A recent study by researchers at Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity suggests that news outlets frequently utilize images which portray obese individuals in a stigmatizing manner–unprofessionally dressed, at unflattering angels, or eating junk food.
File this one under “Duh.”
Though unsurprising, axiomatic studies like this one serve an important purpose: They speak to our culture’s profound fear of obesity, and they remind us that we might rightly be shocked by such degrading and dehumanizing depictions. As it is, a large number of us will fail to see the prejudice and hatred which fuel the use of these images, because we’ve come to see obese individuals as “symbols of an epidemic rather than valued members of society,” explains Rebecca Puhl, one of the study’s authors.
Our unchecked loathing of obesity can be found lurking in ostensibly benign places, such as conversations about health, wellness, and fitness. Yes, it sounds like we’re talking about biology—such as the number on the scale or how we fare on measures of cardiovascular fitness. But underneath our words are fierce currents of hatred and shame, because being fat conjures up an entire debate about morality and personal responsibility; science is not easily divorced from the cultural deification of thinness.
To be fair, the rise in childhood obesity and its associated sequalae, such as diabetes, is rightly concerning. But what we’re learning is that shame-based tactics don’t contribute to the reduction of weight, on a personal or aggregate level. Another study by the same authors at Yale, including principle investigator Rebecca Puhl, found that individuals who internalize the stigma of being overweight are less likely to lose weight. As she explained in a recent Hartford Courant article by William Weir, “When [people are] stigmatized by their weight, they’re more likely to engage in unhealthy eating. Stigma is a form of stress and a common coping method is eating food.”
The take-home? Negative portrayals of obese individuals don’t encourage people to eat healthier and to lose weight. If anything, such images are more likely to reduce the self-esteem of obese individuals, which then creates a disincentive to engage in self-care and, in particular, healthy eating.
All this calls into question a recent initiative by the San Antonio school board to photograph the lunch trays of school children before and after they’ve eaten. The aim, which sounds laudable enough, is to reduce obesity and to improve dietary habits.
Yet such an approach doesn’t empower children to make healthy choices when it comes to food. Rather, it relies upon the fear of being found out—of knowing that your dietary peccadilloes will be recorded by a camera and then communicated to your parents. As if the cafeteria weren’t challenging enough already–with its nuanced social interactions related to where and with whom you sit, and peer-to-peer evaluation of the contents of your tray, now mom and dad—and the school board!—have a surrogate set of eyes in the lunch room. What pressure! What shame!
It’s hard to identify a front on which we are winning the war on obesity. And it certainly feels as though we are engaged in a war; just ask Michelle Obama, who has catapulted obesity from mere enemy of the people, to enemy of the state.
Perhaps it is because we have drawn upon military analogies and strategies that we have failed so miserably. When we choose to attack obesity, we are really declaring war upon ourselves: our genetics, our predilection to eat more than we physically need, our emotional hunger (which is often mistaken for physical hunger), and the very real human tendency to struggle with moderation on a variety of fronts.
And then there are the variables frequently neglected in the discussion of obesity and weight, those like ethnicity, religion, and gender. It’s unclear how we can win a war on obesity if doing so means asking people to relinquish an essential part of their cultural, religious or regional identity—a part that involves eating foods which may be low in nutritional value but nonetheless steeped in tradition and ritual. Any attempt to eradicate obesity must necessarily consider the very real issue of socioeconomic status and class affiliation, as well.
We might consider abandoning our military strategy—and the underlying prejudice regarding weight—in favor of the Health at Every Size (HAES) approach. HAES democratizes the concept of health, and purports that it is available to all. It is a philosophy based more on acceptance, and working within existing parameters, than on pushing untenable weight loss efforts (which usually fail, anyway). Such a shift would encourage us to develop a healthy relationship with all foods—the good and the bad—and with our bodies: one based on self-care and thoughtfulness, rather than fear of being watched, photographed, or teased.
Sadly, the war on obesity has become the war on the obese. Our culture’s articulated and tacit fear of fat often drives health initiatives regarding weight loss, which likely reduces the impact of such efforts and marginalizes an increasing number of Americans.
Surely, we can do better, on metrics of equality and simple kindness, as well as health.
Do you think the war on obesity has gone too far, in that it targets people, rather than the problem itself? And should we be more accepting of a diversity of sizes?
Photo by lululemon athletica via Flickr’s Creative Commons.