Obesity and fat shaming: how do we correctly stop it

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As a backdrop, please read this article: What is fat shaming, is it right or wrong, or perhaps it is complex?

One thing that is agreed upon by both sides, however, is that obesity is definitely bad for health. It is the approach people are arguing about. In this in-depth analysis, we are going to inspect key aspects of the issue and provide a critical response to the current state of affairs. We first begin by examining the truth behind the remarks that are characterized as ‘fat shaming’ and determine whether its use is justifiable and productive.


Characteristics of ‘fat shaming’ are true to some extent. But does that justify its usage?


The truth is, obesity does carry serious negative and physical health impacts for individuals. (“Obesity and overweight”, 2019)

There are many pieces of research that support this statement and has been treated as facts in modern times. So, when health professionals paint a negative image of obesity, it should not be surprising.

However, this can serve as the basis for discrimination and mockery for obese individuals with the following flawed logic by many people: ‘if you know that being fat is bad, then why are you fat? Unless you are just lazy to improve your condition, there are no excuses for it.’ We look at this tweet for example:


Image Source: Decipher

Of course, obesity is not a simple problem reduced to the ‘willpower to stop eating carbs’ as genetic factors also come into play. (Yazdi, Clee & Meyre, 2015)

However, we can see by simply painting a negative image for obesity in public can result in discrimination for obese individuals (we discuss more on this later). This raises another question as well: will this kind of ‘fat shaming’ actually help people with obesity to overcome their weight problems?

A recent study published in University College of London suggests otherwise. (Jackson, Beeken & Wardle, 2014) The study concludes that weight discrimination promotes weight gain and the onset of obesity. We make an assumption that ‘weight discrimination’ is generally on par with ‘fat shaming’.

This indicates by blatantly belittling/discriminating obese individuals about their negative health state does not motivate them to take necessary actions to reduce weight, but works in opposite effect.

This has also caused an increase in the sensitivity for obese individuals on general health remarks and any helpful advices/practices, viewing them as ‘berating’. This facilitated the rise of an opposite and equally dangerous notion known as ‘fat pride’.


Over-sensitivity of people with obesity and the danger of ‘fat pride’


Over-sensitivity of obese individuals is a product of weight discrimination. However, this can also cause them to reject factual statements or professional advice.

In the article from long reads (Purcell, 2019), a fat activist believes that institutions of health systems and medical practices ‘are saturated or have deeply ingrained anti-fat bigotry.’ It is also suggested that ‘Fat people don’t go to the doctor often. They tend to avoid it.’

Any remarks or comments about weight can trigger an emotional response from sensitive obese individuals.

Thus, even genuine health advice may be categorized as ‘anti-fat’ biases, further derailing them from better health. The fat acceptance movement and ‘fat pride’ further reinforces this belief.

We must caution that being obese can still lead to serious health issues with significantly increased risks, and this is not a bias.

Therefore, health care professionals will always advocate weight loss as an option for everyone. This is also not an ‘anti-fat’ bias, although often mistreated as such.

However, the negative consequences of actual ‘fat shaming’ are real and is a serious issue for people with obesity.


On top of increased risks of diseases, people with obesity also suffer from ‘fat shaming’


Discrimination against people with obesity is prevalent in society. We have previously argued that ‘fat shaming’ does not help obese individuals to lose weight but have opposite effects. We are now going to inspect other negative effects ‘fat shaming’ has on those individuals as well.

One of the most common practices of ‘fat shaming’ is trait attribution, which assigns obese individuals with negative traits such as ‘lack motivation’ or  ‘too lazy’.

In other words, some suggest obesity is always a matter of choice and it is the individual’s fault for being obese.

This is not true at all.

Hormonal imbalance and other diseases are known to cause weight gain. Some examples: Cushing’s syndrome, Hypothyroidism, stress and anxiety.

Unfortunately, obese individuals are doomed to suffer many socioeconomic consequences due to the ‘halo’ effect. (Kahneman, n.d.)

Obese individuals must endure negative portrayals in the media, lower employment opportunities and more peer rejections in education. (Carr & Friedman, 2005)

Yet, ‘fat shaming’ is unlikely to go away since obesity is in fact harmful. This will result in obesity being portrayed as negative in public, and therefore, causes ‘fat shaming’.

The key contention:

1). Obesity is unhealthy, therefore 2

2). Obesity is portrayed as unhealthy to the public, therefore 3

3). people view obesity as unhealthy and undesirable, therefore 4

4). people with obesity suffer from these views as well as being unhealthy in the first place (double trouble).

Are there any alternative solutions that can avoid ‘fat shaming’?


The typical fat acceptance movement advocates challenging the current view on obesity. They suggest that obese individuals should be accepted and be a part of the social norm. (Carr & Friedman, 2005) Deducing from our key contention, obesity cannot be a part of the social norm when we are already aware of its harmfulness.

We cannot stop fat shaming by portraying obesity positively in society. Knowing that obesity is a detriment to health whilst promoting it with a natural, harmless image is self-contradicting at key contention 1 and 2. Therefore, it is not a viable solution.

Instead, we propose educating the public on how obesity can manifest not just from ‘lack of motivation’ or ‘laziness’. This does not contradict the key contention.

Obesity is still unhealthy and seen as unhealthy. People will view obesity as unhealthy and undesirable. But, they will also understand that some people do not have control over this.

By informing the public on other causes that give rise to obesity such as genetics and diseases, it is possible to eliminate the automatic trait attribution mode of thinking, therefore alleviating some discriminations obese individuals face today.

Below is the logical deduction on how education to the public and the efforts from some individuals with obesity can eliminate ‘fat shaming’ for good.


Logical deduction of health risk minimisation for obese individuals:

) All obese individuals is divided into two groups

) Group 1: Obesity can be controlled and eventually overcome by these people.

) Group 2: Obesity cannot be controlled at all despite these individual’s best efforts for a long period of time.

) Group 1 should aim to reduce weight to healthy levels, so they can eliminate both ‘fat shaming’ discrimination and obesity-related health risks. In this case, the easiest way to eliminate ‘fat shaming’ would be to eliminate the negative body image in the first place. Since group 1 has the ability to do so, this is the best way out.

) Group 2 requires the public’s understanding of their difficulties and lack of control. They should not be ridiculed for something they have no control over.

) An informed public understands group 2 individuals more than before and should carry less negative weight stigma, thus minimising the chances of ‘fat shaming’.

) We note that this does not solve group 2’s actual health risks related to obesity. Therefore further improvements are needed to better the wellbeing of these individuals.

Conclusion

‘Fat shaming’ is a complex societal issue that is not absolutely ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. It carries some factual information about obesity but also shares prejudiced opinions on people with obesity. ‘Fat shaming’ will be present as long as obesity is unhealthy and also viewed as unhealthy. Unfortunately, it does damage the wellbeing of people with obesity. We reject the idea of promoting ‘fat pride’ as a solution to ‘fat shaming’ due to its contradictory nature. Instead, proper education is needed to inform the public on other cause of obesity and this can alleviate trait attributions due to an individual’s weight and size.

References

Carr, D., & Friedman, M. (2005). Is Obesity Stigmatizing? Body Weight, Perceived Discrimination, and Psychological Well-Being in the United States. Journal Of Health And Social Behavior46(3), 244-259. doi: 10.1177/002214650504600303

Jackson, S., Beeken, R., & Wardle, J. (2014). Perceived weight discrimination and changes in weight, waist circumference, and weight status. Obesity, n/a-n/a. doi: 10.1002/oby.20891

Kahneman, D. Thinking, fast and slow.

Obesity and overweight. (2019). Retrieved from https://www.who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/obesity-and-overweight

Puhl, R., & Heuer, C. (2009). The Stigma of Obesity: A Review and Update. Obesity17(5), 941-964. doi: 10.1038/oby.2008.636

Purcell, C. (2019). “No Fatties”: When Health Care Hurts. Retrieved from https://longreads.com/2017/10/26/no-fatties-when-healthcare-hurts/

Yazdi, F., Clee, S., & Meyre, D. (2015). Obesity genetics in mouse and human: back and forth, and back again. Peerj3, e856. doi: 10.7717/peerj.856

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