Fat and Class Prejudice: America’s Two-Body Society

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Olson, Greta (2006). "Fat and Class Prejudice: America's Two Bodies Society." In: US Icons and Iconicity. Ed. Walter Hölbling, Klaus and Susanne Rieser. Münster: LIT. 187-204.

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  Copyrighted Material Fat and Class Prejudice: America's Two-Body Society Greta Olson Entering the United States at a major East Coast airport, the expatriate is struck by differences in bodies. A gulf of 50 pounds or more appears to separate the physiques of the people who service this large airport and the images of bodies on virtually every advertisement board that adorns its walls and every magazine cover that fills its newsstands: Those cleaning the bathrooms, pushing the baggage carts, running the security checks—often people of color—are by European standards alarmingly overweight if not obese. By contrast, those featured in the huge advertisements on the airport's walls and magazine covers present seemingly perfect or perfected, usually white, bodies. Next to celebrity magazines featuring the iconicized bodies of Britney Spears or Gwyneth Paltrow are an array of publications directed specifically at audiences interested in improving their physiques. What's wrong about this picture? For the author of this essay who recently published a book about the cultural implications of eating disorders in America, it is the realization that anorexia and bulimia, despite some literature to the contrary, i  remain problems and prerogatives of a relatively select and monied few. Overwhelmingly, the leading American eating disorder is the obesity which is disproportionately represented by those who struggle economically, those individuals whom I see working minimum low jobs at the international airport. America is currently developing into a two-body society that mirrors the economic divisions between the privileged and the underprivileged. The increasing gulf between the affluent and mean wage earners that began during the Reagan administration has continued till today. As The Economist reports: "The wealthiest 1% of all households controls 38% of national wealth, while the bottom 80% of households holds only 17%" ("Inequality" 44). And George W. Bush's axing of the inheritance tax and reduction of capital gains taxes are measures likely to benefit only "the top 20% of households" thus increasing "the already wide gap between rich and poor" (45). The dis- [ 187 ]  Copyrighted Material parity in wealth finds a compliment in divisions between unfit and hard-bodied Americans. The 'buff' body in its male and female variations stands in radical contrast to the increasingly obese bodies of the vast majority of Americans, who suffer not only from social stigmatization but also from health problems endemic to obesity. In this article I am using the word "body" to describe the entirety of a person's looks. I do so because research has conclusively shown that the locus of beauty moved from the face to the body during the course of the twentieth century during which sweater girl contests and beauty queen pageants featuring bathing suit contests were first inaugurated (Brumberg  Fasting  245-248). Moreover, the focus of television shows about beauty makeovers, heroicizing stories about incredible weight loss, and myriad magazines devoted to fitness is clearly on the body as the measurement of attractiveness and not the face. Being buff is prerequisite to attractiveness now, whereas having an attractive face is an important if secondary consideration. ii   Dominant culture: the fattening of the majority but more of such for the  poor The current facts are that two out of three adult Americans are overweight—roughly 60 million people—, and one out of three Americans is obese, defined as being more than 30% on the BMI. Furthermore, the number of adults who are obese has doubled since 1980 (Moukheiber). Simultaneously, overweight and obesity are disproportionately frequent among poorer American populations, including rural whites, Native Americans, Mexican Americans, and African Americans (Stearns 134-137, Foreyt 536-40, Stein 1, Paeratakul). In all racial and geographic population groups "women of lower socioeconomic status […] are approximately 50% more likely to be obese" than wealthier women ( Surgeon's Call ). Hence there is both a gender and an income bias in the determination of who is seriously overweight in America. Documentation of childhood obesity further confirms that the rates of obesity differ along lines of race and ethnicity: Disturbingly, 10% more of black and Hispanic youth and children  [ 188 ]  Copyrighted Material were overweight than their white counterparts ("Obesity in America"). This figure suggests that if the current trend continues tomorrow's adult Americans will differ even more than today's do in terms of size difference as correlative of skin tone and lower income. Fat prejudice may potentially become even more coterminous with racial and class divisions than it is at present. Why are the poor gaining more weight than their middle-class counterparts? Americans as a group have grown fatter since the seventies and appear to be growing heavier at an increasing rate. The well-documented palette of reasons for the gain include fewer and fewer meals being eaten at home, an increase in sedentary activity (particularly television viewing), decreased intervention by adults in children's and youths' eating behavior, the proliferation of fatty processed foods, and a move towards ever-greater portion sizes. iii  Efforts to improve the national diet in the past decade by boohooing fats and championing carbohydrates appear to have helped Americans to become fatter rather than more lean. Beyond these general factors, poorer Americans have grown more overweight than their better-off fellow citizens due to their limited access to safe, affordable, and attractive areas to exercise and their having been targeted as customers by fast-food franchisers. A Public Health Research survey showed income to be the greatest factor in determining whether respondents had access to indoor and outdoor areas to exercise or not. Particularly lower-income women questioned in this study commented on the lack of sidewalks and near-by parks and concerns about safety as hindering their getting exercise (Brownson). Access to the culture of body forming cultivated by regular gym goers is again dependent on income. Those with yearly incomes above $75,000 account for 42% of the country's health club members ("Industry"). Where parents have fears about safety, the television is used as a pacifier to keep children from going outside. Research shows that every increased hour of television watching makes for the greater likelihood of obesity. iv A second factor in the disproportionate fattening of America's poorer populations is their being systematically targeted as customers [ 189 ]  Copyrighted Material by the fast-food industry, as Greg Critzer among others has shown. Much of this industry's growth has been caused by its successful marketing of super-sized meal values. This more-food-for-less-money strategy to keep customers coming back for more has had an obvious effect on the weight of those who regularly eat in fast-food franchises for instance the inner-city poor, who have limited access to healthier sources of food. The intake of sugar and saturated fats increases enormously with every eaten fast food-meal (Critzer 115). Lack of opportunities to exercise and buy unprocessed food, franchise targeting, the use of television sets as child caretakers—all of these factors have led to poorer Americans having become more and more rapidly overweight than wealthier citizens. Moreover, poor women are the members of the population who are most likely to be obese. Given that women are judged more punitively on the basis of their looks, the social status of economically disadvantaged, overweight women has been rendered doubly precarious due to these trends. The cultural significance of being ripped: upping the ante in the fitness race The emergence and solidification of a two-body society could not have taken place if only the general population, the poor foremost amongst them, was growing heavier. Other factors must exist to make the delineation between the large and the lean culturally significant and to reinforce a dominant message about the acceptability of fat and class prejudice. One obvious expression of the increasing valuation of the idealized body has been the steady slimming of the female body ideal v  despite the general growth of the American waistline. Not only has the idealized body grown thinner but it has also become more visible and more subject to supposed amelioration through plastic surgery and other radical techniques. A cultural signifier of personal and economic success, the lean body—particularly the idealized woman's body—is represented and over-represented ad nauseam. [ 190 ]  Copyrighted Material Lists such as People Magazine 's annual 50 Most Beautiful People in the World and FHM  's annual 100 Sexiest Women document the American obsession with the body perfect. ABC's  Extreme Makeover FOX's  The Swan , and   MTV's  I Want a Famous Face  all feature the transformations of their willing contestants into supposedly more physically desirable versions of their former selves. In all of these shows a narrow and, I would argue, a Caucasian ideal of beauty is striven for in which the supposedly perfected body is given center stage. Comparing the rosters of these shows contestants shows that these makeover series overwhelmingly feature white middle-class women; when women of color do participate, their noses are transformed into upturned Claudia Schifferesque appendages. Participants in The Swan  are worked over by plastic surgeons, personal trainers and dieticians for months to then compete against another contestant to see who has been the most successfully and completely changed from her—following the show's premise—formally ugly-duckling self. She who wins goes on to compete with the other episode winners in a season's end beauty contest. Lingerie and bathing suit competitions within the final beauty pageant reveal the obsession with the body that underlies this show and give viewers the opportunity to judge the women in minute comparisons as though they were plastic surgeons themselves. That a woman's inherent worth is determined by her looks and that women are in a constant competition with one another to please a masculinized gaze are prerequisite assumptions to The Swan . The show's website features follow-up stories on the series initial contestants that stress their romantic rather than their career success. Typical is the reporting about one contestant: "She was a size 18, now she's a size 8. She feels great and has found herself a boyfriend who cares for her very much" ( The Swan ). Further confirmation of America's growing obsession with the perfected body is the proliferation of plastic surgery as well as the waning of embarrassment regarding the vanity involved in taking extreme measures to improve one's looks. Plastic surgery—once the recourse of the aged and wealthy—has become increasingly common, and procedures have been lowered in price. Breast reconstruction, for [ 191 ]
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