Promoting obesity in media

In Warsaw’s Old Town recently took place a lingerie fashion show for plus sized women. The event was overall very positive, people were cheering, the models had appropriately fit outfits, which is unusual, as plus sized women often have troubles finding good-looking undergarments that would let them feel comfortable and attractive. I would not expect a negative comment about it, aside maybe from some rude, frustrated people who take every opportunity to lash out on others.

plus size

To my surprise, the event has been commented by one of my favorite popular science blog’s facebook fanpage – To tylko teoria. Normally the post quality is rather high, the author often speaks out about cognitive dissonance, how to back your claims up with valid sources, promotes rational thinking, etc. This time his commentary was rather alarming – to sum up, ‘obese people should not be shown in positive context, and promoted in media’. At the same time he claimed that he is against bullying obese people. Sounds contradictory?

It’s very harmful to show being overweight, and illness such as obesity as something normal, cool, positive.’

Author backs it up with the fact that the expense of obesity consequences is high, in public health system, and obesity is one of the biggest problems in public health in EU and USA. He stated that he understands that the ‘fit’ fashion promoted by celebrities and influencers is harmful, but quoting – ‘promoting obesity is not the solution, because it’s like curing the plague with cholera‘. Later he says ‘I see lots of hate by the so called bodyposi soldiers, the point is not to bully obese people, it’s not about obese people not accepting themselves, the point is that we should not promote obesity and show it in positive light in media. Such thing is irresponsible and harmful to the society. PS. If anyone knows if during the event the public was informed by how harmful to health is obesity, then let me know, I will certainly approve’.

Now, I do not intend to argue with the fact that obesity is one of the biggest civilisation plagues, and that it’s the biggest expense of public health system. My problem with this is that the author completely misses the point of mental well being of obese patients, the origins of obesity, and how exactly media affect people. Another problem is the hypocrisy and ableism. Nobody (besides one real fucking dumbass on polish political scene) is considering it a bad influence that we show disabled people on Paralympics. Any other action that promotes anyhow ill or disabled people is seen as positive. When it comes to people who are more relatable to the public, so people who fallen victim of an accident, are heartwarming and supported.

When it comes to obesity, in most cases it’s self-inflicted. Except it’s much more complex than just ‘I ate too much, I am lazy, and made myself fat’. For simpletons this is easy to assume, and take out their own private frustrations. Most people are far from hard-working, pushing themselves, disciplined, and taking sufficient care of their health. Lots of activities that seem harmless, such as smoking, recreational drinking, even heavy sports – all those things contribute to health problems and shorter lifespan, yet only obese people are treated with such disregard to their feelings and dignity. Personally I’ve had some weird experiences, such as people claiming I am a rude bitch on a high horse for rejecting smokers as dating partners. Yet, somehow pointing out the health issues (and often just aesthetic issues) with obesity is completely acceptable.

What an irony, that the most frowned down upon health issue is the one that is the most delicate psychologically. Every person who bullies overweight people is only contributing to their state. Nobody is going to change their ways just because you emotionally abuse them to doing so. As a nutritionist often asked for advice, the most motivated overweight people I have met were those who were treated with respect, and allowed to feel good about themselves. Even such simple thing as going shopping, trying on fancy clothes, feeling attractive – this can really lift their spirit. Once they stop seeing their body’s weight as something that drags down their self-worth, they become healthily distanced from it, and only then they can free their minds from the anxiety, and do something about it. A person must be ready to fight for their well-being, health, and life satisfaction. And if anyone really cares about their health and well-being, they should support them, and let them feel happy with themselves, to enter this change-inducing mindset of positivism. If most non-overweight people usually need a shock therapy, such as ‘stop eating sugar, or you will lose eyesight, your limbs, and eventually die of diabetes’, who are they to judge an overweight person who struggles to keep discipline and change their habits, often forced upon them by their families, and in many countries also by economy and fresh whole foods vs. processed food prices?

Aside from the obvious projection and hypocrisy, ‘promoting’ obesity is plain bullshit. Just like ‘promoting homosexuality’ (let’s face it, no actual 100% heterosexual could believe someone can be ‘converted’ or ‘coerced’ to be gay). Let’s paraphrase the original comment made by the blog’s author: ‘We should not promote homosexuality. It’s not about bullying homosexuals. It’s about not showing it in public as something acceptable and positive’. I hope that shows how harmful and discriminating this kind of mentality is. And how shocking it is to hear such thing from a person who promotes science and rational thinking. I am not implying that homosexuality and obesity are anyhow alike, I’m trying to say that specific words used against those groups are the same, and in one case we consider this harmful and discriminating, but in the other it’s ‘constructive criticism’. We can’t ignore how the words make people feel. I don’t want to shame the author and scream ‘I am unliking this page’, because everybody makes mistakes, and there is no know-it-all in the world, who is never wrong. But I sincerely hope that the author will learn from this mistake and not repeat it in the future.

None other ‘unhealthy’ group of people is treated like this. We don’t see people attacking smokers, drinkers (let’s not forget that even moderate drinking is a health hazard), people who drive fast and irresponsibly, people who have sitting jobs, people who eat junk food, skinny-fat people with no muscle mass who are at greater risk of osteoporosis and dying of cancer-induced malnutrition… Nobody cares if anyone in at least one of those groups shows themselves in bikini tops, and flaunting their bodily confidence. It’s time the public learns to separate self-worth and confidence from health issues altogether.

To quote an article from Psychology Today:

‘Even if everything mentioned above weren’t true, it is becoming clear that victimisation and discrimination against people who are overweight isn’t a motivator in reducing their weight.

A recent paper from Jane Wardle’s group at my own institution, University College London (UCL), reports observations from a cohort of 2944 people over the age of 50. Those who reported discrimination or bullying not only had a greatly reduced chance of weight loss, they actually tended to gain weight and become obese.

When almost every country in the world has a burgeoning health crisis due to the availability and low quality of food and the increase in sedentary lifestyles, it can be very tempting to blame individuals for their weight.

All the evidence from decades of research has demonstrated that obesity is not a choice. It is a complex socioeconomic, psychological and physiological phenomenon. We can all do things to influence our body weight, but the most important thing is to make sure that we are happy with whatever our healthy body looks like. Obesity is an issue, but the problem is regarding the health of the individual, not whether a given person happens to find them attractive or not.

Instead of an overwhelmingly negative approach to the issue, which would seem to do more harm than good, encouraging lifestyle change on the basis that it is better to be healthy than unhealthy appears to be the key, whatever size or shape that might mean you are.’

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