Friday, July 8, 2011

The Pyramid of the Capitalist System and What the Means for America's Fat

The Pyramid
of the Capitalist System
from The Industrial Workers
of the World, 1911
Another link in the “twisted tale of current social responses to fat”[i] lies in the issue of class.  Remember Sarah (aka Fergie) the Duchess of Pork?  Ahem, excuse me, the Duchess of York.  Reporters said she found solace in food, eventually weighing in at over 200 pounds. Her life was like a bad country song – fat, divorced, and poor – until she found Weight Watchers and inspired other socially upwardly mobile individuals with her weight loss.  By Fergie standards, one can never be too rich or too thin.

Rich and thin go hand in hand, it seems.  At least for the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  And there is a correlation between social class and weight.  The lower down the income bracket you go, the bigger your pant size is, at least statistically speaking.  Fat people have a lower chance of being hired or promoted, “marrying up,” or breaking from the social class they were born into. The belief system around this goes back to our answer as to why fat people are fat:  hard lives, no money, no control, taking comfort in food.  Here’s the contradiction, though:  if the majority of overweight Americans are also the majority of Americans constituting the working class or the working poor, how is their assumed gluttonous overconsumption possible?  Answer:  it isn’t. Rather, as the working class or the working poor, they have less financial access to more nutritious foods that tend to cost significantly more than, say, a loaf of white bread, a bag of Doritos, or a donut. Here we begin to understand that, at least culturally speaking, fat is synonymous with failure.  Economic failure, sexual failure (not being attractive enough), social failure, failure of self (for letting it get to that point):  “The burden borne by the fat is not only of pounds, it’s the sorry fate of being trapped in a body that conveys such an excess of meanings”[ii].

This failure can be reflected in everyday interactions and in government controlled health reform bills.  In 2009, the Senate Finance Committee approved a “healthy lifestyles incentive” reform act.  This act “encourages” individuals to maintain healthy lifestyles – including diet and exercise – and can punish those who don’t show improvement in health with an increase up to 50% in premiums.[i]  Senator John Ensign of Nevada told the press that this reform would make Americans healthier.  Employees who appeared to be met the agreed upon criterium of good health – trim, non-smokers – would pay reasonable costs.  Smokers and the overweight would face the penalities.  Blaming the “skyrocketing” cost of health care on fat people and smokers, Senator Ensign and co-creator of the Amendment, Senator Thomas Carper of Delaware, made the personal issue of fat another control government has over our bodies and is another way to ensure that fat people stay poorer than thin people.

I cannot stress enough that there is not a proven scientific correlation between people who are fat and the epidemics plaguing our country apparently caused by a high BMI.  Rationally speaking, if anyone, regardless of weight, consumes a diet rich in saturated fats, cholesterol, and fatty oils, that person is more likely to develop diabetes, heart poblems, and the works; and vice versa.  Similarly, a person, regardless of weight, who leads an active or a semi-active lifestyle, is more likely to have a strong heart and stronger muscles and bones than someone who doesn’t.  These things have been scientifically proven. Unfortunately, rational and evidence-based thinking does not stand in the way of the growing clamor for actions combatting fat, which, in fashionable medical speak is evidently synonymous with gluttonous and lazy.

Rationally speaking, if fat needs to be labeled a problem, it should be labeled a social and not a medical one. Although America likes to taut itself as a classless society, class divides and income discrepancies are increasingly evident as the gap between upper and lower middle classes widens.  Even in thriving economic times, many Americans live paycheck to paycheck.  The large number of Americans who economically classify as lower middle class or of a lesser socioeconomic status, have less acess to health care and nutritious foods, but certainly have no shortage of reinforcement that many aspects of their lifestyles are unacceptable.  However, it simply isn’t fair to blame victims of circumstances who have little or no access to other options.  I hate to break it to Ensign and Carper, but iniatives ain’t nothing without cash in your pocket.

That’s an uncomfortable reminder to the more priviledged and those in power, and certainly isn’t something they want to be reminded of.  Hence the lack of attention paid to the correlation between social class and obesity.  Instead, attention is focused on food and drink advertising, making companies like McDonald’s and Coca-Cola easy targets for media sharks and on the lack of personal responsibility fat people take for their lifestyles.  It is a vicious but chic cycle to offer the “helpful” advice of personal advocacy – eat less, eat more veggies, get more exercise – to fat people, when perhaps the helpful advice would be better served on those who can help to change socioeconomic discrepancies – socialize health care, offer afordable housing, lower the price of nutrious foods, raise minimum wage, work to change the education system.

Just as government control over abortion makes me uncomfortable, government control over fat has the same effect.  Maybe someday “hands off my flabby, fleshy, rolly-polly, chubby body or give me more money” will become the new catch phrase of a fat revoltion.  Until then, nickled and dimed becomes measured and pounded in social system that has not quite grasped the term “equality,” even after decades of civil rights struggles.  Equality, it would seem, tops out at a size 12.

[i] Chairman Max Baucus, “Call To Action H ealth Reform, 2009,” US Senate, (12 November 2008),

[i] Laura Kipnis, “Life in the Fat Lane,” Bound and Gagged, (New York, NY:  Grove Press, 1996)

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