Whilst reading Hunter’s “Buying Racial Capital: Skin-Bleaching and Cosmetic Surgery in a Globalized World”, I kept thinking about the parallels of different social and medical discourses in skin-whitening with similar discourses in obesity. Obesity in America is now deemed a health epidemic, affecting more than 34% of the adult population and 15-20% of the children and adolescent population (Mitchell et al, 717). As a result of the increased awareness of obesity as an epidemic, body positivity and the inclusion of all body sizes has also taken by storm. The tension that exists between these two discourses help us further understand how we need to balance health in physical as well as emotional ways. As a biology major and someone who was interested in becoming a doctor, I struggled with balancing the promotion of healthiness as well as body positivity. I had always separated these two issues in my mind but in this blog post I would like to explore ways to reconcile these two discourses.
Body positivity at its core, helps individuals feel comfortable with themselves and their bodies. However, body positivity has increasingly been co-opted and commodified by large corporations (Figure 1).
Most ads and blogs in media that revolve around the body positivity rhetoric consists of plus-sized, white women models. Although this has kick-started a shift in society for the acceptance of all body sizes and types, race and gender have consistently been left out of the picture. Thus, although body positivity has helped individuals love their bodies, it has only helped mostly white individuals to feel this way.
On the other hand, obesity has been promoted as an epidemic that is “bad” due to all the health risks that obesity is associated with. Obesity reflects poorly on the individual as a lack of the individuals’ respectability and moral character. The rhetoric of obesity claims that “all women have the potential to be beautiful regardless of body size” which Hunter suggests, highlights “the shortcoming of the public health discourse – its focus on attitudes as opposed to discrimination” (Hunter, 150). The individualistic approach narrows the scope of who’s responsible for combatting obesity. It also becomes an excuse for why many remain obese. Reasons that question moral character, such as not working out enough (Figure 2), or not restraining themselves enough (Figure 3), become scapegoats for the lack of governmental and structural changes that need to happen to diminish the health risks of obesity. It also erases differences in class, as most working class groups do not have time to cook or the money to buy vegetables, when fast food is much quicker and easy to obtain.
One of societies’ solutions to obesity is private dieting and weight loss programs. Whilst many have benefited from these programs and become much more confident as a result of these weight loss regimes, these programs are still a capitalistic industry, profiting from the successes and failures of those trying to lose weight. In order to make profit, dieting regimes frame dieting as a means to a happier, more fulfilling life. It becomes the cure for all—all your mental, physical, and emotional ailments would be solved if you lose weight. Keep in mind that most of dieting is to get to an “acceptable” range. Haiken points out that doctors “helped to cement not just standards of beauty but standards of normality and acceptability in American minds” (Haiken, 177), suggesting that the medical sector has played a big part in shaping standards of appearance.
All in all, both medicalized obesity and body positivity have work to do. Body positivity acknowledges and rejects the unnecessary pressure and discrimination that obese bodies have to go through, but it still caters to a certain demographic. Medicalized obesity maintains silence of structural benefits of those in the “acceptable” body size range and puts all responsibility on the individual. Although we must combat the health risks associated with obesity, we must include those that are struggling and those that are silenced in this conversation.
Haiken, E. (1999). Venus Envy: A history of cosmetic surgery. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Hunter, M. L. (2011). Buying racial capital: Skin-bleaching and cosmetic surgery in a globalized world. The Journal of Pan African Studies, 4(4), 142-164.
Mitchell, N., Catenacci, V., Wyatt, H. R., & Hill, J. O. (2011). OBESITY: OVERVIEW OF AN EPIDEMIC. The Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 34(4), 717–732. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.psc.2011.08.005