Fatty Fatty Two-by-Four

Do not like fat people?  Think they are ruining the health of this country?  Bully them!  So says prominent bioethicist Daniel Callahan.

OK, to be fair, he does not use the word bully, but I see little difference between what he is recommending and bullying.  He calls it “stigmatization.”  He tries to compare it to the successful stigmatization campaign against smokers to reduce smoking in this country.  He justifies his theory thusly:

It will be imperative, first, to persuade them that they ought to want a good diet and exercise for themselves and for their neighbor and, second, that excessive weight and outright obesity are not socially acceptable any longer. 

Really?  Excessive weight and obesity are not socially acceptable any longer?  When, pray tell, was being fat ever acceptable?  I would like to know when he thinks that is.  I have been battling poor self-image all of my life because even when I was thin, everyone told me I was fat.  I have faced social ostracization,  mean comments uttered both aloud and muttered so that just I could hear them, and mockery because of my weight.  I have been held back professionally because of my weight and my weight also affected my dating life.

So, when exactly, does he think it became cool to be fat?

Here are some of his suggestions for bringing social pressure to bear on fat or on their way to being fat people:

I do not know what is scarier, the fact that he is promoting bullying as a useful tactic in the fight against obesity or that he thinks that overweight people do not know what so-called thin people think of us.  Yes, I stand by my term bullying because that is exactly what this kind of social pressure is.

The worst part of all of this?  Mr. Callahan makes many other astute and valid points in his thesis.  He talks about bringing government pressure to bear on the food industry, taxing high caloric, high fat food, changing school lunches, finding ways to address childhood obesity.  All excellent ideas.  But those ideas are completely overshadowed by his promoting negative social pressure.

He spent a lot of time comparing fat shaming to smoking shaming.  He also tried to address what he views as the reasons other people do not think fat shaming will work.

Why is obesity said to be different from smoking? Three reasons are common: it is wrong to stigmatize people because of their health conditions; wrong to think it will work well, or at all, with obesity; and counterproductive with the obese because of evidence that it worsens rather than improves their condition. Ethically speaking, the social pressures on smokers focused on their behavior, not on them as persons. Stigmatizing the obese, by contrast, goes after their character and selfhood, it is said, not just their behavior. Stigmatization in their case also leads demonstrably to outright discrimination, in health care, education, and the job market more generally. The obese are said to be lazy, self-indulgent, lacking in discipline, awkward, unattractive, weak-willed and sloppy, insecure and shapeless, to mention only a few of the negative judgments among doctors and nurses.

These are the wrong reasons.  I am not saying that he does not have a point with some of these reasons, but he is missing the bigger point.

The differences between smoking and eating are this.   One, we need to eat to live.  People need to consume calories, protein, vitamin rich food every day or we starve.  We do not need to smoke to live.  Two, smoking affects the health of the larger community through second-hand smoke.  Obesity generally only affects the health of the obese person unless that person is pregnant or may become pregnant.  Also, there is no evidence that social shaming and ostracization keeps people from gaining weight or makes fat people lose weight.  It only makes them feel bad about themselves and encourages fat discrimination.

Finally, we will never really find a way to combat obesity in this country as long as many people live in poverty, lack access to healthy food, and lack access to health care.  Also, as long as losing weight is seen as part of the “diet industry” and a way for business to make money off of people who want nothing more than to be healthy we will not adequately be able to address the obesity problem.  People need real knowledge on how to become and stay healthy.

I have no problem with some amount of social pressure to encourage people to be healthier.  I just think that the pressure needs to be positive and encouraging not shaming and negative.  I think most people want to be healthy.  Most every woman I have ever met has dieted or tried to change their diet to lose weight and improve their health.

I imagine that on many issues concerning obesity, Mr. Callahan and I are much closer together than we are apart.  I just cannot agree with his fat-bullying campaign.

What we do not want to do is create a world where it is OK to harass fat people and create such stress that it drives many people into eating disorders to live up to negative social pressure to meet seemingly untenable goals set by people who do not have their best interest at heart.

Wait…what?

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3 responses to “Fatty Fatty Two-by-Four

  1. Guess what Callahan? I as a SIZE 3. I weighed 100 pounds. And you know what? I was NOT HEALTHY. I ate crap – I lived on fast food. McDonald’s and Chick-fil-A were my meals of choice. I had high cholesterol. And the first time I was at Shirlington House, where I now live, I couldn’t walk up the freaking hill without stopping.

    And you know what else? Shame doesn’t always work. Sometimes, shame makes things worse.

    So in the words of Wil Wheaton, don’t be a dick. Treating people like crap isn’t going to solve anything.

    Boy this made me mad.

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