The Political Psychology of Fat

Americans are wanted to be fat.

We are wanted to be fat by those who produce and market the foods that render us obese and diseased.

We are also wanted to be fat by those who sell us all the merchandise of weight loss-and whose profit more from our failures than our successes.

Most of all, we are wanted to be fat by a corporate-manufactured mass/trash culture and a governing imperium that prefers us passive, indolent, torpid and dumb.

And they get away with wanting us to be fat because of the many of us, fat or not, who refuse to understand that America’s obesity epidemic is neither purely a matter of individual responsibility nor anything to be “solved” by “Fat Liberation” movements or PC pseudo-tolerance.  Our fatness is, rather, both a symptom and a cause of America’s ongoing and accelerating decline as a civilization. But it is a symptom and a cause we can do something about-provided we face the issue as citizens.

  There is no nice way to say much of what I’m going to say.  So let me begin with an affirmation of civility.  We engage in a monstrous, hugely self-destructive delusion when they (we) pout that “hating fat people is one of the last socially acceptable prejudices.”  And facing this is not about hate.  It’s about refusing to tolerate a national gluttony that neither we nor the planet can any longer afford.  It’s about the future of us all.

So how bad is the problem?

Bemoaning our national obesity is a national obsession, a splendid exercise in non-binding self-criticism.  Hardly a day goes by without something on the subject appearing somewhere.  So only a few points need to be made in this regard.

According to the US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), 66% of Americans over 20 are overweight; 30% of Americans over 20 are obese.  Between 1960 and 2004, overweight Americans went from 44.8% of the population to 66% and obese Americans went from 13.3% to 32.1% of the population.  Most of this increase occurred after 1980.  These figures are derived from a formula known as the Body Mass Index, or BMI. Because the BMI is based on weight and height, it does not always accurately measure the fitness of athletic people, who tend to be more heavily muscled and have denser bones.  Nevertheless, the BMI is also generous and most of us are simply not athletic, or even active.

Fat costs. In 1995, the direct and indirect costs, which have been adjusted to 2001 dollars to account for inflation, were $61 billion in direct costs and $56 billion in indirect costs; since fatness and obesity are more common in 2008 than they were in 1995, these costs are going to be far higher now.  The Department of Health and Human Services defines the costs in the following manner:  “Direct health care costs refer to preventive, diagnostic, and treatment services such as physician visits, medications, and hospital and nursing home care. Indirect costs are the value of wages lost by people unable to work because of illness or disability, as well as the value of future earnings lost by premature death.” (All preceding figures may be found at, accessed 28 July 2008.) 

So, given that two thirds of us are overweight-and almost all of us because we are fat, not because we are muscular-regarding fat people as some sort of oppressed minority is nonsense.   Hating fat people is not the last acceptable form of discrimination in America.  (It’s still OK to hate people for their professions:  Ask any lawyer or journalist.)  Yet every time the New York Times runs an article on America’s increasing problem of the girth, you can read a pandemic of reader comments claiming that it’s all a matter in the eyes and minds of the beholders:  irate rantings that appear with such frequency and regularity that one might conclude that these people are reimbursed by the fat or the fat treatment industries. 

Yes, most of us bear at least some responsibility for our condition and its effects.  The first aspect of this responsibility is the fact that the natural antidote to obesity is well-known.  If we exercise and eat moderate portions of nutritious foods in order to balance energy intake with energy output, the overwhelming majority of us will not get genuinely fat.  It really is quite as simple as that, even though we are mammals who evolved to store fat.  Until the invention and common use of canning, packaging and refrigeration, around a century ago, fat was the safest and most nutritious way to store excess food, especially against the lean times.  But our lean times have (this may be changing) evanesced.  Food has long been plentiful and despite recent price rises, remarkably cheap.  Our mammalian propensity toward fat long ago ceased to be justifiable on natural grounds; so did the notion that fat could be a sign of wealth and social status.

But we keep on eating.   In our consumer society, fattening Americans, then selling purported remedies for that fattening, is very big business.  And the food business, like all big businesses, knows which buttons to keep pushing.

A 2006 Washington Post article conservatively estimated that producing the foods that generate so much of America’s obesity, then treating that obesity, would be a $315 billion enterprise by the end of that year.  In 2004 alone, Americans spent $37 billion on soft drinks, $3.9 billion on cookies, and $6.2 billion on potato chips.  (“Why America Has to Be Fat:  A Side Effect of Economic Expansion Shows Up in Front”, by Michael S. Rosenwald, The Washington Post, 22 January 2006, at, accessed 28 July 2008.) 

In comparison, the total Fiscal Year 2006 Department of Defense Budget was $447.398 billion.

In short, there are hundreds of billions of dollars at stake annually in making and keeping Americans fat, in the junk food and diet “industries.”  But if that were the extent of the problem, all we would have to do is moderate or eliminate our intake of junk.  The dilemma is more fundamental.

Cheap food has long been considered a national blessing, and rightly so, when compared to the alternative:  expensive food and hunger.  But it’s a fact of economic life that if you sell cheap things, you have to sell a lot of them to make money.  America’s historic ability to produce vast quantities of food, exerting massive downward pressure on prices, only adds to this dilemma.  Historically, to make money, food producers and marketers have had to keep food cheap-an endeavor well-subsided by federal farm policy-but sell plenty of it.  Producers have kept food cheap in two short-term sensible but long-term disastrous ways:  mucking about with Mother Nature and exploiting other human beings.  From restricting production to a few genetically favored or engineered crops to shooting up animals with hormones and antibiotics to the tens of millions of underpaid humans doing farm and food processing work here and around the world for us-the impetus is the same.  Keep prices down.  And keep us gorging.  And America’s food retailers, whether supermarket chains or restaurant chains, employ much the same strategy.  Keep prices low, portions large and the customers coming back for more of the same. 

Fat also means big bucks for the health care industry money:  spent on insulin, open MRIs, heavier patient tables and ambulance litters, and treatment of all the illnesses and injuries associated with being fat.  Fat aggravates when it does not outright cause high blood pressure, putting us at risk for stroke; high cholesterol, which puts us at risk for heart attack; osteoarthritis, which puts us at risk for knee and hip replacements, as well as serious back problems; and causes insulin resistance to such a degree that being fat is the leading cause of diabetes, a horrible disease that is a cascade of problems, including being the leading cause of amputations and blindness in this country. 

On the other hand, there is not a lot of money in losing weight.

Here I do not mean diets and the dieting industry, which produces books, tapes, CDs, speaking tours by weight-loss gurus, inspirational calendars, meetings and support groups, packaged foods and food plans, drugs, gastric bypass surgery in ever larger quantities.  If this stuff worked, there would be less of it because there would be less need for it.  As it is, one suspects many people buy this stuff, not because they want to lose weight, but because they want to make just enough of an effort to convince themselves that they can’t. 

Rather, there’s not a lot of money in the changes that produce safe, permanent weight loss:  the slow alteration of eating and exercise habits.  It’s no secret that we need to eat fewer processed foods, more dairy, fruits, vegetables and grains, and generally speaking less meat and fat, along with a heck of a lot less sugar.  (Of course, you could be fat, as a friend of mine ruefully admits she is, because she has a horrible weakness for cheeses that smell, as the French say, like the feet of angels.  But generally speaking, we fall for processed sugars, not aged and stinky cheese.)  And we need to boost our exercise levels so that we burn more energy than they consume until we reach a healthy weight and size. 

So what else is new?

It’s often said that you can’t begin to recover until you admit you’ve got a problem.  But we Americans have been admitting for a long time now that we’ve got a problem, a major national problem with significant public health and security aspects.  We’ve admitted it to stupefaction.  But it only gets worse, and blaming the producers will not solve it.  For that matter, neither will blaming ourselves for lacking the intestinal fortitude to change the contents of our intestines.  Every time we binge eat, we are disgusted, both with the producers for producing something “so good that we just can’t help ourselves,” and with ourselves, for eating more than we know we should, and for how eating that much makes our bodies feel, but blaming the producers and ourselves, their collaborators, for our disgust, doesn’t change anything.  Blame is a cheap substitute for taking action, for literally changing ourselves. 

Change is hard.  And complex.  There’s a gargantuan psychological and medical literature on why people overeat, from the body’s natural affinity for sugar-laboratory rats prefer sugar water to real food, even as they starve to death-to eating to numb anxieties of various sorts.  Another reason why change is hard is that the only alternative we really see via the corporate mass/trahs culture is “the beautiful people.”  Here I’m not talking about the starved and airbrushed models you see in places like Vogue or even GQ.  We all know that these people are a fantasy, and from the perspective of anyone who simply likes other human beings, a horribly malicious fantasy.  I’m talking about the people who are shown as simply perfect, leading shiny, happy, effortless lives, and that is also a fantasy.  No one can live that way.   But to present “the beautiful people” as the only alternative to an ugly gluttony is to set the vast majority of us up for a failure we are only too happy to embrace. 

So, instead of casting around for someone to blame, and falling into another spell of self-pitying overeating because we cannot and can never be “beautiful people,” we all-fat or not-need to ask ourselves why we eat so much, as individuals and as a nation, and what the implications of national gluttony are.  We need to ask ourselves, too, what are the implications of rediscovering the tastes of real cheese and apples and meat.  For the corporate bottom line does not benefit when we rediscover the pleasure of a world of movement, whether it is simply being able to tie your shoes, or going for a long, hard hike or swim. 

Still, bewailing the merchants of high-calorie sickness and death, or even rediscovering real food or the joys getting back into shape, don’t address the cultural and political aspects of the problem.

I propose the following:  One reason we binge, especially on junk, is what the food technologists call “mouth feel.”  It feels good in our mouths-so good that we willingly accept the subsequent “stomach feel,” as in “Yuk.” 

Now, how about a little “head feel”?  Engaging in the pleasure of thinking over this issue, not just as mammals but as citizens of this civilization, l leads to a common-sense conclusion.

Being fat makes us lazy and being lazy makes us dumb, and the lazier we are, the dumber we are. 

Put differently:  Our disgraceful passivity as citizens and our bovine acceptance and consumption of mass/trash culture are sustained and augmented by the food-induced sluggishness of our bodies and our minds.

This is a biological truth-and it applies to each and every one of us.  The fatter we are, the harder it is for us to move, but physical activity and exercise aren’t just good for the muscles.  Exercise and physical activity force oxygen-rich blood to the brain and cause neurogenesis, the creation of new neurons in the brain, specifically in the hippocampus, the seat of memory and learning.  Good nutrition also makes a powerful difference in brain function, while bad nutrition can cause serious impairments in thinking, memory, and motor function.  Being fat is a vicious downward spiral:  the fatter we are, the less energy we have to move and to think, so the fatter we get.  And while good nutrition and exercise are not a cure for all mental disorders, lack of them, especially exercise, certainly aggravates and may even cause many mental disorders, such as depression, senility, dementia, and Alzheimer’s, while there is no one, no matter how disabled or restricted, who cannot benefit from some exercise. 

Being fat also makes us ugly, and a civilization full of ugly people cannot help but be an ugly civilization that cares not to look too closely at itself.

I want to be clear on this. 

Fat is not ugly.  Skin is not ugly, nor muscle, nor bone.  And healthy, active, well-fed human beings inhabit a range of heights and body styles. But we all need hard bones, strong muscles, and a bit of fat, from about 10 to about 20% of body weight.  As we bear children and age, our body fat may go up a bit more, but body fat levels of over 30% are simply too much, even for women.   Unless you’re an elite athlete, the minimum most people should carry is about 10% body fat, but as long as you eat enough nutritious food to maintain your body and sustain your energy output, ultra-low body fat is in itself not harmful, even for women.  It bears repeating that healthy, active people inhabit a range of weights for their heights. 

But just as being reduced to skin and bone is ugly (think of emaciated models and jockeys), and the grotesque muscular overdevelopment you see showcased in body building magazines is ugly, so is being fat. 

And we know it. 

We humans are animals, after all.  We have the mammalian tendency to store our extra food on our bodies for safekeeping.  But we also have the mammalian need to enjoy our bodies:  how they look, how they feel, how they move.  And the body does not want to be fat, or starved, or grotesquely overdeveloped.  It just wants to be strong and fast and sleek and well-fed, to be treated with care and respect. 

We do not like ourselves when we are fat.  Nor do most of us find anorexia or muscular hypertrophy attractive.  But most of us are fat, not anorexic or overdeveloped.  We do not like the way we look or the way our bodies feel.  We do not like the way others look, jiggling down the streets, their excess fat spilling out of their all-too-often slovenly clothes.  And if we don’t like how anorexics look, we also don’t like, albeit in a very different way, how people look who are simply a normal, healthy weight and physically active.  They are a reproach to us, not because they are “virtuous” or “beautiful,” but because they like their bodies enough to be kind to them.  They’re not perfect, they may not even be happy or particularly like their bodies.  But they also aren’t torturing their bodies out of their unhappiness.  They aren’t adding to whatever troubles or bedevils them by actively hurting their bodies and choosing to make themselves ugly.

What we do not allow ourselves to know that those who market to us the hundreds of billions of dollars worth of junk food and diet aids know this.  So do those who market luxury goods to us know that most of us cannot possibly fit into their clothes, and who intend that  we buy their makeup, their purses and their shoes to compensate for bodies we do not and cannot like, enjoy and appreciate.  We know that all these corporations, whether they are selling us massive quantities of food, makeup, or fat treatments know that we are fat, and that being fat makes us hurt and sick, stupid, lazy and ugly.  We know that they know being this way is not conducive to liking oneself or anyone who looks like one.  But we do not permit ourselves to know that these corporations with their hundred of billions of dollars annually at stake in our continued fatness-whether we are eating to make ourselves fat or dieting or needing medical treatment because we are fat-want us fat.

We know ourselves marketed to and manipulated, but what we have been unable to bring ourselves to admit is that they want us to be fat.  They want us fat, with all that attends upon being fat.

You could say that there ought to be a law, but laws are made by a government that, especially at the federal level, is more and more owned by corporate interests and makes no real pretense of being anything better. 

I could say, it is time to remember that we are not just consumers, but citizens.  And not just citizens of this nation, but of this civilization.

There’s been a lot written about citizenship and most of it is garbage:  people ranting about sacrifice, for example (I think they’re collecting sacrifices that they don’t intend to contribute to) or unity and leadership (theirs, naturally).  Citizenship is more. 

Classically, citizenship has rested upon two entwined ideas.  The first was that the citizen’s body is his (only recently begun to be hers) alone.  No one has a right to touch the citizen’s body, much less strike it, or sell it. No one has any right of control over the body’s work:  not without the citizen’s free consent.   The second was that the citizen was an active part of participant in his polity.  He helped defend it in arms, whether from foreign enemies or domestic criminals, sat on its juries and voted its laws.

In a more modern sense, the citizen is someone who fully inhabits her or his life-starting with what and how much we eat and exercise.  To put it bluntly, we-our bodies, to include our brains and the minds and souls they house-do not exist to consume garbage for the sake of corporate profits.  We exist to live as strong, intelligent individuals at home in our bodies.  The consumer-whose normal human emotions, insecurities and weaknesses are manipulated into eating vast quantities of processed foods and chemicals, then buying a host of gadgets in an almost inevitably futile quest to lose the weight overnight (when it was not so gained)-is antithetical to the citizen.  Corporate America, including corporate American politics, hates the citizen and wants to feed it to death by morbid obesity and it’s doing a damn good job.  The citizen is the enemy of the corporation and corporatized politics.  Rejecting the definition of ourselves as consumers and insisting on our political status as citizens is the only way to reclaim our human dignity. 

And there is a simple way to start acting as citizens.   We have ourselves sufficient power to bring all those who want us fat-and so lazy, stupid, hurt and sick-to their knees.  All we have to do is eat less-and eat more local, unprocessed foods, especially fruits and vegetables-and exercise more.  We don’t have to go cold turkey and this is frankly not about virtuous self-denial.  It is about pleasure, about a variety of pleasures, only beginning with the simple and extraordinary (if also sometimes difficult, even maddening!) pleasures of real food and movement, of eventually liking what we look like when we are nude-and then dressing in ways that express our appreciation for the strength and resilience of our bodies.  And then, having made the real effort to look better, we will feel better:  good enough to make another effort, this one to look ourselves and our fellow citizens in the eye and start talking with each other again about subjects of public importance. 

When George Bush told us to go to the mall, he no doubt also meant the food court.  We did.  So the next time you’re at the food court in the mall, spend a moment as a citizen, looking around.  And if you see it with new eyes…that’s a start.


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