Life, Liberty, And The Pursuit Of Thinness

Jessica Simpson in all her fatness (Photo credit: Radar.com)

Jessica Simpson is fat. I know this because I regularly wait in line at the grocery store, occasionally watch television, and unapologetically peruse celebrity blogs.

If, like me, you partake in any of these activities, you know it’s impossible to avoid the juicy details of Simpson’s fatty fatness.

According to the endless headlines, she gained 70 pounds during her pregnancy with her
daughter, Maxwell, recently signed a four million dollar deal with Weight Watchers to (finally!) drop the extra pounds, and maybe caught boyfriend Eric Johnson cheating with his ex-wife.

It’s really no surprise that Simpson is getting so much attention for her girth – our culture is obsessed with fatness. Americans spend 40 billion dollars each year on weight loss – books, magazines, memberships in weight loss programs, chemical-laden diet food, and magic powder that when sprinkled on French fries allows you to dance in the street
bloat-free while simultaneously losing weight (no, really, that’s all you have to do). Couple this with our collective preoccupation with celebrity lifestyles, and the endless headlines about Simpson’s fat ass (sick!) and ginormous breasts (moooo!) are given a bit of context.

Despite our heavy financial investment in weight loss, 65 percent of us are overweight; one third of U.S. adults and 17 percent of children are considered obese. While numerous studies demonstrate that a larger person who is moderately active is likely to be far healthier and live longer than a sedentary skinny person, as a culture we are still obsessed with thinness and “ideal weight.” Believed to be healthier and more attractive, thinness is now included in the ubiquitous American dream. Like owning a home or driving a luxury vehicle, thinness is something we long for and work toward – a social indicator of health, wealth, and happiness.

Simpson is attractive. She is rich and famous, and is dating a professional athlete. She’s had a decent career making mediocre pop music, but aside from marketing her fatness has done nothing noteworthy in the past couple of years. To many Americans, Simpson appears to have it all, except one thing – thinness.

During a recent appearance on Katie Couric’s cute little show, Katie, Simpson attempted to answer all of our burning questions:

How much weight did she really gain? What does she do for exercise? Does she still think Chicken of the Sea is chicken? Though some of those stunners were left unanswered, Simpson did admit that she was previously unaware that the baby weight does not in fact melt off immediately after childbirth:

“My doctors were telling me it was a lot of water weight and I thought, whenever my water broke I would just lose all the weight.”

While Simpson is not exactly known for her intellect (revisit previous confusion re: chicken vs. fish), her misunderstanding of healthy weight maintenance is a reflection of a larger, societal misconception of the subject. Despite her lack of authority on the subject, we now expect her to explain every last pound gained and lost.

But should she have to explain it at all? Americans are already frothing at the mouth over celebrity weight fluctuations, and Simpson’s signing a contract with an international weight loss company only served to intensify our rabid hunger for salacious details.

I have to wonder, when should we as a culture begin to limit our voyeurism into other people’s struggles with healthy weight?

The consequences of obesity are serious…and expensive. On average, an obese person will spend $1,429 more on yearly medical expenses than a person of healthy weight. While obesity affects people of all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds, it is far more prevalent in groups of color and those in lower socioeconomic status; nearly half of non-Hispanic Blacks are obese, and higher income women are far less likely to be obese than low income women (C.D.C., 2012).

It is desirable to be thin in the United States, not only because it’s considerably cheaper than the alternative, but because it is an elite social status.

Terrified of becoming fat ourselves, fat-shaming has become a completely normalized form of bullying. Yes, obesity is scary…because it is responsible for increased national rates of diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and cancer. Some may argue that fatness is entirely preventable, which is true…for those who can afford proper diet and exercise.

For those who have limited access to healthy food, safe places to walk, run, and exercise, and general information on maintaining a healthy lifestyle, fatness and its consequential shaming is simply another barrier to social equality. Obesity is more prevalent in lower income populations not for lack of food, necessarily. Inexpensive processed and fast foods, which are nutritionally inferior to fresh, whole foods, are readily available in low-income neighborhoods. While it may seem impossible that obese individuals suffer from malnutrition just the same as individuals without enough food to eat, it’s true. According to a 2007 study by the National Center for Biotechnology, food insecurity leads to grave malnutrition not only in those who are undernourished, but also in those who suffer fromovernutrition, which researchers estimate will take over as the leading cause of death from noncommunicable diseases in low-income communities, eclipsing the effects of undernutrition (Ettinger, 2010).

Like many people, I have struggled with my weight and body image. Just after college, I was stuck in a ridiculous job, miserable relationship, and less than desirable living conditions. I stopped taking care of myself, and it showed. I gained 25 pounds in just a few short months. Getting dressed, visiting with friends and family, and attempting to exercise were uncomfortable, but nothing was more unbearable than my internal dialogue on the subject. I completely hated myself, and had no idea what to do about the problem.

I shudder when I remember some of the well-meaning comments from loved ones about my expanding waistline – comments that only felt cruel and served to fuel my self-loathing. “You just need to start running again.” “It’s calories in versus calories out…here, I will loan you my Weight Watchers materials.” “I just always thought your face looked so much nicer when your cheekbones had…definition.” Even now, I cringe at comments about my appearance. “You looks so good, so skinny,” only implies that at one time I looked different – bad and fat. Not only that, but that my body is not my own private property, but rather a public entity open for observations and commentary.

Simpson is dealing with a very common problem (fatness) in a very uncommon position (fame). At the end of the day, I don’t feel sorry for her. No matter her size, she still has fame and fortune, and every opportunity to lose weight if she so chooses.

The problem isn’t Simpson; the problem is us.

Nutritionally, we are overfed and undernourished. Informationally, we suffer from the same paradox. Instead of focusing our attention on cause and prevention of the continuing obesity epidemic, we are hanging on to each and every pound lost and gained in Hollywood. Until we consciously choose to detach from destructive conversations about fatness, we will never truly recover from it.

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