Why Does It Have to Be About Obesity?

Public HealthJust like I’m tired of fat people having experimental medicine practiced on them without their consent, I am tired of people being encouraged to promote/sell/legislate whatever is in their heads as long as they say that it “fights obesity.” People are telling businesses what size of sodas they can sell, talking about taxing certain foods, suggesting a public shame campaign, suggesting that little kids have have a surgery that can kill them, all under the auspices of “fighting obesity” without much or any evidence to support that these things will change the people’s weight or their health.

I’ve recently been looking into some grants to help fund More Cabaret and I’ve been really disappointed at how many grants require that the program “fight obesity” in some way.  Why, for the love of whatever,  can’t we just create fine art using a fine arts grant?

Why is every health initiative marketed as a way to “fight obesity”? Increase vegetable consumption to fight obesity. Take a 30 minute walk to fight obesity.  WTF Dude? Vegetables are only good for fatties?  Walks are only for making people thin? Not only is it ridiculous based on logic,  it’s exactly the opposite of what the evidence supports.  Studies show that healthy habits, like vegetables and walking, can help increase the odds of being healthy (though of course health is multi-dimensional, not entirely within our control, and there are never any guarantees) but have almost no chance of creating long term weight loss.

This kind of messaging does a disservice to fat people, who are told that healthy habits don’t work unless they make them thin, and does a disservice to thin people who are told that they are healthy by virtue of their weight and regardless of their habits which, again, is not what the evidence tells us.

Can you imagine the kind of world it would be if public health messaging was actually based on evidence, and was about making options for health available to the public rather than making fat people’s health the public’s business?

To be very clear, health is not an obligation or a barometer of worthiness – nobody owes anybody else “health” or “healthy habits” by any definition.  People of all sizes prioritize health in all different ways and that’s absolutely fine.  The prioritization of health and the path one chooses are intensely personal decisions and private decisions that should never be up for public discussion or debate unless someone asks for that.

I’m not trying to tell anyone how to live.  I’m asking a simple question: how would public health and health promotion be different if we took out the weight loss and “fighting obesity” rhetoric and actually created health messaging?  (Which would make sense since there’s no intervention that has been shown to lead to long term weight loss in more than a tiny fraction of people.

Maybe we could get correct information.  Instead of being lied to that the only way to pursue health is through weight loss, we could hear the truth – that simple, small, habits increase our odds when it comes to health.  That, for example, around 30 minutes of enjoyable movement around 5 days a week has shown to have tremendous positive effects on health

All of this anti-obesity messaging is completely superfluous – it’s not necessary at all for talking about health, and may actually do much more harm than good. So let’s just stop.

Imagine if you had only ever been given access to true information about health, and had been told that how you prioritize your health is your business .  What if you had always had access to a variety of affordable foods, safe movement options that you enjoy, and evidence-based health care, without even a trace of body shaming.  What if it has never been suggested to you that the purpose of food and movement was to attempt to manipulate your body size?  Would your relationship with the concepts of health, food, and exercise be different?  What else would be different for you? How would society be different?  I don’t know about you, but, for me, I’d like to find out.

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21 thoughts on “Why Does It Have to Be About Obesity?

  1. Spot on rendering of a very important message.

    I’m horrified especially by the focus on anti-obesity messages targeted at children. I reguarly have to debrief my own kids after school lessons on “health”. The ridiculous thing is that as well as the lack of correlation between eight and health, and the concerns you discuss above, food restriction and weight concern actually make kids more likely to become fat. So for those for whom that is a concern, well they are shooting themselves in the foot!

  2. Speaking of targeting children, my niece loves to play little dress up games and makeup games online for girls. I was amazed to see the games advertise weight loss games for her to play, I was shocked. That’s really pushing it imo.

    1. That’s pro-ana stuff. I’m not a sue-happy person, but those people *should* be sued. What on the everloving freking Earth.

    2. I’m curious as to which site this was, since I occasionally play make-up and dress up games aimed at girls when I’m bored, and I do not want to give them my visits. I know of a few sites that offer make-up and dress up games that to my knowledge don’t offer those kinds of ads:


      I also really enjoy Pixie Hollow which is a game based on the Disney Fairies, which is at http://www.pixiehollow.com. There’s also Club Penguin at http://www.clubpenguin.com

      It’s one of those games that ask you to pay real world cash for membership though. They also recently started a freemium system too where you can buy Pixie Diamonds with real world cash. The payment system for membership is varied, to where you can pay monthly, yearly, or weekly. They also sell membership cards at stores like Dominick’s or Publix, where a member can buy membership with their allowance and put the code on the back into the website.

      Club Penguin is similar in that they ask you pay for membership, but they offer cards at the grocery store too. They also have bonuses for buying real life items from them, such as plush toys ect. so it might be a good idea to keep a watch on that, because it might get pricey and you’ll end up with a bunch of stuffed toys your niece might get bored with after awhile.

      The thing with the above 2 sites, is what you’re paying for aside from the games is security, both games are owned by Disney. Club Penguin offers rooms with secure chat that only lets you use pre-programmed phrases, and rooms that allow open chatting, but people who abuse that can get reported. Pixie Hollow has a dictionary system, where if a person tries to say a bad word the word will show up in red and they cannot say it. Also, unless the parent gives permission, the person playing cannot use open chat they can only use pre-programmed chat. Pixie Hollow was developed after Club Penguin, so at that time they could integrate a dictionary system in there, where Club Penguin doesn’t have that because it was developed earlier.

      That’s all the info I have on online gaming for girls.

  3. It’s frustrating when health efforts aim to “fight obesity.” Why don’t they focus on actual signifiers of health? Eat vegetables to gain important nutrients! Do weight bearing exercises to strengthen your bones and muscles! Exercise to lower your LDL!

  4. Here is what I think might be at least one result of the anti-obesity campaigns of the last forever: most of my patients in the hospital tend to be thin yet also have the metabolic diseases that supposedly only fat people get. Maybe if they also got the message that, no matter what their weight, eating well and exercising and taking care of themselves might prevent some diseases, maybe they would not be in the hospital getting treated for diabetes, heart disease, CHF, etc in the first place.

    Never mind the total propaganda that only fat people get sick from these diseases – I’m just not seeing it. Most of my patients are thin or non-“overweight”/non-“obese”. Maybe they’ll just lower the BMI cut-offs again to justify this.

    1. reading this made me feel so much better, Glenys. thank you. I AM very overweight (290 and 6 ft) and just got home from the hospital being treated for out of control blood sugars and cellulitis. My diabetic nurse practioner is amazing! She’s no skinny-minny… and has not said one thing about loosing weight.. just balancing my blood sugar to heal and then to manage being healthy. I’m glad to hear you have experiences with thinner people who have the same issues as the publicized fat patients… and thanks again for sharing this with us.

  5. “Imagine if you had only ever been given access to true information about health”

    This is so powerful. Thank you.

    Warning, may be triggering –

    I have to think about all the utter lies I was told, especially as a child, about food and weight. One stands out among them, tho it was by no means the most toxic… one doctor told me that a piece of candy had as many calories as two meals, so I should think about what I preferred – having a piece of candy, or lunch and dinner? I believed it back then – after all, a *doctor* had told me so! Only, at times the desire to eat a piece of candy was overwhelming and, if I managed to get one, I’d eat it but I’d feel horribly guilty at the same time because I was eating EXTRA CALORIES! As many as you have in TWO WHOLE MEALS! It’s been almost 30 years, and I still have to shake my head on that one. I still can hardly believe the level that doctor stooped to.


  6. I stopped exercising for years because it failed to make me lose weight. Now that I’m doing it again, I never focus on weight. My range of motion and my fibromyalgia pain have greatly improved.

  7. I am a health and family consumer sciences educator. Part of my job is to teach about nutrition and wellness. Notice I did not say weight control and fitness. I find that much fitness material is tied up in the mentality of achieving an ideal weight. So in the last few years (after my own enlightenment) I have switched away from any kind of lessons that focus on weight control/management. I do still cover anorexia and bulimia. I am just two more years away from eligiblity to retire. I don’t really feel like I need to retire that soon, but I’m so frustrated by the mentality and limited good materials to teach health and nutrition without focus on weight loss/anti-obestiy that it is making me want time to fly so I can get out of this job.
    As to what I can do with the lives I touch. I promote variety and moderation in all things… food, activity, etc. When we do projects to assess eating patterns and nutritional quality of such, I do not let them us weight control as part of the health concerns that might be affected by their current habits… we look more at issues of malnutrition, heart disease, tooth decay, diabetes, blood pressure, cancer risk. In middle school, I stress frequently that they are in a growth phase and it is inappropriate to ‘weight-loss diet’.. that they should eat a variety of healthy foods, be safe in activity and get out and play/be physical.

    Many times they ask about weight… and I tell them that it is something that is tied to genetics and growth patterns. I share with them how my family has a pattern of gaining alot of weight in early adolescence and leaning out as that teen height growth spurt hits. Each family and individual is different and the best thing to do is to feed your body what it needs and use your body to strengthen it. I share my own experiences of being put on diets and then choosing radical diets to try to confrom and how none of them worked over time and I actually gained back more than I every lost. I also explain that only since I have chosen a different focus for my health/body, has my weight stabalized and been maintained.

    I also spend time (maybe more than I should) making sure they understand the downfalls of the BMI as a tool for assessing health/fitness. In 7th grade health we check our ‘fitness’ by doing stretch, cardio and strength assessments, not BMI measures. I don’t even like using body fat percent measures at this age, due to the wild misinterpretations the kids make based on numbers.

    1. Thank you for your work! While I’m sure at many times it seems thankless, having someone out there teaching the appropriate methodology to our young people is priceless.

      I have two young adult (girl) relatives who dieted in their middle school years. They are much smaller than their other siblings/cousins in every measurement and have been found nutrient deficient by their doctors in the past. One doctor approached their parent to scold about the malnourished state of one of the daughters, threatening legal intervention. They have access to healthy foods and medical care, but peer pressure and such were named as culprits in their diet journey. I worry about the long term effects and wish them the best of health! I can only hope that not too much damage was done. Neither received diagnoses of anorexia, but they were certainly close.

  8. My mother is part of a multi-agency task force to promote healthy habits in her county. After months of insistence, she was finally able to convince them to change their focus from obesity to simply being healthy. Their slogan is “Eat well, be active, have fun!” As she said, it’s a baby step – but a big baby step at that.

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