A small bit of business news could be easily overlooked, but it says a lot about the failure of the self-help industry and its close bedfellows, fitness and dieting programs. Walmart announced the purchase of ELOQUII, a plus-size women’s fashion start-up that has had great success selling online fashionable clothing for women who wear size 14 and above. Walmart obviously knows what it’s doing. Women’s plus-size fashion is one of the fastest-growing parts of the clothing industry with an estimated annual income of over $20 billion. Remarkably, and hidden from the mass marketing we see everywhere else, more than half of U.S. women wear size 14 or higher (men, by the way, are just as large). Most retailers, I’m told, ignore women’s preferences for fashionable alternatives in the plus-size category.
While I certainly do not want to get into debates over the correct body-mass index or individual and cultural definitions of beauty, the issue for me is that our growing girth should not be happening in the first place. The self-help, fitness and diet industries have been making billions of dollars promising solutions that simply don’t work. Studies that rely on assessments of individuals by medical professionals show that the number of overweight adults in the United States has jumped from 30 percent at the turn of the millennium, to 40 percent in 2018. That is not even the most alarming statistic. Fully two-thirds of American adults are now either overweight or obese. And all of this is taking place during an unprecedented increase in dieting programs, self-improvement seminars, and shelves chock-full of books oozing with advice for healthy, happy living. As if all of this isn’t bad enough, the recent additions to this canon of “fake” promises is a bunch of in-your-face titles. They may have catchy titles, but the ideas within will most assuredly, and miserably fail.
The reason they don’t work is simple, especially when we look at the emerging science of resilience. The problem with self-help is that it places most of the responsibility for change on individuals, and individuals are notoriously difficult to change. If we really want to address problems like obesity, we are going to need to shift our focus to changing the world around people rather than changing people themselves.
And that means government intervention to limit the size of Slurpees sold at the local convenience store. Calorie counts on menus. Taxes on sugar. It also means less punitive strategies like better urban design so people have pleasant places to walk and the sidewalks they need to feel safe. It means making public transit a great experience so people will put aside their cars and take the extra steps they need to walk between bus stops and office cubicles. It also means removing foods with empty calories from the checkout line at the supermarket, and giving people on fixed incomes easier access to fresh produce (government efforts to provide fresh vegetables in the arctic has been one way to address epidemic levels of diabetes in those communities). Simply put, we know that people become their best selves and make better choices when the opportunity to make an informed decision is there in front of them.
If Walmart is buying a plus-size line of clothing, you can bet they know something the rest of us are shy to admit. That rates of obesity will continue to rise in the US, Canada and other economically developed nations no matter how many yoga mats and diet shakes are sold on the home shopping channel. None of these personal efforts are going to create sustained change unless the world around us also changes in ways that make it easier to live a healthier life.
MICHAEL UNGAR, Ph.D. is a family therapist, a researcher at Dalhousie University and author of I Still Lofve You: Nine Things Troubled Kids Need From Their Parents.