Whether you believe in Bill O’Reilly or Jon Stewart, unless you’re under 10, sighs of relief greet the conclusion of the holidays. As the New Year finally arrives, we seem universally glad it’s all over. We mark the milestone with a systematic calibration of the past year’s achievements and failures, developing a plan for the next 12 months, with a series of sacred vows, many of which will be etched in ego-deflating history by Groundhog Day.
As the festivities wind down and January penetrates the seams of our clothing, along with whatever stoic demeanor we manage, our vulnerability to another, more insidious idea — the quest for perfection — consumes our self-esteem like it’s the last canapé on the tray. Although knocking off a couple of our newly acquired pounds might not be a bad idea, we should be as wary of the $60 billion diet industry as we are of that extra pinch of flesh lurking near our midsection.
More than 100 million Americans — 85 percent of them women — are estimated to make four or five annual attempts at dieting, a demographic enticing to red-blooded capitalists, salivating over an infusion of post-Christmas cash. They’re looking for ways to bolster their bottom line through creating a weight crisis and subsequently marketing the pills and creams, machines and devices, training programs and trainers, and — if none of this works (which it doesn’t 80 percent of the time) — there’s always cosmetic surgery or mortification-proof clothing (known as vanity sizing), under which we might bury our transgressions.
The negative opinion that 90 percent of women have about their bodies is predictable, considering only 5 percent naturally possess the female body type portrayed in the media. Emaciated runway models look like concentration camp survivors; 53 percent of 13-year-old girls are unhappy with their bodies, and girls as young as 5 think they’re “fat.”
However appalling it is that multinational corporations would seize this crisis as just another opportunity to cash in, it should not be surprising. A small dose of paranoia and a little digging reveal many of these same conglomerates profit handsomely through an almost seamless continuum that begins with agribusiness, cycles through the fast food industry, and eventually lands with a resounding thud at Shame Central, the myriad companies ostensibly designed to keep you thin. What mostly gets thinner is your wallet.
A small example: Weight Watchers is owned by the Heinz corporation, which also owns a portion of Burger King. Slimfast was acquired by Unilever, as was Ben & Jerry’s. And Nestle — the most profitable and one of the most reviled companies in the world — is the proud owner of Jenny Craig. In fashioning a win-win strategy (for them), these industries utilize essentially the same creepy business plan as Goldman Sachs.
Rather than dumping toxic assets, certain to fail, they dump toxic, high-sugar, high-fat, high-carb food, guaranteed to add pounds, compromise health and — most importantly — steer you back in their direction for the support that, thanks to them, you need to slim down. And like Goldman, which earned billions of dollars betting against the success of the very investors on whom it unloaded its garbage, the incestuous binge-purge industry gets paid when you put it on and again when you try to take it off.
Although there is a well-documented relationship between too much of the wrong kinds of food and poor health outcomes, it is difficult to get our minds around the intricate connections between the fast food and weight loss industries. We are urged to mark “diet month,” much as we were encouraged to eat, drink and be merry the previous six weeks. And Valentine’s Day chocolates are already lining the shelves.
If there’s money to be made in certain situations, those situations have a way of replicating themselves like bacteria. Privatize prisons and you get the highest incarceration rate on the planet. Allow the credit card industry free rein and millions of people wind up trillions of dollars in debt. And if Adderall’s earning potential is well up in the eight-figure range, skyrocketing ADHD diagnoses are a certainty.
With Americans balancing legitimate health concerns with media-generated confusion about the way they look not being the way they should look, the last thing they need is to have their lives clandestinely orchestrated by corporations that think of them as nothing more than prey.
Their singular focus is on how to generate more money, and they’ll generate it however they can: Yum Brands operates Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC. Their CEOs made $183 million between them in 2011, which — because it was labeled as compensation for “performance” — saved the company $33 million through tax breaks. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, servers and minimum wage employees needed $650 million in Medicaid and other public assistance to make ends meet (two-thirds of a billion dollars of public money before selling a single diseased chicken leg).
A breathtaking reminder of the moral void inhabited by industries that profit astronomically from both obesity and anorexia and the unlikely possibility they have anyone’s best interests in mind but their own.
Walt Amses is a writer and former educator from North Calais.
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