America’s Waistline

The politics of fat.

In the war on fat, fat isn’t just winning, it’s crushing the opposition. A new study reports that in the course of a lifetime, 9 out of 10 men and 7 out of 10 women are going to become overweight. The CDC says that a third of the country is currently obese. This puts a large portion of the nation’s population in an unenviable predicament, since antipathy toward the fat, it’s frequently remarked, is the last sanctioned form of bigotry. But bigotry is traditionally the plight of minorities, and the fat are fast becoming a majority. So, is America’s spreading waistline at least a plus for anti-fat-discrimination efforts?  

Perhaps. What is clear is that not all fat citizens are obediently jumping on the diet bandwagon: A growing number are organizing to demand that society transform its bodily ideals, instead of agreeing that they should try to transform their bodies. The best-known of the fat activist groups is the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA), but there are dozens of others, from the Fat Underground, which devotes itself to disrupting Weight Watchers meetings with pro-fat guerrilla theater, to rabble-rousing zines like Fat!So?, “for people who don’t apologize for their size.” Read though these Web sites and manifestos and you encounter a political movement in the making, one that a lot of us overfed Americans may soon be thinking about joining.

As in any rights movement, the rhetoric is a mixture of self-empowerment credos and anger. The latter is directed at the diet industry for exploiting the fat (to the tune of $46 billion a year), at society for its ongoing cruelty to the fat, and at the medical establishment for providing condescending substandard care to the fat. A particularly incendiary topic is weight-loss surgery (stomach stapling or more radical measures like rerouting the intestine). Activists regard such procedures as a human rights abuse akin to female genital mutilation. They also frequently cite contrarian strands of medical research, some suggesting that fat really isn’t a health hazard, others disputing conventionally accepted disease and mortality statistics.

Contesting the usual origin story about fat—excess calories, individual blame—is high on the activist agenda. The preferred account is that fat is genetic and/or glandular, thus not anyone’s fault. Alternatively, fat is caused by the diet industry: “We’re getting fatter because of dieting,” as one activist puts it. “The way to fatten an animal is to starve it and then re-feed it. Your metabolism slows down when you’re eating less. People on diets are predisposing their body to gain more weight.”

The origin question is important in the politics of fat because it shapes the approach to policy and advocacy issues. For instance, should the primary battle now be to ensure that obesity is included under the Americans with Disabilities Act? Some argue that this is a misguided strategy, since it turns fat into a disease instead of a rights issue—though if it were a recognized disability, suing over workplace discrimination and access issues would be a lot easier. Access and mobility hurdles provide material for a lot of wrenching chat-room discussions: Sufferers trade coping strategies for an endless variety of daily humiliations or share the longing for less impeded lives—like just being able to get an airplane seatbelt around your waist without a humiliating extension. Such admissions can also prompt heated responses from the more defiantly fat and proud: Doesn’t wanting to lose weight mean giving into self-hatred? (Or, as the militant put it: Should blacks desire to be white and thus give into racism?) The psychological strain of trying to have dignity while lugging a fat body around is all too palpable, despite the pride rhetoric.

Not surprisingly, given such strains, this movement is rife with political contradictions. For instance, one topic you rarely find discussed in activist venues is food. Overeaters Anonymous, a 12-step program modeled on AA, does promote size rights while also linking obesity to overconsumption. But critics worry that treating fat on the model of alcoholism or compulsive gambling means pathologizing it. Such worries produce certain political blind spots: While the diet industry comes under attack, the $900 billion food industry does not. But as Marion Nestle points out in her convincing treatise, Food Politics(2002), the food industry now produces 3,800 calories a day for every person in the United States (2,200 to 2,500 would be adequate). That’s a 500 calorie-a-day increase since 1970. And, as Nestle notes, the American weight spike in the late 1970s exactly corresponded with the invention of supersizing in fast-food marketing.

Unfortunately, focusing on the food industry would put the preferred activist fat origin stories into question—unless the one-third of Americans who are now obese all developed glandular or genetic problems simultaneously in the ‘70s. Nestle’s is a different version of fat politics: Hers spotlights how overconsumption is socially and politically organized, from agribusiness subsidies and price supports to a pattern of hiring lobbyists and corporate execs to run “oversight” agencies like the USDA and the FDA that—go figure—function like industry tools instead. But the real bottom line is that processed food—which generally means higher-calorie food—is more profitable than raw food. Flavor is eliminated, then artificially added (usually meaning fat or sugars); nutrients are lost, then artificially added. The more additives, the higher the price. And we all know where this money trail leads: to our stomachs and hips.

The irony is that while overconsumption may be encouraged, all bodily evidence of it is stigmatized, especially in the romantic sphere. Activist organizations are now stepping in to rectify the problem. NAAFA doubles as a dating site, and Dimensions, a magazine and Web site that celebrates “the fat-positive lifestyle,” gears itself to fat admirers (FAs)—those who buck social trends by preferring fat partners. One of the most surprising elements you come across in these venues are the erotic fantasies of “feeders,” who like to imagine a fat lover gaining even more weight. Arguments rage about whether such fantasies are harmless fictions, or whether love-struck objects of FA desire might be dangerously manipulated into complying to keep someone’s sexual attention. (Though one wonders how different this is from its “normal” counterpart: dieting to attract that special someone.) Clearly our bodies are being reshaped by the food industry’s avarice—are our erotic fantasies being reshaped by it, too? Interestingly enough, Dimensions began publishing in 1984, as supersizing was sweeping the country, with the nation itself providing a captive population to corporate overfeeders.

Despite the fact that most of us now apparently face a roly-poly future, a visceral revulsion toward fat persists. It’s an interesting form of social hypocrisy, hatred for fatness coupled with a free ride toward the industries that exploit the susceptible. But wait: Is that the sound of corporate responsibility kicking into gear? Yes, in its ever public-spirited way, McDonald’s has just announced it will start printing calorie information on its food wrappers. Once you’ve paid for your Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese, you will learn that you’re about to put away 730 calories*. Whatever threat fat poses to the contemporary psyche—especially at the murkiest psychosexual levels where disgust is conjured—the fat themselves end up bearing a stigma that could be redirected to bona fide gluttons—the profiteers. Until that day, the bloating of the population continues apace.

*Correction, Oct. 21, 2005:This article originally and incorrectly stated that the Big Mac With Cheese contains 730 calories. In fact, McDonald’s offers no sandwich by that name. The Big Mac contains 560 calories. The Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese has 730.