Is Obesity the New Acceptable Discrimination?


We don't take kindly to discrimination today. When a politician lets a racist comment slip or a televangelist attacks gay marriage, every pundit, journalist, and civil rights advocate around the country rains down politically correct hell fire in response. But when's the last time you've seen such a reaction to insults leveled at fat people? Probably never. And the reason why is simple: it's perfectly acceptable in our society to discriminate against overweight people, and our efforts to stem the obesity epidemic are evidence of this. 

It's sometimes difficult to spot discrimination against fat people because it's usually couched in rhetoric about promoting public health and reducing heath care costs, but it's there nonetheless. Consider how we start discussions about obesity: overweight and obese people get that way because they eat too much and don't exercise enough. That's true of course, but it has to be true, in the same way that drinking too much has to cause drunkenness. The trick in both cases is explaining why some people eat or drink too much. That's where the condescension makes an appearance.

Read any popular book or editorial about the obesity epidemic, and chances are you'll come away with the same message. Fat people lack self control. Their desire to gorge themselves outweighs any concern about health they may have. What's more, these people are stupid; they've been fooled by the clever marketing of junk food manufacturers, which continually compels them to maintain their unhealthy lifestyle. That combination, the thinking goes, is the source of the obesity epidemic.

Morgan Spurlock's 2004 film Super Size Me embodies this outlook on obesity. Relying on the same public health advocates still prominent today, Spurlock made the case described above. Harvard University psychologist Kelly Brownell did much the same in his book Food Fight, emphasizing the food industry's successful ploy to fool American's into eating all the unhealthy food we do. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), whose experts were prominently featured in Super Size Me, also takes this approach to obesity. The list of advocates who blame obesity on lack of self control and would address it by penalizing overweight people with taxes and restrictions on personal behavior is almost endless. Judging by polls and attempts to ban fat people from certain lines of work, most of us accept this view as well.

Interestingly, there's very little science in support of such an approach to the obesity epidemic (more on that in a minute), and the crusade against it seems to be rooted more in stereotypes that have been ingrained in us over the years than solid evidence. According to University of Chicago political scientist J Eric Oliver, the source of these stereotypes is the mindset change that accompanied our ability to easily access food beginning in the early 20th century. Once eating was no longer a matter of basic survival, Oliver says, we began to assign different values to what and how much we eat. One of those values is a contempt for fat people, who obviously eat too much.

What's even more interesting, however, is that Oliver's theory finds a lot of support in the medical literature. Going back to the time that this change in how we view food is said to have occurred, obesity researchers have been fighting over the cause of weight gain. Some took the view popular today that fat people just lack the willpower to manage their weight. Other experts argued that there was a strong genetic component to obesity. This was (and is) a conclusion backed up by many studies in which overweight participants couldn't lose substantial amounts of body weight, despite their food intake and exercise habits being carefully monitored and controlled. The same was true of thin people put on extremely high-calorie diets. 

One of the more famous of these clinical trials involved inmates at Vermont State Prison. The inmates were asked to consume as many as 10,000 calories a day and remain sedentary. Of the eight participants, two gained weight very easily and the other six did not, one gained as little as ten pounds. By the end of the trial, all participants lost the weight rapidly. The endocrinologist who ran the study concluded that we all have the ability to adapt our metabolism "in response to both over-and undernutrition." Some of us are just better at it than others.   

None of this should be misconstrued as an attempt to defend unhealthy choices. Whether or not those of us who live on a junk food diet and rarely exercise get fat, such a lifestyle is a recipe for early death. And fat people can lose weight within the confines of genetics. But that doesn't mean all fat people are gluttons who deserve to be treated like broken objects in need of fixing. There's not a shred of evidence supporting such an outlook, and it's time we did away with it.