Do you know a fat person?

Call them obese, huge or fat — the stigma won’t go away. And I’m not sure it should.  Obesity is bad for a person’s health, bad for the planet, bad for fellow airline passengers, and even bad for babies born to obese mothers (which, in turn, is bad for the economy; see NYTimes article).  When something causes this many personal and social problems we usually assume it is not a good thing to have or be.

“But,” some say, “we mustn’t blame the victim.  Obesity isn’t a weakness or a fault; it’s genetic. When we stigmatize people, they suffer even more, and may even avoid seeking help.” There is a kernel of truth to this concern, but it distracts us from the main point: obesity can and should be eliminated over time, through more research, and through attacking many known contributing factors (factors such as the  marketing and subsidizing of unhealthy foods).

The most active researchers who advocate against “weight bias” and “weight stigma” (Kelly Brownell and Rebecca Puhl at Yale, for example) also tell us that the obesity epidemic is growing and the health consequences are horrible.  They do not claim the problem is due to a change in genetics.  People can do a lot to prevent and even treat obesity, without altering genes (see many of my posts in this blog).

An anti-obesity program in Singapore that targeted overweight children was discontinued because of concern about stigma, even though the program was effective (reducing the percentage of overweight children from 14% to 9.5% in fourteen years — 1992 – 2006; click here for more information). I don’t know what should have been done in this case; there are no easy answers.

Outright discrimination against people based on appearance is generally wrong, and fat people should be treated sensitively and humanely, no matter what caused their affliction.  (Many equate stigma with discrimination, but I see a difference between the two concepts.)

Whether or not it reduces stigma, television has recently upped its focus on obesity by producing such shows as “Drop Dead Diva,” “Huge,” “Mike and Molly,” and, of course, “The Biggest Loser.”  A new series starts next month, “Too Fat for Fifteen: Fighting Back,” and at least one other obesity-related series is in the works. See this article for a discussion of how obesity is being addressed on TV.

[The photo at the top of this post is from ABC Family’s series “Huge”]

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3 Responses to “Do you know a fat person?”

  1. peter Says:

    Stigma can mean a marker characteristic of an illness or it can mean a mark of disgrace. Clearly, obese people are saddled with the former definition of a stigmata. I feel that treating that kind of stigmata as a mark of disgrace (the second definition) should be avoided. I just don’t believe that responses that lower a person’s self esteem, are going to help that person help themselves. Obese people already know they stand out and are probably already attaching a negative value to that marker. They don’t need further help in this regard.

  2. Charles Goldman Says:

    I mostly agree with Peter. However, obesity (in most cases) is neither an illness nor a disgrace. What I am opposed to is the movement to change the law to make “weight bias” illegal, as we do gender bias, race bias and bias against those with disabilities. If an obese person has a disability, such as damaged knees requiring a walker, he or she would be covered under existing law.
    Obesity is not like gender, nor is it like race. Another analogy would be the movement to outlaw bias based on sexual orientation. I am in favor of that movement, because it has never been shown that homosexuality in and of itself is harmful (despite the Dr. Rekers of the world, who tried and failed to make the case). Obesity, on the other hand, is proven to be harmful to self and others, so is in another category altogether.

  3. peter Says:

    I’m sympathetic (though not unalterably opposed) to the idea that we don’t need laws making weight bias illegal. I would like to raise two points, however.
    The first point is that I believe many, but not all, obese people feel shame about their obesity. Almost all of our culture’s images about health and happiness show people of normal weight.
    The second point is that I think there is an argument about whether obesity is an illness or not. The argument is similar to the argument about whether alcoholism is an illness. In both cases individual choice is involved, especially initially. Then certain physical processes become involved that can progressively diminish the freedom of an individuals’ choice about their eating and drinking behavior. Perhaps the argument is just about the definition of the word “illness”, and the important thing to understand is the nature of the process.

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