The language of Healthism is so intertwined with notions of moral value that we tend to take its dicta as fact. This can lead to unfortunate reporting of scientific results, both by researchers in ‘conclusion’ sections, and by health reporters.
The most recent example of this is a study (h/t Regan at Dances with Fat) that shows people eat more calories after looking at pictures of larger people than say, a picture of a lamp or a person of ‘normal’ weight. This was translated by the study researchers and health reporters to suggest that people exhibit ‘unhealthy’ behaviors after exposure to fat images, with a not-too-subtle additional suggestion that fat images are harmful and fat is contagious through the power of bad example. Typical paranoid fodder for the moral panic.
Let’s just assume that the conclusions were sound, that people indeed do, in a vacuum, eat more calories after viewing pictures of larger people than they do after viewing pictures of ‘normal’ sized people or lamps. How can we deconstruct what’s going on? And how might we suggest that this kind of behavior isn’t, shockingly, necessarily a bad thing?
Let’s try a thought experiment. Let’s suppose we take a group of chronic dieters who self-report to hate their bodies and fear fatness.* Subject them to a slideshow of people who are even thinner, and who aren’t shown eating. As a bonus, the imagery is presented in a way as to suggest that thinness is what makes these models attractive and worthy of love and the good things in life. Directly afterwards, ask the study participants about their feelings towards their own bodies, and see how many candies they take from a bowl.
My guess, based on the literature of similar studies and good old-fashioned logic? They’ll feel even worse about their bodies, and will tend to restrict their eating more than usual.
Then, show the same group of people a slideshow of images from, say, Adipositivity and some fatshion blogs. Show them fat people in attractive poses and lighting, in pictures meant to suggest that they are attractive, and worthy of the good things in life. Would it be any surprise if the study participants, post-slideshow, felt better about their bodies, and tended to relax their chronic restriction a tad?
What I want to know: why is the second scenario supposed to be the ‘unhealthy’ one?
The power of Healthist language and concepts is much more pervasive than we think. Its stranglehold on common sense and higher reason — its doublespeak — ties even those who make a living researching these things into knots of contradiction.
*I chose this group to make the comparison clearer. It applies to a more general group of participants since the majority of women in Western culture have dieted, and are inundated with messages about how thinness is the same as healthiness, godliness, and worth. Men are increasingly being marketed to in a similar way, and more men diet now than ever before.