Essay on Healthism and Its Influence Across Western Societies

Published: 2021/11/12
Number of words: 2332


In the preceding decade, Australia, just like numerous other Western countries, has experienced a spike in fitness and health interests among its citizens. Of particular importance is the role played by appearance. Appearance motivates a healthy diet and physical activity. This essay reveals that good looks are the paramount inspiration behind weight control and training routines. Robert Crawford coined the word healthism, arguing that healthism elevates the idea of health to superior value. In other words, we place a moral value on actions, food or people that we perceive are healthy or unhealthy (Crawford, 1980). Healthism shows up in a number of places, but we often see it with issues that are perceived to be controllable, such as, alcoholism addiction, smoking and obesity. These concerns often become what researchers call a moral panic. A moral panic is when a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to the societal values and interests. In moral panics, someone in power starts proclaiming that an issue or set of people are a threat to the society’s well-being. Politicians and the media reinforce the idea by speaking about it in provoking terms, in return, the populous demands a response.

The influence of healthism

Since Robert Crawford defined healthism, it has been on the rise for many reasons. We can trace some of these reasons when we look at the realm of fat and the obesity epidemic moral panic. In 1997, William Dilts, the Director of the Division for Nutritional and Physical Activity in the CDC, was the first to proclaim obesity as an epidemic. After that time, we see healthism in regards to body size. Body size in this case shows up as a replacement for other prejudices, as a scapegoat for rising costs of healthcare and because the medical pharmaceutical complex has discovered a good healthism campaign can create big profits.

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We can easily conclude that healthism has been used in some cases as a replacement for other prejudices. Most importantly, legally you cannot discriminate based on sex, race, or age. However, you can discriminate based on body size in all but a few places in Australia. Therefore, fat is often used as an excuse to practice other forms of discrimination. For instance, white men are much less likely to experience negative effects from a large body, where women and people of color experience more negative effects. Men have lower levels of mistreatment by strangers; in fact, men are seldom affected by weight bias until they reach a BMI of 35, well into the obese category. People of color are the most affected. O’Brien et al. (2013) opined that fat people of color experience more prejudice in health care.

Discrimination based on body size becomes evident when the spectrum shifts to women. Women begin experiencing negative effects of body-shaming from a body size of 27 BMI, significantly lower than men. Lyons et al. (2008) found women’s wealth could be considerably affected by body size. Feminist scholar argued that as women have gained rights, their bodies have been more and more controlled. Women gained the right to vote in the 1920s and shortly thereafter, the flapper body style, boy-ishly slim physique and lurking breasts became fashionable. As the women started gained even more rights in the 1960s, the twiggy style, a slim boy-ish look, came into fashion. From that time on, an inverse correlation is noted, in that, as women gained autonomy and power, the accepted body size became smaller and smaller. A study argues that such restrictions on body size are used to control women. Separate studies say that dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history. A slim population is regarded as an attractable one. The current political regime reveals just how fat has been used to practice illegal discrimination. Now that racism and sexism are on the rise again, thanks in part to the acceptance by those currently in power, fat is getting less attention. When racism and sexism again become unacceptable, which will happen, fat is likely to rise again as a replacement.

Another reason behind the rise of healthism is that medical costs are sky-rocketing. Numerous studies have been released showing how fat people cause more in terms of medicine. These tests are often problematic in how they determine their numbers. Additionally, these statistics often contain the cause of trying to reduce fat, including the cost of surgery and diet programs. The statistics also include the more insidious cost of medical fat prejudice such as ordering unneeded test. As Reagan Chestene, a professional dancer and a fat person once said, “let us remember that the costs of obesity are not the same as the costs of obesity hysteria.” By convincing people that fat individuals are costing them too much, the medical pharmaceutical complex shifted the blame for a rising health care to a vulnerable population, with little power to fight back. Lately, there appears to be a slight reduction in the focus on the idea that these “evil” fat people are costing everyone. This may be because as a society, we have begun to recognize corporate greed and how that plays a significant role in our soaring medical costs.

The third reason is profit. To understand the situation, the whole obesity epidemic has been one of the healthiest campaigns culminating in a moral panic. According to research, we have gotten a little heavier, about 65 to 11 pounds since the last generation. We have also grown about an inch taller. For the last couple of decades, the baby boomers have been moving through the 50s and 60s. The human body tends to gain some weight in this time period as a protection against catastrophic disease. As the baby boomers edge out of that range, we might see this number drop a bit. One of the primary reasons for the obesity epidemic however, was that literally overnight; 32 million people went from either normal to over-weight or from over-weight to obese. That happens when obesity is re-defined as was done by the AMA on 16th June 1998. Now the medical establishment could rightfully claim that there was a dramatic rise in the incidence of over-weight and obese people. The terms obese and over-weight are phrased that way in medical literature. The medical establishments’ use of the words is the reason why this essay uses the word fat instead.

Over-weight and obese are medical terms with arbitrarily shifting definitions that the medical establishments use to label people as diseased, the AMA having defined obesity as a disease in 2013. Fat is just a descriptor, just like tall or blonde, associating it with greedy, lazy, smelly, gluttonous and the like. Scholars are choosing to reclaim the word, stripping it of its negative connotations. This obesity epidemic was created by the medical establishments because trying to make people slender is a big money-maker. In fact, according to financial institutions, the dietary industry made 60.5 billion in 2013. It did drop to 59.8 billion in 2015 but that is a great deal of money in revenue.

Profit Off Cycle

Next up, we look at how the Profit Off Cycle works. A person goes on a diet and loses weight. The levels of hormones that help an individual feel full decreases. Inversely, the levels of hormones that help one feel hungry increases, leading to weight gain. Research shows that this person feels guilt and starts the process all over again. Studies argue that each time this happens; the person is likely to gain weight in the process, ending up fatter than they started. A separate study found out even when a person maintains the weight loss behavior, the weight is likely to come back on. It is important to note that a person in the obese category has a less than one percent chance of ever regaining normal weight. In fact, there is no scientific evidence that shows that long-term weight loss is achievable for the majority of people. What is in the public domain evidences the fact that fat is primarily genetic and is controlled by quite complicated factors.

Despite all the misinformation about how obesity kills early, it does not. In fact, over-weight people actually tend to live the longest with normal weight and obese coming in about the same in second place. This according to multiple large population studies including studies done in the United States of America, Canada, Japan and Australia. The disease does not kill, the product fails 99 percent of the time, and people buy the product again and again crediting the pill or weight loss program with any success and blaming themselves for any failure (Matharu et al., 2014).

Sisyphean Imperative or Bind

The Profit Off Cycle leads to the fat individual to experience a Sisyphean Imperative or Bind. This is a demand that the individual succeeds at an exhausting and futile task, one that must be performed over and over again, before being considered worthy to receive what others are granted automatically. It creates a vicious cycle where the fat individual can never truly succeed in reaching acceptance. Many fat people spend their lives in this cycle of weight loss and weight gain. Part of the frustration with this situation is that fat bodies are not inherently unhealthy. We have already noted earlier that over-weight people live the longest and habits matter whatever the body size. It is noteworthy to know that fat people who eat well and exercise are actually healthier than thin people who do not.

Linda Bacon, a nutrition professor, argues that eating better and exercising balances health indicators like blood pressure and blood sugar, even when this habits do not lead to weight loss, which they often do not. So then why do we associate weight with being unhealthy? Since depression and some diseases such as thyroid disease can cause weight gain, we tend to associate fat with disease. Reports from the media and other sources constantly tell how obesity causes type-2 diabetes. However, research suggests that weight gain is a symptom of diabetes rather than a cause, especially since thin individuals get diabetes as well. In fact, there is not a single disease that only fat people get, scholarly studies have revealed. “When a fat person is sick, they have to fight to get a diagnosis rather than a diet”, just to borrow the phrase by fat activist, Marilyn Winn. Research studies across the globe are filled with person after person who went to a doctor, only to be told to lose weight, when actually they had diseases such as thyroid disease and cancer. Some of them had to fight for years to get treated often getting treatment only after their disease had progressed considerably.

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The effects of healthism

How does this healthism affect fat people? Fat people are perceived as inferior by society. They are less likely to get a job or promotion. When they are employed, they are forced to settle for lower salaries and also lack access to proper health care. Persons who are dealing with prejudices can have a situation called minority stress. Minority stress is the relationship between minority and dominant values and the resulting conflict with the social environment experienced by minority group members. According to studies, it is often caused by all the little issues that marginalized people must negotiate everyday leading to a form of complex PTSD(Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) called race-based PTSD. All this can serve to lower a fat person’s esteem. Markedly, the constant prejudice also leads to poor health outcomes (Rysst, 2010).

Mitigation measures that should be put by society

To some level, the society is aware that it treats fat people poorly. This is shown by how many people are terrified to become fat. The society can help alleviate healthism. People can start by realizing that they cannot tell anyone’s health by their looks. The only thing anyone can diagnose by looking at a fat person is their own level of prejudice towards fat people. The society needs to quit judging others health and seeing others as inferior because of anything to do with their health. The people can think about the rhetoric they hear especially if a particular group is being vilified. The question to ask is who stands to profit from this situation. That one question can often reveal powerful motives behind situations. Finally, one can learn more about weight prejudice so one can be more aware of how it affects everyone, because if an individual is not fat, he/she might as well fear becoming fat. If an individual is fat, he/she might experience prejudices in the society and in the field of medicine.

In conclusion, healthism has been used to vilify not only the fat people but also other who do not fit in the bracket of the good-looking in the society. Healthism has victimized fat people as a replacement for other prejudices as an excuse for rising medical cost and as a way to profit. Society and the medical profession do not have to work this way.


Crawford, R. (1980). Healthism and the medicalization of everyday life. International journal of health services10(3), 365-388.

Lyons, A., Neelakantan, U. and Scherpf, E. (2008). Gender and marital differences in wealth and investment decisions. Journal of Personal Finance6(4), 57.

Matharu, K., Shapiro, J. F., Hammer, R. R., Kravitz, R. L., Wilson, M. D. and Fitzgerald, F. T. (2014). Reducing obesity prejudice in medical education. Education for Health: Change in Learning and Practice27(3), 231-237.

O’Brien, K. S., Latner, J. D., Ebneter, D. and Hunter, J. A. (2013). Obesity discrimination: the role of physical appearance, personal ideology, and anti-fat prejudice. International Journal of Obesity37(3), 455-460.

Rysst, M. (2010). ‘‘Healthism’’and looking good: Body ideals and body practices in Norway. Scandinavian Journal of Public Health38(5_suppl), 71-80.

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