Bill Maher recently gave a take on obesity that I myself had held for a long time — fat shaming is a necessary part of spurring people to take action on their health, and the acceptance and praise of obesity is toxic. In his soliloquy, he makes some strong points: obesity comes with a plethora of health risks, its mortality count is staggering, it is a growing problem that has come at a frightening speed, and of the major causes of death, it is one of the most controllable from the individual’s actions. The thesis of Bill Maher’s speech is that fat shaming needs to come back because just as widespread shaming for smoking, seat belts, and littering, we ought to be urging people to reconsider their dietary choices.
James Corden quickly made a rebuttal on his late show discussing his struggles with obesity and how research into fat shaming has shown it does not help because overeating is an addiction often correlated with stress, and since these folks eat to avoid shame and stress, fat shaming makes it worse.
In conjunction, these two theses seem at odds, but I don’t think they have to entirely be. I think there is something missing from the dialogue on obesity that came up in the examples of smoking, seat belts, and littering which ought to be applied here also: communal responsibility.
I struggled with obesity as a child. My brother did too, but after he joined cross country in 4th grade to lose the weight, my parents forced me to do the same. With a few adjustments to my diet along the way of not eating a big bag of chips and brownies every day after school, it worked. I know others have to fight much harder.
On the other hand, my father didn’t win his battle. He’s always been overweight, and although you can’t necessarily say one was caused by the other, he is currently fighting terminal pancreatic cancer of which his obesity was likely a contributing factor.
There have been other thematic issues like this in the family. My grandmother died of smoking. My grandfather died of smoking. My step-grandfather died of smoking. My aunt struggles with hypertension from the nonsensical amount of salt she puts on everything. It’s only a matter of time before something else will likely arise.
I’ve seen first hand how the vices of people do not manifest into immediate problems until these effects reel their head decades later, and no matter how much I tried to tell my family to avoid the fast food or put away the cigarettes, it never worked. I clearly remember one day when I visited my grandma while she was home between chemotherapy treatments for her lung cancer, and as I was telling her about my day, she pulled out a cigarette in front of me and lit it. “Don’t tell your dad,” she said with a chuckle.
How This Relates to Obesity
What I think is missing from the discussion on obesity is the responsibility we have to our loved ones. We are so focused on the issues that person experiences like heart disease or the disgust viewers might experience, and the rebuttal is often that we should uplift the image of obesity so as to consider it a new lifestyle, but why do we care so much about an individual’s experience rather than those with no sovereignty but still feel the pain? This libertarian idea that someone’s overconsumption of junk food and abstention from exercise is a personal choice with personal consequences is nonsense. Likewise, the claim that obesity is outright personal choice is also trash.
Just like smoking is banned in restaurants because others have to breath the fumes and littering is banned because it pollutes the environment, public discourse on obesity should be viewed as a communal problem. One’s poor diet today can lead to a disease that shortens their life, and if they have any loved ones, those folks have to feel that pain. I likely won’t have a father to support me through a lot of my life, and just as I didn’t get to have a real grandfather growing up, my kid might have to deal with that too. We even view seat belts this way , my own high school even having an assembly where the mother of a student whose daughter died in a crash because of not wearing a seat belt discussed her pain.
This might sound like I want us to transition from shame to guilt, but that’s not what I mean. I don’t want us to contribute anymore to stressful hurdles for folks struggling with an addiction to eat, as it is an addiction. Our agriculture industry (particularly sugar) has invested itself in causing an obesity epidemic, and I understand this is a public health crisis. But, we should view it as that — a public health crisis. It is something we work together on, and we consider the responsibility we have to our neighbors and families. We should be having a call to action with hope.
I don’t want to have a world where we tease folks struggling with obesity because it’s “good for them”. I likewise don’t want us to glorify obesity as if it has some profound beauty. It’s a challenge, and an especially hard one for those going through it, but we should be viewing our role to support others as a duty. We shouldn’t badger people about the sorrow they’ll cause but instead the happiness their siblings, kids, grandkids, and entire community will be able to enjoy with them around for a long and lively time.