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How Big Food feeds fat positivity The anti-diet rhetoric has been hijacked

Rebel Wilson has turned to Ozempic. Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic

Rebel Wilson has turned to Ozempic. Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic


April 15, 2024   7 mins

In 1967, Lew Louderback published an article titled “More People Should Be Fat”. Fat people were being told they were ugly, immoral and unhealthy; they were discriminated against in the job market and in education. Their persecution had “more than a hint of the Nazis’ kraft durch freude [strength through joy]”, wrote Louderback.

Yet there was no civil rights movement for the overweight. “All that the fat person can do, at great personal sacrifice and daily torture, is attempt to ‘pass’ as a thin person.” Louderback and his wife had opted out. They were what he described as “honestly fat” — predisposed by a combination of inheritance and upbringing to never be skinny — and by finally ending the fight against their own bodies, they had become happier and even healthier.

“Inside millions of thin Americans are fat men and women,” he concluded. “Guilt is the lock that imprisons them. The time has come to turn the key.” Louderback’s article is often cited as the beginning of the fat acceptance movement. Revisiting it, it’s remarkable how completely he laid out the terms of the political doctrine that would follow. The science claiming being overweight is bad for you must be debunked. Diets only make you miserable. The real problem is stigma against the fat. Decades later, this would be codified under the rubric “health at every size”.

And he got his wish for more fat people. In his column, he estimated that one in 10 Americans was fat. Over half a century later, the Center for Disease Control reports that a third of US adults are obese. That is, obviously, not the fault of body positivity. People don’t get overweight because of a political message: they get overweight because they live in an environment that requires little physical activity and supplies plenty of calories.

But for the companies whose profits depend on providing those calories, “health at every size” has proved to be a gift. A recent Washington Post investigation found that nutrition influencers pushing the hashtags #NoBadFoods, #FoodFreedom and #DitchTheDiet were in many cases in partnership with the big food and drink companies such as General Mills (the company behind Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms). The message is that you can — you should — eat whatever you like and feel good about it.

There is something incredibly cruel about corporate interests hijacking anti-diet rhetoric like this, since, inevitably, some who follow this advice gain weight, and feel worse. And as people get bigger, their hunger for reassurance that they are neither disgusting nor diseased grows stronger. Using that reassurance to sell the cause of the harm is an act of colossal cynicism.

That’s especially the case given that fat activism was originally conceived as an anti-consumerist movement. The fat were tired of having things sold to them. It’s just that, historically, the marketers were pushing thinness rather than food. Louderback describes him and his wife “gulping down appetite-depressant pills, getting ourselves injected with thyroid extract, filling our shrunken bellies with tasteless low-calorie drinks and foul-tasting dietary supplements”. When these efforts worked, they bought new clothes. When they failed, they had to buy new clothes again.

In 1973, the organisation Fat Underground published its “Fat Liberation Manifesto” (with the unimprovable tagline “FAT PEOPLE OF THE WORLD, UNITE! YOU HAVE NOTHING TO LOSE…”). This reserved special ire for the “‘reducing’ industries”: “diet clubs, reducing salons, fat farms, diet doctors, diet books, diet foods and food supplements, surgical procedures, appetite suppressants, drugs and gadgetry.” By the 21st century, activism had succeeded in making “diet” feel like a dirty word, so the diet industry changed its language. In 2018, Weight Watchers rebranded as “WW”, and adopted the slogan “wellness that works”. The words “diet” and “weight” were carefully downplayed in its materials.

For those who followed in Louderback’s footsteps, seeing their language co-opted in this way wasn’t just mercenary: it was a fundamental perversion of their radical ideals. Letting go of diet culture was supposed to smash capitalism, not give it new angles to work. “It’s deflating to watch movements rooted in fat activism be appropriated to bolster the profits of corporations,” writes Aubrey Gordon, co-host of the Maintenance Phase podcast and a “fat justice” advocate. But what she doesn’t appear to have considered is that there’s more than one way to exploit people’s broken relationship with food.

“If a cure emerges, does it become necessary to admit that obesity was a disease after all, and not a choice.”

Yes, stigma is a powerful tool for turning people into purchasers. But so is alleviating people of that stigma (#nofoodshame). And from its inception, the politics of fat pride (or acceptance, or liberation, or whatever the current preferred styling is) has always been vulnerable to this kind of takeover. A movement that takes it as an article of faith that appetite can only be good has limited capacity to resist the forces of consumption.

And here is the contradiction at the heart of fat activism: it mixes laudable aims with impossible ones. It rightly demands better treatment for fat people; and then it derangedly demands a different reality, in which there are no disadvantages to being overweight. A politics of wishful thinking is not politics at all: it is simply an advertising slogan, and the food companies have realised as much. The apogee of this approach comes in Kate Manne’s book Unshrinking: How to Fight Fatphobia, where she writes about the self-described “infinifat” (UK size 36 and above) podcaster Ash Nischuk:

“Yes, she sometimes requires a mobility aid to travel longer distances… Yes, she sometimes prefers to sit rather than stand during routine activities, such as showering and meal preparation; fortunately, seats exist. And yes, she may require a good-size seat; but this is a logistical problem, not an existential one — and the world’s problem, not her body’s.”

I was appalled reading this. Not because Nischuk is very fat, but because of the dependence and vulnerability her size imposes on her. Within the fat positivity movement, a great deal of energy is directed towards dismantling the idea of fat as unhealthy. Manne devotes many pages to it, and Gordon her entire podcast (with an often dubious grasp of the science). They do have a few strong points to make: BMI is arbitrary and often unhelpful at the individual level, and while fatness correlates with many diseases, the causal mechanism isn’t always known.

None of those critiques, however, change the fact that it would be better to be able to walk unaided and stand up in the shower. Perhaps that’s because once someone has become fat, changing that is extremely difficult. Losing weight — especially large amounts of weight — requires a drastic constriction of calories, which you must then maintain for the rest of your life. You can become thin, but you’ll probably never feel “normal”. Most people who lose weight regain it within a few years.

The new weight loss drug semaglutide (better known as Ozempic or Wegovy, although only the latter form is licensed as a weight loss treatment) is so promising that WeightWatchers (now back to being known as WeightWatchers) has launched a telemedicine arm to prescribe it, but even here there are limitations: those who are considerably overweight to begin with will still be fat after losing 15% of their bodyweight. And semaglutide doesn’t “cure” obesity, as such. Like any medicine for a chronic condition, it only works as long as it’s taken. Some will regard this as, to use Louderback’s terms, merely “passing” as thin.

But nonetheless, these drugs — with their incredibly effective ability to suppress appetite and (so far) remarkable lack of side effects — take the “personal sacrifice and daily torture” out of the equation. They might not be able to turn a very fat person into a thin one, but they could help prevent the moderately fat from becoming too fat to ever be thin again. (Which is in fact the way that many people who obtain the drug privately are already using it with, anecdotally, great success.) If it were rolled out as a preventative measure, it could prove a huge public health success.

Such a move, though, would be problematic for fat activism, which has long drawn on the Fat Underground slogan: “A diet is a cure that doesn’t work for a disease that doesn’t exist.” And so the existence of Ozempic poses an existential threat to the fat justice movement: if a cure emerges, does it become necessary to admit that obesity was a disease after all, and not a choice. It would be a painful concession to make. Fat activism has always made two claims, a normative one and a descriptive one. The normative one is that being fat should not make someone an object of derision and disgust. The descriptive one is that the fat person cannot be any other way. If the latter falls away, the former may start to feel vulnerable.

To hate yourself for being fat is futile and bleak; to feel you deserve nothing from others but hate is beyond awful. Inasmuch as fat activism offers a counter to cruelty, it is performing a service. Inasmuch as it ends up aligning with the interests of the companies that make us fat, though, it is a disaster. It has been a stroke of vicious genius for food industry-affiliated influencers to shift the idea of “shaming” from individual bodies to mass-produced food. “No one should feel bad for being fat” becomes “no one should have to hear sugary cereals are harmful”. The tender feelings of the Lucky Charms are protected, and the market for nutritionally bankrupt groceries is preserved.

When Louderback imagined a response to anti-fatness, he saw it as a matter of prejudice. Fat people, like black people or women or gay people, should form their own civil rights movement: implicit in that is the idea that fatness is as inevitable and unchangeable as the colour of your skin or the sex you were born — effectively a “born this way” argument. It turns fatness into an essential part of selfhood, rather than a theoretically changeable attribute. Which perhaps is why activists so strongly resist treating fatness as a public health issue. If people such Gordon, Manne and Nischuk were to agree that it’s preferable to be less fat, they would be arguing, impossibly, against their own identity.

But the body has limits, and the more those limits are reached, the less convincing fat activism becomes. In the bodiless realm of the internet, it is possible to frame your life in such a way that the constraints of grave fatness don’t show. In the physical world, the suffering of the gravely fat is undeniable.

Louderback was wrong. No one should be fat, in the same way that no one should have lead poisoning from petrol emissions or lung cancer from cigarettes. If fat activism can claim one success, it’s in expunging the idea that a fat person is an individual moral failure — but by providing cover to the companies that profit from helping to create obesity, it has played a small part in a far greater collective moral failure.


Sarah Ditum is a columnist, critic and feature writer.

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Matt Sylvestre
Matt Sylvestre
1 month ago

Look maligning people for their weight is wrong. However pretending that being overweight cannot be overcome through personal discipline is just not true, it can be, it’s very very hard but it’s possible. To suggest otherwise is untruthful. One of very short stature cannot change their habits and become tall. Someone paralyzed in a chair cannot stop drinking soda and in time get out of the chair. However difficult it is at least possible to loose and manage weight… I feel for those who struggle with obesity I just cannot accept a lie expedient or otherwise…

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
1 month ago
Reply to  Matt Sylvestre

It’s an uncomfortable truth many fat people have a hard time swallowing.

Mark Phillips
Mark Phillips
1 month ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

Naughty!

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
1 month ago

In the interests of justice for all, the rainbow flag should henceforth be round rather than rectangular and incorporate a cake slice.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
1 month ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

Also a stinky dog t**d, for those who identify as canine excrement. #BornThisWay #PuppyPoopismIsAlsoAPersonalChoice

Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
1 month ago

Interestingly, Rebel Wilson (the actress in the photo who was a poster girl for body positivity) has now lost all her excess weight yet continues her support for body positivity. She received a lot of backlash for her weight loss and was seen as a traitor to the movement.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
1 month ago

She’s a defatsitioner!!

Andrew Vanbarner
Andrew Vanbarner
1 month ago
Reply to  Dumetrius

A recovering salad dodger.

Point of Information
Point of Information
1 month ago

“A politics of wishful thinking is not politics at all: it is simply an advertising slogan.”

Universal.

David Morley
David Morley
1 month ago

So long as it’s always someone else’s fault, and not your own …..

Mark Phillips
Mark Phillips
1 month ago
Reply to  David Morley

How dare you push ‘personal responsibility’. Brute!

Andrew Vanbarner
Andrew Vanbarner
1 month ago
Reply to  Mark Phillips

My “moderate” fatness is entirely my fault, and not the fault of countless breweries, distilleries, bakeries, and butcher shops. Delicious villainy!
Green vegetables exist, as does ice water. The former are unappealing, the latter is tolerable, so long as it’s cut with whisky. Exercise is bothersome and boring.
But I’m also well aware that skinny, sexy, healthy people – in other periods of my life I’ve joined their ranks, albeit temporarily – do in fact eat these strange food stuffs that grow directly from the ground.
And they also do attend gymnasiums, or engage in mindless and strenuous activities called “sports,” or at least occasionally eschew motorized transport (I far prefer my Mercedes) for walking.
Which is why they’re skinny, sexy, and healthy.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
1 month ago

BMI is not arbitrary. It is anything but arbitrary. It is an objective benchmark.
Like all benchmarks, it is crude and fails to take into account individual factors like bone density, muscle mass, etc. but it is still a useful shorthand for understanding deviations from the norm.

Mark Phillips
Mark Phillips
1 month ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

Then it is being used in an ignorant, uneducated way. I used to be obese according to BMI because I had a lot of muscle, and was told to diet. Now it is because I really am fat.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 month ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

But objective truth does not exist anymore in the West. If a man can claim he is a woman, and enter a woman’s sporting event, despite being a biological man, what better evidence is there? By the way, BMI is probably a construct of the white, privileged patriarchy. 🙂

McLovin
McLovin
1 month ago

This article has been accompanied on my screen by an ad for a 75 day fasting programme! Either way this is big business.

Andrew Vanbarner
Andrew Vanbarner
1 month ago
Reply to  McLovin

I would assume that someone who fasts for 75 days is either a masochist of remarkable endurance, or some sort of religious fanatic. To charge money for it must require truly masterful salesmanship.

Jeff Cunningham
Jeff Cunningham
1 month ago

Up until around the nineteenth century the only people who could afford to be fat were the upper-class. There wasn’t junk food and many people might not have been starving but weren’t getting enough to get fat. Sugar was a luxury only people with money could afford up until they figured out how to grow it pretty much everywhere (beets, especially). But high caloric diets in general were also out of reach of all but the upper-class. At that time fatness was a sign of wealth and being in a certain class (along with clothing, speaking French, and elaborate table manners). After the industrial revolution succeeded in raising everyone’s standard of living (in the West), the lower classes started getting fat too. Especially when they figured out how to make cheap junk food out of starches, salt and sugar. After the turn of the twentieth century the upper classes switched their aesthetic to leanness to more easily distinguish themselves from the hoi polloi.
So I guess you could say – in a sense – that this aesthetic (either way it goes) is a form of luxury belief.

Howard S.
Howard S.
1 month ago

Not bad. Pretty much on the money. Too deep for what passes for most of journalism these days though.

Howard S.
Howard S.
1 month ago

Freddy Mercury and Queen had it right decades ago: “Fat bottom girls make the rocking world go round.” You people should never be forgiven for giving the world Twiggy and turning a generation of teen-age girls into anorexics.

M. Jamieson
M. Jamieson
1 month ago

I think a good deal of what has make the fat positivity movement seem plausible comes from real failings in beauty culture and the diet industry.
It’s true that the ideals of thin beauty set out in the media are often quite unhealthy. It’s true that skinny people may be quite unhealthy, and people who are not so skinny, up to a point, can be, if they are active and eat mainly healthy foods.
It’s true that diets don’t usually work, and make people fatter, and a lot of them are actually quite bad for your health even if they do make you lose weight.
It’s also true that losing weight once you are fat is often not as simple as just eating what a regular person does.
People who are struggling with their weight run up against these problems again and again, and they become very cynical about what mainstream culture is telling them. The fat positivity movement takes advantage of that to feed them bizzare lies.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
1 month ago

Sports Illustrated’s fate was sealed when it began running cover photos of gargantuan women in bathing suits. A number of fashion magazines tried the same stunt. Newstand sales tumbled.

Andrew Vanbarner
Andrew Vanbarner
1 month ago
Reply to  Jerry Carroll

To their credit, they at least selected a convincing transsexual when they apparently had to go that route. A fair few of the ones you occasionally see in public nowadays really aren’t fooling anyone, poor sad creatures.
Really, it would be best if these agendas weren’t regularly shoved in one’s face. Yes, I’m a fairly portly gentleman. No, I don’t want to see flabby yet inexplicably well dressed people in clothing catalogs. I’ve long lost my youthful good looks, and am happily married, but no, I certainly don’t want to see a surgically altered man in place of an attractive young woman in the Swimsuit Edition.

Barry Stokes
Barry Stokes
1 month ago
Reply to  Jerry Carroll

Gargantuan women & men in swimwear is never a good look.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
1 month ago

Sports Illustrated’s fate was sealed when it began running cover photos of gargantuan women in bathing suits with plenty more inside to turn the stomach. A number of fashion magazines tried the same stunt and newsstand sales fell like stones.

Simon James
Simon James
1 month ago

‘If fat activism can claim one success, it’s in expunging the idea that a fat person is an individual moral failure’
Has that actually happened?

p3rfunct0ry 4p4th3t1c
p3rfunct0ry 4p4th3t1c
1 month ago

It’s a lack of arm control.