It comes as no surprise that many Americans don’t lead the healthiest of lifestyles. We drink, we stress, and we don’t sleep enough. Somehow though, the issues that strongly elicit a moral outrage and condemnation are those tied to weight. A prime example of this prejudice can be found in the responses to Beauty Redefined’s article, “Why ‘Fitspiration’ isn’t so Inspirational,” which addresses how fitness images often focus too much on appearance rather than health and can inspire body shame and unhealthy methods to reach the “fit” looking goal:
“As long it is inspiring people to get off their lazy butts and start working out I see nothing wrong with those Fitspiration photos and messages. Obesity is continuing to increase and I am not saying we shouldn’t all love our bodies, but we shouldn’t promote self acceptance when a change needs to be made to get healthy.”
“… these images “inspire body shame”, and maybe they do, but if that is something that gets people motivated to loose [sic] the weight than it has accomplished its goal. As far as girls dying from being too skinny, I guarantee you that there are a lot more people in the US who died from being too fat than from too skinny. Not to mention the burden that is put on the healthcare system from treating obesity related illnesses.”
“If these advertisements are the tipping point that convince 10 Americans to get off their duff and work out and eat well, that’s a start.”
“I wouldn’t look at obese people negativity if it wasn’t unhealthy and if I didn’t have to pay for their healthcare. But we have tons of proof that it is very unhealthy and we have a system where the most fit and healthy person if forced to pay for all of the medical care that goes along with being obese.”
Though the comments section on just about every high-traffic website is bound to be filled with some of the nastiest responses, the sentiment here about people who don’t fit the “fit” image is far from rare. From magazines plastered with the latest stars’ weight gain, to diet ads featuring people grabbing and pinching their flesh, the message is clear: “Fat is bad and you better do something about it.” Despite the numerous attempts at justifying contempt via “health” and individual responsibility explanations, each falls flat, again and again. Here’s why:
1. Animosity is mostly directed to “overweight” and “obese” people, instead of out-of-shape people as a whole: Given the numerous studies that show you can be “overweight” and healthy, or be within the “healthy” weight range and still suffer from conditions normally attributed to obesity, some people are beginning to realize that flat-out fat-bashing is not justified. However, the “obesity crisis” in mainstream media and everyday conversations is almost always brought up, invariably deeming “overweight” and “obese” people as unhealthy. And let’s be honest, which of these phrases do you hear more often directed towards thin people?:
“You shouldn’t eat that, and why don’t you go to the gym? It would be good for you.”
“I don’t see why you care about what you eat, you can eat whatever you want, and you don’t even need to go to the gym!
2. The primary system of defining obesity (the BMI) is faulty at best. With the basis equation only factoring in weight and height, the BMI only takes the slightest glance at an individual’s overall health. As Susie Orbach points out in her book, Bodies, the BMI categorizes Brad Pitt as “overweight” and George Clooney as “obese.” Other important aspects of a person’s body and lifestyle (such as fat percentage, muscle mass, physical activity level, VO2 max, etc.) do not fit anywhere into this assessment, giving us a vague picture at best of a person’s overall health.
3. We only criticize people for their eating and exercise habits, but not for other factors linked to ill health. True, eating and exercise habits have an impact on health, but factors such as too much stress and too little sleep have also been shown to lead to negative effects, such as heart conditions, high blood pressure, stroke, and diabetes. Weight gain is also a factor associated with high stress and sleep deprivation. So, while we criticize an “overweight” person for not adhering to a healthy diet and exercise regimen, we praise the habits of people who work over sixty hours a week and sleep five hours a night, despite the fact it makes it far more difficult for them to be healthy.
4. “Overweight” or “unfit” people are demonized as being lazy slobs, when a variety of other factors, such as income level, workplace environment, and psychological conditions share a huge part of the responsibility. In the Western world, people who are poorer are more likely to be overweight due to unhealthy habits, and it’s not a huge surprise. Organic food, fruits, and vegetables are usually more expensive and do less to satisfy hunger, while unhealthy foods high in fats, carbs, and sugar are cheaper and are more likely to keep you fuller for longer when you don’t have the means to buy the food your body needs. Gym memberships can be expensive, as is daycare if your gym doesn’t offer it for free.
On the other side of the coin, only 25% of jobs today are physically active, forcing many people to spend the vast majority of their day sedentary. Not only does this make it difficult to find enough time in the day to be active enough to maintain a fit physique, but that much time being still can make you lethargic and tired while also lowering your metabolism.
Finally, there are people who overeat due to psychological conditions, such as depression and eating disorders, certainly nothing to harass someone for. Instead we should have a genuine concern for them to get better.
5. Unhealthy methods are encouraged in the quest to lose weight. If this were about health, we wouldn’t socially stigmatize those who don’t fit into the “fit” ideal and say they need to change no matter what. We wouldn’t support tactics that are mentally unhealthy by instilling shame, anxiety, and depression in people who don’t fit the mold. We would abhor the idea of dieting (which often leads to increased weight gain in the long run), and instead, encourage the variety of ways that people can be healthy at every size.
But most of all…
6. It’s an individual’s own decision to decide what is best for themselves, their health, and their body. When all else fails, the moral obesity debate claims that a person’s weight somehow hurts others around them, and comes off somewhat like this:
“But there’s an obesity epidemic! These people are becoming a burden on our healthcare system, costing me money!”
First off, many health insurance companies charge their “overweight” customers higher premiums, so those who are stigmatized by a poor BMI score are likely already paying in more than their fair share. Furthermore, if we’re so outraged about the healthcare costs other people are inducing, then where’s the outrage towards those who suffer sports injuries? Those who experience organ failure due to anorexia or bulimia? Those who have wrecked their liver from a lifetime of drinking? What about all of us who choose the cheaper and more convenient route of eating genetically modified foods over organic and local foods, putting ourselves at risk for possibly detrimental long-term (and expensive) effects? Just as unfairly, all of these conditions can be argued that they are brought on by individual choices. Yet, the people who fall into these categories are not chastised and shamed to the same degree for their conditions and/or decisions.
If we really care about health, lets actually talk about health. Let’s look at lifestyles and conditions, rather than jumping to blame the individual. Let’s look at accurate measures of health, not one’s appearance. Let’s actually CARE about each other, and stop the moral superiority game.