Monday, April 7

"Weight-ism:" The Socially Acceptable Prejudice

Age, gender, sexual orientation, race--there are a number of factors that can single out a person without regard to their true self. Although it is illegal to discriminate against any one of these factors in a work environment, one type of discrimination continues to plague society. ABC News' Lee Dye wrote an article on a study conducted for a decade, published March 28 of this year, by research scientist and trained clinical psychologist Rebecca Puhl, of Yale University, and co-author Dr. Tatiana Andreyeva. The two studied a collection of surveys on "weight-ism," the discrimination of the overweight. An update to their data collected in 1995-1996 resulted in Puhl and Andreyeva having found an unsettling trend, an "acceleration" in weight bias. From 1996 through 2006, discrimination against the overweight had not only significantly risen, but also became more prevalent than other forms of prejudice. Since then, I venture to say that the tendency to discriminate against the obese continues. Puhl and Andreyeva assert that this will continue to "add fuel to the obesity epidemic," reminding one that obesity is a disease for which the individual is not responsible. They even go as far as to say that one "really can't expect [...] to lose more than 10 percent of [...] body weight and be able to keep that off." From personal experience, I beg to differ.

Puhl's claim is backed by years of scientific research that has indubitably linked obesity to genetics. Using the argument that race, age, gender, and the like, are factors out of our control, she ventures to say that weight is no different. The belief that it is difficult to sustain weight loss over ten percent of one's body weight is backed by expert panels, like the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Puhl does not discourage people to lose weight rather to refrain from believing that obesity is a "personal responsibility" one can easily overcome through will and determination alone. Thus, those discriminated against face an even tougher battle because of the stigma and stereotyping they endure. She states that weight loss is difficult to sustain and obesity is a genetic problem, as well as the social environment that has been cultivated in American lives continues "weight-ist" progression. True, it is hard enough to lose weight without the added social pressure and criticism, but something is amiss in her argument.

Dye makes mention of a healthier lifestyle being far more expensive than living off fast food and processed goods. Puhl would agree with Dye that when one cannot say "no to just two Girl Scout cookies," it should not be left to personal responsibility. At this point I must draw the line because Puhl downplays personal responsibility. Saying that the "toxic food environment" we live in keeps obesity at bay, Puhl alludes that this environment causes a mental warfare, a battle over nutritional choices, and that this very same environment nurtures the socially acceptable act of weight discrimination. Nutritional facts are there for the individual to take responsibility by becoming aware of their consumption though. Instead of eating inexpensive snacks, like chips and soda, or a cheeseburger, why not use those finances to buy a loaf of bread, sandwich meat, and condiments to make several meals a day? Should the government interfere by posting signs at every corner to remind one of proper nutrition? Should society create a nutrition police to control every personal choice of food consumption? Legal battles have already surfaced against numerous fast food producers, most notably against McDonald's as was famously documented in the film Super Size Me. Just how much is one personally responsible for their eating habits?

I'm not excusing discrimination against the overweight as that would be hypocritical, nor am I belittling Puhl's research, but at some point the individual must take accountability for their part. Instead of litigating, and shifting the blame to exterior motives, take the initiative to not only change behavior, but also take a stand against those who make it difficult to lose weight, whether its a stranger, a bully, a relative, or a corporation. Puhl's argument supports the "victim's" learned helplessness. The correlation between bullying and criticizingexists which perpetuates a vicious cycle of depression and obesity, but to say "that obesity brings social stigmatism and stereotyping, and that can lead to depression, discrimination and binge eating, so the problem just gets worse," is dangerous. Obviously, "weight-ism" being socially acceptable is an issue, one that needs to be rectified, but to disregard personal responsibility is a danger in itself. If "weight-ism" were outlawed, it would leave far too much room to be abused. The fact of the matter is weight can be controlled, while age, race, sexual orientation (controversially) cannot.

Puhl's research also brings to light findings that women are more at risk to face discrimination at different levels. For example, women begin to experience discrimination when their BMI (body mass index) reaches 27, as opposed to men at 35; moderately obese women are likely to face discrimination three times as likely as their male counterpart; and weight is the third most prevalent type of discrimination against women, under gender and age, and the fourth most prevalent among all adults. This upsetting news leaves one to ponder that both weight and negative thoughts and actions (prejudice/bullying/discrimination) are personal responsibilities, which no one should surrender to or give up to the general consensus. Athough Puhl mentions obesity is not strictly a medical "disease," she grossly undermines personal responsibility and fails to look at the overall picture and bring in other explanations for its prevalence. It is true that external factors play a role in many cases of obesity, but personal responsibility and personal will are also determinants in controlling weight.

1 comment:

AAG said...

I really enjoyed reading your post about the concerns and issues surrounding "weightism." I thought you provided a sufficient counterargument to Puhl's findings and assumptions. Furthermore, I felt you post had a more profound impact with the mention of your own personal experience and triumph.
At any rate, I agree with the points you were making. We cannot put the blame in one place but we can take responsibility over our own nutritional decisions. Nutrition is imperative and when we have extrinsic factors that can negatively sway our decisions it just forces us to be even more contentious about our nutritional needs. You did a great job likening your post to other important studies and subjects in the field. You even connected your topic to the film Supersize Me, which I thought was an interesting point. Finally, I loved how you focused on the different levels of discrimination that come into play with obesity between genders. It was surprising to see that women are ridiculed when their BMI is 27 while men acquire negative attention at a whopping BMI of 35! Very interesting. I think this also says something about our society and the emphasis we put on the female body... Nevertheless, I really like dhow you stood up for what you believe in this post while doing an eloquent job in making your point.
At any rate, I would have liked it if you had extended your definition of what "weightism" is and how this term materialized. I would have liked more background on the issue and the terminology.
Ultimately, though, I felt you had a strong post with a good message. It was inspiring and interesting. I look forward to reading more of your posts in the future! Great job!

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