Obesity: body positivity vs. health risks associated with obesity

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).

Figure 1. American Eagle’s recent campaign: #aeriereal, promoting body positivity.

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 Studies4(4), 142-164.


Mitchell, N., Catenacci, V., Wyatt, H. R., & Hill, J. O. (2011). OBESITY: OVERVIEW OF AN EPIDEMIC. The Psychiatric Clinics of North America34(4), 717–732. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.psc.2011.08.005


7 thoughts on “Obesity: body positivity vs. health risks associated with obesity

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  1. I have been thinking about this as well. Where is the line between obesity and body positivity? I think this has come to my attention more when we were talking about plastic surgery and the language we use to discuss it – including the readings from Heiken and Davis. What has the influence of increased reliance been on dietary and work out businesses led to a new industry and therefore, just built up the wrong ideas about the necessity of dieting or working out? Or, has this helped to promote healthier life styles? I know that exercise has an effect on helping people dealing with mental illness like anxiety. However, where is the line between medical influence and capitalism? I think this article discusses this blurred line very well.


  2. The original post notes that “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.”

    I want to expand on the exclusion of people of color. As an obese person of color, I suspect part of the problem behind our exclusion that we fail the arbitrary “redeemability test” presented by obesity. More aptly put: White people can be “morally” redeemed, even when overweight, by putting in enough effort to lose weight or by purchasing look modifying products that give the equivalent appearance. Indeed, when white people lose significant amounts of weight, they often become spokespersons for their weight loss product. One such example is Jared Scott Fogle, who claims to have lost a hundred pounds eating Subway sandwiches, and of course, if he can do it, why not you (notice the shaming aspect here?).

    However, people of color fail this “re-deemability” through hardwork even before it begins. Why? To quote Hunter, people of color cannot sell “whiteness, modernity, sophistication, beauty, power, and wealth” in the same way as Jared Fogle can. By not being able to turn around and sell success once people of color succeed, we are not “worthy” of redemption by beauty norms. We are not worth putting in the effort to feed properly or teach how to care for bodies in a healthy way.


  3. This post immediately made me think of media portrayals of obesity with shows such as “The Biggest Loser” and “Extreme Makeover”, where the promotion of weight loss is minimized into TV shows that capitalize on successful extreme weight loss and surgical procedures such as liposuction. While producers of these shows make money off of promoting weight loss, they fail to account for the social structures and health inequities that make it harder for certain demographics, particularly low-income people of color who carry more risk factors for obesity, to stay healthy. When losing weight is minimized to beauty and the idealized “thinness”, there is a lack of understanding that obeseness also comes with underlying inequities within marginalized communities that may not have access to health care or healthy education compared to their White counterparts. With that, people discount larger structures of historical oppression and instead focus on the Eurocentric beauty standards of being “skinny and beautiful”. A lot of the people participating in shows like “The Biggest Loser” and “Extreme Makeover” are White contestants, and the shows always end with plenty of success stories of people changing their lives for the better. I would like to echo your comment that yes, body positivity seems to target mainly White individuals. The underlying problem comes from the silencing of marginalized groups that aren’t given the same motivation and resources to change their lives the way the media has portrayed White individuals to be able to do.


  4. Thank you for bringing this up, averycheng, and complicating this issue. I think here it is helpful to also consider the discourse of mutability. Sizism relies on the notion that you can change your size, mirroring the discourse around black hairstyles in the workplace. Compounded by meritocracy and the idea that it’s up to you and your grit to enact the change that you want, then we have this problematic body positivity movement – specifically the branch that results in, as cynthichang notes, shows like “The Biggest Loser”.

    Furthermore, the pathologization of obesity via the legitimizing discourse of science and medicine is increasingly complicated by popular ‘science’ like the Body Mass Index (BMI), which is actually inaccurate as a measurement.


  5. I think you make a really interesting point about how “the medical sector has played a big part in shaping standards of appearance.” Medical discourse in creating ideas of what is “unhealthy” also creates ideas of what is “healthy.” Within obesity discourse, the counter image to obesity is a slim, toned body. But a healthy body does not always look like that. Genetics play a role in determining body types and bodies come in all different shapes and sizes. You can work out every day and be extremely healthy and still not fit into the slim, toned body ideal. Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign is interesting to think about because it moves away from an appearance-based discourse of obesity.


  6. I also think it is important to expand further upon the concepts of genetics that jorleee brings up-a biological approach to obesity can also involve groundbreaking research on gut microbiota. An article in Nature by DiBaise et al. and the Mayo Clinic in 2012 features this in the abstract, “the composition of the gut microbiota has been shown to differ in lean and obese humans and animals and to change rapidly in response to dietary factors. The gut microbiota may also influence the development of conditions characterized by low-level inflammation, such as obesity and type 2 diabetes, through systemic exposure to bacterial lipopolysaccharide derived from the intestinal microbiota.” Applying these findings to the concept of beauty and obesity- not only genetics but the very bacteria inside your gut and how they process the foods you are consuming can play a role in size and fat storage! Approaching these concepts as medical issues that are not under the control of the obese person themselves may help to alleviate the judgement and assumptions of moral character that come with this discussion. As treatment can theoretically exist without all the pressure put on the person or on cosmetic surgery, perhaps a healthier, more body-positive way of thinking about obesity, and others’ gut microbiome (!), is on the way.


  7. @averycheng‘s post reminded me of the successful plus-sized model Ashley Graham, especially after the comment, “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.” The Mears reading mentioned Models.com’s Top 50 Models ranking, so I looked it up and Ashley Graham is the only plus-seized model on the list. This is relevant because Ashley Graham is white and her body size does dramatically upend beauty standards. While she does disrupt completely normative beauty standards, it is only acceptable because it is in a context of whiteness. Bordo adds to this analysis by arguing that models of color “will not be permitted to overwhelm the representation and establish a truly alternative or ‘subversive’ model of beauty or success.” Ashley Graham’s situation is similar. I even remember reading an article a few years ago that explained that plus-sized models are successful when their faces show no hint of fat.


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