Obesity in America: Is Overweight the New Normal?

Obesity is a rising problem in the United States, and it is only getting worse. At the same time, body-positivity movements are taking over America. For example, movements like “fat-pride” are encouraging people to be happy with their overweight/obese bodies, but are they doing society a service by promoting this? When someone takes a look at the people around them, the ideal body seems to be an overweight one as two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese. This paper will discuss whether obesity is becoming the new norm in twenty-first century America and will discuss what methods can be used to slow this down. It will also analyze the health risks involved and the pros and cons of the normalization of obesity.

There is an increasing number of overweight people today and there is also more support for them as well. According to the CDC, a federal agency that conducts health promotion, two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, compared to the twenty-three percent in the 1980s (Rauh). What is even more interesting is that two-thirds of Americans base their health off of how they feel versus how they look. (Mintel Team Press). As Americans look around themselves, they are seeing more and more obese people. This makes Americans change the way they see themselves. It is normal to want to fit in, and according to the The New England Journal of Medicine 2009, one’s odds of becoming obese if one of your peers becomes obese rises about 57% (Rauh). Coincidentally, there is more support for obese people than ever before: fat conventions, support groups, fat-pride movements. In her article “Fat and Happy: In Defense of Fat Acceptance,” Mary Ray Worley writes about how she felt terrible about herself in twentieth-century American society. She experienced stigmatization that made her unhappy with herself. She later went to a NAAFA convention and that ended up being a life-changing experience for her.

Worley states that “I hadn’t realized how deeply my body shame affected me until I spent a week without it.” Worley also claims that obesity is determined by genetics, and that is why encouraging fat-pride is okay. She was surrounded by fat people and that made her feel better about herself. By surrounding herself with people like her, Mary Ray Worley finally felt like she was fitting in. She got away from all of the stigma and body shame she was experiencing, and she was happy. Today, a growing number of people are starting to be happy with themselves even if they are obese. That could be because of the growing number of obese people, or it could be because of the self-acceptance movements going on in today’s world.

Everyone deserves to be happy with themselves and their personal choices, but encouraging people to be unhealthy through body-positivity movements is questionable. Additionally, no one deserves to be stigmatized for being obese/overweight, but should fat-pride be encouraged?

Obesity is more prevalent today, which means the health risks that come with obesity are as well. Should this be countered by stigmatizing “obese” behaviors? Greg Critser, an American author on food and health, claims that we should stigmatize the act of overeating in his article “Too Much of a Good Thing.” He states that there is an obesity epidemic and that to help this problem society should stigmatize overeating. Critser also claims that children should be taught what to eat and be limited on how much they can eat. He, unlike Worley, would argue against the normalization of obesity because he believes the physical health risks are more important than self-acceptance issues. Worley would say that everyone deserves to be happy with themselves, and she would argue using emotional motives. She would advocate that obesity is out of the hands of a person and that it is determined by genetics. Critser, however, would bring up the health risks that come with obesity and argue that encouraging obesity is unethical.

Societal norms can change, but health risks do not. Being happy with oneself is fine, but encouraging others to face potential health risks is not. There are special cases, however, where encouraging self-acceptance is fine. Worley discusses this when she mentions that “data gathered for most current studies indicate that body size is primarily determined by one’s genetic makeup.” (164) If such is the case for someone, then they should not be stigmatized for being obese. However, this is a minority of obesity cases. There needs to be a better health message promoted to everyone, instead of encouraging unhealthiness.

While one can argue that there needs to be a better health message promoted, they have to consider that it is becoming harder to be healthy in America. In Hillel Schwartz’s article “Fat and Happy?,” he states that “If fat people are unhappy people, blame not their fat but their fellow critics.” He also questions the effectiveness of some of the methods used to help obese people, specifically diets. He claims that losing weight as rapidly as most diets suggest you do, is more detrimental to one’s health than not dieting at all.

The Mintel Press Team says that “Seven in 10 Millennials (69 percent) agree living a healthy lifestyle is expensive (vs 58 percent of consumers overall).” On the other hand, it is much simpler to live an unhealthy life. With the abundance of fast-food restaurants around the U.S., it is no surprise that most people chose to eat unhealthily. Society has to keep in mind that dieting usually proves ineffective, dieting is expensive, and that fast-food is cheap and easily available. Perfect health is ideal for everyone, but because of how the U.S. is promoting diets and running its fast food industry, it is unlikely that better health messages would solve the obesity problem.

Social media has influenced the normalization of obesity. This is because social media influences one’s self-esteem. In Meghan Kuebler’s article “When Overweight is the Normal Weight: An Examination of Obesity Using a Social Media Database,” she claims that stigmatizing fat people leads to the worsening of the mental and physical health of obese people. She also discusses how obese people living in counties with higher-than-average BMI tend to be happier than obese people living in counties with lower-than-average BMI. She analyzes her claims by using social media as a database. She found that overweight people on social media are more likely to feel healthy if the people around them are also overweight.

People post pictures online to feel good about themselves. Because of the body-positivity movements going on today, overweight people are more likely to receive “likes” on their posts. This makes people feel better about themselves because “About 27% percent of teens feel stressed when they post a photo of themselves online, and 22% of teens feel bad when no one likes/comments on their posts.” (Teens’ Body-Image Concerns on Social Media). If social media has such an effect on how people feel about themselves, then finding a community of people online where there are people similar to oneself should increase one’s self-esteem. Likewise, social media could be used to stigmatize obese people.

Critser would say to use the psychological effects of social media to stigmatize overeating on obese people’s posts, while Worley would encourage social media users to find communities online where fat people are welcome. Kuebler and Critser would argue over whether stigmatization of overeating helps obese people or not. Kuebler would argue that stigmatizing the behavior of obese people and making them feel obese actually leads to the worsening of their health.

Obese people have better mental health now that obesity is being normalized, but to what extent does feeling good about oneself become more important than your physical health? In his article, Critser states that “In both the campaign against unsafe sex and the campaign against smoking, stigmatizing such behaviors proved highly effective in reducing risk and harm.” (161) Those groups were stereotyped because of that, and Critser claims that they paid the price of a public health advancement: “short-term pain for long-term gain.” (161)

Even if stigmatization was effective in the unsafe sex and smoking campaigns, those methods of sending a health message are not applicable to the obesity health campaign. As Keubler says, the stigmatization of obese people worsens their health. However, one approach that one can take to encourage better health is to be healthy themselves. As has been said earlier in this paper, people base their health off of how they feel. If one’s odds of becoming obese increase when their friend/peer becomes obese, then the contrary should also be true. By becoming healthy, one is encouraging their friends/peers to be healthy as well. This way no one is being stigmatized and a better health message is being promoted. Although, one can argue that overweight people will feel better about themselves if they are healthy. Ultimately, it is more important to feel happy about yourself and accept your own personal decisions.

As Critser discussed, is the normalization of obesity something that children should be exposed to? Children are the ones that are most at-risk from getting life-threatening diseases from being obese, such as type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. Critser states that “at least 25% of all Americans under age nineteen are overweight or obese, a figure that has doubled over the last 30 years.” Obesity is affecting a large amount of children and there needs to be action taken against this epidemic.

Critser states that parents should monitor and control their children’s eating habits. He claims that “kids don’t know when they are are full.” (Critser 161) There is an argument that not giving children the freedom to choose what they eat is unethical, but Critser claims that letting them be overweight is even worse. Children should not be allowed to eat as much as they want, they can make their own decisions when they are adults. By society encouraging “fat-pride,” it exposes children to unhealthy habits. Again, everyone is free to choose what they want, but promoting it to children and other people is unethical.

The normalization of obesity is happening in the U.S. While this seems like a good thing, not everyone benefits from it. Obese people are happier than before, but they are also unhealthier. Children are also becoming overweight and prone to health risks. Once more, anyone is free to make their own personal choices, but encouraging others to be obese is wrong. There needs to be more research and efforts put towards the obesity health campaign. Society needs to find a way to promote a better health message. However, the stigmatization of obese people should be avoided. This just worsens their mental health, making them less likely to try and lose weight. In short, society needs to keep in mind that being healthy in America is becoming more difficult, children are affected by the body-positivity movements, and that the normalization of obesity in America is a much more complicated issue than it seems.

Works Cited

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