This past week, James Corden, host of The Late Late Show, took on Bill Maher in a now-viral monologue about the problem with fat-shaming.
In Maher's original segment, which aired at the beginning of September on his HBO show, Real Time with Bill Maher, the comedian tore into body positivity culture. "In August, 53 Americans died from mass shootings," said Maher. "Terrible right? You know how many died from obesity? 40,000. Fat-shaming doesn't need to end. It needs to make a comeback."
Maher bemoaned that fat people claim they're perfect the way they are, despite the fact that obesity is objectively unhealthy, ultimately concluding that fat people should be shamed because that will lead them to do something about their weight.
New Rule: The Fudge Report | Real Time with Bill Maher (HBO) www.youtube.com
To Maher's only salient point: Obesity is, indeed, an American epidemic that continues to worsen and deserves to be taken just as seriously as school shootings and opioids. Unfortunately, Maher falls on the wrong side of every other point.
First of all, Maher's view of the body positivity movement, at least as it exists in a mainstream context, is thoroughly incorrect. Nobody in their right mind is claiming that being overweight is healthy. There's a huge difference between encouraging people to love their body and embrace their flaws as they continue to grow and work on themselves and saying that they should actively engage in unhealthy behavior. The body positivity movement is all about the former. The latter is a straw man.
Similarly, Maher's claim that making fun of fat people is actually for their benefit has persisted as a justification for trollish bullying on every nasty online forum since forever. This is demonstrably false. Studies have shown that bullying people about their weight negatively influences their likelihood to exercise and that shame is an ineffective motivator for fitness. If anything, making fun of fat people makes them less likely to lose weight.
But the truth is that the vast majority of people bullying fat people don't actually care about the well-being of their targets––they just want an excuse to be mean. All the studies in the world wouldn't convince them otherwise.
James Corden's monologue drove this point home, drawing from his personal experience as someone who struggles with weight issues. "There's a common and insulting misconception that fat people are stupid and lazy, and we're not," said Corden. "We get it. We know that being overweight isn't good for us, and I've struggled my entire life trying to manage my weight and I suck at it. I've had good days and bad months." Corden proceeds to discuss the complexity of the obesity epidemic in America, including its ties with poverty and the absurdity of the notion that bullying fat people will somehow lead to positive change.
James Corden Responds to Bill Maher's Fat Shaming Take www.youtube.com
Corden is entirely correct about the link between obesity in the U.S. and poverty. It's no mere coincidence that America's largest obesity disparities fall along income lines and racial lines, disproportionately affecting black and Hispanic people who make under $36,000 annually. Poorer white communities also face disproportionate obesity margins compared to their wealthier peers.
The worst part is that poor communities face so many roadblocks to obtaining resources that encourage healthy living habits that it's hard to even pinpoint which factors are the most damaging. For example, healthy foods are more expensive than unhealthy foods, so there's the issue of affordability. But accessibility is also a problem, as many impoverished communities are considered "food deserts," defined as "parts of the country vapid of fresh fruits, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods."
Then there's the fact that the U.S. allows companies to put cheap, dangerous additives in food that aren't allowed in other countries. This results in certain companies altering their recipes for overseas sales, leaving U.S. consumers with unhealthy products that food producers know are bad. Moreover, due to the U.S. spending billions of dollars to subsidize non-perishable grains like corn, the country ends up with a glut of high-fat, high-sodium processed foods (i.e. high-fructose corn syrup) which are very cheap but terrible for the human body.
Couple the above with time restraints (many people living in poverty work multiple jobs to make ends meet), limited gym access, no child care access, and lack of transportation and the American obesity epidemic becomes a lot clearer. Of course, there are many, many reasons why an overweight person may be overweight; and it is true that with proper diet and dedication, the vast majority of people are technically capable of leading a healthier lifestyle (barring those with rare genetic abnormalities).
The point is that developing a healthier lifestyle may be technically possible, but it is not necessarily feasible for everyone, and fat-shaming someone for an issue that likely goes far beyond the scope of just eating healthier is not doing anybody any favors. Fat-shaming is, quite simply, cruel, and upon closer inspection, it's classist, too.