Ah, 2012: a new year filled with hope for new prosperity, new opportunities, new peace, and, in the US, a new me/you/us. The tradition of establishing resolutions for the next twelve months goes back for an eternity- at least as far as popular culture is concerned- and, over the years, has managed to develop an exciting pantheon of products designed to “facilitate” your success. While some of the most popular make a certain amount of sense- including “spend more time with family and friends” and “learn something new”- I’m concerned by the #1 goal: the enduring “lose weight.” A quick Google search for losing weight and New Year’s resolutions turns up 55 million results. 55 million.
My beef with this is twofold. First, the American/Western obsession with weight loss is antifeminist in dozens of ways and propped up by a multitude of statistics that don’t adequately capture the intersection between weight and overall health.
What does this mean?
First, the pressure to be thin- especially put on cis women- means that “ideal” women (as modeled by magazines and films, at least) are literally half the size of their cis male counterparts. The message eventually becomes that the most successful women, or at least the ones who get the guy and the fancy clothes and possibly the killer job, are the ones who are the least physically intimidating. They are too small and/or starved to compete with said guy, and therefore are permitted by patriarchal imagery to enjoy the success they do. If push comes to shove, they’ll just fall over. Right? On the flip side, the chubby or fat women don’t enjoy this same success. They’re called names, treated as less-than, told they “can’t wear” something, and are even denied basic social benefits (such as jobs) due to perceptions about their weight.
Second, the current measures we have for bodies and health fall woefully short of giving us an accurate picture of an individual’s actual health. The Body Mass Index, or BMI, is a ratio of height to weight that was originally developed to measure the general health of a large population. In current times, however, its use has been broadened to categorize individuals as “underweight,” “normal,” “overweight,” and “obese.” As Jeremy Singer-Vine notes in a Slate article, however,
[The creator] had never intended for the BMI to be used in this way. His original paper warned against using the body mass index for individual diagnoses, since the equation ignores variables like a patient’s gender or age, which affect how BMI relates to health.
So when we make grandiose claims about American obesity, we may or may not be using the BMI correctly (as a non-medical professional, I can’t tell you for sure). But when we talk about individuals and use their BMI (perceived or actual) to analyze them- i.e. “I don’t think fat people are ugly, but they do need to be healthy”- we’re really being clueless. Is your BMI high because you eat Cheetos and sit on the couch? Is your BMI high because you were born this way?
My answer: is it anyone else’s damn business? No.
There’s this massive movement telling fat people to lose weight because they’ll live longer/better/healthier that way, but is it really someone else’s concern how well I live? Let’s say your my doctor and you tell me to lose weight. Without knowing my cholesterol, blood sugars, heart rate, exercise habits, and satisfaction with my day-to-day existence, are you really doing me any good? There’s something to be said for self-satisfaction.
Third, if you’re really all that worked up about obesity trends in the United States (or your own country), take the time to do some research. Who has access to grocery stores? Who has access to the income and time needed to purchase and prepare nutritious meals for themselves and/or their family? Who has the knowledge to cook and store ingredients properly? As an example, I worked in a neighbourhood in Philadelphia where, over a 3.5 square mile area, there was one grocery store. This store was arranged around a few dusty shelves populated by boxes of Cheez-Its and a freezer full of cheap beer, and the few vegetables and fruits it sold were on their way into the realm of rotten. Some neighbourhoods didn’t even have this much; their residents fed themselves at McDonald’s and the local Chinese food restaurant. In mine, most residents worked two jobs and couldn’t afford cars; walking an hour or more round-trip to get low-quality food that you don’t have the energy to cook doesn’t sound like a reasonable expectation, now does it? A feminist response to “the obesity problem” needs to consider not only discrimination and the right to govern one’s own life choices, but also issues of income and access. The American obsession with weight loss and skinniness needs to be reconsidered from all of these perspectives.
So as you contemplate your New Year’s resolutions, Americans, please reconsider that “lose weight” option that might’ve cropped up on your list. Maybe your reasons are valid for you- I know I’ve made the choice to lose weight before- but maybe you’re doing it because you feel like you “should.” Maybe you’re hoping that a better diet and more exercise will make it easier to do the things you want to do, but then again…maybe you’re dieting (again) instead of focusing on the other things you’d rather do. I don’t know, obviously, because I’m not you. But instead of letting a series of social restrictions guide your thinking, maybe it’s time to turn your energies to something that’s important to you. Travel more. Watch more TV. Change someone’s life for the better. Learn to rein in your judgment of others. Be nothing but your wonderful, unadulterated self. After all, it’s a new year.