How To Solve The So-Called "Obesity Epidemic" Today
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Every day I see something about how this diet, or that activity, or this federally funded program will help “solve the ob*sity* epidemic.” In truth, this “epidemic” could be solved today.
Just stop talking about the “ob*sity epidemic”. There, problem solved. But perhaps in our current society this bears some explanation – here’s why we should banish the whole concept.
Before we get too far into this, the term “ob*sity” (and overw*ight, while we’re at it) was made up to pathologize fat bodies. This pathologization is rooted in, and inextricable from, racism and anti-Blackness and continues to disproportionately harm Black people and other folks of color. I urge you to read Sabrina Strings’ Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fatphobia and Da’Shaun Harrison’s Belly of the Beast: The Politics of Anti-Fatness as Anti-Blackness to learn more about this.
So let’s break this down. First of all, fat people existing doesn’t meet the definition of an epidemic. The CDC’s official definition of an epidemic is: “The occurrence of more cases of disease than expected in a given area or among a specific group of people over a particular period of time.”
While there is certainly no shame in having a disease, being fat simply does not qualify. (Even the American Medical Association’s expert council on Science and Public Health agrees.) “Ob*sity,” as defined by the CDC, is simply a ratio of weight and height. So, even if you believe that there are more fat people who exist than would be expected, that still wouldn’t qualify as an epidemic, it’s just a bunch of people whose weight in pounds time 703 divided by their height in inches squared is over 30.
Not only is the ob*sity epidemic not a real thing, it’s also dangerous in the following ways:
It is used to harm fat people in the interest of weight loss industry profits. The idea of conceptualizing simply existing in a higher-weight body as a disease has largely been architected and pushed by the weight loss industry. By pathologizing body size, they don’t have to demonstrate that their products actually improve health in any way. They can claim that simply by producing (very small amounts of short-term) weight loss, they are a “healthcare intervention.” This has been wildly successful for their revenue, and companies like Novo Nordisk are banking on this strategy to make fortunes from selling dangerous weight loss interventions. (Novo made a literal fortune price gouging insulin, so they are no strangers to harming people for money.)
It encourages appearance-based stigma, because fat people are perceived as being part of a dangerous epidemic. And here we have an intersection between healthism, ableism, and sizeism. There should be no shame attached to body size, health, or disability – the “ob*sity epidemic” propaganda encourages all three.
It causes people to be viewed, and encourages them to view themselves and the bodies that they inhabit 100% of the time, as a problem – and a problem that needs the attention of the public. This leads to a world where fat people face shame, stigma, bullying and oppression everywhere – homes, schools, workplaces, doctor’s offices, churches, sidewalks – anywhere that they are visible. This is especially significant since the experience of weight stigma is correlated to many of the same health issues to which existing in a fat body is correlated.
Its use in public health messaging is an impediment to actual public health. Health is not an obligation, barometer of worthiness, entirely within our control or guaranteed under any circumstances. How people prioritize their health and the behaviors they choose are nobody else’s business. For those who are interested in talking about or participating in health supporting behaviors, the stigma associated with a fat body based on the “ob*sity epidemic” idea, and the bullying and harassment that come along with it, become barriers to fat people participating. Further, the focus (including monetarily) on trying to get individuals to lose weight means that we aren’t putting resources toward reducing barriers and increasing access to health for people of all sizes.
The assertion that the only “good” outcome of engaging in health-supporting behaviors is a thin body – or, said another way, that if someone isn’t thin then they obviously aren’t doing the “right” behaviors – means that fat people are misinformed that behaviors can’t support their health unless the behaviors make them thin, which is not supported by the research.
The verbiage around “solving the ob*sity epidemic” encourages the public to stereotype fat people based on appearance, and to make negative judgments which impacts things like hiring and healthcare. It also confuses the idea of public health promotion with making fat people’s bodies the public’s business, which in turn makes the world a very unwelcoming place for fat people.
It has also fostered an “eradication at any cost” philosophy that has led to people, including healthcare practitioners, suggesting that fat people do incredibly unhealthy things in the hopes that it will make us look “healthier” by becoming thin by any means. This includes, as Deb Burgard points out, prescribing to us what would be diagnosed as harmful in thin people, and suggesting that we take dangerous drugs and have dangerous surgeries that risk our lives and quality of life all for the chance to have a “socially acceptable” body in our size-bigoted society, so that we can escape the stigma of being seen as a walking talking “epidemic.”
Finally, you cannot have a war on “ob*sity” without having a war on fat people – you can’t reasonably say that you are waging a war to eradicate however much of someone doesn’t fit into a prescribed height-weight ratio. Nor can you reasonably suggest that you want to eradicate fat people from the Earth but, you know, in a non-stigmatizing way. No matter what people believe about “ob*sity” it should be horrifying to suggest that we wage a war on people with the goal of eradicating them because they think the world might be cheaper if they did not exist.
Whipping people up into a frenzy about an “ob*sity epidemic” is highly profitable, and often provides good political cover (“brave mayor does something about ob*sity blah blah blah”) but it doesn’t actually do anything helpful or good, and is doing untold harm.
If people are interested in public health then I suggest they busy themselves increasing access and decreasing barriers (including oppression, including weight stigma) and focusing on creating shame-free, blame-free, future-oriented healthcare.
We can solve the “ob*sity epidemic” right this minute – just set the whole concept down, stop pouring money and energy into the utterly failed weight loss paradigm, and move forward into a weight-neutral (and, as soon as possible, weight-inclusive) paradigm that offers more benefits with far less harm.
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*Note on language: I use “fat” as a neutral descriptor as used by the fat activist community, I use “ob*se” and “overw*ight” to acknowledge that these are terms that were created to medicalize and pathologize fat bodies, with roots in racism and specifically anti-Blackness. Please read Sabrina Strings: Fearing the Black Body – the Racial Origins of Fat Phobia and Da’Shaun Harrison: Belly of the Beast: The Politics of Anti-Fatness as Anti-Blackness for more on this.