The diet and exercise industries earn billions of dollars annually. Many of its advertisements attempt to project the ultimate goal as health. However, the high numbers of women featured in their marketing suggests all of this is more about disciplining women’s bodies than anything. Monica Lewinsky, Valerie Bertinelli, Kristie Alley, Lynn Redgrave, and Sarah Ferguson have all been spokespeople for either Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig. In comparison, men working as spokespeople for these industries are a rarer sight.
With the weather beginning to change in the northern hemisphere, the bikini is once again being dangled in front of women as a reason to invest in these weight loss programs. Due to the very revealing nature of the bikini, it is suggested that one’s body conform to a reduced weight. Since what is constructed as the ideal figure for the average woman is far from realistic, many women end up binge-dieting in an attempt to conform to this beauty standard.
When one is successful in achieving weight loss as in the case of Sarah Ferguson and Valarie Bertenelli, we understand this to be a laudable achievement worthy of highest praise. Just as we reward some, we are quick to shame others that gain back the weight. Oprah and Alley have both recently come forward expressing shame for not being able to maintain a reduced body weight. In the case of Alley, she has used her desire to wear a bikini again to spur her renewed commitment to getting back on the treadmill.
Each season, a trophy is dangled in front of women as incentive to use weight loss products. From the bikini to the New Years Eve dress, no one can ever be slim enough. There are no pitches to men regarding an outfit or a season that they need to be in the appropriate physical shape to wear or participate in. Women are expected to put their lives on hold and avoid certain clothing or events if they are unable to “control” their weight. To be a fat woman is to be understood as undesirable and unfeminine.
The public fat shaming has become so normalized that Fitness First of the Netherlands did not find it problematic to place a scale in a public bench to shame women into joining their gym. Famed Chef Gordon Ramsey has even gone as far as to suggest that parents of fat children should be fined and threatened with a court appearance. This is why you’re fat, meanwhile, is a website dedicated to chronicling horrific combinations of food. It sells itself with the tagline “where dreams become heart attack,” thus promoting the idea that obesity necessarily means a loss of self-control.
There are various reasons why someone may fail to achieve and maintain what we have constructed to be an ideal body type. If one is dealing with a chronic illness, for example, mobility can become an issue which can lead to increased weight gain. In the case of poverty, the ability to afford lower calorie foods like fruit and vegetables is an issue.
The link between class and fat is ignored in an effort to present this issue as solely a problem of individual responsibility. However, those that have a higher BMI earn less and experience discrimination and harassment.
A study on women in the European Union completed by Ballarin, Le Feuvre, Euler, and Raevaara found that women earned 67.2 cents for each dollar earned by a man in manual labour and a shocking 58.3 cents in non-manual labour. In the US women make seventy-seven cents for every dollar earned by a man. The disparity in wealth between men and women, compounded with the huge profits of the exercise and diet industry, are the result of a happy marriage between patriarchy and capitalism in the exploitation of women.
An online article from The Informer at the University of Hartford said that “Obesity rates increased from 19.8 to 20.9 percent between 2000 and 2001. More than forty four million Americans are considered obese by their BMI, reflecting an increase of seventy four percent since 1991.” The shaming that we engage in has only created a larger market for these industries to exploit. It is a panoptic form of control in that women police themselves because they know they are not only being watched but judged. Body standards are in a constant change of flux and this places women on a permanent quixotic quest for the idealized body. The only winners in fat-shaming of women are patriarchy and capitalism.