February 19, 2003

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Techsploitation

By Annalee Newitz


You are fat

FEMINISTS LIKE ME used to complain that sexist culture forces chicks to obsess over their weight and hate themselves. If you can get a whole bunch of women to focus all of their energy on losing weight, they won't lobby for things like equal pay and compensation for child care. But these days the woman-haters aren't the only ones freaking out about fat. Now the entire scientific establishment – sociologists and biologists alike – is wringing its chubby hands over the so-called obesity epidemic. How did fat move so quickly from political issue to health menace?

Although doctors have been warning the public about the dangers of obesity for decades, the issue didn't slam into public consciousness until fairly recently. Partly this is the result of some startling statistics: the latest issue of Science reports that data from the 1999-2000 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey indicate that as much as 65 percent of the adult population in the United States is overweight. Eric Schlosser's best-selling book Fast Food Nation (2001), a troubling investigation into unhealthy food and the unregulated industry that forks it out, also raised warning flags. Combine these reports with countless magazine articles like New Scientist's recent cover story on whether fast food is addictive, and it's clear french fries are the cancer sticks of the new millennium.

I am also personally obsessed with fat. Daily I ask myself moronic questions like Am I fat? Am I fatter than her? Do these pants make me look fat? I even have nightmares about eating lots of brownies and getting too fat. It's because I'm a girl, I'm sure. And because some fuckhole I dated about a zillion years ago told me I was fat. And because I'm surrounded by idealized images of very thin humans. But it's also because I'm a science geek. Fashion-industry mythologies about the glories of skinniness aside, there is a measurable increase in body weight among the U.S. population. With incidences of heart disease and type-two diabetes – both associated with obesity – on the rise, clearly this fattening of the general population is affecting our health.

According to the latest statistics on obesity, my current body-mass index puts me within the "ideal weight" range. Nevertheless, my weight fluctuations over the past decade match those of the typical American: since 1991 I have gained about 7 to 10 pounds. Between 1991 and 2000 the average BMI for an American shifted from 26.7 to 28.1 (you are deemed overweight if your BMI is more than 25.8; you are obese if your BMI is more than 30).

Why the weight increase? At this point most scientists agree that the problem is environmental: Americans are eating more and exercising less. We're working longer hours, immobilized at desk jobs. When we do have a break to eat, we're so strung out – and often so poor – that picking up some fast food is the easiest way to go.

All of this adds up to one thing: fat is still political. Back when it was just a feminist issue, we often asked ourselves who stood to benefit from our obsession with fat. The answer was often some combination of "the patriarchy" and the diet-cosmetics-fashion industrial complex. These days you can add another industry to that complex. Pharmaceutical corporations are very excited about your obese body. Big pharma companies like Amgen are in the process of developing antiobesity drugs that conceivably could allow you to eat at McDonald's every day and stay relatively thin. Imagine a future in which you shuttle back and forth between the fast-food industry and the pharma industry, eating your greasy, poop-filled burgers in the morning and popping expensive antiobesity pills at night.

I'm not worried so much about fat and the patriarchy anymore. I'm worried about how expanded working hours over the past decade have made more people unhealthy, whether it's by getting them fat or by ripping their repetitively stressed hands and arms to shreds. People in power no longer benefit from my worrying about fat. Instead their control over me is symbolized by my inability to find the time and money to cook healthily, exercise, and get thinner.

Maybe I should add one little note about the patriarchy, though. Certain patriarchs probably do benefit from my worrying about fat while soldiers with missile launchers casually walk around in Washington, D.C., because we're on orange alert. War is, after all, much more unhealthy than a jumbo order of french fries.

Annalee Newitz (yummyfat@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd who hopes we don't all get thin, because she is an unrepentant chubby chaser. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.