Chapter 6: 21st-century media and issues
6.9.2 Fatphobia, marketing, and eating disorders, oh my! (research essay)
Anonymous English 102 Writer
A few months before my 13th birthday I was injured at swim practice. We were doing diving drills and the starting blocks were placed at the shallow end of the pool. While this is legal, the diving drill we were doing was not safe in that depth and I ended up falling from seven feet in the air and I hit the top of my head on the bottom of the pool. I broke my neck in three places and bit down so hard that I broke my bottom teeth. I managed to get myself to the surface of the water and yelled for my coach. I could not see or catch my breath and with the lifeguards fully clothed, on their laptops, and not paying attention I did not receive a backboard or any immediate medical treatment; my coach just picked me up out of the water and set me down. I was still able to move so we did not realize that anything was wrong.
It was clear that I was severely concussed, but I was not evaluated for anything beyond that. After my parents, coach, and family doctor played phone tag for about 30 minutes, my coach evaluated my neck and back. He asked me to lift my arms and I could not lift them above my shoulders because there was a stabbing pain at the base of my neck. Immediately after this, I went to the hospital. After an X-ray and an emergency MRI I met my neurologist for the first time, and he told me he had no idea how I was alive. He said had my head been a quarter of an inch to the left, the impact would have severed my spinal cord and killed me. I broke the statistics for this injury because three percent survive but they are paralyzed from the neck down. Not only am I alive, but I have no paralysis.
This should be where the story ends; a happy ending tied up in a bow, but unfortunately, that is not how it worked for me. I was horribly bullied because of the neck brace that I could not take off and it was because of this that I took comfort in food. I already had an unhealthy relationship with food growing up but I was an athlete so no one could tell. When I had to stop swimming, I gained quite a bit during my recovery and developed a binge eating disorder. I remember watching every weight loss video and believing every advertisement for crash diets. I experienced years of ongoing trauma from my injury, bullying, and how I treated myself.
Middle school is already a difficult time in adolescence because that is when self-awareness starts to form. Carefree children now notice what other people are wearing, saying, and doing. This is also the time when egocentrism is very present, so a child does not understand that the “popular girl” is just as insecure as everyone else. During this time, the average child also starts to have cellphone privileges. So now, rather than being aware of just your peers, you are aware of every beauty standard that exists, and you have constant access to them. The culture shock that this causes creates a demographic of highly self-conscious, impressionable consumers of the weight loss industry.
But where did the weight loss industry begin? Why is diet culture such an ingrained part of western society? Like most things in the United States, its roots originate in racism. In our recent history, white people associated fatness as being a “black trait”. This racist belief was spread through the idea that black women specifically were uncontrollable and ravenous, and it was these barbaric traits that made them fat. On the other end of the spectrum, being thin was marketed as being a “white trait”. This was perpetuated by the idea that white women were refined and restrained, and this led them to having thin, delicate bodies. This was the beginning of fatphobia, and it has paved the way for the “ideal” body in our current culture.
In our society, fatphobia is present in almost every aspect of life. A few examples of this are clothing sizes, availability of plus sized clothing, how different products are marketed to specific demographics of people regarding their size, microaggressions, workplace discrimination, body shaming, concern-trolling, and medical malpractice due to higher risk patients. The list could go on forever. Due to western beauty standards, plus sized people cannot go a day without thinking about their size. Unfortunately, fat people cannot exist happily in their own skin without being challenged by societal expectations.
One of the most prevalent aspects of diet culture that shows the constant push for the Western Beauty Standard is weight loss advertisements. It seems as though they are inescapable; there are pop up ads on every computer, cellphone, and even in the magazines at the grocery store checkout. They are strategically placed to appear when you are shopping for swimsuits or even scrolling through social media. The marketing genius of making people feel bad about themselves is achieved through the literacy practices and cinematic elements in the weight loss commercials. They are designed to both verbally and nonverbally make the viewer want to lose weight using whatever product marketed.
What literacy practices do advertisements use when talking about weight loss products? Weight loss advertisements and products use an extremely specific way of communicating and marketing. Communication is not only verbal speech, but the definition includes many other nonverbal practices like body language and facial expressions. The literacy practices used in diet culture marketing is done through all of these both verbal and nonverbal strategies. How does this make people feel? In many weight loss advertisements, there is language used to make the people shame, guilt, and disgust towards their appearance. Every element of the diet media that is ingested was created to illicit strong, negative emotions from the viewers. It can range from the colors used in the before and after photos, body language, specific words and phrases designed to make people insecure, and imagery that equates being fat as being unhappy, unfulfilled, and unlovable. This goes right back to how fatphobia is ingrained into our society.
This is the Nutrisystem commercial.
“You can’t miss the incredible results of Nutrisystem Nourish; the easy weight loss program that lets you eat great and lose weight. Call now and order three weeks of meals so you can love the way you look. … Our secret is the breakthrough science of the Glycemic Index that separates the good carbs from bad. Now carbs are no longer off limits and there are no limits to how good you’ll feel.” (minutes 0:13-1:15)
The language used in this video is primarily positive. The narrator is trying to convince the viewer that if they eat only three weeks of Nutrisystem, they will be happier. Most people can be classified as a hedonist to varying degrees. A hedonist is someone who is in the constant pursuit of happiness or pleasure. Because of this, Nutrisystem used phrases like “you’ll feel so good” and “you will love the way you look” to make the person aware that they do not look like the “after” photo. This makes the viewer feel self-conscious, resentful, or hurt, and because of this sudden shift in mood, the viewer will then want to seek the next thing that will make them happy. Thus, the product placement and the cycle continues.
The cinematic elements of the commercial designed to further convince the viewer that they need to change how they look can be seen in the screenshot above. Here we see a “before” and “after” losing weight with Nutrisystem. On the right, you can see that the picture is in black and white; this is because, while she is smiling, the viewer is inclined to think that she is not happy due to the lack of color. The photo on the right is also significantly larger (proportion wise) than how she appears on the left. This is a simple trick of the eye to make her weight loss appear even more when in reality, the size of the before picture was just enhanced.
The next example of a weight loss advertisement that is designed to manipulate the viewer is a virtual flier for a 10-week boot-camp. This event is hosted by a man named Pete Thomas from the TV show “The Biggest Loser” which is a show to see how quickly a group of people can lose weight. There is a claim under the before picture that states “185 pounds in 9 months” which is a very unhealthy amount in that time. The most rigorous weight loss plans provided by doctors and nutritionists are 1,200 calories a day for women and 1,500 calories a day for men. This is the smallest amount a person can eat in a day while still getting enough nutrients. At that rate, a person would be losing about two pounds a week. By this standard, the most weight you could lose safely in 9 months is 72 pounds. The advertisement states 185 pounds which would require a person to lose a little over 5 pounds each week. One pound consists of 3,500 calories which would mean reducing caloric intake by 3,500 each day. Not only would a person have to not eat, but they would also need a rigorous workout to accompany their empty stomach to reach that goal. This kind of advertising is detrimental to goal setting, safely losing weight, and it goes against medical professionals’ advice.
As shown on the book cover, the before pictures are faded and most of the people are not smiling. Subconsciously, this makes the viewer not want to be like that person which translates to being plus sized. In the three after photos at the bottom, they are all wearing black which is known as a “slimming color” which can be considered a trick of the eye to make their weight loss appear as more than they actually lost. This visual trick paired with false advertising “185 pounds in 9 months” and “looking to lose 30, 60, 100 pounds?” creates a too high of expectations for the potential participant. Upon reexamining the poster, the product being sold is a 10-week boot-camp. The safest way to lose weight is no more than two pounds a week. By that standard, if it is being done healthy, the participants should lose around 20 pounds. By giving false hope to the viewer, the product is more likely to be sold.
This is a vintage poster from the 1920s.
This is an advertisement for Lucky Cigarettes which is shown here as a weight loss tool. However, the main analysis that should be noted is the “Is this you five years from now?”. Take notice of the woman on the left because it is a perfect example of fatphobia and racism. This kind of imagery would have been extremely effective during this time. The ad would have been conveying a different message if it was the silhouette of a plus sized woman, but very clearly shows that if you “overindulge” you will be like an African American person. The imagery in this advertisement is disgusting, and it goes to show that weight loss culture has been detrimental from the beginning.
The final advertisement is from Diet Free Life.
Starting from the top and working down, there is no way that a new breakthrough in nutritional science would end up in a program like this. They are marketing a diet with a business name “diet free life”; this alone should be a red flag. The large lettering at the top “Diet Free Life” has a leaf coming out of the top. This is meant to make the viewer think that this is a healthy program or maybe that they have all-natural supplements. Immediately after this, we see what will happen if we buy their product “lose 50 pounds eating southern food, 15 eating fast food, and lose over 100 eating food favorites.” Where is the scientific evidence that I will lose 50 pounds by eating southern foods soaked in butter? The layout is made to look like the company is credible, but a simple analysis shows that their ethos is practically nonexistent. Moving lower, the before and after photos follow suit with most other advertisements; The before is faded to make the viewer feel bad for the plus sized person and the after photo is the “real success story.” After looking at all of the elements of this advertisement, there is a crucial part missing. What are they selling? Is it prepackaged meals? Diet planner? Workout video? As a society, we are so consumed by this material that they do not even have to market their actual product in order to be successful. Slap a “you will lose 50 pounds” on anything and it will sell because that is the market and standard we have created.
We know weight loss advertisements are bad; they originate in racism, they are fatphobic, most of the programs encourage unhealthy forms of weight loss, and they are unsustainable. So, the answer is for people to pay them no mind, right? Not quite. A new issue emerges from this constant exposure and manipulation of self-image. Is it a problem that adolescents have constant exposure to this kind of material? Yes, because the material is known to trigger eating disorders. Eating disorders are psychological disorders that involve an unhealthy relationship with food. They can happen to anyone in response to trauma, environmental stressors, biochemical makeup, and even genetic makeup. In “Onset of Adolescent Eating Disorders” by G. C. Patton et al., explains that “Female subjects who dieted at a severe level were 18 times more likely to develop an eating disorder than those who did not diet, and female subjects who dieted at a moderate level were five times more likely to develop an eating disorder than those who did not diet” (765). The weight loss industry encourages its viewers to diet and then children end up with psychological disorders because of it. In the study, G. C. Patton et al explains that 1000 adolescents aged 14-15 were observed for a year. The results of this study were startling with 60 percent of females showed signs of eating disorders based off of how extreme their dieting habits were.
But do we know that it is specifically diet culture and weight loss advertisements are cultivating these adolescent eating disorders? “The Effects of Visceral Cues in Weight Loss Advertising” by Clinton Amos and Nancy Spears thinks so. “First, the effect of increased visceral influence should lead to a more impulsive decision and amplified purchase intentions. Second, as the presence of visceral cues increases visceral influence, emotions associated with weight loss should be heightened” (Amos Spears 26). This means that after adolescents are exposed to this kind of material, they are more likely to find faults with their own appearance regardless of if they are actually overweight. The western beauty standard is so unrealistic that “some individuals with a healthy body weight still may have a desire to lose weight due to disparities in their actual body weight and perceived body weight. Past research has shown that as many as 34% of people with a healthy weight actively pursue weight loss” (Amos Spears 27). “Effects of Self-Objectification on Self-Reported Eating Pathology and Depression” by Register et al explains how “women who self-objectified felt guilt and shame about their bodies because the objectification presumably made them aware of how their bodies differed from the idealized female form. Women who self-objectified additionally reported greater desire to restrain their eating” (108). We teach children to hate their bodies and raise them in a world where fat people are not treated fairly and so they develop eating disorders out of preservation. Then then these children grow up hating their bodies which creates even more people buying into the weight loss industry.
What are the different eating disorders? The main three are Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia, and Binge Eating Disorder. However, an eating disorder does not have to be these main three, a basic classification from “Eating disorders in children and young people” by Bould et al explains that “Eating disorders are a group of conditions in which negative beliefs about eating, body shape, and weight accompany behaviours including restricting eating, binge eating, excessive exercise, vomiting, and laxative use” (1). Eating disorders are most common in adolescent girls around the onset of puberty. During this time, there is a hyperawareness on peers and a constant need to fit in. Also, when changes are happening and people feel out of control, adopting a restrictive diet is a way of “regaining their control”. It very quickly can turn into a very unhealthy coping mechanism that then in turn becomes something uncontrollable.
“Thin-Ideal Internalization: Mounting Evidence for a New Risk Factor for Body-Image Disturbance and Eating Pathology” by J. Kevin Thompson and Eric Stice explains that “… the body dissatisfaction that is thought to result from thin-ideal internalization theoretically promotes dieting and negative affect, which in turn increase the risk for on set of bulimic symptoms” (Thompson Stice 181). And “Weight control behaviors among obese, overweight, and nonoverweight adolescents. Journal of Pediatric Psychology” by Kerri Boutelle et al. states that “35-57% of adolescent girls engage in crash dieting, fasting, self-induced vomiting, diet pills, or laxatives” (1). Eating disorders, especially those that have extreme calorie restrictions, could be greatly reduced if the Western Beauty Standards change and exposure to diet culture is reduced. According to ANAD.org (National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders) “Eating disorders are among the deadliest mental illnesses, “second only to opioid overdose and 10,200 deaths each year are the direct result of an eating disorder—that’s one death every 52 minutes” (1). The Weight Loss Industry has a huge impact on mental illness which could be completely avoided if fatphobia was not ingrained into everyday life. “Eating Disorders in Children and Young People” by Bould et al emphasized the gravity by stating how “Eating “disorders are associated with high mortality: a meta-analysis found that, in patients with anorexia nervosa, rates of death are 5.9 times higher than would be expected in an age and sex matched population, and, in patients with bulimia nervosa and other eating disorders, rates are 1.9 times higher” (2). Rather than shaming people for having bodies that all look different, normalize seeking help and loving ourselves.
I wish my own exposure to the diet industry had not happened because I am recovered from a binge eating disorder. It was post broken neck, but my bullies were still persistent. I had to stop swimming which made my disorder more noticeable. It took me years of this disordered behavior to even realize that I had a problem. Eating disorders are becoming a less taboo topic, but even five years ago that was not the case. After realizing I needed help, I found treatment and proper counseling that put be back on the right track. It felt like I finally had a healthy relationship with food, but my problem now was that I still looked like I had the binge eating disorder. I gained about 80 pounds from when my injury happened to when I went through treatment, which was from seventh grade to junior year of high school. About 20 pounds of that would have been healthy weight that happens during puberty, but the other 60 was all my emotions.
Knowing how toxic diet culture is, I decided I was going to unconditionally love my body because that is what I deserve. Even then I was still struggling. I was not feeling comfortable in my clothes, in pictures, and I felt as though my body was still my connection to my upsetting past trauma. So, I decided to go on a weight loss journey without any of the social media, diet culture, and weight loss programs telling me how to take care of my body. I have my doctor and a nutritionist and through eating good food that nourishes my body and exercising three to four times a week, I am excited to hit 35 pounds down as of my last weigh in with hopefully another 25 in the works. I am not losing wight to be thin or for any other reason other than using it to finally close the chapter of my eating disorder. I wish my past self could see me now to know that it gets better.
While my own story is fairly common, it saddens me to read from “Characteristics and Treatment of Patients with Chronic Eating Disorders” by Gretta Noordenbos et al that “In a college campus survey, 91% of the women admitted to controlling their weight through dieting” (1). 91 percent of college women do not need to be dieting because no one needs to diet ever. If someone wants to lose weight, it has to be a lifestyle change. The reason that the weight loss industry is worth 78 billion dollars is because diets are not sustainable long term. If diets worked then no one would ever have to diet again thus companies would not make a profit. The diet industry would rather sell you a meal plan, weight loss pill, shakes, protein powders, and anything that they can slap a “you’ll lose 50 pounds” on rather than teaching someone how to sustain a healthy lifestyle.
So where does that leave us now? The term diet to adolescent girls is practically synonymous for eating disorder and the diet industry functions off of fatphobia which is actually racist. Every single person is just trying to love themselves in a society where we are told that being lovable, beautiful, and worthy of human decency only looks a certain way. For many of us, this idealism is so engrained into our lives that those who truly believe it are more inclined to hurt themselves to gain the approval of others. The manipulation that happens from weight loss industries through advertisements, diet culture, and systemic fatphobia is a large contribution to adolescent eating disorders due to the fact that the specific demographic is extremely susceptible both to the tactics used to sell products and by the sheer quantity of media ingested on a regular basis. I hope one day we can all just live peacefully in our bodies without shame because that is what everyone deserves.
Amos, Clinton, and Nancy Spears. “GENERATING A VISCERAL RESPONSE: The Effects of Visceral Cues in Weight Loss Advertising.” Journal of Advertising, vol. 39, no. 3, 2010, pp. 25–38., www.jstor.org/stable/25780645. Accessed 4 Mar. 2021.
Patton, G. C., et al. “Onset of Adolescent Eating Disorders: Population Based Cohort Study over 3 Years.” BMJ: British Medical Journal, vol. 318, no. 7186, 1999, pp. 765–768. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25184056. Accessed 4 Mar. 2021.
Bould, Helen, et al. “Eating Disorders in Children and Young People.” BMJ: British Medical Journal, vol. 359, 2017. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26950915. Accessed 23 Apr. 2021.
Thompson, J. Kevin, and Eric Stice. “Thin-Ideal Internalization: Mounting Evidence for a New Risk Factor for Body-Image Disturbance and Eating Pathology.” Current Directions in Psychological Science, vol. 10, no. 5, 2001, pp. 181–183. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20182734. Accessed 4 Mar. 2021.
Kerri Boutelle, PhD, Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, PhD, MPH, RD, Mary Story, PhD, RD, Michael Resnick, PhD, Weight Control Behaviors Among Obese, Overweight, and Nonoverweight Adolescents, Journal of Pediatric Psychology, Volume 27, Issue 6, September 2002, Pages 531–540, https://doi.org/10.1093/jpepsy/27.6.531
“Eating Disorder Statistics: General & Diversity Stats: ANAD.” National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, 3 Mar. 2021, anad.org/get-informed/about-eating-disorders/eating-disorders-statistics/.
Greta Noordenbos, Anna Oldenhave, Jennifer Muschter & Nynke Terpstra (2002) Characteristics and Treatment of Patients with Chronic Eating Disorders, Eating Disorders, 10:1, 15-29, DOI: 10.1080/106402602753573531
REGISTER, JOSHUA D., et al. “Effects of Self-Objectification on Self-Reported Eating Pathology and Depression.” The American Journal of Psychology, vol. 128, no. 1, 2015, pp. 107–113. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/amerjpsyc.128.1.0107. Accessed 23 Apr. 2021.
Bould, Helen, et al. “Eating Disorders in Children and Young People.” BMJ: British Medical Journal, vol. 359, 2017. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26950915. Accessed 24 Apr. 2021.