Here’s How Fatphobia Is Being Marketed to You – And Why So Many of Us Buy Into It

A person stands in a grocery store, in an aisle filled with colorful vegetables, holding a purse and shopping basket in one hand and a bunch of bananas in the other.

A person stands in a grocery store, in an aisle filled with colorful vegetables, holding a purse and shopping basket in one hand and a bunch of bananas in the other.

This may come as a surprise to you, but weight loss is a potential side effect – and not a definite goal or marker – of health.

But if you were to pick up a magazine, listen to an infomercial, or even watch the news, you’ll be bombarded with images of lean, “healthy” people who wanted to sell you their products, services, or lifestyle to help you definitely reach that goal.

Even when weight loss isn’t the explicit outcome of investing in some kind of healthy habit or practice, it’s often used as the main marketing message. Because skinny (or strong, depending on who you ask) sells.

And it sells because people have been trained to be afraid of fat.

We’re afraid of it because it’s associated with the cause of ill-health (erroneously, thank you very much). We’re afraid of it because, due to its association with ill-health, we see it as a lack of personal responsibility and moral failing. We’re afraid of it, and marketers need fear in order to sell.

Fatphobia is a great selling point, but what we need to understand is that it’s only that: a selling point.

It keeps us engaged in buying “health” without actually understanding that healthy behaviors don’t have aesthetic outcomes. It empties our wallets and feeds a system that preys on our insecurities, and then empties our emotional reserves by setting us up, constantly, for failure.

As long as we are a) afraid of being unhealthy, b) afraid of getting fat, and c) willing to pay anything to stop “b” from happening (believing that it has anything to do with “a”), then diet marketers can sell to us.

And sell to us, they do.

And while we may conceptually know that fatphobia isn’t serving anyone, at the end of the day, we still take out our credit cards and fork over our hard-earned cash in order to put down a deposit on an impossible commodity.

Why?

Well, I submit to you four examples of fatphobia being marketed to you for profit.

Example #1: The Biggest Loser: Selling Fat Loss as Health

Recently, the mainstream media lost its collective cool over the results of a study that followed the long-term success (um, failure) of former Biggest Loser contestants in keeping weight off.

The TL;DR of the study is this: These bodies, which began as “obese” were resistant to long-term extreme weight loss. Their metabolisms rioted, slowing down until weight suppression tactics like dieting and excessive exercise stopped working. The weight piled back on.

The media was shocked by this because the possibility that extreme weight loss might not be achievable for a portion on the population went against everything that it’s been saying for years.

This “surprising finding” is actually a conversation that health at every size (HAES) activists and advocates have been having for years: Our nation’s conversation about weight loss is broken, much like our actual metabolisms.

Dieting doesn’t work, and sustainable weight loss isn’t actually possible or healthy for every body – especially bodies that had yo-yo dieted or had other metabolic damage.

Yet nearly every single article written on the subject has ended with a sort of wishy-washy apology: “Sure, this study proves that long-term weight loss through dieting isn’t sustainable – but there has to be a way to lose weight that we just haven’t found yet. Don’t stop striving for weight loss just yet – we have more marketing to do!”

But the media misses the point in ending every single article with the desperate exhortation “DON’T STOP TRYING TO LOSE WEIGHT.”

I’d like to think that they have our best interests at heart (although, goodness knows that best interests are tied to monetary gain first and foremost).

What they want to mean is this: Don’t stop striving to introduce sustainable, healthful changes to your nutrition and exercise if you want to improve your metabolic function.

But because before-and-after photos of changes in your metabolic function aren’t marketable, what they’re really saying is: Don’t stop focusing on forcing or struggling to maintain a visible change in body size or shape (and, more important, don’t stop buying the products that allow you to keep forcing and struggling!). 

In other words, when the media (and marketers) talk about health, what they’re really discussing is weight suppression.

This reifies fatphobia as a legitimate fear, which can then be used for marketing and profit later on (often by the same media outlet) when weight suppression inevitably fails.

But fat is not the problem. (And if you find that you’re overly concerned about fat people’s health, please read this.)

The belief that fat is bad is the problem.

It’s a problem because, in order to make a profit, fatness is portrayed as disease, personal failure, and lack of morality.

And people suffer. In the case of The Biggest Loser, we’ve been watching people suffer for twelve years. We’ve been cheering for their suffering and using their suffering as “inspiration” to suffer ourselves (and buy products with Biggest Loser branding because they were “proven” to “work.”) 

We’ve literally bought The Biggest Loser’s lies. And our own bodies have been a part of that sale.

Example #2: Weight Watchers: Selling Fat Loss as Pride

I’m sure you’ve read all of the angry reaction pieces to Oprah’s announcement that she joined (and bought and is making money from) Weight Watchers.

Despite being one of the most influential women in America, we apparently haven’t seen the “real” her. And once the thin person she “really” is gets out, well, look out, America, Oprah is gonna make a household name of herself!

But it’s interesting how Weight Watchers has recently begun trying to rebrand itself as the non-shaming, non-diet “lifestyle” of choice.

Those who have invested in Weight Watchers don’t see the irony. They honestly don’t believe that counting points is a diet, since they can “eat whatever they want” – within their daily points allotment.

They also don’t see Weight Watchers as fatphobic or shaming, because they believe that, by losing weight, they’re being taught to take pride in their bodies.

Recently, Weight Watchers published a magazine spread featuring eleven cis women posing nude in order to “celebrate natural beauty.”

Again, the irony was lost on those posing for these ads. One of the models said, “I felt special, I felt positive. I took control of my body, and I took what it meant to be beautiful into my own hands.”

Fatphobia here is being marketed as “becoming proud” instead of “being ashamed.” (Note: There’s no reason to be proud of “earning” a new body shape if you don’t ascribe shame to the current or former shape.)

Weight Watchers, like clean eating, multilevel marketing, and “lifestyle” diets, all use fatphobia and shame as a selling point, even if they don’t explicitly say it in their marketing.

If, in order to sell a “lifestyle,” you need to rely upon the dichotomy between “becoming proud” and “being ashamed” in relation to your former, current, and future size and mass, then it’s a diet.

Don’t be tricked into spending money for a “lifestyle” that is primarily fixated on whether or not you’ve lost weight.

A lifestyle requires a lifetime investment of time and money into products and services. And in order to keep you coming back to your lifestyle choices, marketers need you to invest in a lifetime of self-hate, even if it’s hidden in a message of self-love.

Example #3: #BetterForIt: Selling Fat Loss as Fitness Inspiration

Last year, Nike came out with a campaign meant to encourage people to exercise when they didn’t want to.

The concept behind the campaign was simple: A thin woman struggles through an exercise, and her inner monologue reveals that she feels silly, awkward, or in pain. She completes the exercise anyway, and she is “better for it.”

Concern trolls will say that a campaign like this is meant to motivate fat people to exercise (and therefore become healthy). But, watched critically, these commercials are actually ways to get people who have already invested themselves in a fitness-centric lifestyle to justify their continued expenditure of time, energy, attention, and – oh yes – money.

Here’s my favorite example:

A thin woman sits on a bike in spin class. Her inner monologue tells us that she likes sitting in the middle row – until a group of “model-slash-actresses” sit in front of her with their “perfect model-slash-actress butts.”

Then, our protagonist decides that having to stare at these “perfect” bodies (in Nike gear, of course) is “oddly motivating.” She pedals on.

In this ad, Nike is blatantly marketing fatphobia to us. The subtext literally says: “You need us to motivate you with pictures of ‘perfect’ models-slash-actresses in our clothing. Without this marketing, you will never fit in, be able to wear clothes like this, or be ‘better’” – where “better” implies thinner/leaner/more muscular/more toned than you are now.

If you already look something like the protagonist (who is, ironically, actually a model-slash-actress), then it’s a reminder to “Keep on investing in your lifestyle, sister! You’re so close to looking like the cis women in the front row!”

If you don’t look like her, though, it just widens the gap between “fit people” and you.

It puts pressure on you to invest more to change how you look. Extreme weight loss plans, restrictive diets and over-exercise become the norm, something to hold up proudly as an example of how you are a “good fatty.”

Which then becomes demotivating when your metabolism catches up (see example #1) and thwarts rapid weight loss. On the wagon, off the wagon. Spend more money and hop back on.

Were “fitspiration” actually about fitness, we would see people of all sizes, shapes, and abilities moving successfully in a given environment. Instead, we’re shown people who have already achieved an aesthetic “ideal” (one that was achieved through about twelve weeks of extreme dieting and several days of dehydration, actually).

Fitspiration, like Nike’s #betterforit ads, is about aesthetics. Because aesthetics sell.

And aesthetics sell Nike athletic gear – which apparently looks great on a model-slash-actress’ butt.

Example #4: Thinking Makes You Fat: Fat Loss as Political Sedative

“Dieting is the most potent political sedative in history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.”

If you don’t believe this Naomi Wolf quote, I submit to you the following:

As someone who writes and podcasts in the health and wellness space, I get a lot of e-mails from public relations reps about new health products and weight loss plans.

But the other day I received the coup de grâce of absurd and blatant diet marketing.

Nestled among the “Fifteen Fascinating Fat Facts” promised in the subject line was this gem:

“Thinking can make you fat! Brand new research conducted at Laval University in Canada has shown that, although thinking hard and concentrating doesn’t require any extra calories, it does stimulate the body to feel hungrier.”

(Note: saying “getting fat” as if it is inherently a bad thing is, itself, a way of reinforcing fatphobia. Fat – and fatness – is not bad. It, along with thinness and any other size-specific descriptor, is neutral.)

Read critically, this “fascinating fat fact” from a weight loss company – positioned before the actual product details as a way to “make the case” for bringing the product with you to work – is telling you that you should stop thinking critically.

In order for you to keep buying into the ideology of fatphobic marketing, companies need you not to think too hard about what they’re saying. If you just buy into the assumption that fat is bad and needs to be erased, then all of their marketing falls into line from there.

If you stop to think about it, the real “fat facts” tell you something completely different.

For example, a recent study on BMI let us know that “nearly half (47.4%) of overweight people and 29% of obese people were, from a metabolic standpoint, quite healthy.” On the flip side, more than 30% of individuals with “normal” weights were metabolically unhealthy.

Thinking critically, you might have pause to wonder why you, who might be metabolically healthy, need a weight loss product in the first place.

But if you’re afraid of even thinking because it will make you fat, then you will never recognize that you don’t need to be afraid that you will be fat – and you’ll be caught in a feedback loop that keeps you vulnerable to fatphobic marketing.

I know that, with this fascinating fat fact in mind (dangerous!), you might be afraid to read on, but I urge you to take the risk – and if you “get fat” as a result of reading this article, I’ll take responsibility for it.

***

This is just scratching the surface. Every day, I encounter another opportunity (or twenty) to critically assess the messages I’m being sent about how to take care of my body.

Every day, upon assessment, I find that the overall message is not “get healthy,” but “equate your health behaviors with whether or not you’re fat.”

Every day, upon assessment, I have to face this message and ask myself, “Is this message serving me or hurting me?”

The answer is inevitable. If a product, service, diet, “lifestyle,” or helpful bit of advice seems to be selling you something, ask, “What emotions is this asking me to feel? Why is the message positioned the way it is? Does this company want me to actually invest in healthful behaviors, or is it more interested in buying my shame?”

Your mental, emotional, and (yes) physical health is worth so much more than what the marketers will buy it from you for.

Invest in your health, sure – but do so with eyes wide open and (whenever necessary) wallet shut.

Your body is not for sale.

Kaila Prins is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism and a health coach who works with women who are ready to stop “recovering” from disordered eating and start “discovering” their true identities. Kaila’s health coaching services, as well as her blog, can be found at Performing Woman, and she hosts a weekly podcast called Finding Our Hunger. She also counts characters and not calories on Twitter @performingwoman.