The obesity epidemic has attracted much attention on The Situationist. Although obesity is commonly attributed to “bad choices” and “personal failings,” recent findings in social science suggest that social interaction patterns, economic circumstances, and environmental factors prove far more explanatory.
This disconnect between a widely-shared, but mainly erroneous public perception of obesity’s causes and an often overlooked or dismissed set of actual explanations posses troubling consequences for public policy. As Philip Zimbardo writes in his recent Situationist article, “Common Cause: Combating the Epidemics of Obesity and Evil,” by focusing on disposition largely at the expense of situation, most government efforts to curb obesity are bound to fail:
Societal attempts to combat obesity and fight evil focus on modifying the individuals themselves through a variety of programs, penalties, and punishments. There’s a problem. If indeed, obesity and evil were solely matters of character, disposition, or metabolism, the centuries’ old struggles to resist evil and more recent medical-educational programs to combat obesity should have yielded significant reductions in both. Unfortunately, obesity is now at epidemic proportions in the U.S., while evil remains rampant across the globe.
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[W]e have misidentified the enemy. Social science, like history, has demonstrated that the most powerful causal forces behind everything from prisoner abuse to ‘supersizing’ are located less in conscious individual choices and more in the situational and systemic factors that envelop individuals at given times and places. The prevailing notion that personal, inner dispositions are the primary causal factors involved in bad behavior or obesity needs to be reexamined.
Generally, our obesity-related writings on the Situationist examine the topic as it pertains to the United States. Obesity, of course, has emerged as a problem in many other nations, though the United States appears to suffer the most from it. In a fascinating piece, Maureen Fan of the Washington Post studies how the government and society of China have reacted to rising rates of obesity. To illustrate, she studies the singing group, Qian Jin Zu He, which is comprised of four obese Chinese women in their 20s. We excerpt portions of her article below.
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On the street, they are often the target of laughter or cruel whispers. Individually, they have all been denied jobs or their parents’ praise.
On stage, however, the four members of a singing group known as Qian Jin Zu He are strong and confident, belting out their signature rap song, “So What If I’m Fat,” passing out photographs of themselves and signing autographs.
The lead singer, 26-year-old Xiao Yang, is 375 pounds; the others in the group are between about 200 and 300 pounds. Together, they tour the country, performing at nightclubs, paint factories, garment industry conventions and shopping malls.
Their success has been modest, but given the powerful discrimination against the obese in China, Xiao said her discovery by a talent agent has been “like a tree branch saving me in the water.”
The story of precisely how Xiao’s group came to be is a window onto the challenges of being obese in a country where the ideal form of feminine beauty is delicate, girlish and small-boned. As China has grown more prosperous, the percentage of overweight citizens here has also grown. Still, those who are obese continue to struggle in relative solitude. Only about 7 percent of the population in China is considered obese, compared with 30 percent of the population in the United States.
Not long ago, having overweight children in China was viewed as a sign of prosperity. Even today, grandparents who can remember famines, especially in the late 1950s and early 1960s, tend to spoil and overfeed their grandchildren.
But chubby is no longer in fashion here, and image has become more important than ever. Summer boot camps for the overweight are springing up. In an increasingly competitive market, employers demand height and weight information from job candidates. And in higher education, fitness can now be a reason to reject college applicants, officials say, all other factors being equal.
“Chinese people now have a higher requirement for fashion and healthiness,” said Wang Zeqing, a social psychologist who is leading a nationwide project analyzing the psychological health of Chinese. “Being fat, in people’s minds, means not trendy and healthy.”
Discrimination against the obese is inevitable, Wang said: “It’s how society is now. Employers have countless choices. They can easily turn down a fat person and choose a better-looking one.”
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The group’s name is a play on words. One meaning refers to a courteous expression for another person’s daughter or, in ancient times, a thousand pieces of gold. But no one who sees the band perform can mistake its second meaning: 1,000 jin, a Chinese measurement that would translate to just over 1,000 pounds.
These days, the band is making more TV appearances than before, on cooking shows and alongside Olympic wrestlers. It performed in more than a dozen provinces last year.
But as Qian Jin Zu He crisscrosses China, the band sometimes meets less welcoming audiences. Once, a spectator thought Xiao was wearing a fat suit and asked if he could test his theory by burning her skin with a cigarette. Another audience member came onstage to trip her.
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Though the audience is appreciative, the women of Qian Jin Zu He say their skits are often an uncomfortable reminder of the rude comments they get each day when not in costume.
“I rode a bicycle home the other day and a person walking close to me said, ‘Wah, you’re so fat!’ I cursed him in my heart and pretended not to hear,” said Shen, who said she once lost a job in hotel sales because she was overweight.
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For the rest of the article, click here. For further discussion on the mistaken but dominant dispositionist attributions made regarding obesity and the actual situationist sources of the epidemic, see Situationist Contributors, Adam Benforado, Jon Hanson, and David Yosifon’s law review article entitled “Broken Scales: Obesity and Justice in America,” which can be read by clicking here.