[Paleopsych] Spiked: Why people hate fat Americans
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Wed Sep 21 01:39:53 UTC 2005
Why people hate fat Americans
Today's attacks on obese Yanks are motivated by a broader unease with
by Daniel Ben-Ami
If Americans had to be described with one word, there's a good chance
it would be 'fat'. Americans, we are constantly told, are the fattest
people on the planet. Obesity is rife. Compared with other nations the
Americans are not just big, but super-size.
Yet this obsession with obese Americans is about more than body fat.
Certainly there is a debate to be had about the extent to which
obesity is a problem in America - a discussion best left to medical
experts. But a close examination of the popular genre on obesity
reveals it is about more than consumption in the most literal sense of
eating food. Obesity has become a metaphor for 'over-consumption' more
generally. Affluence is blamed not just for bloated bodies, but for a
society which is seen as more generally too big for its own good.
It is especially important to examine this criticism of American
affluence in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. An assumption
underlying much of the discussion is that, at the very least, wealth
did America no good in its battle with nature. An editorial in last
weekend's UK Guardian caught the tone: 'America is the richest and
most powerful country on Earth. But its citizens, begging for food,
water and help, are suffering agonies more familiar from Sudan and
Niger. The worst of the third world has come to the Big Easy.' The
implication is that America's wealth is somehow pointless.
A column in the Washington Post went even further, by advocating what
it described as a Confucian approach to the question. It argued that
Americans 'blithely set sail on churning seas and fly into stormy
skies. We build homes on unstable hillsides, and communities in
woodlands ripe for fire. We rely on technology and the government's
largess to protect us from our missteps, and usually, that is enough.
But sometimes nature outwits the best human efforts to contain it.
Last week's hurricane was a horrifying case in point. The resulting
flooding offered brutal evidence that the efforts we have made over
the years to contain nature - with channels and levees and other great
feats of engineering - can contribute to greater catastrophes.' From
this perspective, the pursuit of economic development is worse than
useless: it may be well-intentioned but it only makes matters worse
To understand how a disaster such as Hurricane Katrina can become an
occasion for attacking American affluence, it is worth examining the
fat metaphor in more detail. Take Super Size Me, the documentary in
which Morgan Spurlock lives on nothing but McDonald's food for a
month. Within the first minute the American flag is shown fluttering
in the wind. The voiceover then says: 'Everything's bigger in America.
We've got the biggest cars, the biggest houses, the biggest companies,
the biggest food - and finally - the biggest people.'
Spurlock makes his assumptions even clearer in his follow-up book,
Don't Eat This Book. The first chapter discusses how America has
become 'the biggest consuming culture on the planet' (1). He talks of
how 'the epidemic of overconsumption that's plaguing the nation begins
with the things we put in our mouths' (2).
Other popular works on obesity make similar points. Eric Schlosser,
author of Fast Food Nation, says at the start: 'This is a book about
fast food, the values it embodies, and the world it has made. Fast
food has proven to be a revolutionary force in American life; I am
interested in it both as a commodity and as a metaphor.' (3) Just how
the Big Mac or Chicken McNugget can embody values, let alone make the
world, is not made clear. Schlosser frequently argues that such food
has little nutritional value but he seems happy to endow it with
incredible powers to influence society.
Greg Critser, a liberal and a Democrat, and author of Fat Land, talks
about food consumption in almost religious terms. Like Schlosser and
Spurlock he makes it clear that he is not talking about food alone. In
chapter two of Fat Land he argues: 'Bigness: the concept seemed to
fuel the marketing of just about everything, from cars (SUVs) to homes
(mini-manses) to clothes (super-baggy) and then back again to food.'
(4) In the same chapter he makes it clear that a key objection to
McDonald's is that it campaigned to override 'cultural mores against
gluttony' (5). Implicitly at least Critser is arguing that the Deadly
Sin of gluttony should be somehow rehabilitated.
Making a connection between obesity and consumption is not limited to
books about fat Americans. It is a staple of many environmentalist
texts. For example, Jeremy Rifkin makes a similar connection: 'The US
GDP continues to expand along with our waistlines, but our quality of
life continues to diminish.' (6) Clive Hamilton, an Australian critic
of economic growth, talks of overweight people 'revealing in such a
confronting way our dirty secret of overconsumption' (7).
Michael Moore only refers to the obesity issue in passing - in Stupid
White Men he argues: 'If you and I would eat less and drink less, we'd
live a little longer.' (8) Perhaps this is a sensitive issue for him,
seeing as he is no lightweight. But he does criticise America for
being number one in relation to several areas of consumption,
including beef, energy, oil, natural gas and calories (9).
Such arguments seem to have won considerable resonance both inside and
outside America. According to the latest Pew Global Attitudes survey,
a comprehensive opinion poll of public attitudes in America and 16
other countries, the USA is routinely seen as greedy by Western
publics. For example, 67 per cent of the Dutch, 64 per cent of Britons
and 62 per cent of Canadians see Americans as greedy. Perhaps most
striking of all, 70 per cent of Americans see their fellow compatriots
as greedy (10).
Despite the huge volume of discussion on American obesity the key
arguments put forward by the critics can be reduced to a few simple
ingredients. Each of these is open to question, although it is
unfortunately rare for them to be critically scrutinised:
* Over-consumption is not just about food. Food is being portrayed
as simply the most conspicuous example of a society that consumes
too many resources.
* Consumption is widely seen as a problem. At the very least it is
regarded as incapable of making Americans, or any other people,
happy. At worst it is portrayed as having a down side or even
being akin to a disease. So in their best-selling Why Do People
Hate America?, Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies argue that
'the "virus" of American culture and lifestyle replicates so
readily because it is founded on the premise of abundance, the
lure of affluence' (11). Similarly, an American documentary and
follow-up best-seller on affluence was called Affluenza (12).
* The sin of gluttony, it is widely argued, needs to be
rehabilitated. Usually the argument is put in secular rather than
religious terms but the content is the same. What is being
suggested is that a morality of limits needs to be popularised.
People should apparently be encouraged to limit their consumption
- whether the limits are voluntary or imposed by law. Often
controls on advertising are also favoured as it is seen as somehow
propagating the culture of consumption.
Let us examine each of these arguments in turn. Then we can consider
why the attack on consumption has come to the fore in recent years.
The end of hunger
The first argument has some truth to it, in that there is a close
relationship between food consumption and the use of resources more
generally. So criticising the pervasiveness of cheap food in rich
societies can also be a way of attacking affluence. In other words,
the wide availability of food can become a metaphor for large-scale
consumption more broadly.
But critics of cheap food forget that its attainment is a considerable
historical achievement. Most of human history involved a constant
struggle to find enough food. The battle against hunger was the norm.
This is still true in much of the developing world, where the World
Bank estimates that 815million people ate too little to meet their
daily energy needs in 2002 (13). So to have achieved a situation
where, at least in the developed world, food scarcity is virtually
eliminated is a tremendous achievement. As well as being good in
itself, it also allows people to spend more time on other things
rather than struggling to meet their most basic needs.
Of course this does not mean that obesity cannot have negative
consequences. But it should be recognised as a problem associated with
success. Food today is more plentiful and of better quality than ever
before. No doubt quality can improve still further in the future and
other factors, such as insufficient exercise, can be tackled. However,
these are relatively small challenges compared with the historic
battle to rid the world of the scourge of hunger.
Is consumption the problem?
As for the second argument, that consumption is in itself somehow bad
- that is deeply flawed. On the contrary, humanity has benefited
enormously from economic growth and the attendant increase in
consumption. It has allowed people to live longer and healthier lives
than ever before. It also has brought enormous cultural benefits, as
people have more leisure time rather than focusing their entire lives
Critics of consumption start from the incorrect assumption that there
is a finite amount of resources in the world. From such a narrow
perspective any consumption by one group of people is inevitably at
the expense of another. It also assumes, wrongly, that the world is in
danger of running out of resources.
Food provides a good example of the flaws in this argument. Just
because people in America are well-fed it does not follow that they
are depriving those in, say, Ethiopia or Niger. There is no reason why
with higher productivity - more production of food per person -
everyone in the world should not have enough to eat. The problem is
not too much food in America but too little food in the developing
world. The aspiration should be to raise the levels of consumption in
poorer countries to match those in the West. Instead, the
anti-consumption campaigners seem to want to concentrate on reducing
the level of consumption in the rich world.
What is true for food also holds for other resources. It is not as if
there is a set amount of resources which will be used up as society
becomes wealthier. On the contrary, as the world becomes richer the
amount of resources available to humanity also expands. For example,
for Stone Age man, or even in the early twentieth century, uranium and
plutonium were of no use to humanity. But with economic development it
became possible to use them as power sources.
A wealthy society can utilise more resources and use them more
efficiently than a poor one. That is why the doom-mongers' arguments
about the world running out of resources - which have been made in one
form or another for over two centuries - have always been proved
Consumption and happiness
As for the contention that economic growth does not make people
happier - that is less clear-cut than is made out. It is certainly
true that, objectively speaking, Americans are better off than ever.
As Gregg Easterbrook writes, comparing today with the 'Golden Age" of
the 1950s: '[I]n real dollars almost everything costs less today than
it did then, healthcare is light-years better, three times as many
people now make it to college, and the simpler, more innocent ethos of
the 1950s denied the vote to blacks and job opportunities to women.'
Whether people feel subjectively happier is a more complex question.
In Britain there are certainly those, such as Richard Layard, who
argue that beyond a certain point society becomes no happier as it
becomes wealthier (15). It is also widely assumed that Americans are
less happy than those in other developed societies.
But there are some grounds to dispute this view. According to the
conclusion of a recent opinion poll by Harris Interactive: 'The big
picture is that Americans are much more satisfied with their lives,
much more likely to believe that their lives have improved and much
more likely to expect their personal situations will improve than most
Europeans.' (16) The poll found that 58 per cent of Americans said
they were very satisfied with their lives in 2004-5 compared with 31
per cent of Western Europeans in a similar European Union survey. Only
the Danes, with 64 per cent saying they were very satisfied, were
happier than the Americans.
But let us assume that, as many polls seem to indicate, there is a
pervasive sense of unhappiness in American society. It does not
necessarily follow from this premise that economic growth is
necessarily bad or should be downplayed. On the contrary, its
objective benefits should be clear. The widespread sense of
disaffection certainly raises interesting questions about American
society and about the developed world more generally. In particular,
why, despite greater affluence than ever before, is there widespread
foreboding about the future? By simply assuming that economic growth
is the problem, the anti-consumption critics avoid asking difficult
but critical questions about the prevalence of social pessimism in
contemporary society (17).
Finally, let us examine the idea that consumption should be limited in
some way - that, in either a secular or religious form, the notion of
gluttony should be rehabilitated. The call for limits is a central
element of contemporary politics, whereas in the past the focus was on
how best to make society wealthier so that everyone could benefit.
The discussion of food and healthy eating clearly provides a metaphor
for placing limits on consumption more generally. It is a useful way
of illustrating the argument that individuals should consume less. In
addition, the assumption is that people should eat what the
anti-consumption lobby designates as healthy food rather than 'junk'.
Underlying all this are the implicit assumptions that consumption
needs to be limited and pursued in a responsible way. In other words,
there is a strong element of moralism from the preachers of limited
consumption. If they came from a traditional preacher, such views
might be laughed at. But placed in the context of health - for
individuals or society - they are taken seriously.
Support for limits is also expressed in more general terms by
contemporary thinkers. George Monbiot, a Guardian columnist and
environmental campaigner, is a prime example. In his view, the world
has reached the stage where 'the interests of global society will be
served primarily by restraint' (18). Although Monbiot is often seen as
a radical critic of society it would be more accurate to see him as a
mainstream advocate of imposing limits on consumption.
The case for limits was put in more theoretical terms by Christopher
Lasch, a prominent American social critic who died in 1994. In The
True and Only Heaven he developed an intellectually coherent case
against progress. Lasch, who was generally associated with the left,
criticised liberals for not seeing 'the positive features of
petty-bourgeois culture: its moral realism, its understanding that
everything has a price, its respect for limits, its scepticism about
Such views are not simply social theory but they have become embodied
in contemporary policy. For example, the concept of 'sustainable
development' has been accepted by international agencies, such as the
United Nations and the World Bank, as well as by national governments.
The notion of sustainable development itself embodies the needs of
limits. Our Common Future, a landmark UN report first published in
1987, clearly defined sustainability in these terms, describing it as
'development that meets the needs of the present without compromising
the needs of future generations to meet their own needs'. It goes on
to say that sustainable development contains 'the idea of limitations
imposed by the state of technology and social organisation on the
environment's ability to meet present and future needs' (20).
The UN has also more explicitly spelt out its assumptions in relation
to consumption. Its Agenda 21 report to the 1992 Rio Summit made this
clear. One of the principles of the report was 'to achieve sustainable
development and a higher quality of life for all people', and it
called on states to 'reduce and eliminate unsustainable patterns of
production and consumption and promote appropriate demographic
policies' (21). More recently the 1998 edition of the UN's annual
Human Development Report was on 'consumption for human development'.
Although it starts by acknowledging the advantages of consumption it
soon changes tack to talk of its downside: 'Today's consumption is
undermining the environmental resource base. It is exacerbating
inequalities. And the dynamics of the
consumption-poverty-inequality-environment nexus are accelerating.'
National governments have also taken on board such ideas. For example,
under President Bill Clinton the USA had the 'President's Council on
Sustainable Development (PCSD)' (23). One of its task forces, created
in 1994 and reporting in 1996, had the specific role of looking at
population and consumption (24). The arguments in this report were
posed in terms of finding a better balance between consumption and
population on the one hand, and the environment on the other.
The sin of gluttony
So it should be clear that the idea of limiting the growth of
consumption is mainstream. Gluttony has, in a subtle way, been
reinstituted as a sin. It does not apply just to food but to
consumption of resources more broadly. The need to impose limits on
consumption is accepted by national governments and by influential
Of course, many would go along with the idea that limits should be
placed on consumption. They might reject the use of religious language
but they would accept the notion of sustainability. After all, such a
view has become the conventional wisdom.
However, those who hold to this view should remember that there is
still an enormous amount of work to be done to raise the level of
consumption in the world. This is most clear in relation to the poor
countries. According to the World Bank, 2.7billion people were living
on less than $2 a day in 2001, of which 1.1billion lived on less than
a dollar (25). A lot remains to be done to raise a large proportion of
the world's population to the consumption standards we enjoy in the
But even in the developed world there is still much to do. For
example, there is much talk of a 'demographic time bomb', meaning that
it is not possible to provide a decent income for pensioners. However,
with economic growth, and higher consumption levels for all, there is
no reason why this problem cannot be solved. A more productive economy
is key to solving what is often wrongly cast as an intractable problem
Perhaps the most misleading aspect of sustainable development is its
supposed orientation towards the future. It wrongly assumes that
curbing consumption growth will benefit future generations. The
opposite is true. Holding back on economic growth means that future
generations will be less wealthy than they would otherwise be. It
means that they will be in a weaker position to tackle their problems
and live an affluent life. The worst that we can do for the future is
put limits on economic growth in the present.
Before examining why anti-consumption sentiment has come to the fore
it is worth saying something about advertising. The whole anti-fat
genre makes much of the fact that fast food companies spend a huge
amount on advertising - particularly aimed at children. In itself, the
discussion of advertising is not new. Back in 1957 The Hidden
Persuaders, a study on how the American advertising industry was
shaping personal behaviour, was first published (27). What is
different today is the power attributed to the power of advertising
across the whole of society. It has now become mainstream to rail
against the advertising industry. Anti-consumerist campaigns such as
Adbusters are highly respected (28).
What is rarely commented on is the elitist assumptions on which the
anti-advertising campaign is based. Their starting point seems to be
the snobbish view that people are somehow duped into consuming by the
advertising industry. Yet, in reality, consumption is popular
precisely because, for obvious reasons, people like to be better off.
This is the big weakness of the anti-consumption movement. It wants to
persuade people to curb their consumption but, from a common sense
perspective, individuals rightly prefer to be richer rather than
poorer. Advertising might persuade them to eat in, say, McDonald's
rather than Burger King, but it is not necessary to persuade people to
The pervasiveness of attacks on affluence, despite the benefits of
consumption, begs the question of why they are so popular. Criticisms
of consumption are not new. Back in the late nineteenth century
Thorstein Veblen, an American sociologist, coined the term
'conspicuous consumption' (29). But they have never been so pervasive.
From the 1970s onwards, anti-consumption sentiment has moved from
being an elite preoccupation to the mainstream (30).
There are many reasons why this shift has occurred. A complete
explanation would demand a comprehensive examination of how society
has changed in recent years. But a key part of the reason is the
institutionalisation of the idea that there is no alternative to the
market. Capitalism, in one form or another, is seen as the only
realistic way of organising society. In terms of political debate
there is what Thomas Frank, a liberal social commentator, describes as
'the systematic erasure of the economic' (31). In other words,
cultural matters are open for debate but fundamental economic
questions are not. Or as Will Hutton, a British liberal commentator,
puts it: 'The allegedly futile and empty materialist culture [is]
deplored by conservative, liberal and religious fundamentalist alike.'
One way to understand this point is in relation to consumption and
production. Matters related to the sphere of consumption are open to
debate. This includes not just the literal act of consumption itself
but related questions such as brands and identity. To the extent that
the economy more broadly is discussed - whether by critics or those
who are pro-business - it is from the perspective of consumption.
Areas such as advertising, brands and marketing are given inordinate
In contrast, the productive sphere is seen as fixed. This is not just
a technical question of the manufacturing process for, say,
semiconductors or plasma screen televisions. It means that the
possibility of developing a qualitatively better economy is denied.
Humanity's creative potential, including the possibility of
transcending the limits of the market, is banished from discussion.
As a result, a one-sided view of humanity has taken hold. The
consumption of resources, important as it is, is given too much
weight. Human beings are seen as parasites on the planet using up the
world's natural resources. In contrast, the creative side of humanity,
the ability to solve social problems and create a more productive
society, is at best downplayed in importance. At worst, the capacity
of human beings to create a more productive society is seen as a
problem, a destructive characteristic, rather than the positive
quality it represents.
That is why fat Americans are so widely hated. Overweight Americans
represent, in caricatured form, the affluence of US society. They are
the personification of a society in which scarcity, if not eliminated,
has become marginalised. Yet we live in a world in which consumption
is seen as a problem and the possibility of creating a better society
is seen as unrealistic.
By focusing on fat Americans the critics of consumption are saying,
implicitly at least, that people should consume less. They are arguing
for a world in which Americans become more like those who live in the
poorer countries of the world. From such a perspective equality means
levelling everyone down rather than raising the living standards of
the poor. It means giving up on the battle to resist hurricanes or to
reclaim land from the sea.
Yet implementing such a viewpoint is a super-size mistake. Our
aspiration for the world should be to give the poor the advantages of
affluence enjoyed by those in the West. Living standards in countries
such as Ethiopia and Niger should be, at the very least, as high as
those in America today. In that sense we should all aim to be fat
Daniel Ben-Ami is the author of Cowardly Capitalism: The Myth of the
Global Financial Casino, John Wiley and Sons, 2001 (buy this book from
Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA))
(1) Don't Eat This Book, Morgan Spurlock, Penguin 2005, p6
(2) Don't Eat This Book, Morgan Spurlock, Penguin 2005, p7
(3) Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser, Penguin 2002, p3
(4) Fat Land, Greg Critser, Penguin 2003, p29
(5) Fat Land, Greg Critser, Penguin 2003, p20. Also see Rachel Cooke,
'The big issue', Observer, 9 March 2003. See Fat and fiction, by
(6) The European Dream, Jeremy Rifkin, Polity 2004, p81
(7) Growth Fetish, Clive Hamilton, Pluto 2003, p95
(8) Stupid White Men, Michael Moore, Penguin 2002, p156
(9) Stupid White Men, Michael Moore, Penguin, 2002, p174
(10) 'American character gets mixed reviews', Pew Global Attitudes
Project, 23 June 2005, at the Pew Global Attitudes Project website.
Americans are also viewed as violent and not to be trusted in relation
to the global environment. On the positive side they are often seen as
hardworking, honest and inventive. The survey was conducted among
nearly 17,000 people in 16 countries, including America
(11) Why Do People Hate America?, Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn
Davies, Icon 2003, p117
(12) See the Affluenza website
(13) Progress towards the Millennium Development Goals, 1990-2005,
United Nations Statistics Division
(14) The Progress Paradox, Gregg Easterbrook, Random House 2004, p78
(15) Happiness, Richard Layard, Allen Lane 2005. For a critique of
such arguments see Economic misery, by Benjamin Hunt
(16) Quoted in 'Contented cowboys', Wall Street Journal Europe, 17
(17) For an alternative explanation of social pessimism see Culture of
Fear, Frank Furedi, Cassell 1997
(18) A restraint of liberty, George Monbiot, Guardian, 24 May
2005. Monbiot argues that the threat of climate change means restraint
is necessary. For more on Monbiot's anti-consumption approach see
Recipe for austerity, by Daniel Ben-Ami
(19) The True and Only Heaven, Christopher Lasch, Norton 1991, p17
(20) Our Common Future, Oxford University Press 1987, p43
(21) Report of the United Nations Conference on Environment and
Development, Rio de Janeiro, 3-14 June 1992
(22) Consumption for Human Development, UN Human Development
(23) See President's Council on Sustainable Development
(24) See Population and Consumption Task Force Report
(25) Global poverty down by half since 1981 but progress uneven as
economic growth eludes many countries, World Bank, 23 April 2004
(26) See Ageing: the future is affordable, by Phil Mullan
(27) The Hidden Persuaders, Vance Packard, Penguin 1960
(28) See the Adbusters website
(29) The Theory of the Leisure Class, Thorstein Veblen, 1899,
chapter IV. For a discussion of Thorstein Veblen, see Conspicuous
consumption, a century on, by George Blecher
(30) The popularity of EF Schumacher's Small is Beautiful, first
published in 1973, is a signal of growing pervasiveness of attacks on
(31) What's the Matter with Kansas?, Metropolitan 2005, p127
(32) 'Shopping and tut-tutting', Will Hutton, Observer, 4 September
2005. Hutton then makes the mistake of arguing that the way to counter
the attack on consumption is simply to embrace shopping.
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