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.


Unknown said...

This is such an interesting and important post. I am new to the fat activism scene, but I have to say that much as I enjoy looking at pretty pictures with cute plus size clothing and reading manifestos about personal empowerment, I think there is a lack of debate about why and how the oppression of fat people work. Your work being an important exception. Capitalism is a monumental factor in explaining why many of us are stuck in the demeaning and vicious circle of weight cycling. They play on our fears to market useless products. I wish I could sue these, now more concrete, companies for taking my money and spitting me right in my face.

Harry Minot said...

There's an outfit called PR Newswire which originates puff "news" articles which then are "picked up" by regular press outlets. They very often are about diet drugs and bariatric surgery. But they also generate "business" pieces for companies which seek to inflate their stack prices by creating false optimism about their prospects. And so the world of journalism is corrupted.

Dr Charlotte Cooper said...

Thanks Michelle.

Dr Charlotte Cooper said...

Harry, it would be good to draw a systems map of how this stuff gets circulated and reproduced.

Sleepydumpling said...

Charlotte you always have perfect timing with your posts to give me a kick in the pants when I'm struggling with my activism. Just when I'm feeling like it's the same old same old and I'm not making a difference in any way, your post is just the shot in the arm I need. Thank you.

And you make this old librarian very happy!

Dr Charlotte Cooper said...

Ha! Glad to be of service, excellent one.