Posted in: Opinion

‘Fat Shaming’ May Prevent Obesity, Prominent Bioethicist Says

fat shaming daniel callahan

The practice of “fat shaming,” a difficult to define but generally perceived as harmful practice wherein overweight and obese people are judged in a way considered acceptable solely due to their weight, is controversial — but one prominent expert has advocated the psychologically questionable behavior as a possible route to combat obesity.

Despite many biological and socio-economic factors proven to affect the likelihood of obesity, the condition is still often considered one of poor willpower rather than biology, and while Americans specifically are experiencing obesity at skyrocketing rates, it’s still deemed acceptable even in polite society to mock a fat person for their weight where a racial or gender-based judgment would be considered off-color.

Experts have, for the most part, rejected fat-shaming as an acceptable strategy to help obese people lose weight, and one blog quotes an expert as saying the practice can have deleterious effects on those who struggle with the issue:

“Fat shaming can have destructive results. ‘It is not a motivator for change,’ said Chicago pediatric dietitian Cassandra Bjork. ‘Instead, it is paralytic.’”

Bioethicist Daniel Callahan, however, disagrees — in a paper this week, the 82-year-old frames the issue in image and looks rather than health and vitality, saying of how he believes overweight people should be treated:

“If you are overweight or obese, are you pleased with the way that you look?”

Callahan’s words echo a common refrain lobbed at those outside the beauty standard, more starkly against females by males and closely tied to the idea that women have an obligation to provide ambient visual stimulation to the men around us.

In the piece, Callahan worryingly states that he believes “strong and most likely somewhat coercive public health measures, mainly by government but also by the business community” are a key way to change behavior through fat shaming, troubling when viewed through the lens of the struggle to liberate females from pressure to conform to a single and difficult to attain standard of visual presentation.

Given the precarious and small gains women have gained in this regard, it seems irresponsible to advocate fat-shaming as a cultural strategy to combat obesity, and yet here we are. One can only imagine how such suggestions will bolster looks-based sanction in the workplace, in medical situations and societally, and it is telling that even drug and alcohol addiction is not treated with the same disdain by those within the scientific community — could you imagine how well such a suggestion about alcoholics would be received?

Callahan’s ode to fat shaming quickly falls into the sort of talk that divides the people who have never struggled with weight and those who may have all their lives — he sets out to explain to the overweight and obese that they may in fact already be stigmatized, a fact they in actuality live with on a day to day basis.

And spoiler alert: it has not done anything at all to curb American obesity. Callahan posits asking the overweight:

“Fair or not, do you know that many people look down upon those excessively overweight or obese, often in fact discriminating against them and making fun of them or calling them lazy and lacking in self-control?”

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Well, jeez! Call the Nobel squad, this guy is on to something. Please thinsplain to us further about what people who are thin say to fat people! Overweight people have no idea they are looked down upon, as this isn’t a message hammered home on the pages of every magazine, in the comments of every blog and in basically every TV show!

It has been said that the only thing a person can deduce from observing a fat person is (not eating habits, lifestyle or level of blame) their own degree of fat bias, illustrated indirectly by the bioethicist when he imagines what others perceive and says:

“The obese are said to be lazy, self-indulgent, lacking in discipline, awkward, unattractive, weak-willed and sloppy, insecure and shapeless.”

Obliquely, Callahan argues that we must shame and stigmatize fat to combat it, not accounting for the very pervasive ambient fat hatred baked into the cake of American society already, writing:

“It will be no less necessary to [find] ways to bring strong social pressure to bear on individuals, going beyond anodyne education and low-key exhortation. It will be imperative, frst, to persuade them that they ought to want a good diet and exercise for themselves and for their neighbor and, second, that excessive weight and outright obesity are not socially acceptable any longer.”

One expert in the field of obesity disagrees, however. Dr. Tom Inge of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center tells TODAY:

“No amount of teasing, probing questions about what they wish they could do, or medications seem to help … So if one is proposing to help them by more stigmatization, that would seem at once both antithetical and unethical.”

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What Callahan refuses to acknowledge is far from a revolutionary idea, his fat shaming objective is already implemented nationwide in the workplace, at schools, in shopping malls and on the dating scene particularly, where fat people are derided as devious tricksters attempting to deceive well-meaning thin people into being seen with them in public.

The universe in which Callahan lives suggesting that being overweight or obese is somehow socially acceptable sounds like a wonderful place, and I do hope fat people are allowed to visit it one day.

In truth, Callahan begins with a flawed premise on several levels — fat shaming is an issue that is based on complete assumption as well as one that encourages snap judgment about a person based on perhaps a small cross-section of behavior observed.

Perhaps one day an argument like Callahan’s advocacy of fat shaming will be no longer laughable — but just this summer, overweight women who opted to engage in the still-transgressive activity of wearing bathing suits were mocked internet-wide for their audacity, so suggesting that the obese aren’t already marginalized in their day to day lives is ignorant and insulting at the very least.

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