Daniel Callahan thinks that we ought to fat shame overweight people so that they will lose weight faster. He’s not at all happy with the lack of progress in the effort to slow America’s obesity epidemic. With 69.2% of adults overweight and obese and 12.1% of children 2-5 who are, it’s something we need to work on, for sure. But those kids who are 6-19 and overweight/obese do not need to have schools condone fat shaming. It’s hard enough to lose weight as a teen — ask me how I know — we do not need to add further stigmatization.
Hey, let’s fat shame those fat people — that’ll make them lose weight!
Callahan, who is a president emeritus at The Hastings Center, published his paper this week. He calls for an “edgier strategy” and emphasis on social pressure. In other words, he thinks if we make it acceptable to fat shame people, that will help lower obesity rates. But not too much!
But can there be social pressure that does not lead to outright discrimination—a kind of stigmatization lite? That will, I concede, be a difficult line to walk, but it is worth a try. I would couch the social pressure in the following terms, finding ways to induce people who are overweight or obese to put some uncomfortable questions to themselves.
These questions — which Callahan believes ought to be on posters and signs everywhere — include, “If you are overweight or obese, are you pleased with the way you look?” and “Are you pleased that your obese children are teased?” Yeah, that will help.
Shaming smokers worked so why not fat shame?
Callahan points out that public shaming did help cut down on smoking. So it will surely work for being overweight, right? Deb Burgard, a California psychologist specializing in eating disorders, explains why not:
“Deciding whether to smoke or not is a behavior. The weight your body is, is not a behavior. It’s a kind of identity you have that is actually the very most intimate thing about you: your very body.”
There are a couple of things that Callahan is not taking into account: eating healthier costs more and food additives like high-fructose corn syrup and salt are found in most packaged foods. People who cannot afford to buy fresh veggies and fruits are forced to buy canned or frozen. It costs more to make something like macaroni and cheese from scratch than to buy the pre-packaged stuff. With so many Americans living at or below the poverty level, that is an important factor. The Centers For Disease Control says that 20% of obese adults (15 million Americans) live at or below the poverty level. If you are hungry and poor, maybe on food stamps, you will buy the calories you can purchase more cheaply. Those cheap calories mostly come from junk food.
Obesity is not always what it appears to be
So, not only should we force the poor to eat unhealthy foods, we should fat shame them, too? Speaking as someone who has battled my weight since I was 12, I am perfectly aware of how I look, thank you. Fat shaming me won’t help: it didn’t help when I was a teen and it won’t help now. I know I am not alone on this. Many of us have a genetic predisposition to gain weight (my great-grandmother’s “child-bearing hips”) and others have metabolic issues. And then, of course, there are those who can’t afford to eat right. I’m not saying that there aren’t people who can easily put the fork down and move away from the table. But one can’t judge who is who by just looking. If we encourage the public to fat shame every overweight person, that can only lead to more problems, including discrimination. No, this is not a valid way to deal with the problem. May I suggest raising the minimum wage as a good start? When people are able to afford healthy food, they will eat it. And that can’t be anything but good for all of us.