February 11, 2008

Obesity: A Heavy Issue for Americans

Combating obesity is a priority amongst many Americans; this value of health and beauty that is represented as the opposite of obesity is dictated by the media. The media constantly delivers the message that one must be skinny in order to be healthy and beautiful. While these adjectives are relative in nature-does not beauty lie in the eye of the beholder?-they have absolute definitions within society. Television shows, commercials, and books reinforce that obesity is the enemy, and attractiveness in American culture does have guidelines.

Many television shows in today's media address the issue of weight. "The Biggest Loser" is a show that centralizes on weight loss. The premise is that individuals who are overweight compete for a monetary prize on the show; the contestant who loses the most amount of weight wins money (one of the winners is depicted on the left). While the show assists the contestants in losing weight through trainers, nutritionists, and a monetary incentive, the lasting impact of the show on obesity is negotiable. The true significance of "The Biggest Loser" is not within the results of the show, but it is within the existence of a show that is completely focused on reducing obesity. After the first episode of "The Biggest Loser" aired, there were about 8.9 million viewers. In one night, 8.9 million people received the message that obesity is negative.

Another show that focuses on weight loss is "Reba." Reba is a situational comedy about a middle class family. Multiple episodes focus on one of the characters named Barbara Jean's weight loss. Once Barbara Jean becomes skinny, she gains the attention of men, her husband becomes more attracted to her and jealous of Barbara Jean's male friends, and her friend, Reba, suddenly feels insecure about her own weight. While the episodes are comedic, they also deliver an extremely powerful message: thinness equates to happiness. Barbara Jean's character develops into a much more positive and confident woman as she loses weight on the show. It is interesting and deliberate that this message appears on a show that targets teenagers as the primary audience. Young adults are extremely impressionable and unfortunately this show reinforces the societal idea that being skinny correlates with being popular and attractive.

While the two previously discussed television shows directly address weight and the effect weight has on a person's image, the show "October Road" does this in a more discrete manner. The two main female characters are Hannah and Janet; Hannah is blond, thin, and tall, while Janet is brunette and overweight. While Hannah is constantly portrayed as the love interest of the men in the show, Janet is identified as the funny "friend." Finally, on one episode, Janet gets asked out on a date. However, the man who asks Janet on the date is so ashamed of her appearance that he cancels on her in fear that his friends will discover he is dating Janet. Without outright stating that the cause of Janet's rejection is her appearance, the episode hints to the commonly held conception that obesity is unattractive, and thus something that is shameful.

Television commercials further drive home the idea that obesity is frowned upon in American culture. It is quite difficult to watch television for even a couple of hours without being bombarded by either a Jenny Craig, Slim Fast, or Weight Watchers commercial. These weight loss companies have huge budgets for television advertising; Weight Watchers has over a million dollar budget; this large amount of money delegated for media usage reflects how important the media is in recruiting clients for these weight loss companies.

The advertisements all focus on the idea that anyone, even "you," can lose weight. "Determined Dana" and other "ordinary" people who have successfully lost weight tell their stories and how their lives have greatly improved since attaining a new physique. The women on the commercials are a variety of ages, reaching a wider market of people. In one Jenny Craig commercial, two teenagers appear in a face off with their "overweight selves." The overweight versions of the teenagers lose the face off, rolling down a hill in embarrassment. In a commercial for Weight Watchers, Jenny McCarthy, who is a mother rather than a teenager, discusses how the program helped her lose weight. The media depicts how the fight against obesity is a cross-generational issue and how wonderful individuals look and feel after losing weight, and how weight loss is attainable with the help of programs.

Furthermore, diet books are published regularly, informing the public on the latest trends in dieting. The book Skinny Bitch by Kim Barnouin and Rory Freedman has recently hit the book shelves. It is a New York Times bestseller and extremely popular amongst young women. The book's cover, as shown in the picture to the right, displays how dieting is associated with looking better. The book also clearly targets younger women based on the sassy title and picture of a woman in her twenties. The text on the cover notes that it is necesary to change eating habits in order to improve one's appearance.

Other diet books are entitled "The Take Control Diet," "Does This Clutter Make My Butt Look Fat," "Retrain Your Brain, Reshape Your Body," et cetera. These titles all appeal to the insecurities that exist within individuals. These books deliver the message that the way the reader's body is at the current time is not where it should ideally be. Each consumer is over weight, out of shape, or out of control of his eating habits and each book holds the solution to his problems.

In conclusion, the media dictates normative behavior for society, and in American society seeking the "perfect weight" is a strong value. While the media aggressively attacks obesity, it easy for people to forget that attractiveness is subjective and beauty does come in many forms.


JLC said...

You have chosen a very current, important, and controversial topic to discuss! It is generally common knowledge that television programming and the media at large depict human beauty as super skinny and painfully perfect (expensive as well when you add in the cost of the products used for the face and hair), but the examples you used depicted just how overt this message has become. I was very surprised to learn about 'the Biggest Loser' show. You are absolutely right when you say that shows such as this make the act of losing weight look easy. The reality is so different that it is easy to believe a person suffering from obesity would feel it hopelessly impossible and give up should they even attempt such a program. (Here their expectations and reality would conflict so greatly they would most likely 'shut down').

I do, however, have some critical observations and a couple of suggestions. That you conducted a lot of research and are entirely knowledgeable on the subject is clearly evident, what you're lacking is a little bit of intestinal fortitude. Be brave with your argument! You have freedom of speech and you should use it! This piece read as informative rather than argumentative. The fact that the media depicts obesity in a certain light has deeper and very dark machinations. Entire economies of totally useless products and 'fads' including insane diet and exercise programs emerge as a direct result of these media portrayals. Who is making money off of this? What market is being targeted? Books like The Jungle, Fast Food Nation, and SuperSize Me reveal a corporate industry that routinely poisons the food supply to the working and lower middle classes. Daring investigations into these corrupt business practices would make for extremely interesting articles later on!

Finally, aside from the economic issues associated with obesity, you mentioned the idea of health. It would be engaging to read an article that debates obesity related health and medical care cost issues. Does being obese really lead to health problems? What is the difference between people's desire to be thin and their perception of health?

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