What is it about obesity that gets under people’s skin? People who are obese are treated as pariahs on society. They’re discriminated against and experience body shaming throughout life. They’re also less likely to get married, have a family and get paid less than their thinner counterparts.
Obese People are Portrayed as Lazy or Villains
The stigma of obesity is all around us. In the media people who are overweight are shown eating unhealthy food, sitting down in unflattering poses and wearing unflattering clothing. In cartoons, movies and TV people with obesity are portrayed as being the villain or being dumb.
Remember the character Newman from Seinfeld? Or before that, Norm from Cheers who never left his seat? As a result, people think it’s okay to treat people with obesity like this. And for people with obesity, it creates a society where they feel unwelcome.
Stigma and body shaming even occurs in health care. A recent example of ‘fat shaming’ was cited in an obituary of a woman who died of cancer. She stated health professionals blamed her symptoms on her weight. As a result, doctors stopped investigating any further.
Years ago some physicians in our clinic discussed starting an obesity clinic. A worthwhile endeavour. However, not all were on board. Some correctly cited challenges with effective treatment, while others didn’t even bother hiding their displeasure for seeing obese people.
Blaming the Individual Ignores Society’s Role in Obesity
Why is there all this stigma towards obesity? It’s no secret many people believe if you’re obese it’s because you’re eating too much and exercising too little. As a result, people think obese people are lazy, don’t care about themselves and can’t control how much they eat. Sure, diet and exercise factor into it, but as I’ve discussed before, it’s far more complex. Factors outside of our control, such as genetics and how our communities are designed also play a role.
About 15 years ago the Canadian government announced $30 million in funding targeted to the prevention and management of obesity. A great step forward. But the public response was quite cynical and can be summed up by a letter in a national paper that simply said: “Eat less and move more. Now give me the $30 million.”
If, as a society, we believe obesity is an individual’s responsibility, then it absolves us of having to do anything. We don’t need to spend resources in creating solutions. We don’t need to consider how our food is made because it’s your fault if you eat it. We don’t need to support the creation of communities that encourage physical activity because it’s your fault if you aren’t active.
This notion of individual responsibility is even promoted in some of the most influential health organizations in the world. The American Heart Association has decided that weight is a health behaviour. This is unconscionable. Fortunately other organizations such as The Obesity Society are pushing back.
Why is there body shaming but no cholesterol shaming?
But diet and exercise also have a role in other risk factors such as high cholesterol, blood pressure or blood sugar. Why don’t we hear of cholesterol shaming, or blood pressure shaming? It seems if we know someone taking medication for their blood pressure or cholesterol we feel sorry for them. We don’t make them feel like losers (nor should we). We’ll even laugh if a person says they can eat even more fatty foods because they’re taking a pill for their cholesterol. Can you imagine what comments would arise if someone who was obese decided to eat more knowing they were taking a medication for weight loss?
The big difference is that you can see obesity, you can’t see high cholesterol and high blood pressure. In our society, image is everything. One only has to browse the supermarket magazine rack or join Instagram to realize the promoted body type is thin. But times are changing with attempts to put people with obesity in a more positive light. The October 2018 issue of Cosmopolitan had as Tess Holliday being on the cover. However, this was met with much criticism and backlash.
Our Society Caters to the Thin
There is also an unconscious bias all around us as our society caters to the thin. This is surprising given that as many as two in five adults may be obese. For example, having chairs with arm rests makes it hard for larger people to comfortably sit in them. It may not be intentional but that’s the result. Yet a simple fix which includes chairs without arm rests or bench seating can go a long way. Of course it’s difficult to see the world through another person’s eyes, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
Air travel is another challenge. You don’t have to be obese to realize how small airplane seats are now. For someone who has a larger build, this is terribly uncomfortable and can affect the space of the person in the next seat. Should obese people be required to purchase two seats, or given two seats for the price of one?
What about the effect on the weight of the plane? In order to keep costs down, airlines are continually trying to reduce weight. At the same time the average weight of passengers has climbed. In larger planes this may not be a problem but for smaller planes, weight allowances must be adhered to for safety reasons. Some have suggested people pay for their ticket based on their weight. That might seem fair if you believe obesity is well within an individual’s sole control, but it isn’t the case. The only real fair answer is to treat people equally.
Obesity is a Health Concern but Body Shaming Won’t Solve That
There are definite concerns with obesity that can’t be ignored and the absence of body shaming doesn’t mean the promotion of obesity. Obesity is a risk factor for a myriad of diseases like diabetes, heart disease and some cancers. There are also physical consequences such as back pain and arthritis in the knee. And even mental health issues associated with obesity.
Obesity’s not new. It’s been around for thousands of years. But right now, there are a greater number of obese people than ever before and that comes with a cost to the individual and society. Therefore, we need to work together to create a society that supports healthy behaviours and healthy living. We also need to recognize that a person’s size isn’t an indication of who they are as a person.
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