Thursday, July 15, 2010

America's Whipping Boys (and Girls)

America hates fat people. The fact that 32% are obese and another 30% are overweight (meaning 62% are fat) might make that fact surprising. It seems irrational that the majority would go along with the minority heaping anger and loathing on them. The thing is that the majority, meaning fat America, is right there with thin America. Fat people hate themselves, so it's easy for them to identify with and jump on the bandwagon of fat hating.

I reach the aforementioned conclusions for some very good reasons. It's not just the social networks designed to talk about hating fat people. It's not just the self-loathing freely expressed on weight loss blogs and forums over the most marginal bits of flab. It's not even my own self-hating which I'm constantly attempting to deal with and move away from as I sort out who and what I am aside from the meat sack I live in. It isn't even Michelle Obama's misguided (but likely well-meaning) anti-fat crusade.

If there is a single indication that most of America is on the fat-hating bandwagon, it's the popularity of shows like "The Biggest Loser" ("TBL" from here). (Disclaimer: I have seen clips through various web sites, but never watched a full episode.) This show is all of the projected disgust of thin people in the form of the shows haranguing host, Jillian Michaels, and all of the inward directing self-loathing of fat people manifested in the overweight people who have no self-respect and tolerate the abuse.

I can't think of any use for a show such as this except as national catharsis. It gratifies the needs of trim folks to see fat people be mistreated for what they imagine to be their laziness and weakness. Jillian Michaels is their avatar of anger. It also validates any notion that any fat person could lose weight if they just "tried hard enough." The fat folks who appear on the show are the virtual dogs the thin people get to see kicked around to help them feel better about their problems in their thin, but still unhappy and flawed, lives. If you can't oink loudly out of your car window at some fat lady walking down the street, you can tune in to TBL to make you feel better.

The fat folks are also getting what they need, and I don't mean they're losing lots of weight quickly in a dangerous and unsustainable fashion (though, you know, they get that, too). They're getting the abuse they feel they deserve for their appearance. They hate themselves and have their low self-esteem validated by being mistreated for having the audacity not to conform to society's notions of "proper bodily image". What is more, they get to embrace their utter weakness and powerlessness.

The only way they believe they can "get better" is by having someone take control of them and force them to be "fixed". Thin people must know something they don't, right, since they are thin. It couldn't be that most thin people don't happen to have issues with food, but have issues with other things like smoking, drinking alcohol, anger, sex, shopping, or utterly objectifying people based on weight and making a career out of screaming at them like some bitter, formerly-marginally-overweight sociopathic harpy.

No person with an ounce of self-esteem or self-respect would allow anyone to treat themselves the way people are treated on TBL. Even I, at my lowest self-estimation would not have put up with a second of that treatment. You wouldn't treat a dog the way those people are treated. It'd be considered inhumane. It's not only that we wouldn't treat the lowest animal to so much verbal abuse. We also wouldn't force them to lose weight at such a dangerous and rapid clip.

The worst part about the weight loss speed shown on the show is that it has made it so much easier for overweight people who try to lose weight to feel like failures in the face of perfectly reasonable and solid success. People used to lose a pound or two a week and feel absolutely great about their achievement. Now, these numbers make them sob and self-flagellate for their inability to shave off ridiculous and dangerous numbers of pounds in a short period of time. Of course, they all want to be on TBL and have a thin taskmaster help them fix themselves, too, because when they don't lose 4-7 lbs. a week, they feel more powerless than ever about mastering their issues with food.

The question is, why don't we have something which empowers overweight people to take control of their lives rather than shows them being abused, pushed, and then left without any means by which to pursue a moderate and healthy lifestyle? The reason is that this would not gratify the need for exercising the loathing of fat people, nor would it be such great "entertainment". Watching people slowly get better and improving the quality of their health is boring. Watching them be hurt and humiliated is exciting. Really fixing a major issue like disordered eating takes time, patience, compassion, and understanding. America appears to have no use for that sort of nonsense.

The bottom line is that much of America is just fine with treating fat people inhumanely. It horrifies me (literally) that TBL is a successful television show. It further depresses me that fat people are saying that they need to have their asses kicked to help them lose weight. TBL is like a modern day "bread and circuses", but this time the fat people are being thrown to the lions for the amusement of the masses instead of the Christians.


NewMe said...

I blogged about TBL last fall (if you're interested: and all I can say is that I am in total agreement with you!

Americans have a huge streak of puritanism in their collective psyche. It makes sense: the country was founded by Puritans (of course, it had its own indigenous peoples long before that, but we won't get into that discussion).

The United States has been built on a foundation of rugged individualism: it's all up to you. Success or failure depends solely on your ability as an individual to overcome your own personal shortcomings. Anyone can succeed, if they only try hard enough. Conversely, if you don't succeed, it's your own damn fault.

There is much to be said for personal accountability and the ability to pick yourself up by your bootstraps, no matter how much adversity you encounter. However, this also leads to a national mentality that advocates crushing the poor, the weak, the infirm rather than giving them any type of helping hand. Is there any other reason why so many in the US stand firmly against any type of universal health care?

I never cease to be shocked by how callous Americans can be--and even more shocked at how those who could benefit the most from such things as universal health care, or proper gun control are the staunchest opponents of such measures.

I once innocently blogged about a US insurance company that had denied an exclusively breast-fed infant (4 months old, I believe) health care because he was supposedly too fat.

One of my readers responded with a violently fascist screed about how Obama was turning the country into Weimar Germany, that public education was brainwashing children (she's a homeschooler, of course) and that the country was basically turning into a socialist, totalitarian state. I erased her post, but you know, I regret not having copied it into a Word file. It was text-book, right-wing brainwashing, written by a working-class woman who grew up in an abusive family. And people like her are legion in the States.

Is it any wonder TBL is so popular?

Anonymous said...

Shows like TBL contribute to fat hatred and help to ensure that more people, including children, will become eating disordered. The culture needs to maintain a hierarchy of value-assigned groups, to perpetuate the capitalist status quo. Very sad. The older I get, the more clearly I can see the depth of social pathology. I'm sure it has always been there in many forms.

BTW, the discussions here have been great. So many of us struggle with similar issues. I draw a lot of strength from this blog.


Christina said...

I agree with much of what you're saying here. I watched about 2 seasons (not consecutively) of TBL and was disappointed each time. The verbal abuse doesn't bother me so much - I was in the military so I just see it as another "break them down and bring them back up" tactic - plus, yes - good TV. The biggest problem I have with it is the unrealistic expectations it puts out there for those trying to lose weight. It's always so sad to see the people on that show beat themselves up over losing 1,2 or even 3 lbs in a "week". I'd love to be able to lose even 1 lb per week consistently - I'd be thrilled - but it doesn't always happen. Another thing that bothers me are the "eating" games they play with them - where they make the contestants eat as many calories as they can or something and then they somehow win something? I mean - it makes NO SENSE. It's like a horrible side show. I think shows like that do more harm than good.

Sarah said...

You deserve what you are willing to accept. Someone said that to me last weekend... It's stuck in my head ever since. TBL bothers me-- immensely. Desperation can make ppl do all sorts of things. Even whore themselves out on national TV for the chance at being thin, even if it is just for a moment.

Fat hatred is something I just witnessed today and I was mortified. I can't hate on ppl like that. I just can't. There are all sorts of reasons that people accept less than what they are worth. To bad some have to give themselves up in order to do it.

screaming fatgirl said...

NewMe: Thanks for the link and your comment! I thought the comparison to the Archie character (which I don't remember, unfortunately) was very apt.

What you say about individualism is ironic. It holds true to an extent, but the fact that we're all supposed to look alike shows that it doesn't thoroughly permeate the culture at all levels. You're responsible for your success or failure, but you also have to be like everyone else. Not being like everyone else, be it having commercialist impulses and competing in terms of material possessions or not looking generally like everyone else, is sanctioned.

I think the opposition to universal health care is based on "the haves" having more power than the "have nots" and preferring that they keep 100% coverage and care rather than give up a little so that other people can have even 50% of the care they do. It's about pure selfishness and self-interest. It's also about ignorance of social processes and how elevating the lowest and weakest in the society actually improves life for everyone, particularly in regards to things like crime.

And you are right that people vote and make choices against their own interests. They do so out of fear and out of an unrealistic expectation that they will one day be rich enough to be at the top of the pile and don't want their lifestyle dinged for the benefit of the poor and lower middle class.

Since I live in a country with socialized medicine, I have great experience with the ups and downs of it. It's not perfect, but it is better in many ways than the U.S. system, particularly in regards to health maintenance. Regular check-ups and access to affordable treatment mean people can stay in better overall health. Comparisons between the American system always focus on the best care you can get (which not everyone gets) and the shortcomings of socialized systems, and does not correct for cross-cultural issues. For instance, comparing care for heart disease and cancer, America has the best heart disease care because more Americans suffer from it, but the country in which I live has the best cancer care because that is their priority. I'd rather have cancer here than back home... of course, I'd rather not have it at all!

screaming fatgirl said...

Rebecca: Thank you so much for your comment. You said: "The culture needs to maintain a hierarchy of value-assigned groups, to perpetuate the capitalist status quo."

I think this is a very astute observation, and definitely relates to the need to the current need to fat bash. It's interesting because there has been a mutation of the group which is on top as values have changed. It used to be that being white was the best thing to be and minorities were oppressed, then it was being straight and being gay was the thing to hold in disregard (though that is still there, it's nothing compared to being fat nowadays). The scary part about the fat hating is that it is rationalized and legitimized to such a great extent, even by overweight people themselves.

screaming fatgirl said...

Christina: I'd never cut it in the military. ;-) I'm not a fan of the "break them down" style in any case, though it makes more sense in the military since you have to get people to follow a particular, rigid way of life and that rigidity is maintained throughout the duration of their service. These people can't possibly keep doing what they're doing for more than a short time. It has no long-term value.

I absolutely agree with you that it is like a horrible side show. What is worse is that the people who watch it, and studies have shown this, lose empathy. Watching people be belittled and devalued makes the viewer devalue others similarly. It has wide societal consequences.

Thanks so much for your comment!

screaming fatgirl said...

Sarah: Regarding the quote you mentioned (which you clearly don't agree with), "you deserve what you are willing to accept", the person who said it to you betrays a certain lack of insight at best and a sad lack of empathy at worst. Women who are hit by their husbands accept that abuse for a variety of reasons (can't escape financially, no support network, psychological issues equivalent to Stockholm Syndrome, low self-esteem). Do they "deserve" to be beaten?

To me, TBL is taking advantage of a mental health problem. People who are suffering and desperate to feel better often accept the most horrific treatment. People used to allow themselves to be shocked for depression, even when the results were unpredictable and they seized so violently that bones broke. Did they deserve this pain because their crushing emotional problems pushed them to any sort of remedy available?

The sort of thinking that the person who made that statement to you embraces is what is called "just world" thinking. It's not valid, but it helps people feel their is order and justice in the chaos of life. If other people who are less fortunate than them must be judged and pay the price in order to assuage their fears about the way the world operates, they either do not care or lack the insight to be aware of what motivates their thinking.

And good for you that you can't hate on people. It diminishes the hater more than the hated, and only reflects the unhappiness of the person applying that feeling.

Thank you so much for your comment!

RedPanda said...

I completely agree with you about The Biggest Loser - it's degrading, exploitative and perpetuates false ideas about weight loss. I have watched bits of both the US and Australian versions and I cringed with embarrassment (and in recognition) for the contestants. There was a time when I would have been desperate enough to be on the show. And I wonder how many people have been discouraged from losing weight from watching the show, rather than inspired? I know that if I had watched the show when I was obese (and didn't have a clue about diet and nutrition) I would have thought that weight loss was impossible because I can't work out for eight hours a day.

The Biggest Loser is very popular here in Australia, although we have a different culture to Americans. While rugged individualism is a strong part of our national identity, we don't have "the huge streak of puritanism" that NewMe referred to; we pride ourselves on our open-mindedness and easygoing attitude. And yet we devour The Biggest Loser and perpetuate fat hatred. Maybe looking down on obese people transcends culture?

screaming fatgirl said...

"Maybe looking down on obese people transcends culture?"

I think that it is dictated by culture, but also by socioeconomic status. Poor countries may yet think that being fatter is better, but we're all from relatively wealthy countries where people are defined by their money. These days, being fat means being poor (and in the mind of some, stupid) whereas being rich means being thin. I think all wealthy countries look down on people who are fat.

By the way, I'm sorry I didn't get to some of your other comments. I think the time zones mean your comments come later than others and catch me when I'm busy. Regarding your question about writing a book, it's something I'll consider in the future. For now though, I don't know that there are enough people who want to hear the types of things I have to say. The desire for books that dictate what's wrong with you and how to fix yourself seem to be more mainstream, and that's not exactly what I'm all about.

Thanks for your comment!

RedPanda said...

Hi Screaming Fat Girl - glad to hear you are at least open to the idea of writing a book. I think there would be many, many people who are interested in what you have to say. The vast majority of mainstream "diet" books take a very superficial approach to losing weight, and overlook the deeper issues of why people become overweight in the first place. I've enjoyed reading your insights; often you have beautifully articulated something that's been floating around in my mind, but haven't really thought through.

I would think there would be a market for a deeper examination of issues surrounding food, weight and identity - not exactly a prescriptive "here's what's wrong with you and how to fix it" book, but more of a thoughtful analysis of these issues for dieters to think about "on the way down". And I know from reading reviews at Amazon that there's a big market for weight loss diaries.

Anonymous said...

So so true, can even tell you. how much I agree with you. What a terrible show, and yet we let them get away with that, because being Thin is the ultimate goal and therefore it is allowable to show people getting abused on National TV.
What a shame that we allow this to happen, and yet we let our kids watch it. Shame on Us.