Skinny is the New Fat

– By Sunny Zhang

Sunny Zhang is a Ph.D. student in Physical Cultural Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Rail (2012) talks about eight postcards and counter-postcards in terms of an “obesity epidemic.”  A postcard is a picture painted to emulate truth in a specific moment while arbitrarily constructing a certain reality.  It creates a scene of simplicity out of a picture much more complex.  Through the repetition of these scenes however, postcards tend to spread misunderstandings that ultimately become truth.  While the postcards summarize the dominant views related to obesity and are motivated in no small part by greed and profit, counter-postcards dispute the distorting and over simplified postcards and provide alternative views.  Those dubbed by Mundy as “Obesity Inc.” (Mundy, 2001) are the push behind the disseminating of those postcards, which lead to unnecessarily medicalizing obesity, distorting statistics on the consequences of growing weights, ignoring the complicated realities associated with being fat, diverting scarce resources, and distracting public health efforts (Herrick, 2007).  In reading Rail (2012), I realize how categorizing obesity as an epidemic disease along with other more serious diseases, such as cancers, heart diseases, and AIDS, benefits the “Obesity Inc” including private gyms.  Many gyms in China receive governmental support and large tax deductions for the purposes of improving public health and disciplining obese bodies, despite already being lucrative businesses.  They are the ones who disseminate the ideas and preconceptions relating a fat body to obesity, and further spreading obesity’s relationship to various health problems.  By spreading this view, more and more people perceive themselves as sick or at-risk and, therefore, in need of treatment. The ideal treatment, including exercise and diet, thereby directly benefits businesses like gyms.

Yet, does fat mean obese?  As I thought about this question, many other colorations came to mind.  In ancient China, the Tang dynasty, fat bodies were considered desirable, and it was the gold standard of beauty.  Even in recent Chinese history, before the turn of the twenty-first century, fat was associated with positive connotations.  For example, when I was a baby, my mother always told me that I was too thin and therefore an ugly baby, often comparing me to my cousin, who was a fat, nice looking baby.  When I was around nine months old, I started to walk. Often walking outside, my mother would keep her distance from me, the reason being she was embarrassed that I was so ugly, tiny and thin.  This also explained why she thought one of my fat cousins was very pretty.  In addition to fatter women being considered the beauty standard, guys’ beer bellies were seen as a symbol of higher social class, being called “a general’s belly” in Chinese.  Even the three-high (high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and high cholesterol) body signified affluence.  This idea, however, began to change rapidly around the turn of the twenty-first century.  The beauty standard started to change according to rising living standards and sedentary urban lifestyles.  Instead of judging beauty according to the old standard, which equated fatness with affluence and high social status, slim became the new fat.

In order to achieve the idealized body and a healthy state, contexts of lifestyle play an important role.  The prevalent idea is that people choose to eat healthy food and exercise, emulating responsible individuals who possess the idealized body and therefore are considered healthy. However, by emphasizing individualism, the more crucial and determining social factors are often overlooked, particularly the social and economic factors that shape and help determine one’s lifestyle choices.  A quote from Karl Marx is appropriate to use here: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past” (Marx, 1852, p. 15).  Individuals have power to make active choices in their lives, but these choices are not the major or sole power that determines their behavior, thoughts, and relation to others.

The fear and panic triggered by the dissemination of the “obesity epidemic” also persuades individuals to take part in regulating their own daily activities.  When the “obesity epidemic” becomes a hegemonic idea, not only do individuals internalize this and actively avoid being fat or obese, they also supervise and are supervised by those around them who judge them according to the context’s accepted body norm.  One example that comes to mind is the wearable technologies at Orange Theory, one of the fastest growing private boutique gyms in the world.  Last month, I visited one of their gyms. During my one hour exercise, I noticed that people’s maximum heart rate, current heart rate, calories burned, gender, etc. were all displayed on a screen with their names.  Additionally, every member wears a heart rate monitor either an ECG based sensor on the chest or optical PPG based sensor on the wrist.  These technologies indirectly reinforce how individuals should perform during physical activities, based on data derived from this micro-teacher on their wrist or chest.  Having the data highly visible, displayed alongside every other member of the class, results in a loss of autonomy, and at the same time justifies and reinforces the “scientific” state of being in a target heart rate zone.  This is simply a way of telling people how they feel about their body, with their own experience no longer important.

The importance and standard of health and happiness has now become how close you are to the “norm,” thereby determining who you are as a person in general.  Individuals are constantly under supervision to behave in a way that reinforces and perpetuates dominant discourses about bodily fitness and beauty.  By rendering people’s bodily fitness statistics highly visible, these individuals are subjected to judgement and observation making it possible to differentiate one from another (Foucault, 1977).  This is a scary thought, in that it causes people to construct their sense of self through these dominant embodiment discourses.  It is important to be aware of the external forces that urge people to conform to the “norms” through naturalizing and justifying the dominant discourses, such as the “obesity epidemic”.  What we take for granted about bodies, fitness, and health, if under careful scrutiny, is actually far from being natural, but social constructions which perpetuate discourses of power.


Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of Prison. tr. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage.

Herrick, C. (2007). Risky bodies: Public health, social marketing and the governance of obesity. Geoforum38(1), 90-102.

Marx, K. (1852). The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Karl Marx 1852.”. Karl Marx: A Reader.

Mundy, A. (2010). Dispensing with the truth: The victims, the drug companies, and the dramatic story behind the battle over Fen-Phen. St. Martin’s Press.

Rail, G. (2012). The birth of the obesity clinic: Confessions of the flesh, biopedagogies and physical culture. Sociology of Sport Journal29(2), 227-253.

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