January 16, 2013

Obesity: When "helpful" is "hurtful"

In the context of the ongoing media coverage about the meta-analysis published in the Journal of the American Medical Association that found that being overweight or mildly obese doesn't increase the risk of death compared to "normal" weight people (yes, that would be untimely death, since we all die eventually), I've been thinking for days about the article posted on the New York Times' Well Blog, "Feeling Bullied by Parents About Weight."

It's been said that body weight is one of the last bastions of publicly acceptable discrimination. Whether that is exactly true, or not, there are an awful lot of people who seem to feel they have the right to be either "helpful" or downright mean to people who weigh more than is deemed acceptable in the eye of the beholder.

Why is it that someone will say, "Should you really be eating that ice cream?" to someone who is obese, but they wouldn't say it to someone who has uncontrolled diabetes. To be fair, obesity is more visually obvious, whereas high blood sugar is not, but still. Someone who is obese may or may not have health problems, while someone who has uncontrolled diabetes is at risk of having a heart attack or losing a foot.

There are many people who feel fear and/or loathing toward people who are "fatter" than they are (this isn't helped by the constant talk about the "obesity epidemic," which I may have contributed to, and forgive me). I think the psychology behind this attitude stems from one of a handful of reasons:
  1. The belief that people who are overweight or obese are sicker and thus driving up healthcare costs (and everyone else's insurance rates). [Sorry, but body weight is a poor determinate of health. Skinny people can have horrible health habits, too.]
  2. They aren't attracted to people above a certain body weight. [That's a matter of choice. I've never been attracted to men with blond hair, but I don't feel I have the right to verbally attack them.]
  3. They don't feel good about their own bodies and try to feel better by picking on someone bigger than their own size. [Should anyone be shoving their own psychological baggage onto someone else?]
There are many aspects of how we live our lives that can affect our health. In case I haven't repeated it enough, here's the basic framework for a healthy life:
  • Eating nutritious food
  • Getting regular physical activity
  • Reducing stress
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Not smoking or abusing drugs/alcohol
Those habits can influence body weight, but they don't predict or guarantee it. I think it's way past time to start focusing on cultivating these healthy habits, and letting the weight chips fall where they may.

If someone is overweight, they know it. No one needs to point it out with advice, jokes or slurs. Bullying and shaming doesn't help anyone. If someone wants (or maybe actually needs) to lose weight, they won't do it until they are good and ready. Bullying and shaming doesn't expedite readiness. Readiness, and lasting change, comes from within. So what's the point of making someone feel bad? Even if you think you are being "helpful," you're not. You're being hurtful.

And...stepping off my soapbox now. Thanks for reading!