Solving The So-Called “Ob*sity Epidemic” In One Simple Step

Enough reallyEvery day I hear about how this diet, or that activity, or this federally funded program will “solve the ob*sity epidemic.”  I’ve got this covered and it’s so simple we could do it today.  Are you ready?  Wait for it….

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.

Update Note: The concept of “ob*sity” was created to pathologize fat bodies, and it has a racist basis (see abrina Strings Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fatphobia and Da’Shaun Harrisons Belly of the Beast: The Politics of Anti-Fatness as Anti-Blackness). I use the term here only because it is what is being used in the common discussions, not because I agree with pathologizing fatness. I originally put the term in quotation marks to indicate this, and have now also changed the “e” to an “*” to reflect a practice that has gained popularity since the original writing of this piece.

First of all, it’s ridiculous, and a misnomer.  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.”

Being fat is not a disease (even the American Medical Associations 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.  That group includes Mel Gibson, Tom Cruise, many professional athletes, and me for example. Also, a committee that included representatives from Weight Watchers and pharmaceutical companies that make diet pills successfully had what was considered a “normal” weight lowered in 1998 making 29 million Americans “overweight” literally overnight, (and giving the companies they represented 29 million potential new clients) so this does not smack of rigorous science.

Not only is it not a real thing, it’s also dangerous in the following ways:

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 dis/ability – 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.

Its use in public health messaging is anathema 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 movement or fitness,  the stigma associated with a fat body based on the “ob*sity epidemic” idea, and the bullying and harassment that come along with it, keep many fat people who might otherwise be interested from becoming involved.

When government tries to “solve the o*esity epidemic” using ridiculous methods like dictating the size of soda cups that some places are allowed to sell, or giving every fat person a pony – fat people are blamed for ruining things for everyone.

The assertion that the only “good” outcome of engaging in certain eating habits or activities 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 quit because they believe that their behaviors can’t support their health unless the behaviors make them thin (which is also not what the research says.)

The verbiage around “solving the ob*sity problem” encourages people to stereotype people based on appearance, and to make negative judgments which affects things like hiring and healthcare. It also makes people confuse public health with making fat people’s bodies the public’s business which makes the world a very unwelcoming place for fat people.

The rhetoric behind the “ob*sity epidemic” and “war on ob*sity” has made it seem reasonable to have a television show (with profits in the billions of dollars) that claims that it is inspiring and motivational to witness the mental and physical abuse fat people, one of whom will win $250,000 for their trouble.

It has also fostered an “eradication at any cost” philosophy that has lead 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 at any cost – this includes prescribing to us what would be diagnosed as harmful in thin people, and suggesting that we have dangerous surgeries that risk our lives and our quality of life. all for the chance to have a “socially acceptable” body in our size-bigoted society, and not be part of the “epidemic”

Finally, you cannot have a war on “ob*sity” without having a war on “ob*se” people –  you can’t reasonably say that you are waging a war to eradicate however much of me doesn’t fit into a prescribed height-weight ratio.  Nor can you reasonably suggest that you want to eradicate everyone who looks like me from the Earth but, you know, in a non-stigmatizing way.  No matter what people believe about “ob*sity” in a civilized society it would be horrifying to suggest that we wage a war on people who look a certain way, suggesting that they should be eradicated because the world would 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”)  but it doesn’t actually do anything helpful or good.  If people are interested in public health then I suggest they busy themselves making sure that everyone has safe affordable options for the foods they want to eat, the activities (if any) that they want to engage in, and shame free, blame free, future oriented healthcare.

We can solve the “ob*sity epidemic” right this minute – just set the whole concept down and back away slowly and let’s never speak of this again.

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19 thoughts on “Solving The So-Called “Ob*sity Epidemic” In One Simple Step

  1. Oh my!!! I can’t even tell you how many ways I love this blog post!!!LOVE LOVE LOVE it! just back away slowly people we will never speak of it again! love it!

    1. *laughs delightedly* I have TOTALLY got to recycle that sometimes. It’s really brilliant on at least two levels.

  2. “It’s use in public health messaging is anathema to actual public health.”
    *tries to erase apostrophe* L’il help, lovely dancer? As always, you’re welcome to delete my proofing – GREAT work, by the way! This is very profound stuff.

  3. Calling it an epidemic also creates the perception that it is contagious. “OMG! I’ve been exposed to a FAT PERSON! I’ve might have CONTRACTED OBESITY!!!”

    This isn’t the flu that can be transmitted by someone sneezing in your vicinity, or leaving the virus on a surface that you will touch. It cannot even be transmitted by intimate contact. It doesn’t matter how many times a person has unprotected sex with a fat person, they’re not going to contract obesity from the mingling of bodily fluids.

    “Epidemic” is a word that tends to induce fear. If we discuss the potential for an Ebola Epidemic, that is something to truly dread. It’s a nasty disease that people can contract through seemingly minor lapses in preventative measures. If it gets established in a major city, it can be catastrophic.

    Using the same term for obesity as we use for something like Ebola is ridiculous, and I can only surmise that the vocabulary choice was made specifically for the reaction. They are not promoting health and well-being. They are fear-mongering.

    1. I dream about telling off particularly obnoxious people by saying, “You won’t get fat sitting beside me; that’s not how it works.
      “I’d have to bite you first.”

  4. Warning this post contains certain triggers:

    I love this line Ragen: “just set the concept down and back away slowly and let’s never speak of this again.”

    And from the incredibly whacked out view point of every diet book, doctor, parent or friend who are “concerned” about how fat we are: “but how are we going to make BILLIONS of dollars if we can’t sell shame? I want a boat with bikini girls too you know!”

    I have mentioned it before, my genetically very overweight mother is on Belviq and has lost four pounds. FOUR. She is willing to risk a heart attack for four pounds.

    I was literally placed on a starvation diet of 800 calories, very carefully monitored by my doctor and my partner…the result? I gained weight and suffered all the neurological and physical symptoms of a starving person.

    —MASSIVE TRIGGER WARNING, please skip this paragraph if you have any triggers— On the various reddit sites who literally have declared war on us, one post threatened a young girl with EXTREME violence and sexual assault. Because she was fat. That is war to the extreme. I’m not even sure where to take END OF TRIGGER WARNING—

    It is also these redditors who have ZERO knowledge of physics, nutrition or healthcare who constantly parrot the first law of thermodynamics and weight. Um,sorry about your limited understanding of science but the laws of thermodynamics are related to physics, not biology. And last I checked, I am a biological entity subject to the laws of biology.

    For all the people who have declared war on me…do what Ragen says…just back away. You do your thing and I’ll do mine.

    1. …and if they don’t listen, you can count me on your side. Thank you for giving me that brilliantly civilized little zinger about thermodynamics and biology.

    2. I, too, am very happy you included that nicely packaged zinger about thermodynamics. Succinct, to the point. 🙂 My explanations get too wordy.

  5. Excellent post!

    “fat people are blamed for ruining things for everyone”. I’m sick of the argument that fat people cost everybody money because they have additional health issues. As if diabetics and people with cardiac issues can’t be skinny. Plus, skinny alcoholics, smokers, and heroin users (all by CHOICE) cost money too – but nobody calls them names in public.

    Another commenter mentioned lack of knowledge about obesity. Just want to bang that drum again. You simply cannot argue with the haters, no matter HOW off base they are! They will continue to insist that we are all eating Snickers bars in our pajamas.

  6. I love you blog posts! I’d love to be able to share them because I think your observations are often spot on. I’m a fat yoga teacher and try to teach that yoga is for everybody and every body. Any chance you would consider adding Twitter and Facebook button to your posts. I would love to share!

    1. Hi Christine, Thanks for the kind words and for wanting to share the blog! If you scroll to the bottom of the post you’ll “Share this” and then see buttons for Twitter, FB and a bunch of other social media things. If for some reason you can’t see them just let me know.

      Thanks 🙂


  7. I hate the obsession with obesity the world has! For several years of my life I didn’t even realize being fat was “bad”, it wasn’t until my nurse took me aside to weigh me and ask why I was so fat that I realized all those comments my classmates made where insults. I honestly thought they were stupid and just pointing out facts! (“You have a double-chin.” “Yeah… and?”)

    It was that moment that nearly ruined my life and sent me into the hands of “ana”. Thank goodness my aunt cared more about me then my weight loss or I would be a skeleton instead of commenting hear!

    End the war on obesity and save little girls from the despicable “ana”!

  8. But…but…won’t someone think of the CHIL-DREN? (I type it that way because people who used to offer this pseudo-argument pronounced it that way.) Actually, if the Obesity Epidemic mongers really did take the time to think of the “CHIL-DREN,” they would realize that promulgating a non-existent Obesity Epidemic is one of the worst things they could do.

    And..great post!

  9. Been a fat activist since the 1980s, although with many long intermissions. This post is perfect, thank you! It’s amazing, after months and years of isolation in a rural state, to find such clear articulations of the problems with the concept ‘obesity epidemic’ and the naming of its basis in economics and fat hatred/size bigotry.

    The thing I most often say is that in all those studies linking, for example, heart disease with obesity, I have never seen any history-taking that asks what diets a person has been on, no acknowledgement that many (most?) diets are harmful to health, including heart health.

  10. The war on obesity has dragged on for years and years, cost the taxpayers money while enriching private contractors, increased the sum total of human misery in the world, and actually killed people–all in the name of a theory that doesn’t actually describe reality.

    Hey, that sounds familiar. Think we could convince the government to declare victory and go home?

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