“It is Not OK” – Interview on Fat Shaming (Part 2)
As promised, here is Part Two of my interview on fat shaming with Jenna Brady, PhD candidate at Queen’s University who is investigating the role dietitians in bringing about social justice.
In Part One, we discussed what fat shaming is and discussed specific examples of it in popular culture and current media. I received a few questions regarding the post and I would love to receive more.
OK, let’s get to it…
Live It Active (LIA): Michele Obama’s recent “Let’s Move” campaign attracted both positive and negative press. What are your thoughts on the initiative? While the campaign does refer to America’s rising number of obese children, it is not targeted solely at overweight or obese children. It is geared towards improving the health and well-being of all children in America. Do you think this type of program is misguided and if so, why?
Jenna Brady (JB): Language is important. It frames how we think about things. Front and centre on the home page it reads “the Epidemic of Childhood Obesity” and “White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity”. This campaign is targeting “childhood obesity”. The language they are using to talk about getting kids health espouses a weight centered paradigm. Even worse, this is taking aim at kids. It is absolutely misguided.
LIA: Paul Campos, author of Lawyers, Guns and Money stated that Michelle Obama’s initiative is an exercise in fat eliminationism and fat shaming. If this campaign is an exercise in fat shaming, what can the government as well as society at large do to promote health and well-being? Could it be as simple as recontextualizing / reframing the objective of the program and thus, using different terminology?
JB: To promote health and well-being we must go a little further than just reframing the issue. If we are still working from a weight centered paradigm, it doesn’t matter how we frame the issue. Promoting health and well-being means starting again. It means understanding health differently. It means eliminating the hatred of fat in our society. It also means addressing the glaring social inequities that prevent people from being healthy. The ubiquity of food insecurity in North America should alarm all of us. Eliminating food insecurity for example, is an urgently needed first step in promoting health for all.
LIA: Why do you think we, as a society, continue to engage in fat shaming?
JB: This is a good question. I think there are many complex reasons behind the continuation of fat shaming. First of all, fat shaming is running rampant in our media. It is very difficult to change people’s attitudes, especially those that have been well ingrained. One such attitude and widely accepted belief is that body weight is an indication of one’s health status and that if you are fat you are not only unhealthy but are not doing enough to take care of your health. This erroneous assumption thus leads to a number of moral judgements about fat people’s behaviours; we assume they are lazy, greedy, or don’t care about their health.
Also, our understanding of bodies and health is steeped in biomedical and neoliberal discourse. We medicalize bodies so that fatness becomes something that requires intervention or treatment. Science is not apolitical; that is, science is not free of values, morals, and judgement. We tend to see science as being objective and not having a role in political currents, in the case the politics of health. Rather, science has been used to support the biomedicalization of bodies and fatness. This, in conjunction with neoliberalism’s focus on individual responsibility for health and deregulation of the health care system means that individuals are blamed for what we have constructed as a medical problem. Fat people become the fall guys and gals for a political ideology that has been framed as a medical problem.
LIA: Are there any benefits to engaging in such behaviour? Please explain why or why not.
JB: There are no benefits to prejudice, ever. And that is what fat shaming is.
LIA: Fat shaming seems to be everywhere these days, including in children’s literature. While reading another popular blog, Obesity Panacea, I stumbled upon a post about the recent publication Maggie Goes on a Diet. In rhyme, this book chronicles Maggie’s journey with dieting. How can we protect children from this type of thinking? How can we can encourage beautiful, healthy bodies at any size?
JB: We need to speak out about this nonsense. Marilyn Wann, a fat activist, started a campaign called “I stand” in response to campaigns like the one you mentioned above as well as other media that support fat shaming like this book. We need more of this. We need to get on board with these ideas as a society. Perhaps most importantly health professionals, namely dietitians need to actually read and understand the literature on the connection between body weight and health as well as HAES. It is their ethical obligation to do so, however, I hear many dietitians perpetuating the messages that underlie fat shaming.
LIA: As a former dietitian, mother, and doctoral student studying the role of dietitians in advancing social justice, what are your solutions/suggestions on how to deal with the growing number of individuals classified as overweight or obese? Should we leave everyone well enough alone? Would this not have an impact on our already stressed healthcare system? No, not everyone who is classified as overweight or obese is metabolically unhealthy, but a large proportion are and thus, will likely require a significant amount of medical attention. How do you feel about this issue? Any thoughts on how we can address it?
JB: It is not about leaving everyone alone – that is also not helpful to supporting our population’s health. My answer to this is Health at Every Size (HAES). HAES emphasizes eating well and moving in ways that support good physical, mental, and emotional health. It does not take body weight as an indicator of current or improved health status. People can improve their health status and not lose weight. Eating well and moving can improve other indicators of health such as blood pressure, fasting blood glucose and other indicators of metabolic health in the absence of weight loss.
We do need to do more to support the health of Canadians, particularly those who have lower-income and possibly even experience food insecurity. The way to do this is not to tell fat people to lose weight. To me, it means making real changes to the availability of affordable and nutritious food as well as safe, affordable, and accessible ways of moving our bodies. Even if weight loss was correlated with improved health, which it is not, this would only improve the health of some Canadians. Why narrow the focus like this? To me, it is better to support everyone in eating and moving in ways that are joyful, satisfying, and that contribute to their overall sense of well-being, without judgement.
I would like to extend my sincere thanks to Jenna for being a willing participant in this interview. I (and likely many of my readers) appreciate your sincerity, honesty, and frankness in regards to this contentious issue.
I have learned a great deal from this interview. I have learned even more from talking to fat people and former fat people about fat shaming and its deleterious consequences. Interestingly, a friend of mine who has lost approximately 60 lbs. over a period of 2 years and has kept it off, said she wanted people to compliment on her weight loss. She wanted people to notice her hard work, her changes, her skinniness. She wanted to hear “You look great; have you lost weight?” which I feel is another example of fat shaming as it suggests you only look great once you’ve lost weight, that you weren’t beautiful before.
It is my hope that with more information sharing such as this interview, more research about the detrimental consequences of fat shaming, and more campaigns to increase awareness regarding this ever-present issue, that we will help to reduce the stigma surrounding fatness. This is no small feat; it will take the voices and conviction of many. Changing such a well ingrained and accepted attitude towards fatness – that fatness is equated with poor health, sloth, laziness, and in many cases, revulsion – will take much time.
It’s a complex issue (I know, I know, fairly obvious point). But, it is. However, the more we know, the better we can be at limiting our role in fat shaming. And in limiting our respective role, the more healthy (in all ways) our society will likely become. Funny how that works…