Posted by: drrozkaplan | March 31, 2011

Global Fat Phobia

Headline on the front page of the New York Times today: Fat Stigma is Fast Spreading Around the Globe.   While in the U.S. and many European cultures, thin has been the beauty ideal for decades, now many of the countries that appreciated fuller figures are changing their tunes.  Why?  Well, this article suggests that global awareness of the health risks of obesity have begun to alter cultural preferences.  And while, in fact, it is true that rates of hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers may be lower in thinner people, this shift may be causing a new form of suffering.  Obesity, rather than just being looked at as a health issue, is being stigmatized.  “Fat” = “Lazy”.  “Overweight”= “Sloth”.  Discrimination against larger people is well-documented in this country:  obese people are given the short shrift with hiring, promotion and salary.  Jokes about fat people are widely accepted.  Not to mention the social stigma, which cannot always be quantified or even qualified.

Anyone out there who has tried to lose weight (I’m not including people who lose weight accidentally because of illness or other situations) knows that it is often extraordinarily difficult.  Our bodies fight against us when we cut calories, going into ‘famine’ mode and decreasing metabolism.  Our culture is food-obsessed and the majority of holidays and social gatherings center around food.  There are mixed messages and unhealthy foods at every turn.  And healthier food, such as fresh vegetable and fruit, and lean meat. are much more expensive that simple carbohydrates and items loaded with high-fructose corn syrup.  Add to these factors that we don’t really understand obesity very well.  We know that there are people who are genetically predisposed to obesity, and we know a few other things, like eating less will generally cause weight loss, but we really don’t know how to help people achieve weight loss goals, and it isn’t  clear that overweight is equally dangerous for everyone.

So, while awareness of the health risks of obesity is important and positive in theory, the ‘education’ that is being provided and the information being spread may not meet it’s intent.  We’ve known the risks of obesity in the U.S. for a long time, and yet, as a nation, we have become more obese over time, not less.  And we’re cruel to fat people.  Is that what we want to see happen in other nations, as well?

As a child, and even as a young adult, I don’t remember thinking much about the whole food and eating thing.  I ate when I was hungry and stopped when I was full.  I knew, by the time I was in college, that it was important to get regular exercise, so I tried to do that.  But I don’t remember being obsessed or overwhelmed by food choices and worries about weight.  Now, admittedly, I remember knowing some people with eating disorders in high school and college.  But for me, there wasn’t much to think about when it came to eating.  It was as natural as breathing.  But now, it seems that even those of us with less food ‘issues’ are bombarded with messages all day long, every day, about proper nutrition and better forms of exercise, and how to make our bodies look perfect… and I even find myself getting caught up in all this at times, despite everything I know.

I’m completely in favor of promoting good health.  But in some of the countries affected by this new ‘fat stigma’, there are many other, more pressing, public health issues to address.  I can only hope that good intention doesn’t translate into promotion of eating disorders and dangerous dieting, but my instinct says it’s already too late.

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