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Mary Edwards Jim Gedda Lindsay Gross Jessica Mayflower 19 April 2011
Obesity has become a personal issue for each American. If you are not obese yourself, then you know and/or love someone who is and you have witnessed his or her struggles. The discourse on obesity is deceiving: offering quick fixes that do not last if they work at all, showing characters who think their weight is the funniest thing to ever happen, or giving viewers the impression that weight loss is the only answer to acceptance. There are not shows or magazine articles that show people going through the thousand rigorous steps to change their lifestyle. The news does not cover your neighbor who is only thirty pounds overweight and does not care about her chances of one day strutting on a catwalk. If an obese person is stoned to death by hecklers, then we may hear about it but camera crews do not follow ten year olds to school to reveal how not humorous kids think their weight is. Thousands of diets and jokes may exist, but popular discourse does not cover long-term solutions. The discussion of obesity can be broken up into three mediums: print, television and the Internet.
In relation to print, obesity has taken a mild turn. Weight, a decade ago, was all about sex appeal and looking hot in fashionable clothes. Although that idea has not entirely changed, the discourse in print is attempting to focus more on health issues. This gives the idea that obesity is discussed with the best of intentions for the critiqued individual. Magazines are beginning to give stories about unhealthy weight loss and
eating disorders more than discussing how fat someone may look in their little black dress. Weight loss is discussed as a great achievement—if you are thinner, then you are sexier, famous and happy. In the fight against the evil word “fat,” many individuals are going to extremes because of the intense discussion of instant cures. An article in ELLE Magazine discussed a procedure called “Cryolipolysis,” where doctors, “place a coffee-saucer-size suction-cup-like apparatus on the skin to gradually extract body heat until the subcutaneous levels of fat are frozen” ( cite ) Four syllable words make this procedure seem like an intelligent way to solve a health problem. It is “doctor language” with words like subcutaneous and noninvasive. However, once the lengthy explanation is demolished, this procedure is, simply put, a doctor putting a plunger-like object on the body fat and freezing it to death. Strained through the definition of logos, this does not sound like a reasonable idea anymore. The cures against the ultimate health problem are presented in this manner: big words in complex sentences giving the idea of legitimacy. However, the article is merely an ad for an expensive procedure that will have no long-standing health benefits. Instantaneous results seem a lot less daunting than years of retraining one’s habits to develop a healthy body. The article plays on a lot of desires we have about weight. It is unhealthy and I want it gone now. The procedure is described as “painless” and “less invasive than lipo,” two topics that often come up when discussing problems with other weight loss procedures. Not once in the article are the health benefits of the procedure outlined, but the trimming of stomach and thighs is prevalent. Fortunately, this article was in the Health and Beauty section taking away part of the illusion that the “Fat-Blasting Device” is a health issue. Over all, the message with this piece is that there is a procedure, not accepted by the FDA yet, that will allow us to sit and have the majority of our fat frozen off. Key word: sit.
On the other side of the discussion on obesity, US Magazine posted an article, “Size 4 Model Fired for Being Too Fat.” The use of numbers like 4 and 120 are meant to outline the absurdity along with certain buzzwords like large and fat. The numbers give the illusion of logos but in coordination with the buzzwords’ negative connotations in our culture, they open up a pathos-centered argument. The article was in the Healthy Lifestyle section giving the impression the magazine is trying to support healthy weight. The word healthy has a slew of connotations behind it that inspire readers’ own personal journeys with health. Alongside that, models have often been critiqued for their bone thin bodies but US, by pointing out a heinous requirement, is giving the image that they do not agree with this. This is a slight illusion due to the fact that they never actually say anything other than the model, Filippa Hamilton of Ralph Lauren, said, “They said I couldn’t fit in their clothes anymore” (US Magazine.) Hamilton is described three times as being a size 4 without any other information on her. The writer is assuming that most of the readers are above a size 4 due to studies done on America’s obesity. If the average woman is a size 10, then a 4 sounds very small. From the upper end of the scale, this prejudice sounds outrageous, but US is not necessarily saying they are against it. In between the paragraphs of the article, there are links such as “See inspiring photos of real people who lost weight in a healthy way” or “See photos of models who embrace changes in their bodies.” Weight is a real people problem, so we want to know how real people deal with it? The assumption is that models and celebrities do not deal with weight issues the same way others’ do, which contradicts the original topic of the article. Following this subject up with a link about models dealing with weight simply adds to irony. With the lack of detail and stance, this piece is built purely on pathos and mildly on ethos due to US Magazine’s standing reputation and the reputation models have to being almost emaciated (or the ideal weight.)
People recently did an article on Ricky Gervais and his girlfriend losing a chunk of weight. The means of weight loss are actually discussed such as healthy eating and more walking and running, but the buzzwords of obesity are still used. Their eating habits are described as “healthy versions of fat things,” leaving fat as the derogatory term on the other side of healthy. Gervais is quoted as saying, “Now I've got to stop making jokes about fat people, which is annoying.” By giving the means of weight loss and describing their “London neighborhood,” Gervais and his girlfriend are shown as real people in the same way the last article did (Slonim.) Excellent pull on the emotions of readers. The contrast in photos says a lot about how People is trying to change Gervais’ image. In an older photo of him at the bottom of the article, he is wearing an out of style suit and has a goofy grin on his face—your neighborhood jokester. In the photo above, he is wearing a sleek black suit next to his fashionably dressed girlfriend. So, because Gervais is lighter now, he is cooler? The argument is not logical: if we lose weight, we’ll become a cool famous celebrity. In print, writers attempt to put obesity into a personal perspective, but the effect is counter-intuitive. Even Jared, an every day college student at IU, became a celebrity simply because he lost weight. Hometown people such as our aunts, neighbors and best friends are not celebrities and were they to become celebrities, weight loss would change for them. In a celebrity world, weight loss is about sex and attracting sex, but to my bank teller in Muncie, Indiana, weight loss is about avoiding diabetes and a pacemaker. By following discourse on obesity through celebrities, we lose sight of the most important issue of weight: preventative healthcare.
Obesity has found itself to be a large part of our public discourse, especially in sitcoms, advertisements, and reality shows. Through this form of discourse, different topics within obesity are discovered. For example, in the wide range of reality television and sitcom television, discourse is brought about to establish some of our American cultural attitudes about one of the biggest health problems our nation faces. Obesity is the main focus of television shows like The Biggest Loser, Mike and Molly, Kirstie Alley’s Big Life, and many more. With these specific television shows set as examples for the discourse on the topic, there are different cultural reactions to obesity that are noticable in each one of these examples of shows covering the topic of obesity. Humor and selfloathing cover up the obvious theme: fear. In The Biggest Loser and so many shows that are extremely similar, a large portion of the show is dedicated to expressing the fears of obesity—a large part of the discourse on obesity as a whole. Viewers begin to agree with the show, thinking that rigorous exercise and obscene diets are the cure to a life long health problem. Instead of trying to re-train unhealthy habits, contestants/stars on the shows work with an expensive trainer and instantly begin eating in a vastly different way than they ever have. Weight loss is known to be a struggle that many people face their entire lives, but calling in the professionals for a six week body makeover is not a long-term solution. People auditioning for the show enter a video, which uses their own forms of logos, ethos, and pathos to convince the makers of the show that they are the ones with the most immediate need to be on the show. Health risks, physical aesthetics, and family sob stories are some of the reasons people give for needing to be on the show. However, there are greater ideas about the discourse of obesity being brought to
the surface through these shows about quickly losing weight. First, these competitions to lose vast amounts of weight as soon as possible could write novels on our society’s need for instant gratification. Instead of a lifestyle change—eating well and instilling and an exercise routine, instant results are always preferred. Being on shows like The Biggest Loser and I Used To Be Fat is a direct example of how instant gratification plays such a big role in our discourse on health issues like obesity. Another new and upcoming comedic sitcom on CBS is the story of a couple, Mike and Molly, meeting at Overeaters Anonymous and falling in love. This couple employs comments and jokes throughout the entire show involving the lives of obese or overweight characters. In the first episode of the season, Molly is at a meeting for Overeaters Anonymous and jokes about her father being in debt to the Girl Scouts because of her eating too many cookies growing up. Jokes are frequently made about weight, overeating, and the chances for obese people to fall in love take up a lot the discourse on this sitcom. There are other shows that fall in the “Mike and Molly category.” Shows like King of Queens and other comedy sitcoms involve many jokes about obese people are involved in the same type of discourse encompassed by sardonic humor and negative comments about obesity. Because of this, many queries are brought to the surface on how our culture feels about the topic of obesity. Some of these queries are centered on poking fun at people who are affected by obesity. Obesity is not a topic in our culture that is acceptable to commiserate over. Innumerable overweight and obese individuals have been ridiculed horribly through the years for their larger bodies. While a great deal of this occurred through advertisements, which detail how women and men are supposed to appear. Americans, decidedly, spend more time laughing at, judging, and humiliating people who are obese and who struggle with weight loss. The specific examples of Mike and Molly and King of Queens perfectly make this aspect of public discourse in our
culture very clear. Obesity has become less of a health issue and more of a vanity issue. Maybe if we laugh enough, it will go away? Along the same lines as the sitcoms, shows like Kirstie Alley’s Big Life serve not to aid individuals with unhealthy weight, but to use them as comic relief—at someone else’s expense. A large aspect of Kirstie’s show is her running comedic commentary about gaining weight, losing weight, and not being able to maintain a healthy body. All of this makes me wonder if our discourse on this topic of obesity makes it appear to be an unconquerable challenge. The message of this discourse is: without the help of sickeningly expensive trainers, Americans cannot lose the weight and keep it off. Beyond the illusions presented in shows like Kristie’s, there is also the idea that if someone cannot joke about their obesity, then they are an outcast because of it. A specific example of this is Kirstie’s current celebrity status. She is still famous and, oddly, now has a show about her life and struggles to lose weight. However, in this show she jokes constantly about her size. Would she fall off our radar and become a has-been or an outcast if she does not joke about her size? This is a concept that is seen throughout all of the sitcoms, television shows, and even reality shows on this topic —for an overweight celebrity to be a celebrity, their weight must be the center of their veneer. The subject of obesity has been increasingly becoming more prevalent in the media in the past thirty years. The perception of image has shifted from being discussed purely for beauty to a main health concern. Specifically in news television and entertainment news shows, such a drastic call to action to lose weight has become the way for the program to get viewers. Because weight, loss or gain, is such a hot topic in the media, news shows take advantage of this growing interest. ABC’s Good Morning America has a separate segment every weekday dedicated to health questions, issues or concerns. Although topics on this show vary from dental
hygiene to unknown causal links to heart disease, there is almost always a section included about how to lose weight or make better, healthful food choices. Yes, it seems everyone can agree that obesity is a problem and a cause of several health problems, but does talking about it every day actually change anyone’s perception of it? In other words, are the viewers learning information that will influence their lifestyle drastically enough to lose weight while sitting on the couch watching these programs? ABC tries to integrate these two contradicting activities and suggests the viewers do sit-ups while watching the program. Though unlikely as this is, the target audience might actually try it the following day; but, without its instant gratification, its repeat potential improbable. The most interesting thing I have discovered from searching through countless television clips about obesity is that the growing rate of child obesity is the primary subject. Even if the news story is about a specific weight loss procedure or the increase of diabetes, the concern of child obesity is on the tip of the tongue. Though this is definitely a big problem in our country, what discourse could change that? Will creating a Childhood Obesity Task Force, as Obama’s administration has done, make an impact? Furthermore, the title does not reinforce pathos to the nation, which I think would be critical in any sort of campaign involving children. These same children are not the audience watching these shows and parents are most likely already aware of their children’s weight problem (and most likely have one of their own). Obesity has recently become a sensation in the United States, but is also spreading all over the world. In the time span of one generation, the focus of discourse in world news has shifted from hunger to obesity. Even though there a billion people hungry and a billion people overweight throughout the world, which I learned through TED, the only way I heard about hunger was through monotonous, heartfelt commercials asking for fifteen cents a day for food, education and medical care for a needy child in Africa or some other impoverished country.
ABC World News with Diane Sawyer recently had a great example of public discourse discussing obesity. Sawyer says, “… a story affects every single person in America; a red alert about a health crisis that is threatening lives, but something that can be prevented, can be changed.” This angle to the story suggests that everyone in America is associated with obesity in some way and, therefore, needs to watch the program to be informed. Also, the fact that she claims this “crisis” can be stopped gives an underlying tone of guilt to the audience. The show also goes into the correlation between obesity and disease, resulting in skyrocketing doctor bills and prescriptions. Of course, it all leads back to money because in America that is and will always remain the most important thing. But does connecting obesity to doctor bills really give the audience the right message? Unlike discourse from other mediums, news television presents more facts and potential solutions to the obesity epidemic without making any fat jokes. The serious discourse without entertaining distractions leaves the audience with just the facts. Does this make news television a more reliable source than entertainment health shows such as Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, where he goes behind the scenes in school cafeterias, exposing how they’re run? I would argue that obesity is a profound topic, but any medium that gives the audience straight facts should leave the audience questioning their own body image, health and fitness. While all of these different examples of television shows speak to different aspects of our public discourse on the topic of obesity, there are still so many examples that are left in the sphere of television, particularly advertising. To outline them all would be quite redundant. Some of the discourse rides mainly on the fear of obesity, while some promotes instant gratification, and some simply focus on humor. Television’s discourse on obesity, no matter what form it takes, is centered on fear—fear of anonymity, fear of infamy and fear of defeat.
ON THE INTERNET
As with any subject of public discourse, obesity is no stranger to the Internet and the world of social media. In some ways, the discourse resembles the treatment of obesity in other forms of media. However, as with most discourse on the Internet, there are innumerable participants in the discussion and just as many perspectives on it, so the discourse is much more layered than a news report or a reality show. Aside from news sites like The Huffington Post, sites such as Twitter and Facebook contain a great deal of rhetoric surrounding obesity, and each site uses their own unique characteristics to shape the discussion. Despite the many different layers of input, obesity is a rather bipartisan issue on the Net. Is fat a choice, good or bad; or is it an unfortunate nurture/nature problem? Perhaps the simplest form of discourse about obesity found on the Internet comes in the way of news sites. Much like newspapers and other forms of print media, articles discuss the various aspects of obesity and often include statistics or facts about obesity, generally focusing on the health risks posed by obesity. The Huffington post, for example, has several articles dealing with potential solutions to obesity (namely childhood obesity,) such as “No Obese Child is an Island” by Dr. David Katz and “The Power of Family Dinner to Fight Childhood Obesity” by Laurie David. Both articles take similar positions on childhood obesity being avoidable and solvable with more involved parenting and family communication, with the former article appearing in the health section of The Huffington Post, and the latter appearing on the food section. The rhetoric in both of these articles operates under the assumption that obesity is attributable to a lack of understanding or responsibility on the overweight person as
opposed to a sort of sickness or medical condition. This is, essentially, the core of almost all rhetoric surrounding obesity and the basis for the various schools of thought: personal choice or some form of predisposition. Since obesity is such a divided issue, most people involved in the discussion argue one perspective or the other. This debate is explored in other articles from The Huffington Post, such as “Obesity: Character Flaw or Neurochemical Disease?” by Carol Carson. Carson’s article never quite takes a position on the issue, but provides some rather deep analysis of both perspectives. It is the middle ground between two warring nations: the sympathizers and the hecklers. Aside from news sites, public discourse about obesity extends further into the world of social media. One of the most popular social networking sites, Twitter, contains a great deal of discourse and discussion about obesity within the confines of its 140character limit. Some tweets deal with it comically, such as joke hash tags such as #fat or #fatasstweet when the person tweeting mentions hunger or eating a lot. There are also similar tweets and hash tags making fun of overweight people or condemning them. Twitter is largely based on colloquial rhetoric, with words like “fat” or “chubby” returning more search results than “obesity” or “overweight.” Twitter, being what it is and having the limits it has, does not have very much serious discussion and rhetoric about obesity. There are mostly jokes or small quips, and the occasional brief exchange between a few users. Is it substantial discourse? Maybe not. But if one was looking for profound and lengthy discussions about any issue, not just obesity, Twitter should be on the list of last resorts. However, any analysis of rhetoric on obesity in regards to social media would be remiss without the inclusion of Twitter, which has truly become a social phenomenon. The other proverbial elephant in the room in regards to social media is also not without various intriguing discourse on obesity. One of the most interesting aspects of Facebook, as pertaining to obesity, is the group function. One or more users will
organize and join a group based upon a particular cause or interest, and then discuss it or post news, videos or other things relating to the subject. Obesity, being the polarizing issue that it is, tends to fall into one of the two main camps when it comes to Facebook groups. Many groups focus on solving obesity or dealing with various health issues caused by it, while other groups are simply formed for the sole purpose of condemning overweight people or for expressing displeasure about obesity. The interesting aspect of these groups is the discourse continuing in the wall section. On the more positive and solution-oriented pages, numerous posts are seemingly advertisements for various weight-loss products. There is not a great deal of legitimate discussion apart from, “Try this for great results!” or “This product is proven to work!” I can certainly understand trying to promote something that could have possibly worked for them, but there is a drastic difference between helpful suggestions and what are, essentially, plugs. Ironically, the pages that mock and condemn the obese have walls that are simply informal conversations, lacking in much depth or deliberation. A great deal of the bantering is rather bigoted and ill informed, but an occasional voice argues against the baseless slander. The reason for the dramatic difference in content is likely attributable to the fact that if an individual creates a page for obesity support and weight loss advice, they are more likely to have some type of agenda. The more meanspirited groups, however, have nothing to promote or prove aside from their own hostile opinions on obesity. The level of rhetoric surrounding obesity on the Internet is much more layered than in other forms of media, due to the complexity and depth of the medium itself. There are simply articles, not terribly different than ones found in print media. There are also Facebook groups based on different positions in the debate, filled with comment threads and links to other pages. Jokes and some lighter forms of discourse take place on Twitter through hash tags keyword searches. Stones are thrown, jokes are told and
easy fixes are offered, but very little well constructed arguments on obesity occur online. The Internet is quickly becoming the leading platform for public discourse in our society, and understanding how this rhetoric and these conversations take place is essential to the analysis of any contemporary subject of discussion. Obesity is not a contemporary idea, but it has not always been an issue. Not too long ago, our population was more worried about starvation than over eating. Now, after centuries of trying to pad rib cages, we are having a problem finding them. When starvation was feared, those who were starving were second-class citizens…literally. Today, overweight individuals are heckled as having no self-control or are pitied for having poor genes and unhealthy dinners during childhood. There are a million answers given to a question that is not formally asked, but popular discourse gives no solutions. Strong emphasis is placed on the now-now-now and less on the outcome years down the road. Obesity is a moneymaker. Quick fixes cost money every time you re-try them— lipo, skinny jeans, spray tans, South Beach Diet books. I could spend thousands of dollars on the keys to being sexy and slim, but still be overweight next year. Of course, if that does not work, I can just learn to laugh about it and I will still be a good person. Obesity is less of an issue than it is a fiasco.
Long, April. "Fat-Blasting Device: A non-invasive procedure designed to freeze-out cellulite." ELLE, 14 Mar 2009. Web. 6 Apr 2011. <http://www.elle.com/Beauty/HealthFitness/Fat-Blasting-Device>. "Size 4 Model Fired for Being Too Fat." US Magazine, 14 Oct 2009. Web. 6 Apr 2011. <http://www.usmagazine.com/healthylifestyle/news/size-four-model-fired-for-being-toofat-1970218>. Slonim, Jeffrey. "How Ricky Gervais and Girlfriend Jane Fallon Lost 40 Lbs.." People, 4 Oct 2010. Web. 6 Apr 2011. <http://www.people.com/people/article/0,,20431535,00.html>.
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