Every day I hear about how this diet, or that activity, or this federally funded program will “solve the obesity 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 “obesity epidemic”. There, problem solved. But perhaps in our current society this bears some explanation – here’s why we should banish the whole concept.
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.) “Obesity,” 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 “obesity 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 “obesity 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 obesity 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 obesity 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 “obesity epidemic” and “war on obesity” 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 “obesity” without having a war on “obese” 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 “obesity” 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 “obesity epidemic” is highly profitable, and often provides good political cover (“brave mayor does something about obesity”) 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 “obesity 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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