Tuesday, 20 December 2011

A (cautious) defence of ‘fattism’

Modern Western societies condemn the obese as monstrous, but the truly deplorable are those complicit in the bullying of the overweight. That’s the conclusion of David Haslam’s recent condemnation of contemporary attitudes to fat people. He doesn’t explicitly draw the link, but it is clear that Haslam intends his article to make us recognise discrimination against the obese alongside more commonly acknowledged forms of prejudice, like racism and sexism. The most alarming piece of evidence that he produces is the way that the overweight, like victims of sexism and racism often internalise the contempt in which they are held, coming to see themselves as sub-standard and worthless:

researchers have found that children as young as six years old, even those who are overweight themselves, use words like “lazy,” “stupid,” “cheats,” “liars,” “sloppy,” “naughty,” “mean,” and “ugly” to describe their obese peers.

Haslam doesn’t seem to be arguing directly for any legal intervention. Rather, he seems to want us to reconsider our social attitudes. However, I am not sure that a social norm of condemning the obese is necessarily a bad or a wrong one. I think it would be unquestionably a good thing if racism and sexism were to end, but I’m not so sure about ‘fattism’. This is because of two crucial ways in which being obese can differ from being black or a woman:

(1) The obese have some capacity to change the relevant feature i.e. to lose weight

(2) Being obese is almost certainly worse than not being obese.

In other words, a big part of the reason why racism is bad is because it is unproductive – a black person cannot stop being black – and arbitrary – there is no reason to single out black people for condemnation rather than white people, because black people are no worse than white people. My suggestion is that the social humiliation of the obese is neither unproductive nor arbitrary, because it exhorts fat people to take an action that they are capable of taking, and which it would be good for them to take.

Both of these premises need some argument. Premise (1) is likely to be controversial because it appears to suggest that fat people are responsible for their own plight. This is explicitly rejected by Haslam who emphasises the significance of childhood and upbringing, over which a person has little control. However, premise (1) does not depend on the assumption that a fat person must be fat out of any fault of their own. Rather, all it claims is that however they got into this position, they have the ability to do something to get out of it. For sure, it is likely to be easier for some than others. But it seems to me extremely unlikely that there are many people who are literally incapable of losing any weight.

The second premise is less obvious to me, even though Haslam appears to concede it. He lists the problems of obesity: “a dysfunctional metabolism, insulin resistance, chronic illness, and a shortened life”, as if to acknowledge how much worse off the overweight are. Yet it could be argued that obesity is a valid lifestyle choice – that there is a legitimate question over whether avoiding unhealthy food and taking regular exercise are genuinely worth the health payoffs. If we think this, then the obese have not erred or failed in any way, they just have different values or preferences to thin people. But if obesity is seen as a legitimate lifestyle choice this has radical implications – it means we can no longer treat obesity like a public health problem, that government campaigns against it are illegitimate. It means granting real license to be fat.

If we accept, however, that the obese can and ought to alter their situation, this suggests that the stigmatisation of fat people isn’t all bad. For obesity to be fully socially acceptable would mean that people lose a powerful incentive to lose weight and make their lives better. Yet even if this the case, it does not imply that the current situation, which angers Haslam so much, is justified. Even if fattism has some beneficial consequences, there are three big reasons why we might still want to oppose it.

The first is that it might be disproportionate. It is perfectly plausible and consistent to think that fat people should not be treated the same as everybody else, but that they should be treated better than they are at present, and that current practices go too far.

The second is that fattism might be counterproductive as a strategy for combatting obesity. It might increase a person’s sense of powerlessness and induce fatalism. It might cut them off from support networks which might otherwise aid them in losing weight. It could foster low self-esteem, and lead to comfort eating. Rather than incentivising weight loss, picking on fat people might make them even fatter.

Finally, there is the possibility that there are far more effective and efficient ways of getting people to lose weight. For example, it is likely to dietary norms or the relative cost of different foods contributes more to obesity than the social acceptability of being overweight. In that case, it is likely to be better to focus on those levers than the ones that depend on cruelty and hurt feelings.

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