August 12, 2011

Weightism Epidemic

We have all heard of the obesity epidemic and how Americans’ weight continues to rise. In this form the word epidemic is used to gain attention and intensify the issue in order to ignite fear.  If asked though, most people would say their concern is really for the health of the obese individuals. Additionally, the increase in media coverage and scientific research also appear to have a theme of obesity related health-conditions. If health is really the issue, why then, is there so much focus on obesity and consequently weight?

BMI stands for body mass index and is calculated from a person’s height and weight. More often than not when someone is referring to obesity or presenting research findings on obesity, the BMI has been used to distinguish someone’s label, for example: underweight, normal, overweight, obese, morbidly obese. Although the BMI classification of obese is only taking into account height and weight, the word obese evokes an image of a fat person. Additionally someone who is overweight or obese is believed to be unhealthy. In truth, the label of obese could apply to people of all shapes and sizes and health (BMI project). BMI does not include body fat percentage, cholesterol, blood pressure, diet, or exercise in the calculations. With all this being said, an obesity epidemic is not really an appropriate description for a movement that is really supposed to be about health. According to Esther Rothblum (2009) “the only thing that anyone can diagnose, with any certainty, by looking at a fat person, is their own level of stereotype and prejudice toward fat people” (p. 295).

So, why all the focus on obesity? Is it more likely that the epidemic is really one of weightism? Weightism is the discrimination of someone due to his or her weight. Examples of weightism are: fat adolescents being teased and bullied by their peers, a medical doctor spending less time examining a fat patient than they would a normal or thin patient, a school counselor not providing encouragement and college planning skills to any fat student, or an employer whose presented with two equally qualified candidates and chooses the thin candidate over the fat candidate. Weightism also takes the form of ostracism, discouragement, and sometimes violence.

Since focusing on weight has become socially acceptable, weightism has also become more tolerable. Not too long ago it was commonplace to treat someone different based on their race. Race used to be an indicator of intelligence, income, health or disease, and morality. Now, weight is used in alarmingly the same way. Being fat is associated with being stupid or uneducated, poor, unhealthy, and self-indulgent.

As the diet industry has continued to boom and make billions of dollars in profit, Americans have not lost weight; they have gained weight. This paradox shows something is not working. A diet and weight focused society is not leading to healthier Americans. Consider if overall health and well-being were promoted instead of weight-loss and fear of fat and obesity. There would be more programs about healthy self-esteem, body acceptance, healthy eating, and fun movement. Instead, we have calories on restaurant menus and advocates for BMIs on student report cards. Something is terribly wrong.

Rothblum, Esther (2009). The Fat Studies Reader (Kindle Locations 295-296). NYU Press reference. Kindle Edition.