16 July 2013

Research: the weight loss industry's profits

For most of my life I thought that the business pages, and business libraries, were places to avoid and now the tables have turned to the extent that I actively seek them out.

Market and Market's recent publication is one of the reasons why. It has the catchy title of North America Weight Loss/Obesity Management Market – [Meal Replacements, Slimming Centers, Nutrition & Psychological Consultancy, Treadmill, Ellipticals, Strength Training, Gastric Bypass, Intragastric Balloon System, StomaphyX] – Forecasts to 2017. It runs to about 200 pages and has 123 tables. If you want to read the whole thing you'll have to shell out US$4650 (approximately £3081) for a single user licence. This is why you need a good business library, you can go there and read this kind of stuff for free.

North America Weight Loss/Obesity Management Market – Forecasts to 2017 identifies in painstaking detail the key players profiting from our fat bodies and the wider cultural fear and hatred of fatness. They're not always the corporations you would expect: Weight Watchers is up there, but then so is Pepsi and Coca-Cola, and there is a huge market for medical products (which presumably provides the impetus for shutting down any talk of fat beyond medicalisation, say as a community of people, or as culture). North America has the most developed market for weight loss in the world, worth about US$104 billion in 2012, according to the report. This market influences weight loss elsewhere, including through public healthcare, for example in the UK, where I live, the National Health Service spent nearly £4 million on a contract with Weight Watchers, according to a Channel 4 report. This in a context of austerity and service cuts.

As a fat activist, North America Weight Loss/Obesity Management Market – Forecasts to 2017, and others like it, make fascinating reading.

'The weight loss industry' is often invoked in fat activism as a monolithic abstraction, an overwhelming entity that can never be slain, but it actually comprises of multinational corporations who operate in ferocious competition with each other. Reading the names of the companies onscreen is weirdly comforting, it makes the industry less of a phantom and more of a series of organisations who need to learn that their exploitation of fat people, and of fatphobia, has to stop.

What interests me further is how this particular report confirms my own research and that of others within Fat Studies. It reiterates the usual argument that the world is getting fatter and Something Must Be Done, but demonstrates that the 2000 World Health Organization report on obesity, authored by industry beneficiaries, was critical to the explosion of the weight loss market, now built on a rhetoric of epidemiology, which governments have bought into. The global obesity epidemic is and was a marketing strategy. This is worth invoking every time someone pipes up about the infallibility of obesity research and the 'scientific truth' which justifies the shoddy treatment of fat people in healthcare and beyond.

Activists might also find this report compelling because it exposes the industry's weak spots. These are:

a) Companies are afraid that people will want their money back because they sell products that do not fulfil their promises.

b) New weight loss surgeries are appearing all the time, there are many technological developments. But these are experimental surgeries, sold to desperate people, and they often go wrong and have dreadful side-effects, which the companies try and downplay. They are terrified of being sued and exposed.

c) Unethical marketing strategies permeate the industry. This is an industry vulnerable to litigation on the basis of being mis-sold products, of services backfiring, or other consumer complaints. If I was starting out in a career now, I would seriously think about becoming a lawyer representing clients of any size who want to take these muthas down.

d) I've saved the best until last: low cost alternatives mean that people don't buy in to weight loss. This means that every fat clothes swap, swim, get-together, conference, party, yoga class, zine, or whatever, that you organise, no matter how small, takes apart the weight loss industry. Low cost alternatives, the bedrock of fat activism, directly threaten weight loss industry profits. I've said this before and I'll say it again, because it needs repeating: they need us a lot more than we need them.

This post is already quite long but I want to round it up by wondering a bit more about how activists might make use of this kind of market information.

I have heard stories about activists buying one share of a company so that they can vote on stakeholder issues, or throw a spanner in the works, but I don't know if anyone ever did that with weight loss corporations in real life. If it's anything more than a rumour, please fill me in.

Boycotts and consumer activism seem obvious strategies, but fat activism lacks much of a critique of capitalism, even though the early activists spelled this out as one of the intersecting forces of oppression affecting fat people the most. Fatshion originated as such a critical voice but it soon became appropriated by a voracious consumerism. Indeed, the mass rallying of supporters to enact a boycott seems unlikely in a movement that is fragmented, and where activism is more likely to manifest through ambiguous individualised moments than collective bargaining.

Perhaps this is a long-winded way of saying that the field is open, and that there are extensive possibilities for challenging and disrupting these industries, despite their power and the massive profits they generate with presumed impunity out of our flesh.

Meanwhile, go to the library.


Channel 4 (2013) 'NHS spent nearly £4 million referring patients to Weight Watchers', [online], available: http://www.channel4.com/info/press/news/nhs-spent-nearly-4-million-referring-patients-to-weight-watchers [accessed 16 July 2013].

Freespirit, J. and Aldebaran (1973) Fat Liberation Manifesto, Largesse Fat Liberation Archives, Los Angeles/New Haven, CT: The Fat Underground/Largesse Fat Liberation Archives.

Marketsandmarkets.com (2013) North America Weight Loss/Obesity Management Market – [Meal Replacements, Slimming Centers, Nutrition & Psychological Consultancy, Treadmill, Ellipticals, Strength Training, Gastric Bypass, Intragastric Balloon System, StomaphyX] – Forecasts to 2017, PH 2081. Summary, table of contents available: http://www.marketsandmarkets.com/Market-Reports/north-america-weight-loss-obesity-management-market-1213.html

Oliver, J. E. (2006) Fat Politics: The Real Story Behind America's Obesity Epidemic, New York: Oxford University Press US.

World Health Organization (2000) Obesity: Preventing and Managing the Global Epidemic, WHO Technical Report Series 894, Geneva: World Health Organization.

Grateful thanks to Substantia Jones for alerting me to this report. Click her donate button and help her buy a new computer, why dontcha.

08 July 2013

Report: The Worst of Scottee

I've been working on a show called The Worst of Scottee, it's a solo piece by, you guessed it, Scottee, the fat homosexual wunderkind of the British performance scene, instigator of Hamburger Queen, and director of Unhappy Birthday.

The Worst of Scottee, directed by Chris Goode, is an exploration of the performer's most unappealing behaviour, about the lies he's told and the people he's alienated. It's autobiographical, funny and, based on overheard design conversations, is going to look amazing. But it's also gritty; this is part redemption narrative and part: "I told everyone I had AIDS just so they would feel sorry for me." Yeah, he really did that.

My role has been to interview a bunch of people that no longer speak to Scottee because of his atrocious behaviour, to give them space to vent about what a little shit he has been, and maybe to find some insight about his conduct. These interviews have been filmed by Judy Jacob in a studio and will be screened as part of the performance. The interviewees have been very brave in coming forward to speak – and be filmed too – not necessarily knowing who the person is at first, and talking about what went wrong. 

Here's a teaser clip of one of the interviews:

I love to interview people at the best of times, and enjoy the strange crossovers between interviewing, performance and therapy that seem to emerge when I work on one of Scottee's shows. It's been a privilege to hear these people's stories, and to help make a space where reflection, humour, anger, bewilderment can happen relatively safely. It's brilliant to see how transcending the silence that surrounds relationships that ended badly can enable new creative and productive things to grow.

Anyway, enough of the woo for now. What I love about The Worst of Scottee is that it reminds me of how the worst stuff is often the best. I used to think that being fat was the worst thing I could be – wrong! In fat activist culture, there is often an emphasis on being beautiful, worthy, good, healthy, sexy and so on. This is understandable given the desire to counter the daily hatred that many of us face. But my fat liberation includes space for the horrible, the grotesque, the ugly, ridiculous, pathetic losers too. I think that being able to cope with the worst of ourselves is where freedom lies, it's about not having to present a virtuous public face, but being comfortable with our basic humanity, which isn't always pretty. This is where queer theory can be so helpful, it enables people to adore what is classified in by the normals as abhorrent; what's awful is actually great. I really love that topsy-turvy aesthetic and if The Worst of Scottee enables at least one fat queer fuck-up, or anyone else, to feel a bit more comfortable in their skin then I will be very happy.

It's been really great to work with a fat queer performer who is willing to take risks around their identity, and to push for something more. I think it's fantastic when performers with marginalised identities use their power and become advocates for a bigger life for all of us. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Beth Ditto has been such a profound role model for so many fat people; she enables people to imagine something better for themselves. I think Scottee does this through his work too, particularly with this new show and with other projects that will be on their way over the next few years. It feels amazing to be part of a company where fat and queer and working class identity is explicit as a key performance aesthetic.

The show is supported by the Arts Council, and premieres at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, 1-24 August 2013, you can buy tickets online. After that, The Worst of Scottee will be touring around the UK and heads to London Spring 2014. Keep up with the hashtag #WorstofScottee and DO NOT MISS IT.