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"]