A big problem

Weightism coined in the mid-1990s is defined as the “bias or discrimination against people who are overweight.” (Dictionary) The determining factor for overweight is the BMI – Body Mass Index – which is a ratio of an individual’s mass to their height and when the BMI exceeds certain preset points, the individual is classified as overweight or obese. (Dye) With the continuing increase of overweight Americans – in 2014, two thirds of our adults were overweight and half of those were obese (Overweight)– the use of this rather recent term has experienced tremendous growth. The increased utilization comes as more American become classified as overweight and the minority of those classified as physically healthy pass judgement and attempt to determine how to improve the lives of their overweight counterparts.

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In a population which idolizes beauty, it should not be surprising that being overweight often brings about stigma and discrimination. Although many would agree that discrimination based on race, gender, or religion is wrong, the stigmas and discriminations against overweight individuals is considered to be a socially acceptable act. It should be noted that there is a difference between stigma—a negative attitude (Puhl) —and discrimination—the unequal, unfair treatment. (Puhl) Many individuals most likely feel that they are entitled to express their opinions of another’s appearance based on the right to freedom of speech granted under the First Amendment which often leads to and sustains the prejudice incurred by overweight individuals. However, more concerning is the discrimination that overweight individuals face in society whether being overlooked for employment, denied a scholarship or loan, or deprived of equal medical treatment.(Puhl) The overweight population is not singled out for discrimination by society, rather they lack the support provided to other groups by the Equal Protection Clause contained in the Fourteenth Amendment to overcome the bias and discrimination. (Puhl)
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Perhaps more disturbing is that few in our culture would argue whether weightism exists and a significant number of Americans condone acts of weightism. Many not only believe that they are justified in their actions but they are helping the overweight to improve their life and reduce the resulting impact on health programs. Since a large number of overweight individuals, both parents and children, live at or below the level of poverty, they receive government subsidies through food stamps, Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program. This has created an oversimplified cause for the weight problems – welfare. In the extreme, some have declared that stamps promotes obesity among the poor by providing recipients with a 24/7 banquet of cheap, fattening, non-nutritional food. (Blog) As tax supporters of the program, many individuals feel they are granted an input on how these individuals should live their lives, including encouraging them to eat healthy by restricting how they utilize the assistance provided. (Delany) Since parents not only oversee what their children eat, but they also pass poor eating habits to their children society rationalizes their desire to dictate eating habits. This thought led to the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 which tied federal subsidies for school lunches to new dietary requirements aimed at reducing obesity in children. (School)

Studies have shown that society’s solution of shaming and controlling diets have not been productive in assisting the overweight population. Although a study by the Centers for Disease Control presented in Journal of American Medical Association shows a decline in overweight children under 11, the numbers of overweight teens has grown at a rate greater than prior to the 2010 government program (Wong) Proponents of these types of programs might attempt to declare a victory against the growing numbers of overweight individuals, but in reality, the increased growth of the issue in teens who now make eating decisions for themselves prove the victory as a mirage. In fact, many studies have shown that individuals who have been subjected to shame often resort to comfort eating, experience depression and avoid physical activity due to increased self-consciousness. (Fat) Thus, society’s tendency to use weightism to solve the rising issue of obesity in America only perpetuates the problem.

For the many who prefer to be part of a solution rather than contributing to an already existing problem, here are a few suggestions. First, stop weightism and the shaming which society has directed to these individuals. Everyone should find use their own “x-ray” vision to see the inner person. Second, let’s adapt the motto of the United States Armed Forces “Be All You Can Be” in our interactions with others by encouraging individuals to develop more healthy lifestyles. There has been several programs, Nickelodeon’s Get Out & Play and NFL Play 60, which encourage our youth to get out and be active. The importance of self-responsibility for decisions inspires individuals to modify their lifestyles with a long-term objective of improving their health. Even Scott W. Atlas, M.D., who appears extremely judgmental of our overweight population and their lack of self-discipline to choose a healthy alternative when eating in his article “Obesity: The New ‘Just Say No’ For 2013” (Forbes, January 1, 2013), agrees that most important to reducing the obesity in today’s society is personal responsibility. (Atlas) Finally, and perhaps most important, as a society we need to accept that one size does not fit all in weight. For many overweight individuals there can be conditions contributing to their obesity. By focusing solely on an individual’s appearance and creating an environment of weightism, we fail to recognize the importance that being happy can have on helping these individuals to control and minimize potential weight issues.