“We have an obesity crisis.” People may be sick of hearing that, but it is true. And it’s not just sad that millions of people, including children, will have health problems decades earlier than if they might have been a healthier weight, and that their obesity may even impact their length of life. Yes, it is sad. But there is another sadness that has been born in the last few decades, a younger sibling to the obesity crisis: weight bias.
You may have heard it by other names, such as size or weight discrimination, weightism, or weight-based bullying, but it all comes down to prejudice and stereotyping. As we fight to keep our population healthy, we have begun a “war on obesity” of sorts. Hyperbole, perhaps, but unfortunately, to those who are being mistreated, it feels like an accurate statement. If you are obese, you have people at every turn feeling like they can comment on your weight. This is especially true for public figures; one of the most recent examples was when Chris Christie had a few days of comedy and anger surrounding his weight. Some apparently consider it a valid point to argue that Christie is not “POTUS material” because of his obesity. (ABC News Story). (If you have struggled with ANY weight loss, be it 5# or 50#, would you consider yourself weak and stupid and unable to do your job? Weight should NOT be something we allow to be discriminated against, including in the workplace.)
It seems that for some reason, people think this is acceptable behavior, perhaps because they think it will help somehow (which it won’t) or its funny (which it is not) or because if they bully an obese person, they will move up some imaginary social rank (which is just so wrong I can’t think of how to express my feelings without profanity.)
- Trying to help? I can tell you from my own many experiences, both in my professional and even more so in my personal life, that you did not help when you pointed out that so-and-so was gaining weight, or that “you’ll get diabetes if you don’t lose weight, you know.” You cannot and will not help unless someone first asks for your help. Otherwise, I hate to break it to you, but you are just being “Mean”…this may seem harsh, but if I could quote a oddly good song’s lyric:
“You have pointed out my flaws again. As if I don’t already see them.”~~Taylor Swift
- Making jokes? Many people, obese or not, will tell you that when they have jokes made about them, it doesn’t feel good! Anyone remember “four-eyes,” “freckle-face” or “metal-mouth?” These are nothing compared to what obese people have to face wherever they go; at work, socially, and even with their family (including spouses!) Again, NOT helpful!
- Weight-based bullying? Bullying just infuriates me, and weight has been identified as one of the top types of bullying we see. This type of bullying goes on everywhere and at all ages. I have seen adults ridicule their partner for “getting fat;” a classic manipulative tool to put the other on the defensive and make them feel worthless and vulnerable. But most dangerous is the young people who bully their peers. These young people are learning how to act and developing the culture and behavioral framework they will use the rest of their lives. This is NOT OK, and adults have to be extra careful we are not sending mixed body-image messages to our children, and we have to do a better job as a society to not instill or reinforce stereotypes. (For more on weight-bias and bullying, see this very informative fact sheet from the Yale Rudd Center.)
The ironic thing here is that when the above examples happen, people sometimes turn to the thing they always turn to in times of stress or sadness…food. Therefore, to treat people in these ways is not only incredibly rude, insensitive and cruel, but counterproductive to any healthy changes.
So, what to do? I, of course, can’t speak for everyone, but as a dietitian I can tell you that when people want help, professional, supportive, confidential help is available. I have had people of all ages and in all places come to me with serious and personal questions, and I can tell it is taking a lot of strength to do it. I don’t blame them for not chatting with their girlfiends or family about something so personal and difficult, because what they need is unconditional support and a healthy approach, and we just can’t cure all our families and friends’ problems. We have to let them choose their path. The best you can do is be there if and when they need you, and they will come to you if that’s what they need.
If all else fails, do what Thumper, and my mom, always say:
[But if we want to stop this insanity and unhealthiness, what do we do? Where do we turn?
Perhaps I should save that for another day…]