I had a blog due this week and, to be honest, I was struggling for ideas of what to write about. And then the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity posted this on their Facebook page.
You might wonder why I bother to follow an organisation that considers itself to be a “Center for Obesity” in the first place. There are a couple of reasons. The first is that they are taken very seriously on the Food Policy part of their remit. They advise governments on things like calorie listings of restaurant menus and whether or not we should be taxing fizzy drinks, so it’s good to keep up with what’s happening on the legislation front.
But the other, more important reason is that researchers attached to the Rudd Center are doing some of the most valuable, and certainly the most prolific, research in the field of weight stigma at the moment. They are leading the way on highlighting the massive extent of weight stigma in all aspects of daily life, and have championed the need for legal protection against workplace discrimination due to weight. Among other things, Rudd Center studies have been responsible for showing:
- How rates of weight stigma are on the rise
- How both entertainment and news media stigmatise fat people and how others are influenced by seeing these images
- The extent and consequences of weight-based bullying
- How juries are more likely to convict a fat woman
- How internalizing societal weight bias increases the risk of binge eating
- And many more
Now, to many in the Fat Acceptance community, the two main strands of Rudd Center business would seem to be somewhat mutually exclusive. How can you on the one hand be concerned about the prevalence of weight stigma and working on social strategies to reduce it, while on the other developing policies intended to prevent and treat obesity?
This is possibly one of the most controversial issues in weight stigma research at the moment. Most decent people think stigma is a bad thing, although a few still think it might be good for us if it snaps us out of the fairy-tale world we live in, where we are not punished enough for our fat bodies and therefore are simply too unmotivated or too stupid to become thin people. This, despite all the evidence suggesting that being exposed to stigma is actually bad for our health, and in a recent study researchers found that it promotes weight gain.
But not everyone who is against stigma is also pro-Health At Every Size® (HAES). Many of them are mainstream obesity researchers and clinicians who think one of the problems with stigma is that it interferes with weight loss. Many research papers certainly cite this as a reason to address the issue of weight stigma. Sometimes I wonder whether they really believe it, or whether they are simply saying that to pacify their institutions and to hit the funding jackpot. I swear, if you put in a grant proposal for the development of a new nail polish and suggested that it might help address the “obesity epidemic,” you could get $5 million, easy.
But sadly, I think many researchers and clinicians do not see a problem in holding these two positions simultaneously. There are well-meaning individuals who genuinely want to help us poor, fat folks with our health by telling us that getting thin is the way to do it. And they are decent enough to believe that nobody should be stigmatised, and simply want to develop a way to help us lose weight that is not steeped in negative stereotypes and judgments. As Dr. Judy Swift reported at the UK Weight Stigma Conference in May this year, supposedly weight-neutral guidelines for healthcare providers can often be reduced to: “Just try to be nice when you tell them to lose weight.”
The debate rages on. Can you be both anti-obesity and not engaged in stigmatising fat people? Dr. Swift will be organising the 2014 Weight Stigma Conference and is considering making this question the topic of a Big Debate. As the most public face of the Rudd Center, particularly in terms of stigma research, and author of many of the papers listed above, Dr. Rebecca Puhl is well-known among HAES and Size Acceptance communities. Her dual position is a source of friction that engenders mistrust of her entire message, which is a shame, but many people feel she needs to come down off the fence. Some individuals believe that, privately, she is more pro-HAES than her public utterings would suggest. However, in a recent ASDAH blog post, Dr. Jenny Copeland asked Dr Puhl about whether fighting a “war on obesity” by definition contributes to weight stigma, and her lengthy response failed to satisfy most ASDAHonians.For example:
Our view is that everyone deserves to live in a healthy environment that supports the behaviors that keep our bodies healthy. At the same time, we feel that individuals who are experiencing poor health associated with excess weight and who want to lose weight, deserve support, respect, and access to effective treatment – not shame, blame, and stigma. This is where the message often emerges that we need to fight the condition, not the person, because so often weight stigma creates significant barriers and obstacles for these individuals in their ability to obtain the support that they want and deserve.
For the time being, we remain uneasy bedfellows.
And this brings us to last Friday’s Facebook post.
“We’re looking for positive stories about preventing obesity and reducing weight stigma.”
My own comment, “You’re joking, right?” failed to elicit a response from the peeps at Yale.
While some people at the Rudd Center and elsewhere probably do truly rail against inequality and discrimination, and believe that anti-obesity measures and anti-stigma attitudes can go hand in hand, I think many more just think it’s about smiling while you point out our super-morbidly cultural unacceptability.
For our own good, of course.