Fat-acceptance advocates are pressuring TV executives to turn popular reality shows into platforms for social-justice advocacy. There is no better example of science-free cynicism.
The campaign to classify obesity as a victim status instead of a serious medical condition continues its rampage through popular culture. The so-called “fat-acceptance” movement is now taking aim at reality TV, hoping to use widely watched shows like The Bachelor to amplify its science-free messaging. As Ms. Magazine reported on September 16:
Launched by a small group of organizers this summer, the Roses for Every Body (R4EB) campaign aims to increase body diversity on the ABC network’s behemoth reality dating show franchise, The Bachelor. Through a petition and social media campaign, the organizers behind R4EB are also pushing for a broader goal of fat acceptance.
Roses for Every Body isn't just posturing; they have particular demands they want ABC to address, including:
The casting of “a minimum of 5 diverse, fat people each season of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette.”
“Equitable, non-fat identity-focused screen time to the fat contestants.”
Season leads who “specify that they will date diverse fat people.”
Mental health support for fat contestants and size-inclusive wardrobes, as well as the hiring of fat staff and production crew, and the incorporation of “fat inclusion training from fat liberationists.”
Imagine for a moment a campaign called “Roses for Every Smoker.” This hypothetical effort has all the same goals as R4EB, except their victim group is tobacco users instead of overweight folks. Roses for Every Smoker is adamant that the show provide mental health support for smoking contestants and smoke-inclusive wardrobes, as well as the hiring of smoking staff and production crew, and the incorporation of tobacco inclusion training from cigarette liberationists.
[Editor's note: Twitter put a "sensitivity" warning on this story because, the company claims, it may offend some readers. We have submitted an appeal. See Censorship? Twitter Puts A 'Warning' on ACSH Obesity Article for more details.]
Can you imagine any major publication giving such glowing coverage to “smoker liberation”? Neither can I, since these proposals encourage harmful tobacco use and have absolutely nothing to do with producing a quality TV show. But why the double standard? Let's take a look at R4EB's reasoning; the special pleading will become evident almost immediately:
The latter demand [support for fat contestants] builds on another, broader goal of the campaign: education around fat liberation … In one pinned post, the group elaborates on their campaign’s intentional use of the word “fat,” drawing connections to the longstanding Fat Acceptance Movement whose activists have been working to reclaim the term for decades.”
In the same way, we should reclaim the term “smoker.” The word doesn't identify people who die by the hundreds of thousands yearly due to tobacco-related diseases and, on average, a decade earlier than everyone else. “Smoker” just describes people who happen to enjoy cigarettes; no moral judgment required. Do you disagree? Well, you're smoke-phobic—and probably racist, too.
"Fat": just a descriptor?
Nobody accepts that tortured reasoning about tobacco use, nor should they. Smoking is deadly, and society rightly discourages it, especially among children. The same rule should apply to obesity since it is harmful and largely driven by modifiable behaviors—namely diet and exercise. For example, when scientists observe that obesity significantly elevates your risk for all sorts of infectious diseases, they're not making a cruel moral judgment. They're documenting a problem that should be addressed.
Back to Ms. Magazine:
“In our society, words like skinny and thin don’t have the same negativity associated with it—it’s just a descriptor,” [campaign organizer Epiphany] Espinosa added. “And that is the goal with using fat as well.”
Not quite. Terms such as “underweight” can have an adverse meaning when describing people whose low weight jeopardizes their health. Consider this January 2021 Nature article on the link between BMI and infection:
The results indicated that the risk of overall and respiratory and skin infections was U-shaped, showing that both underweight and obesity can favor community-acquired infections. These data were supported by a meta-analysis of 25 studies investigating 2.5 million adults and children older than 12 years living in industrialized countries that also demonstrated a U-shaped relationship between BMI and the risk of flu-related pneumonia.
To the extent that “skinny” and its synonyms correspond to a healthy weight, they do not (and should not) carry any negative connotation. The awkward truth is that we look for physical traits in romantic partners that tend to correlate with indicators of good health, such as relatively low body fat. These preferences are both ancient and cross-cultural. According to one study, for instance,
... [W]orldwide [waist-to-hip ratios] in female depictions dating from the Upper Paleolithic to modern times were analyzed. Measurements of female WHR were obtained from 330 photographs of artworks dating from 32,000 years (B.P.) to 1999 A.D. from Europe, Asia, America and Africa. Results show that, most frequently, WHR was depicted in the range of 0.6 to 0.7 ... Taken together, this historical cross-cultural information affirms the claim that preference for low WHR is an adaptive design feature rather than an artifact of cultural influence
There are, of course, exceptions to this conclusion; you will easily find them in popular sources and peer-reviewed journals. The point here is not that every single person has always had identical expectations of their romantic partners. The more subtle idea worth stressing is that men and women tend to find certain physical characteristics attractive, and it makes sense that we would have such standards in light of evolution.
Discrimination still unjustified
This isn't to say that overweight or underweight people should be mistreated. As I've written previously, I struggled with obesity for most of my childhood. Good nutrition and exercise advice paired with support from family helped me lose my excess weight. Individuals who struggle with any weight-related health issue need the same kind of assistance.
But that's not what they're getting from the fat-acceptance or “healthy at any size” campaigns. Instead, they're being told that weight has little or no impact on their health; that physicians, dietitians, and fitness experts have colluded to oppress and stigmatize them. That kind of rhetoric sells well in our current cultural climate, but it will do little to ameliorate the impact of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, or any of the other health risks exacerbated by obesity.
R4EB accidentally let slip why the fat-acceptance drive has gained the support it has from corporate America. “In the wake of plummeting ratings and decreasing viewers, the campaign organizers said, “increased representation across all categories could be a boon for the show.” Does that sound like the reasoning of people who care about the viewing public's welfare? It doesn't, and it isn't. Just like clothing retailers and publications that feature plus-size models, ABC's willingness to make The Bachelor a platform for obesity celebration will hinge on profitability.
If anybody in this discussion is cruel and cynical, it's the people who engage in that sort of cold profit-loss calculation. Obesity remains a serious public health issue. We should treat it as such.