bodies: fat

For the last week of December, we’re re-posting some of our favorite posts from 2012. Cross-posted at The Huffington Post.

If you live in the U.S. you are absolutely bombarded with the idea that being overweight is bad for your health.  This repetition leaves one with the idea that being overweight is the same thing as being unhealthy, something that is simply not true.  In fact, people of all weights can be either healthy or unhealthyoverweight people (defined by BMI) may actually have a lower risk of premature death than “normal” weight people.  Being fat is simply not the same thing as being unhealthy.

The Health At Every Size (HAES) movement attempts to interrupt the conflation of health and thinness by arguing that, instead of using one’s girth as an indicator of one’s health, we should be focusing on eating/exercising habits and more direct health measures (like blood pressure and cholesterol).

A recent study offered the HAES movement some interesting ammunition in this battle. The study recruited almost 12,000 people of varying BMIs and followed them for 170 months as they adopted healthier habits.  Their conclusion? ” Healthy lifestyle habits are associated with a significant decrease in mortality regardless of baseline body mass index.”

Take a look.  The “hazard ratio” refers to the risk of dying early, with 1 being the baseline.  The “habits” along the bottom count how many healthy habits a person reported.  The shaded bars represent people of different BMIs from “healthy weight” (18.5-24.9) to “overweight” (25-29.9), to “obese” (over 30).

The three bars on the far left show the relative risk of premature death for people with zero healthy habits. It suggests that being overweight increases that risk, and being obese much more so.  The three bars on the far right show the relative risk for people with four healthy habits; the differential risk among them is essentially zero; for people with healthy habits, then, being fatter is not correlated with an increased relative risk of premature death.  For everyone else in between, we more-or-less see the expected reduction in mortality risk given those two poles.

This data doesn’t refute the idea that fat matters.  In fact, it shows clearly that thinness is protective if people are doing absolutely nothing to enhance their health.  It also suggests, though, that healthy habits can make all the difference.  Overweight and obese people can have the same mortality risk as “normal” weight people; therefore, we should reject the idea that fat people are “killing themselves” with their extra pounds.  It’s simply not true.

h/t to BigFatBlog.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a Visiting Scholar at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming Introduction to Sociology text. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Apparently we’ve become such a sedentary/weight-obsessed society that we now have to watch our cat’s calories too.  See my kitten’s cute paws and the text in the lower right corner:

Lisa Wade, PhD is a Visiting Scholar at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming Introduction to Sociology text. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Cross-posted at Family Inequality.

Fat people shown with no heads, starving children shown with dull stares? The short explanation may be the difference between a shaming frame and a pity frame. Fat people are blamed for their obesity, so to show their faces stimulates shame and stigma. Starving children are helpless, homogeneous victims, so to stare into their eyes stimulates feelings of pity in the viewer.

The news media’s practice of showing what Charlotte Cooper has called “headless fatties” is ubiquitous. Writing about this phenomenon on a news blog, Nate Jones says,

Picturing the obese without heads is a handy solution for an age-old problem: How do you illustrate a story on obesity without shining a spotlight on any individuals? Cropping out faces is more polite — and more legal — than leaving them in, the thinking goes. It’s journalism at its most paternalistic.

And then he asks,

Assuming we don’t stop covering obesity stories entirely, is there a way to illustrate them without saying, “Hello, you are fat. May I take your picture?”

But wait a minute. Why not ask that?

It seems to me that, in sparing a few news photographers some embarrassment — as they approach strangers and ask them this question — the media instead perpetuates the shame, embarrassment and stigma of millions of other people. (And if a few people get over it, ask, and show the full picture, it might just be less difficult to have the conversation the next time.)

Here’s a suggestion: instead of approaching people while they are eating alone on the boardwalk or at a fast food restaurant, how about finding people at work or school or playing with their children, and showing them living real, complicated, human lives with a potentially risky health condition?

An unscientific sample: Here are the 17 pictures on the first page of my Google images search for “obesity men.” The pictures include 15 individuals, 9 of whom have no faces. (The equivalent search for women yielded 30 obese people, 17 of whom were faceless.)

On the other hand

So why is it so different for starving children? Here are the Google images of “starving child.”

They all have faces. Also, none of them are White Americans (which makes sense, since hardly anyone starves in America, though many are food insecure). Also, maybe no one asked their permission to use their likenesses.

For obese people in a rich country, the shame and stigma is a big part of the problem itself — as the anguish it causes undermines healthy behavior. Shame and stigma does not promote healthy weight loss.

For starving children in a poor country, the pity of rich-country viewers is also part of the problem, because it becomes the story, detracting from systematic impoverishment and exploitation. For them, pity also seems ineffective at generating solutions.

Showing pictures of obese people and starving children in the news is important. Both of these practices set up dehumanizing scenarios, however, because they do not create images of complete people in the social contexts of their lives.

Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park, and writes the blog Family Inequality. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

Cross-posted at Caroline Heldman’s Blog.Magic Mike is “wildly overperforming” at the box office because women and gay men are going to see it in droves.  Thank you Hollywood executives for finally noticing that there’s plenty of money to be made off of heterosexual female and gay male sexuality.  Magic Mike purports to be a movie that caters to het women, and while it does provide a highly unusual public space for women to objectify men, the movie in fact prioritizes male sexual pleasure in tired, sexist ways.

Watching Magic Mike was an experience.  Many of the female theater-goers around me were hollering demands (e.g., “take it all off, baby!”) and grunting approvingly during dance scenes.  The camera unabashedly focused tight on the dancer’s abs and buttocks, requiring viewers to objectify the male actors.  I’ve written elsewhere that living in a culture that objectifies girls/women is highly damaging, and emerging male objectification is a corporate wet dream to sell products by creating new body dissatisfactions/markets.

Make no bones about it, this movie is all about reinforcing the notion that men are in control and men’s sexuality matters more.  It baffles me that the filmmakers were so effective in conveying these themes in a movie about male strippers that a mostly female audience is eating up.  Have we learned to devalue our own sexual pleasure so thoroughly that the scraps of het female sexual pleasure provided by Magic Mike feel like a full meal?

Aside from the questionably-empowering viewer interaction with the film, the content of Magic Mike is old-school sexism wrapped in a new package.  It reinforces prevailing notions of masculinity where white men are in control, both economically and sexually, and women are secondary characters to be exploited for money and passed around for male sexual pleasure.

Most of the women in the film are audience members portrayed as easily manipulated cash cows to be exploited for money.  In one scene, the club boss, Dallas (Matthew McConaughey) gets his dancers pumped up before a show by asking them, “Who’s got the cock?  You do.  They don’t.”  Dallas has a running commentary that forcefully rejects the idea that female audience members are sexual subjects in the exchange.

Beyond the foundational theme of male control, many (but not all) of the simulated sex acts the dancers perform in their interactions with female audience members service the male stripper’s pleasure, not hers.  Dancers shove women’s faces into their crotch to simulate fellatio, hump women’s faces, perform faux sex from behind without a nod to clitoral stimulation, etc.  As a culture, we have deprioritized female sexual pleasure to such a great extent that these acts seem normal in a setting where they don’t make sense.While the men in Magic Mike strut their sexual stuff with a plot line that constantly reaffirms their sexual subjectivity, the few supporting female roles show women in surprisingly pornified, objectifying ways.  Magic Mike is pretty tame when it comes to male bodies.  Lots of floor and face humping, but no penis or even close-up penis tease shots through banana hammocks.  In fact, viewers aren’t exposed to any male body part that they wouldn’t see at Venice Beach.  The same cannot be said for women.

The movie features gratuitous breast scenes galore (yes, the breasts are the scene) and full body (side and back) female nudity. One of the male stripper’s wives is reduced to a pair of breasts that are passed around when her husband encourages another male stripper to fondle them because “she loves it.”  The few recurring female roles in the cast are flat with no character development, including the romantic interest, while the white men in the film enjoy extensive character development.

Other disturbing moments are peppered throughout the movie.  Magic Mike (Channing Tatum) makes a thinly veiled rape innuendo when he’s “teaching” a younger guy how to approach a woman at a club: “Look what she’s wearing. She’s asking to be bothered.”  The movie also asks viewers to laugh at a larger woman who hurts a dancer’s back when he picks her up (see photo and trailer below).  And one of the main characters has a homophobic reaction when he’s grossed out that his sister thinks he’s gay.  Also, this is a story about white men where both women and men of color exist at the margins.  The Latino DJ is a drug dealer (how original), and the two Latino dancers barely talk.I was heartened and humored by grandmas and teenage girls asserting their sexual subjectivity in the theater by yelling at the screen.  It is wonderful to see so many women spending money for an experience that purports to cater to our sexual desires.  We want to feel powerful when it comes to our sexuality because we’re constantly robbed of sexual subjectivity through popular culture, pornography, the male gaze, and in the bedroom.  One Sexual Revolution later, men are still twice as likely to achieve orgasm than women during sex.

If Magic Mike is our sexual outlet, we deserve something better.  When women turn around and engage in the same objectification that harms us, is that empowering?  When the men we’re objectifying on the screen are degrading women and prioritizing their own sexual pleasure, and we eroticize this behavior, is that empowering?  And when women eroticize sexual acts that don’t involve the clitoris/orgasm, is that empowering?  I don’t have definitive answers to these questions, but I do know that Magic Mike would have been a radically different film had it truly been about female sexual pleasure.  It’s high time more women were calling the shots in Hollywood and making mainstream movies that feature female sexual pleasure.

Magic Mike trailer.  To see the sexual double standard, note how the trailer frames male stripping as a “fantasy” life, and imagine this term being applied to female strippers in a Hollywood trailer.


Caroline Heldman is a professor of politics at Occidental College. You can follow her at her blog and on Twitter and Facebook.

Given our collection of toy make-overs, I was curious when I heard that Quaker Oats had re-vamped their mascot, Larry.  In the toys we’ve covered, the trend is towards greater feminization and sexualization.  Larry, though, is a dude.  And do we really need to sexualize our oatmeal?  (Well, you never know.)

It turns out what prompted the mascot make-over wasn’t an effort to make Larry sexier, but to make him look healthier.  According to the Wall Street Journal, the director of Quaker’s brand-design firm wanted to reinforce people’s association of oatmeal with “energy and healthy choices.”  And by “healthy,” they mean “thin.”   They reduced the roundness of his chin and cheeks.  They also gave him a hair cut in order to expose the sides of his neck.  Another representative of the brand redesign explains: “It’s the same neck,” but the haircut “makes him look thinner… We took about five pounds off him.”

If it’s tough for you to tell the difference between the two, it’s by design.  Quaker wants the changes to work on a subconscious level.  A fascinating peak into the motives and tactics of brand management.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a Visiting Scholar at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming Introduction to Sociology text. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

I recently had the pleasure of reading Peter Stearns’ Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West.  The book chronicles the shift in American history from a plump to a thin ideal.  The beauty of Stearns’ book is his resistance to reducing the shift in norms to a simple cause. Instead, he traces the changes to conflicts between capitalism and religion, the backlash against women’s equality, industrialization and the devaluation of maternal roles, fashion trends, the professionalization of medicine, our cultural relationship to food, and more.

Stearns is quite specific in timing the change, however, pointing to the years between 1890 and 1910.  In these 20 years, he writes:

…middle-class America began its ongoing battle aginst body fat.  Never previously an item of systemic public concern, dieting or guilt about not dieting became an increasing staple of private life, along with a surprisingly strong current of disgust directed against people labeled obese.

I thought of Stearns’ book when I came across a delightful collection of photographs of exotic dancers taken in 1890, the year he pinpoints as the beginning of the shift to thinness.  From a contemporary perspective, they would likely be judged as “too fat,” but their plumpness was exactly what made these dancers so desirable at the time.

More at Retronaut.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a Visiting Scholar at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming Introduction to Sociology text. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Originally posted at Shameless.

Marilyn Monroe is often held up as the antidote to the idea that only thin can be beautiful. “Marilyn was a size 10/12/14,” goes a common refrain (though sizing basically means nothing these days, so what does that even prove?). There have been a couple Marilyn Monroe memes floating around Facebook in the past couple months, and both are troubling. The focus is on Marilyn’s curves, and how her swimsuit clad body is different from what movie stars look like today (oh, the tyranny of the “Best Beach Bodies!” issue). What’s supposed to be an empowering message to women – you don’t have to be a Victoria’s Secret model to be beautiful – is completely undermined by two much older memes: divide and conquer and the male gaze.

In the first photo, Marilyn is compared to another woman in a bikini, who is much thinner. The text reads: “This [pointing to Monroe] is more attractive than this [pointing to the other woman].” While I can totally get behind the title “fuck society,” and add “and its stupid expectations” for good measure, there’s nothing anti-establishment about what’s being done here. This is a common tactic, in which women are pitted against each other, so that we lose sight of the real problem: namely, society. If women are fighting amongst ourselves about who is more “beautiful,” if we compare ourselves to other women endlessly, we don’t have time to notice that we’re trapped in a hamster-wheel of low self-esteem. Society hopes that you’ll buy things, to try and make yourself feel better. In the meantime, it’s hoped that we as women won’t critically examine what beauty is, what’s being sold to us, and most importantly, who profits from all this. Fuck Society, sure, because society tells you that if you’re not extremely thin, you’re worthless. However, extremely thin women? They’re still people. Further, bodies are just bodies. They have no intrinsic worth, no moral value, other than what we assign them. The thought behind this comparison photo is to turn the dominant paradigm on its head, but what it really does is reinforce that for one woman to be good, another must be bad. And that kind of thinking isn’t going to get us anywhere.

The second is the same photo of Marilyn, this time alone in the Motivational Poster style. The text reads: “PROOF: That you can be adored by thousands of men, even when your thighs touch.” From the start this would seem like a better message. No comparison photo, no pitting women against each other. For some reason, though, this photo troubles and angers me more than the first one does. Because here’s the thing: you are worth more than what men think of you. Marilyn Monroe was, to put it mildly, very sad, very often. She was a sex symbol, and thus, stopped existing as human being, a regular girl. Almost everything that fucked up Marilyn’s later life had to do with being “adored” by men. Men used her, or deified her (and that’s a hard come-down for those dudes when they found a human being in their bed the morning after). Political brothers purportedly passed her around like a toy. Conventional wisdom, political conspiracy aside, has it that Monroe killed herself. Being “adored by thousands of men” didn’t stop her demons from consuming her. It angers me to no end that, again, in the name of self-esteem we’re going to make a poster girl (literally) out of a woman who was notoriously down on herself.

I want very much for us to stop thinking that there is only one body type that is acceptable. I would prefer the focus be on health, rather than appearance. The Monroe Meme seems about the furthest thing from healthy. This is a woman who abused alcohol and sleeping pills later in her life, this is a woman who (probably) died due to depression. But, hey, as long as someone thinks she looks good, I guess that’s what matters.

Heather Cromarty has written for The Walrus Blog, and writes about books and bookish miscellany at In The Midst of Life, We Are in Debt, Etc. Follow her on Twitter: @la_panique.

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) sponsored two new billboards in Albany, NY, warning residents that cheese makes you fat in what is possibly most irresponsible way ever. The first features an obese man’s disembodied torso and the words, “Your abs on cheese.” The second features an obese woman’s butt and thighs and the words, “Your thighs on cheese.” The images make a very clear statement: fat people are disgusting.
The PCRM advocates for a vegan diet. The aim of this campaign is to get Albany residents to reduce their cheese intake, as cheese is a common source of saturated fat and, according to the PRCM, a major contributor to obesity in the United States. In Albany, home to several dairy farms, 63 percent of adults are obese. This is higher than the statewide obesity level of 59 percent. Obesity prevention is a valid cause, to be sure, but at what cost to other health issues?

According to their website, the PCRM is “a nonprofit health organization that promotes preventive medicine, conducts clinical research, and encourages higher standards for ethics and effectiveness in research.” For an organization so concerned with ethical standards, the PCRM has sunk pretty low with this offensive and damaging campaign. In the jargon of health communication ethics, the PCRM have committed a common and classic misstep: the failure to consider the unintended consequences of their message.

Just like a single food item (in this case, cheese) is not responsible for the entire obesity epidemic, obesity is not the only serious health problem facing Americans. We are also struggling with our body image and self-esteem as we cope with the barrage of photoshopped and unrealistic “ideal bodies” in the media. The National Eating Disorders Association states that “in the United States, as many as 10 million women and 1 million men are fighting a life and death battle with an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia. Millions more are struggling with binge eating disorder.”

In the medical hegemony, physical health tends to outrank mental health in “importance.” But the line between physical and mental health issues is not always clear, especially with the confluence of obesity, body image disturbance, eating disorders, and self-esteem. The PRCM is wearing blinders to these interrelated health issues in their dogmatic pursuit of a singular, isolated objective.

Physicians are taught to “do no harm.” The PRCM needs to understand that insensitive words and pictures are absolutely harmful to our health. There are better ways to educate and motivate people to make healthier food choices; ethical health campaigns do not sacrifice one health issue to promote another.


Leah Berkenwald is a graduate student of Health Communication at Emerson College, in collaboration with the Tufts University School of Medicine, and holds a MA in American Studies from the University of Nottingham. She is currently designing a social marketing campaign on body image for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She also works as the Online Communications Specialist at the Jewish Women’s Archive, and blogs at

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