Let Them Eat Stigma: A Review of Fat Land

Julie Torrant


Oil and War


The Imperialism of "Eating Well"
Kimberly DeFazio

Intoxicating Freedom: Drinking the Class Divide
Robert Faivre

The Class Regimen of Contemporary Feminism
Jennifer Cotter

Borderless Cuisine: The Diet of Neoliberalism
Amrohini Sahay




Greg Critser's Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World has been widely and positively reviewed in a variety of media outlets from and Mother Jones to The New York Times. What is particularly noteworthy about this text is the way it introduces the question of class into the debate over obesity. Its discussion of the relation between obesity, health and class is, in fact, the book's main selling point. Laura Miller marks this emphasis in her review of the book in, writing that "[t]he innovation Critser brings to the literature of obesity is to take what turns out to be a valid perception after all—working-class and underclass people are more likely to be fat—and pull a switcheroo (January 13, 2003). Rather than regard class status as a stigma unfairly affixed to fat people, he presents fat as a health liability unjustly foisted on the poor and insufficiently addressed by the affluent". Miller, like other reviewers, finds this aspect of the text "refreshing" and "persuasive". For Critser, however, class is not a matter of one's objective relation to the productive forces of society—whether one owns the means of production or whether one works for the owners—it is instead a matter of what you buy. Class, in other words, becomes lifestyle and all people are, in the end, part of one single (non)class of consumers. On the basis of this notion of class, Critser puts forward an argument that is exemplary of a renewed "tough love" conservatism whose "concern" for the poor and working class amounts to an injunction for more (market) discipline for those who can least afford it for the sake of renewing profitability for capital.

It has, in short, become impossible to ignore the fact that obesity is a class issue. Numerous studies have shown that the fastest growing rates of obesity in the United States are among the poorest segments of the population. However, at the core of the ideological force of Critser's "exposé", and what has made it such a "popular" account of obesity, is the way he blurs class divisions and displaces any analysis of capitalism as a system of production for profit as the cause of "fat" with a theory of "affluence" and "gluttony". In doing so, Critser puts a new, consumerist spin on a very old idea—the idea that the problems of society such as the healthcare crisis are not due to capital's drive for more and more profits but are due rather to fat, lazy workers and those misguided liberals, leftists and others who enable them in their gluttony.

To follow Critser's logic, and see how he puts a new "acceptable" spin on his very old ideas, it is necessary to examine his tale of the fattening of America and the central role of (workers as) consumers in this tale. One of the key stories in this narrative involves Earl Butz, Richard Nixon's secretary of agriculture. According to Critser, during his tenure, Butz was faced with two problems—falling revenues for farmers and demands from consumers to lower the price of food that had been rising with inflation. Through his down-home ingenuity and charm, as the story goes, Butz accomplished both these things. For one, he encouraged farmers to plant enormous numbers of crops. This not only increased their revenues, but also provided surpluses of, for instance, corn. These corn surpluses were then used to produce high fructose corn syrup, which in turn enabled the production of inexpensive, abundant new food products. Butz also brokered new trade deals with countries such as Malaysia, which provided an inexpensive source of fat in palm oil. The negative side-effect of what Critser presents as a matter of an arbitrary confluence of historical forces and characters, including not only Butz and American farmers, but demanding consumers, was that these consumers were now eating very high-calorie foods full of high fructose corn syrup and palm oil (a "tasty" but highly saturated fat). What Critser leaves out of this picture is that this move to cheaper (and very unhealthy) sources of food was not simply a matter of historical "happenstance" nor was it a farmer and/or consumer driven development. Rather, the driving force behind this move was Agribusiness and companies like Pepsi and McDonalds, which in turn are representative of Big Business in capitalism. That is, the move to cheaper raw materials such as high fructose corn syrup was driven by the development of capital under the pressures of competition, wherein companies are constantly working to lower the production cost of their products in order to be able to price cut and thus gain market share.

Producing foods with cheaper raw materials and therefore for less money not only benefits companies like Pepsi and McDonalds in their competitive struggles with other companies for markets and the profits that accrue from them. The production of these foods also benefits other capitalists by helping to control the costs of wages.

The introduction of "cheap" foods such as soda, fast-food, and other foods high in sugars, which are by-and-large nutritionally poor but calorie rich, provides for a cheap source of high energy that acts as a substitute for more nutritious, but less profitable foods. Because the primary concern of capitalism is the expansion of profits and not the conditions of the workers who produce it, fast-foods like McDonalds and Pepsi have emerged to provide the working class with a quick, cheap meal that enables them to continue working longer and longer hours (U.S. workers work among the longest hours in the industrialized world) regardless of the effects it has on their health. In other words, the availability of "cheap" foods means lower wages, since it does not cost as much to ensure that workers get enough calories to return to work. If the representatives of Big Business are now concerned about health problems of workers drinking 14 billion gallons of soft drinks a year (as a 1997 study found), it is because it is cutting into their profits, not because of any concern for the conditions in which people now live. Thus as Marx argued, the reason the cheapest (and poorest) commodities are the most abundant and abundantly used is that in a society such as capitalism that is "founded on poverty the poorest products have the fatal prerogative of being used by the greatest number" (Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy).

In short, in capitalism, as a society founded on poverty—including both relative and absolute poverty—the priority of owners to produce profits structurally blocks meeting the needs of workers, including the need for both sufficient and high quality foods. The use of mass production—and the potential of such mass production for meeting the nutritional needs of workers—in order to produce enormous quantities of very poor quality foods is just one of the many symptoms of the suppression of the possibilities for meeting needs under the current class system.

In contrast to this analysis, Critser represents the situation in the United States as one of "abundance" and "affluence". In fact it is this affluence, according to Critser, that is ultimately the problem. He argues, for instance, that over-eating is a natural response for humans who have not yet "caught up", culturally, with this environment of abundance. This is the logic behind Critser's reading of the resolution of the inflation-crisis of the 1970s when consumers were angry because of the rising price of meat. He represents the production of calorie-dense foods made with palm oil and high fructose corn syrup as "deliver[ing] everything the modern American consumer had wanted" with "a new plentitude of cheap, abundant and tasty calories". It is of course quite a problematic reading of social history to say that consumers' protest of rising meat prices—which was a matter of asserting a need for affordable and nutritious food—was a matter of the "desires" of American consumers who "wanted what they wanted when they wanted it" and that these "desires" have been fulfilled by Burger King, Coke and super-sized fries. However, this framing of the issue is crucial for Critser because it is this explanation of the rise of obesity as driven by the un-bounded "desires" of American consumers (pushed along by some crafty marketing executives), and particularly the poor and working class consumers, that allows him to propose as the solution to the obesity crisis that the poor and working class should be restricted—for their own good—from "exercising" their freedom as consumers and thus satisfying their "desires".

It is crucial that Critser naturalizes over-eating as well as avoiding rigorous exercise (which he says is a matter of "laziness", not exhaustion from long work days) as a "natural", human response as opposed to a quite socially conditioned response to commodity culture, particularly for those who cannot afford the "finer" pleasures that culture has to offer. In doing so, Critser naturalizes commodity culture—and the profit motive behind it—and argues instead for a cultural solution to the problem. Specifically, Critser blames a "culture of permissiveness" which has allowed the "natural" gluttony and laziness of people to be given free reign. This culture, which has been promoted by a whole cast of (left-leaning) characters, including "liberals" such as former president Clinton, feminists, and religious leaders who have abandoned teaching against the "sin" of gluttony, has played a major role in the rise of obesity, according to Critser, because it has "denied" the social stigma and negative cultural reinforcements that prevent the rich from getting fat. Critser writes, for instance, "In other words, perhaps boundaries, an unpleasant but good thing for affluent white people, are also a good thing for poor and middle-class black people" (121). In short, on the basis of his so-called "argument" in which class becomes measured by one's level of "self-control", Critser concludes that what women of color need more of is not well-paying work and affordable childcare, but more social stigma!

In addition to more stigma, working class and poor people are to get, according to Critser, access to various diet programs and other forms of (remedial) education on diet and health. That is, they are to get access to various "reforms" at the site of consumption rather than making any changes in the root cause of obesity and other forms of malnutrition in the production relations. The real concern underlying such reform programs, much like the anti-smoking campaigns which have only begun to be instituted now that the economic costs of smoking have become clear, is the skyrocketing costs of healthcare for diseases related to obesity and poor nutrition such as diabetes as well as the economic costs of lost productivity due to these nutrition-related health problems.  Critser, for instance, cites figures such as $3.9 billion in lost workdays due to obesity. Of course, when capitalism is in an expansionary phase, such figures do not command so much attention, but with a sinking economy, such a loss—for capital—can no longer be afforded.

Like all such reformist programs, the "fat reform" programs that now even include the possibility of "tax breaks" for weight loss programs benefit capital economically by controlling the costs of labor at a crucial juncture, as well as act as an (albeit small) economic stimulus by opening up a new market in exercise equipment, diet books, clothing, and other "lifestyle" commodities. Of course, capital also benefits even when these programs (inevitably) fail to end the actual health and economic problems—which are rooted in for-profit production. It benefits because this argument about obesity provides a convenient way to scapegoat the poor and working class and to distract attention away from capitalism as the cause of the healthcare crisis and other social problems.

As with all such "tough love" conservative narratives, the pedagogy of scapegoating is only just barely under the surface of Critser's book and emerges, in particular, when he talks about healthcare costs. For example, he cites James O. Hill, the "dean" of obesity studies, who says: "When people who are fit really begin to understand this, it will be a catalyst for one of two things, though likely both: anger, and then a demand for change" (148). This "suggestion" that fit people will become angry when they find out how much poor nutrition and fitness is costing (a cost which Critser blames on workers-as-greedy-consumers rather than corporations hungry for profits) is nothing short of a call, especially to the middle class whose relative privilege is under attack, to identify with and consent to capital's renewed war on the poor and the (lower) working class. After all, if the poor and working class are the most likely to be overweight, and they are also least likely to have healthcare, then from this logic they—and not Agribusiness and corporate medicine—are to blame for the skyrocketing healthcare costs and moreover they are the ones who must "change their ways" and reign in their "desires", not capital.

The way the dominant understandings of obesity put forward by Critser and others in the culture industry are being used to enable capital in its new war on the poor and working class in order to solve its profitability crisis is strikingly evident in a recent article published in the New York Times (February 23, 2003). The article, "Are the Poor Suffering From Hunger Anymore?", reports that while food assistance programs have traditionally been the most resistant to cut backs since it has been difficult for conservatives to represent such programs as "welfare" (and therefore "bad"), in the recent push by the Bush administration and Congress to cut poverty programs, food programs such as food stamps and subsidized school lunches have been "receiving unexpected scrutiny". As the article explains, one of the justifications for cutting back food assistance programs which has emerged among conservatives is that such food assistance programs are now unnecessary because the poor are no longer hungry, but are, rather, overweight (and thus, from this logic, over-fed). The article cites an advocate for the poor who indicates that poverty has changed in the United States where now "[p]oor people are rarely hungry for 25 days a month" but that they experience hunger for part of the month. This, of course, does not mean that hunger is over in the United States, but rather that it has changed its form, and that additional problems in terms of nutrition are emerging in such "rich" countries.

Instead of providing an analysis of the cause of the new problems such as "food insecurity" (intermittent hunger) and obesity, which would of course point to the limits of capitalism, and then working to combat these problems, what the conservatives are doing through their attacks on food stamps and other food assistance programs is to rollback even the contradictory and limited social progress in combating poverty and want that has been achieved in the world's wealthiest nation. In other words, what Critser and other conservatives are saying, in effect, is that the problem in the United States is that "our" poor and working classes are not enough like the poor and working classes in the South—because they are not hungry all the time!

"Fat" is indeed is class issue, but class is not, as Fat Land understands it, a matter of the individual and her consumption, it is a matter of the social system of production. In order to bring an end to obesity as a social problem alongside hunger and other forms of malnutrition, it is necessary to change our system of production from one that prioritizes profits for the few to one that prioritizes meeting the needs of the many.

Print Version