: Should I be concerned about my creaky knee; my mother is diabetic, could you check my blood sugar. As I pulled the piece of paper out of my pocket, the doctor sighed. "Ah, The List. You all have them. All you young, healthy women come in here with The List. And you know what? You're all healthy. The people who don't make The List are the ones who aren't."

Let's also not forget that the amount of space these magazines devote to weight loss hasn't increased proportionately along with America's obesity epidemic; magazines from 1992 have roughly as many pages devoted to weight loss as those today. The justification for those pages has changed, not the pages themselves.

The funny thing is that women's magazines aren't using the "epidemic" as a hook on their covers. It's still "lose weight fast!" on the cover; it's only when you look inside that the health angle is laid out. It's the same tactic used by best-seller Skinny Bitch, a book billed as a weight-loss time that turns out to be a treatise on veganism. It's a weird sort of whiplash: The hook still has to be the bottom line in order to catch one's attention -- lose weight now! But then the chatter itself turns out to be sensible in content, even if its context prevents it from being neutral.

And that's the very reason that Dr. LaPook's suggestion holds water: We don't live in a weight-neutral society, where "overweight" really does just mean "at increased risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, et al." And until we do, weight loss directives pointed toward women will, unfortunately, seem anything but neutral. Women with fully intact self-esteem remain unharmed; the rest, whether overweight or not, hear "health" advice and suffer.

*Lest I seem too harsh on Women's Health: Their relationship and sex advice is commendable for its focus on the reader and on strong communication. For example, a feature about "enjoying your breasts," which I expected to be about peekaboo push-up bras, was actually a list of ways to increase your sexual pleasure from your breasts (though the piece's subheading is pandering: "Guys get off on the sight of breasts -- no surprise there. But who knew they can double your pleasure too?").


  1. Skinny Bitch is sort of a pet peeve of mine lately - although I'll be honest and say that no, I haven't actually read it. I understand that there's some good info included regarding nutrition and the food industry. I just don't like the idea of setting up veganism as a weight loss tactic. Sure, some people lose weight when they go vegan. But you know, I've been vegan for three and a half years, and I haven't lost a pound.

    Weight is about energy consumed vs. energy expended - your body doesn't care all that much whether the calories came from vegetables or animal products. It also has to do with each individual's personal physiology. It can be affected by genetics, illness, and medications being taken, among a host of other variables. And besides - believe me, there's PLENTY of unhealthy, calorie laden, nutritionally vacant vegan food out there... thank god!

  2. @melissa: Heh, I haven't read it either, and am peeved at it as well! The title alone is enough to piss me off. (Because skinny women are automatically bitches, is that the idea? Instead of just being...skinny?) I should have mentioned the book when I was making my vague point about "slow-foodarexia," because obviously slow food is a good thing--but when it's being twisted into something ugly that encourages us to dislike our bodies, it just becomes another form of food obsession. I hate to think of women reading that book, getting good info about the ick of the food industry, and then feeling like their disordered eating (because if you're plopping down $20 on a book called "Skinny Bitch," you've got some issues, most likely) is somehow P.C.