We are constantly told that we are in the middle of an obesity crisis. Americans are more overweight than ever, and something absolutely must be done about it, because fatness is bad for you. Granted, fatness is not nearly as bad for you as the most dire warnings suggest, but still, we’ve decided that fat is icky, and therefore something must be done to make those fat people stop being fat. Yale University and Hastings Center bioethicist Stephen Callahan has a brilliant plan: shame them.
In a report published in December, Hastings argues flatly for stigmatizing fatness, in an effort to make people stop being fat.
“For any of those good goals to have real bite, it will be necessary to make just about everyone strongly want to avoid being overweight and obese,” Callahan writes. He goes on to suggest a series of questions to ask to obese people in order to shame them into stopping the fatness. “If you are overweight or obese, are you pleased with the way you look?” Callahan suggests, or maybe, “Are you happy that your added weight has made many ordinary activities, such as walking up a long fight of stairs, harder?” Perhaps the best of them is, “Are you pleased when your obese children are called ‘fatty’ or otherwise teased at school?”
After this litany of questions, Callahan suggests we ask obese people, “Fair or not, do you know that many people look down upon those excessively overweight or obese, often in fact discriminating against them and making fun of them or calling them lazy and lacking in self-control?”
Dr. Callahan, I’m obese. Let me tell you: yes, yes we do.
Callahan’s article starts with the premise that we have not stigmatized obesity in our society. What Callahan fails to recognize is that we absolutely have. The questions Callahan proposes we ask of fat people are not new. I’m willing to bet every fat person has been asked them, multiple times, by people we know and people we don’t, people we love and people we’ve just met.
If fat-shaming hasn’t been tried, to what does Callahan attribute the popularity of The Biggest Loser? 14 seasons in, the show glamorizes a disordered approach to losing weight, focusing on dropping weight as quickly as humanly possible through highly restrictive diets and ludicrously rigorous training.
The Biggest Loser peddles a simple argument: if you hate being fat, you just need to work really, really hard, and you won’t be anymore. And if you don’t lose weight, it’s pretty much your fault for not trying hard enough. The trainers on the show are flatly abusive, because fat people deserve to be abused — indeed, a study of people who’d watched even one episode of the show showed they were more biased among fat people.
It’s not just fat-hatred that sucks people into the show. Yes, for skinny people it’s a chance to gawk at the fatties. For fat people, it’s a chance to imagine that we could stop being fat if we wanted to, and that if we could become thin, we’d become magically happier. That we can be skinny, if we just work harder.
If you watch The Biggest Loser, you’re bathing in the shaming and attacking of the obese that Callahan is pushing. So clearly, if you can shame yourself thin, the show should be working to reduce obesity, right?
Wrong. People who watch the show are less likely to be willing to engage in an exercise program than those who don’t watch it. As for participants on the show, who are subjected to what can only be classified as bullying for weeks on end, they fall victim to the simple fact that the body fights any effort to lose significant amounts of weight. 85 to 90 percent of show participants gain back all the weight they lost or more. To be fair, that’s not a sign that the show’s exercise program is wrong — about 95 percent of all diets fail, and most of those who diet actually gain back more weight than they lost.
The problem with fat-shaming is not that it hasn’t been tried. It’s that it doesn’t work. I have yet to meet a fat person who hasn’t dieted at some point. I am a believer in fat acceptance, and yet I still sometimes consider gastric bypass surgery, despite its many health risks, because no matter how irrational, it’s painful to be fat in a society that constantly tells you you’re lazy, you’re week, you’re unattractive, and you’ve brought all of this on yourself.
The truth is that fatness and health are not as clearly linked as pop science likes to think. There is strong evidence that if you’re sedentary, being fat or obese becomes a serious health risk. There is also strong evidence that if you’re active, and eat better — if you make sustainable, consistent efforts to be healthful, whether or not it results in weight loss — that those risks largely vanish.
This suggests rather the opposite of Callahan’s argument. We don’t need more fat stigma — we need less. We need to tell people that whatever their weight, it’s good to exercise. That the goal isn’t to drop the pounds, but just to feel a bit better. That weight is not a proxy for health.
If fat-shaming worked, we as a society would be very, very thin. At some point, we need to accept that fatness qua fatness is not the problem. If we want people to be healthy, we need to stop focusing on the scale, and start focusing on fitness.
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