What Does Capitalism Have to Do With Body Image Anyway?

Tax Credits via Flickr
Tax Credits via Flickr

By Grace Manger

Recently, a visiting psychotherapist who specializes in eating disorder recovery gave a lecture on my college campus. As the facilitator of my school’s Women, Food, and Bodies group and as someone who wrote her thesis on pro–disordered eating websites, I was expected by campus faculty and staff to attend. Truthfully, I was curious to hear what this woman had to say, despite my strong desire to remain curled up in a blanket in my apartment at 8 p.m. on a school night. Or really, any night.

It took this speaker all of three minutes to present to us her “revolutionary” approach to eating disorder recovery that “no one really thinks about”: a Health at Every Size approach. You know, that best-selling book and fat-positive movement that no one’s ever heard of. I clenched my jaw and considered sneaking out the back. Instead, I settled in for two hours of a surface-level analysis of our country’s tradition of fatphobia.

Don’t get me wrong. Of course I believe that fat people can be healthy and thin people can be unhealthy and we should never judge someone based on how much space they occupy. I’m pretty sure I would be kicked off of the core Adios Barbie team if I didn’t hold these beliefs at the center of my activism.

However, I’m bored and growing impatient with the dominant discourse of valuing an extremely limited definition of health over all else. I’m frustrated, because I think we can all do better to challenge these ideas one step further, and get rid of moralistic judgment entirely.

Being preoccupied with health — yours or someone else’s — brings along a slew of problems that are anything but healthy. Society teaches us that healthy bodies are accepted bodies (more on that in a second) and that monitoring our health and the health of others should be our top priority. However, this is precisely why orthorexia nervosa has appeared on the landscape of eating disorders in recent years, affecting those whose obsession with optimal health becomes actively damaging and unhealthy. Tell me again how teaching those who struggle with disordered eating to shift their obsession from their weight to an abstract (and socially constructed) idea of health helps them lead happier, more well-rounded lives?

In a similar vein, fitspiration crowds our magazine covers and social media timelines, heralded as “healthy encouragement.” As the folks at Beauty Redefined argue, though, fitspiration is nothing more than thinspiration in sheep’s clothing. While thinspiration is meant to inspire us to be thin, fitspiration inspires us to be “fit,” often through images of sports bra–clad women and quotes like “Unless you puke, faint, or die — keep going.” (Actually, I will stop exercising whenever I want, and way before I think I’m going to die, thank you very much.) These images, quotes, and the fitspo movement as a whole are no better than media that encourages us to be thin at any cost. Both objectify women’s bodies by focusing only on fragmented body parts as opposed to the entire form, all while representing a commodified and one-size-fits-all version of beauty and fitness. Both shame viewers for not being more like the societal ideal. Both leave us feeling completely inadequate as we are.

Beyond this, how do we even define health in the first place? Most people think of health as an objective state of being: You are healthy when your blood pressure is a certain number, or you have x amount of body fat, or your body mass index is below a certain number (but do not even get me started on how the BMI is completely bogus). Health is something doctors can determine through a test or a number, right? Doctors are always correct, right? If we aren’t healthy (or actively working towards getting healthy), we are lazy and burdens on society, right?

Yeah, let’s break this down and talk about our for-profit capitalist state. Stay with me here — I know some of you might be thinking, “Grace, how could this possibly be about capitalism?!” And my answer is, obviously: Everything is about capitalism. At least that’s what my Anthropology professor keeps telling me.

In reality, health is a completely subjective concept that people in power (corporations, mostly, because they are the ones who really run the show and are apparently people) create and distribute through products and promises of happiness and success. Society’s definition of “health” is, at its root, strategically designed to get us to buy goods and services that promise to make us healthier. Diet companies don’t actually want us to lose weight — they want us to want to lose weight, and keep paying over 60 billion dollars every year to use their service and / or product. Health-related companies don’t care about health; they care about profit. And they use our collective fatphobia to convince us to keep playing the capitalist game.

And we do it — we keep on buying things. We keep consuming not only products but also ideas centered on the belief that our health — or lack thereof — is the most important part of ourselves. We are so convinced that being unhealthy makes us lazy burdens that it has become hegemonic, or normalized to the point that we cannot even imagine it being any other way. Hegemony is a telltale sign that those in power have successfully tricked and manipulated us for their own gain and to maintain the status quo. After all, when our own oppression is so normalized that we no longer even notice it, how will we ever fight back?

Ultimately, this preoccupation is meant to distract us from our own oppression. As Naomi Wolf writes in The Beauty Myth (1990):

“A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.”

It doesn’t matter if we are losing weight to be “skinny” or losing weight to be “healthy” — we are still spending our time, energy, and money participating in the same socio-political structure that exists to oppress us.

Let’s take the focus off our bodies entirely. Let’s not tell people — especially, for the love of Amy Poehler, those recovering from disordered eating — to shift their obsession from one patriarchal, capitalist ideal to another. Judging someone for their health is still judging someone, and equating health with morality is still body policing, masked as a “public health concern.” Our preoccupation with health needs to end before any of us stand a chance of changing a capitalist society fixated on obedience and productivity of healthy and able bodies.

“Health,” the way we know it today, is nothing more than a social construct meant to uphold capitalism and continue our oppression. And the sooner we realize that, the sooner we can break free of this capitalist game.