Before and After: Why Weight-loss Commercials are Dangerous and How Fat Acceptance Saved My Life
Well before the ball dropped in New York City to mark the beginning of 2013, diet and weight-loss ads were airing non-stop on television, encouraging viewers to get a headstart on their New Year’s resolution to lose weight and “get healthy.” There was Jennifer Hudson praising the Weight Watchers point system. Then, there was Jessica Simpson also thanking Weight Watchers for helping her shed pregnancy weight the media mercilessly criticized her for gaining. Plagued by negative comments about the size of their bodies, Hudson and Simpson chose to participate in a multi-billion dollar diet industry. They, and the companies they work for, profit from the American obsession with thinness, and they sell an impossible dream of beauty that is always dependent on weight-loss.
It’s not only Weight Watchers doing the fat shaming. New commercials for Special K ask viewers What will you gain when you lose? and show women standing on scales that, instead of numbers, display words such as “confidence” and “pride,” equating weight-loss with the attainment of not just a slimmer physique but of a whole new self. Diet and weight-loss companies are never just selling thinness itself, they are reminding us over and over again of the privileges that come with a thin body. Only the thin are worthy of love and happiness, society tells us. Your dream life can only be attained by losing weight.
Weight-loss companies also sell the dream of the “after,” which leads to a subsequent repudiation of the “before.” There is always a better, thinner version of ourselves just waiting to be released and until we find that svelte self hidden inside, we (the fat people) deserve to be hated by the general public, humiliated on shows like The Biggest Loser, and wrongfully blamed for every conceivable modern problem, from global warming to the rise in health care costs. What no one talks about are the real life-and-death consequences of the oppression against fat people, how we often receive substandard health care or no health care at all, how we are paid less than our thinner co-workers, how we are devastated by the unrelenting and violent message that we should not even exist.
Weight loss commercials are powerful purveyors of fat-hatred because they construct the popular image of the fat body. These media representations reinforce the view that the fat body is “other,” that it is defective, abnormal, and abject. Without hatred of the fat body, diet companies cannot profit or recruit new members. Without the condemnation of fatness, there can be no consecration of thinness; they are interdependent and one cannot exist without the other. If fatness is not repulsive or gross or indicative of moral failing then thinness, likewise, cannot become a symbol for discipline, self-control, and virtue. The “before” must be vilified, the fat body must be condemned.
Weight-loss commercials are a ubiquitous and accepted part of our society. We expect them but at this point, after being exposed to fat acceptance and body positivity, it is impossible for me to tolerate them. I cannot watch Marie Osmond enthusiastically endorse Nutrisystem or Sharon Osbourne drone on about the Atkins diet or any other celebrity sell me the dream life of thinness. When these women agree to do these commercials, they are knowingly participating in fat oppression. What’s worse, they are profiting from a system that relentlessly shames and degrades fat women’s bodies. Instead of seeing all their new-found privileges after weight-loss as an indication that something is deeply wrong with our culture and its obsession with thinness, instead of speaking out against fat hatred and body policing, they film their commercials, collect their checks, and maintain the status quo.
Why do the commercials affect me so strongly? It cannot only be my involvement in the fat acceptance movement, though that has certainly radicalized me and made me more conscious of persistent fatphobic media messages. No, this goes deeper. Only a few years ago, I was the dieter. I was writing in my diary about how hungry I was, but I’d been told that this feeling of hunger was a good thing, it meant you were losing weight, and that’s all I wanted. I was the one being praised by random strangers while I exercised outside. They would ask me how much weight I’d lost and how I’d done it. I’d say that cliche phrase that still makes me cringe: “Just eat less and exercise more.” I was that person who believed what the media told me about my body–that it was ugly, inherently unhealthy, and that I’d die an early death if I didn’t do something. I was so terrified of the future because our culture, and especially the medical establishment, uses the rhetoric of fear to control and oppress fat bodies. When you tell someone constantly that they are going to die, without knowing anything about their actual health, this has a psychological and emotional effect on a human being. I believed that losing weight meant being healthy even if my behaviors were far from safe.
On the last week of my diet, I ate nothing but Special K cereal. That was a horrendous week and my mom ended up in the hospital, undergoing gallbladder surgery because of her own rapid weight-loss. Even in the hospital, when the nurses or doctor commented about our weight–that it might be a good idea to lose a few pounds–we’d enthusiastically inform them that we’d already lost 40 pounds each. They’d congratulate us and tell us to keep up the good work. We were being the good fat people. We were hating ourselves and dieting and showing deference to medical professionals just the way we’d been taught. So, when I see those Special K commercials, I don’t think of the dream of thinness, I think of my uninsured mother in a hospital bed just after gallbladder surgery, eating nothing but jello on doctor’s orders and crying from hunger. I remember the fear I felt during the surgery, which I knew was safe, but it made little difference because it was my mother on that operating table and I was terrified of what could happen. I know the true effects of dieting, how it made me feel worse, how I wasn’t healthy at all. I was desperate. I wanted to be an “after,” I wanted to prove my worth to other people, to show them the thin self I had inside.
While dieting and weight-loss brought me nothing but pain, fat acceptance has given me my life back. Before fat acceptance, the Jennifer Hudsons and Jessica Simpsons of the world convinced me that my body needed to be changed, that it had no right to exist as it was. Before fat acceptance, I believed the media and the medical establishment; I did not know how to question or resist either institution. Before fat acceptance every year began with the resolution to slim down and, when that didn’t happen, my shame and self-hatred intensified. After fat acceptance, I know that my body is not a problem, it is the one and only vessel I have; it can dance, it can feel, it is mine and there is nothing wrong with it. After fat acceptance, I have the tools to better survive a society full of fat shaming and body policing. And I no longer make diet resolutions. Instead, I turn the channel when weight-loss commercials come on the screen. I refuse to go back to the person I was before fat acceptance.
• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •
Caitlin is a contributing editor at the Ellipses Project. She is currently an undergraduate majoring in English and Women’s and Gender Studies. Her academic interests include feminism, women’s literature, fat acceptance, class, and embodiment. Of particular importance to her is how art and writing can be used to cope with grief, trauma, and mental illness. She has a penchant for Pre-Raphaelite art, British detective shows, and old Hollywood films.