If you asked me what I was most passion about – as in my life’s work, my drive, my reason for being on this Earth – I would probably say “eating disorder recovery advocacy.” (Actually, I might say “chocolate mousse,” but in my world, the two go hand-in-hand.)
And doing good, honest, genuine eating disorder recovery advocacy means deep diving into more than just the DSM and yellowed, underlined, dog-eared copies of Wasted. It means dedicating myself completely to body image activism as a whole – because everything related to these two issues are interconnected; some of them, in fact, completely depend on one another.
And in order to paint a realistic picture of body image struggles as a whole, we need to understand how the colors interact, so to speak.
So when Harriet Brown – who also (be still, my heart) wrote Brave Girl Eating: A Family’s Struggle with Anorexia – released her new book, Body of Truth: How Science, History, and Culture Drive Our Obsession with Weight – And What We Can Do About It, I was itching to get my hands on it and was lucky enough to be sent an advance copy.
I read a third of the book in one sitting.
In fact, I’m struggling to write this article because I want to go finish it tonight. That is to say, read this book.
But within the first two chapters, Brown reminded me that there are so many important aspects about “obesity” research that the general public either takes for granted or ignores.
Unfortunately, the fact of the matter is this: Everything you think you know about “the obesity epidemic” is wrong. Because we’re being duped by a system that profits off of lying to us.
But instead of spending this article debunking “obesity research” (which you can find here, here, and here, for starters), I want to talk about five ways that power structures (namely, economics) weigh in on what information we’re privy to – and what never sees the light of mainstream dissemination.
1. Don’t Want to Talk About ‘Obesity?’ Good Luck Getting That Study Funded
Let me be clear: Proposals for studies in the realm of health and weight that don’t center on “obesity” have trouble getting funded.
And that’s because studies on “obesity” are prioritized financially.
Just like in the 1980s and 90s when research proposals that highlighted HIV prevention strategies got money thrown at them, these days, one of the easiest way to get funders to push cash in your direction is if you promise to return results that support the “obesity epidemic” moral panic.
For a visual of what that looks like, here is the National Institute of Health’s list of funding opportunities for obesity research. In fact, it’s estimated that the NIH alone is projected to spend 857 million dollars on obesity research this year.
And when you add in other research categories that often lend a hand in perpetuating the “obesity epidemic” myth – like diabetes, heart disease, and nutrition – we add another 3.7 billion dollars into the mix.
Anorexia, on the other hand – the mental illness that you are most likely to die from, with a mortality rate around one in ten – comes in at 1.3% of that.
Meanwhile, if you go so far as to uncover proof that the “obesity epidemic” is bogus, it’s more likely that your work will be unroutinely scrutinized, deemed implausible (“There must be something wrong with their analysis, although I can’t find any mistakes!”), and rejected for publication.
And the reason for that is simple: If someone handed you a study (or even 100 studies) claiming that the sky is actually orange – refuting what you’ve been taught to know and let go more or less unquestioned for your entire life – you’d be skeptical, too.
Once you convince people of something, it’s reeeally, really hard to get them to change their minds.
(We’re feminists. We know that all too well.)
So people choose instead to fund what doesn’t cause cognitive dissonance.
2. You Can’t Bite the Hand That Feeds You: How the Weight-Loss Industry Legitimizes Itself
Now, the funny thing about being a feminist is that the naysayers will consistently accuse you of being (among other things) a conspiracy theorist.
And while I frequently find myself arguing that no, of course I don’t think there’s a board room full of white guys in suits with a banner reading “PATRIARCHY, INC.” behind them, brainstorming ways to keep women and other gender minorities down, I do have a frightening news flash for you.
I’ll let that sink in.
Kinda fishy, right?
In the world of—you know—research ethics, we call that a “conflict of interest.”
The diet and weight-loss industry has a huge stake in the publication of research that’s in line with the maintenance of society’s understanding of the “obesity epidemic.” It’s what legitimizes their work and keeps them alive.
And what an easy, yet terribly cruel way to do it: Convince millions of people that they can take their fates – literally their lives – into their own hands, despite the fact that good research (research, for instance, that actually takes fitness levels into account, which most “obesity research” does not) can’t back it up, and then offer them a (bullshit) cure.
3. The Weight-Loss Industry Thrives Off of Diet Failures
Now, you might be thinking that the weight-loss industry must be successful in its pursuits in order to have all of the money that it has. With 45 million dieters and 60.5 billion dollars, clearly, it must be doing something right.
You might be thinking, for instance, “Wow! Weight Watchers sure does have a shit-ton of money and a lot of clients! That must mean their program is super effective!”
And if you thought that, you’d be wrong.
Because the devastatingly angering thing about the weight-loss industry – which includes everything from diet programs and gym memberships to books, seminars, surgeries, and pills, all promising you quick, easy, painless, and lasting weight-loss – is that they’re goldmines specifically because they depend on repeat consumers.
What that boils down to is: They make money because their products fail.
And they do fail. Over and over and over again.
And these weight-loss programs, promising you magic, but using buzzwords like “evidence-based” and “research-proven?” Most of their studies end, at most, after three years following clients. What a coincidence.
And so we perpetuate a disgusting cycle that does nothing to help consumers and everything to ensure that the Capitalist machine (via the medical-industrial complex) keeps running: The weight-loss industry makes money off of our shame and guilt, and then uses that money to fund studies that exacerbate our shame and guilt, which leads us to pouring more money into the industry itself.
And ‘round and ‘round we go – ignorantly trusting a science that isn’t all that trustworthy in the first place.
4. Science Is Pretty Great, But It Sure as Hell Isn’t Unbiased
Listen, I like science. I’m a doctoral candidate, for Christ’s sake – clearly, I think there’s some virtue in the scientific method. Otherwise, I’m wasting a whole lot of time, energy, and money – none of which I have in abundance.
But folks tend to have a funny relationship with science. As in, they tend to think of it as the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth, so help them, God.
And while I’m into the notion that science is probably the most accurate source of information that we have, I’m not fooling myself into believing that science isn’t unbiased.
Science isn’t unbiased because people are not unbiased. And when it’s people who are doing the science, their value systems can show up in their research.
And should it? Not necessarily. It depends on who you ask (y’all essentialists out there, I’m looking at you). But the point is that it can.
And when we’re talking about an issue wrapped up in moral panic, that matters. Significantly.
As it turns out, study after study after study shows that everyone from doctors to nurses to psychologists – even those who specialize in obesity – have internalized implicit weight bias, which means that they are predisposed to associate fat bodies with ill health.
Scarier still, they don’t believe they have weight bias.
And when you’re going into a study already biased toward certain results, that’s bound to muck up your objectivity, which means that we should be suspicious of any research that unquestionably backs up the status quo.
We’re feminists, remember? That’s like our job.
Kind of like how it’s researchers’ job to do good science. But, well…
5. ‘Health’ Can’t Be Operatively Defined Because It’s Indefinable
Here’s a crash course in research: If you’re going to measure a construct, you need to be able to provide your readership with an operative definition of it. That is, when you say “x,” what is it that you actually mean by “x?”
And if you can’t define it in a concrete way, then your entire measurement of it falls apart.
And this notion of “health” to which we all cling – and on which all of this research hinges in the first place? It’s impossibly defined.
What. The fuck. Is “health?”
While some have tried to define it as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” and others have attempted to give it meaning through calling it “a dynamic state of well-being characterized by a physical, mental, and social potential,” the truth is that we’re still searching for that truth.
The basic concept of wellness as the opposite of illness holds ground, I suppose. And our biological imperative to stay alive and well – and therefore, to aspire towards health – in order to propagate the species can be argued.
But what, really, are the signs of a healthy person?
And I’m sure you have some ideas. After all, don’t we all have the same vital signs taken every single time we walk into a doctor’s office? Those must have something to do with health, right?
But the issue with defining “health” is that the concept is partially socially constructed. Its definition – society’s understanding of it – has fluctuated over time and across cultures.
That is, while it can be argued through an evolutionary psychological lens that it makes sense to value health as a society, what we understand as “healthy” changes.
For example, we currently think of thin people as healthy. In a time of abundance and what we perceive to be overeating, those who represent the hard-to-attain-and-maintain thin ideal represent health to us.
But not too long ago, it was rounder, cushier, fatter bodies that represented health to us – because what was hard to attain and maintain in periods of scarcity were those bodies.
The ideal of “health” is fluid.
And because there is no agreed-upon answer to define “health,” it seems a little ridiculous – or at least scientifically unsound – to assume that we can measure it at all, which in turn, unravels the whole thing.
The funny thing is, my guess is that those of you who disagree with this idea might be inclined to send me some obesity research in retaliation. That’s exactly what happened when I posted about this stuff on Facebook. Someone actually came at me with “But let me tell you about obesity research.”
But I have a better idea.
Instead of insulting my life’s work and overall intelligence by assuming that I haven’t already read the status quo-confirming research that we’re all accustomed to being bombarded with day in and day out, how about you go read the conflicting research?
It won’t be as easy to find – thanks to all of the reasons that I’ve laid out here – but I promise that it exists.
Or, if you want an engaging and succinct overview of the problems, check out Harriet Brown’s new book – which I am going to go finish reading now.
Want to learn more about this topic? I recommend the following:
- What’s Wrong with Fat? by Abigail C. Saguy
- Body Respect: What Conventional Health Books Get Wrong, Leave Out, and Just Plain Fail to Understand About Weight by Linda Bacon, PhD and Lucy Aphramor, PhD
- Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight by Linda Bacon, PhD
- Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture by Amy Erdman Farrell
- Fat: The Anthropology of an Obsession by Don Kulick and Anne Meneley
Melissa A. Fabello, Co-Managing Editor of Everyday Feminism, is a sexuality educator, eating disorder and body image activist, and media literacy vlogger based out of Philadelphia. She enjoys rainy days, Jurassic Park, and the occasional Taylor Swift song and can be found on YouTube and Tumblr. She holds a B.S. in English Education from Boston University and an M.Ed. in Human Sexuality from Widener University. She is currently working on her PhD. She can be reached on Twitter @fyeahmfabello.