‘Turning On The Lights’ & Disrupting Inspirational Weight Loss Narratives: Analyzing Systemic Fatphobia & Neoliberal Constructs of Health

Title: ‘Turning On The Lights’ & Disrupting Inspirational Weight Loss Narratives: Analyzing Systemic Fatphobia & Neoliberal Constructs of Health
Authors: Meaney, Meaghen-Danielle
Date: 1-Apr-2017
Abstract: Why is the weight loss narrative so pervasive? How or why has western diet culture become increasingly culturally insidious? Systemically, fatphobia flourishes in western society due to “cultural fantasies of thin supremacy” (Mollow, 2015, p. 204). Women, in particular, have been continuously bombarded with hegemonic beauty and body size standards over the decades. Mainstream mass media representations have constantly “glamoriz[ed]” thinness (Bordo 1993, p.103). This has regulated visual ‘standards’ for women who are coerced into ‘believing’ these standards of beauty and body size are natural and hierarchically more valuable than bodies deemed ‘other,’ such as the ‘fat ’ body. In doing so, the diet and fitness industries profit from fatphobic beauty standards, and this makes women predominant recipients of sexualizing and objectifying gazes. Before I discuss the main case study undergirding this research paper, it is important to briefly situate myself in the context of this work, and discuss motivations for writing this research paper on this topic. I am a cisgender, white-passing, ‘fat’ woman, who identifies with critical feminist fat studies work on ‘fat’ embodiments and identities. I initially wanted to pursue a research project about the aestheticization of curviness in plus size modelling, but found myself wanting to do more research on what has affected me on epistemological levels, that is, how fatphobia has affected my views on my own body (as well as ‘others’), beauty, and health, as well as the conflations between thinness and healthiness. It is important to critically reflect upon constructs of fatness precisely because it affects ‘fat’ people, as well as the general population who may or may not share ‘popular’ opinions about the ‘fat’ body as a moral failure. Although this research paper will be unable to address the consequences of fat shaming, Fikkan & Rothblum (2012) argue, like many fat activists and writers have, that ‘fat’ people face higher amounts of weight-based discrimination concerning their access to health services, the medical system, and employment. When limited representation is given to ‘fat’ bodies in mainstream media, it reaffirms thin supremacist preferences for bodies that conform to hegemonic ideals of beauty and body size. By doing so, discourses of ‘fatness’ are controlled by dominant conceptualizations: ‘fat’ bodies are seen as lazy, as ‘disgusting,’ and as lacking ‘control.’ This research paper seeks to demonstrate, by analyzing two case studies of Weight Watchers advertisements, that ‘fat’ issues are feminist issues. This research paper will discuss how exploiting and reaffirming fatphobia through discourses of healthism and responsibilization reduce individuals to their body size. Companies like Weight Watchers exploit the alarming amount of fat hatred in western society, and commercialize on the benefits of ‘losing weight,’ time and again. Even though Weight Watchers does advertise their program for ‘all’ people, they spend a significant amount of time highlighting women’s experiences with their program, and often feature women in advertisements (that will later be discussed in the case studies section of this research paper) that reinforce negative stereotypes about ‘fatness.’ Furthermore, since this research paper is a critical response to two particular Weight Watchers commercials that each exemplify a growing exploitation of ‘empowerment’ discourses embedded in inspirational weight loss narratives, I will briefly address the reasons why I chose these two advertisements. The two Weight Watchers commercials that will be analyzed are the following: ‘See Yourself In A New Light’ and ‘Awaken Your Incredible.’ These commercials are uniquely ‘different’ from weight loss commercials that explicitly create desirable ‘after,’ images of weight loss, while at the same time highlighting the negative attributes given to being ‘fat.’ The ‘fat’ person before weight loss is often displayed after the fact of having gone through some major transformation period, and one can see their ‘progress,’ to ‘slimming’ down to a happier and healthier self (Morgan 2011; Brown 2014). While Weight Watchers sensationalizes and emphasizes an individual’s capacity for change, it is careful not to depict ‘fat’ bodies necessarily as a moral failure. Yet these commercials reinforce a restrictive diet culture, and mark the attainment of health as a natural preoccupation. I am interested in critiquing the sexist and sizeist body and beauty standards embedded in covert fat shaming tactics by Weight Watchers, especially in consideration of the gendering nature of ‘fatness.’ Before I outline what is included in this research paper, it is important to briefly situate and contextualize Weight Watchers, and its company ‘values.’ Weight Watchers was founded in the “early 1960s,” with a “how best to lose weight” mentality (‘How We Started,’ 2017). Weight Watchers states that they have helped “millions” of people to “lose weight” and lead “healthier lives” over the decades (Ibid). They publicly pride themselves on having a “50 year” history of not only “helping people lose weight” but also base their programs on “science” and not “trends” (Ibid). People ‘interested’ in Weight Watchers can sign up for programs depending on their ‘needs.’ Individuals can attend (unlimited) meetings and have access to personal coaches; they can also follow a plan online and have 24/7 access chat support (‘Weight Watchers,’ 2017). They have more ‘choices,’ for individuals, and each person has the right to ‘choose’ what will ‘work’ for them (Ibid). They emphasize the ‘freedom’ to “enjoy foods” in a way that “support [the] goals” of the client (Ibid), and offer constant “support” along the way because, as they argue, “weight loss can be tricky” (Ibid). Although Weight Watchers has advertised their programs and company values differently throughout the years they have been in business, this major research paper will be focusing on the advertisements mentioned, which intend to disseminate information about their ‘empowering’ brand. Each commercial will be analyzed (through a media analysis) to explore the ways in which messages of responsibilization and alleged ‘empowerment,’ reinforce fatphobic and healthist attitudes towards body size. I complement the use of a critical fat feminist studies approach with an analysis of neoliberalism as a form of governmentality through which individual citizens are expected to take care of their health. A critical fat feminist perspective allows us to analyze how ‘fatness,’ is dominantly represented in western media, and in particular, how weight loss narratives reinforce fatphobia and healthism, and how ‘fat’ bodies are governed by diet industry’s interest in exploiting western cultural preferences for thinness and institutionalized norms about health. In the literature review section I will firstly address how neoliberal forms of governmentality not only promote self-governance, but “governing at a distance” structures of control (Bell & Green, 2016, p.240). The literature review also addresses academic scholarship in critical fat studies (as well as interdisciplinary fields which address issues relating to the ‘fat’ body). Critically examining media representations can help us to theorize about the gendering of ‘fat(ness).’ This theoretical framework incorporates insights from fat studies and the critical study of healthism and neoliberalism to study Weight Watchers advertisements. An interlocking analysis of critical feminist studies with a feminist media analysis (in order to conceptualize, question, and challenge representations of the ‘fat’ body), will assist in understanding how particular forms of representation (when repeated) or reiterated, present messages which reinforce fatphobia and healthism. After these sections, the case studies will be introduced. The ‘See Yourself In A New Light’ commercial at Weight Watchers, as well as the ‘Awaken Your Incredible’ commercial introduce Weight Watchers as a program for explicit ‘weight loss’ to potential clients. This research paper will then conclude with final remarks.
URL: http://hdl.handle.net/10393/37302
CollectionÉtudes féministes et de genre - Mémoires // Feminist and Gender Studies – Research Papers