Fat-Talk Nation: A Generation of Shame

In a story on Susan Greenhalgh’s new book, “Fat-Talk Nation: The Human Costs of America’s War on Fat,” NPR highlights Greenhalgh’s central thesis: that, apart from size discrimination and weight stigma, this country’s “war on obesity” has damaged a generation of young people.

Greenhalgh, who is a professor of anthropology at Harvard, presents a collection of 45 narratives gathered from college students about their concepts of weight, fat, and body image. She finds that decades of “fat talk” has damaged and shamed young people in a variety of ways.

Greenhalgh notes that it’s been 15 years since the public health campaign has been launched, but in reality it’s been 21 years since Hillary Clinton and former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop launched “Shape Up America” in the White House Rose Garden. I remember that day well, since Lynn McAfee (one of the foremothers of the fat acceptance movement) and I protested the announcement on the sidewalk in front of the White House.

The other bookend to weight shaming is First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign, launched in February 2010 to specifically target fat children. In an email exchange between Greenhalgh and NPR contributor Barbara King, Greenhalgh wrote, “All of us are making war on fat through constant fat-talk. Yet because very few people can lose weight and keep it off, the pervasive fat-talk does not have its intended effect; instead, it is causing terrible, yet often, invisible harm.”

She continues, “The harm to individuals includes emotional distress and, often, physical injury from trying too hard to lose weight. The war on fat is also damaging critical social relationships, especially the crucial bond between mother and daughter. The stigma and discrimination against fat people are now well known; what isn’t known is that the human costs of the war on fat itself are harmful to people of all sizes and to us as a nation.”

Fat children don’t have a safe haven. Schoolmates bully fat kids, but parents often don’t rally to their children’s defense. In fact, many parents are embarrassed by their fat kids and view bullying as further evidence that their child should redouble his or her efforts to lose weight. The education system reinforces fat shaming. When my son was in elementary school, the school had an annual assembly featuring “Mr. Slimbody Goodbody” – at least until I managed to stop it by pointing out that fat kids were getting the message that fat bodies were bad bodies.

In ninth grade, California high school students are required to pass five of six physical fitness tests. If they don’t, they must continue to take P.E. and be retested each year until they take it. Here’s the catch. One of the six “fitness tests” is “body composition,” using skinfold measurements, body mass index (BMI), or a bioelectric impedance analyzer. In other words, if a child fat, s/he already has one strike; s/he must pass each of the five other tests: one mile run, curl-ups, push-ups, trunk lift, and shoulder stretch. Then, of course, there’s the humiliation of being weighed or having your fat pinched at school.

Nowhere is there a recognition that fit bodies come in all sizes; on the contrary, high schools are reinforcing the idea that the only good bodies are slim bodies.


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