Obesity is Not a Moral Issue
I've been promising for weeks now to post video of a speech I gave at my college's academic festival this fall. I was part of a panel on "women in the academy," and my talk focused on a study that came out this summer showing that obese girls were least likely to pursue higher education. Unfortunately, the video has never made it to me, and I think it likely it has gone into the ether, and so I will post the text of my speech:
In summer of 2007, Robert Crosnoe, a Sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin released a study that found that among all groups, obese girls were least likely to attend college. Using data collected on nearly 11,000 adolescents by the ongoing National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which started in 1994, Crosnoe showed that obese girls were 50% less likely to go to college than non-obese girls. Moreover, he found that self-rejection, self-hatred, in obese girls was 63% higher than for non-obese girls. He theorizes that girls are internalizing negative social feedback, which can often lead to low self-esteem, alcohol and drug use, failure in school, truancy, and suicidal ideation.
My reaction to the study was a “No! Really!? Fat girls don’t go to college!?!?! Fat girls hate themselves!?!?!?!” As blogger Kate Harding said in a post on Shakesville not long after the report on the study, “I'm sure that shocks exactly no one who's ever been a fat adolescent girl… after surviving the snakepit of high school, not many adolescent fat girls are bursting with faith in their abilities and worth as human beings. And that's without getting into the practical reasons not to go: that those who don't commute will be forced to live closely -- possibly in the same room -- with fat-hating strangers instead of their families; that dining halls involve the opportunity for all sorts of strangers to observe your eating habits; that too many colleges have molded chair/desk combos that fat people can't fit into comfortably or at all; that too many professors, being part of this culture, will assume that fat students are stupid and lazy.”
As an adolescent fat girl who is now an obese woman, it has certainly never been a secret to me that the obese, and especially obese girls and women, face extreme levels of stigmatization in a wide variety of situations. In recent years, obese individuals have been blamed for just about every societal problem one can think of – from the high cost of insurance to the high cost of gas. A September 20, 2007, CBS News report even blamed obese Americans for the growing divorce rate in America, stating, “…as the American waistline continues to expand, the length of the American marriage is shrinking.”
Obese individuals begin facing stigmatization at a very early age. A study conducted 40 years ago and recently replicated found that children reacted more positively to peers who had severe facial disfigurements or were missing a hand than they did to obese peers. In recent years, researchers have reported that obese individuals face as much if not more social stigma than drug addicts and criminals.
The situation is no better in the academic world, where, at least, one might think that one’s body would have no bearing on the strength or weakness of one’s intellect. This, unfortunately, is not the case. According to the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University in conjunction with the Obesity Action Coalition, “obese children are less likely to be accepted to college, despite equivalent application rates and academic achievement.” Research has also shown that obese students are viewed by their peers as self-indulgent and lazy. They are often excluded from social activities. Educators are shown to view obese students as untidy, more emotional, and less likely to have what it takes to succeed academically.
Stigmatization continues into the working world. No matter the level of their qualifications, obese job applicants are usually rated as having poor self-discipline and less ambition and productivity. They have a higher likelihood of being relegated to low-paying, low-status jobs that require no face-to-face contact. If they are lucky enough to be hired, they are less likely to be promoted in general and are rarely promoted to high-level positions. Obese women earn, on average, 12% less than their similarly qualified but non-obese peers. 17% of obese people have reported being fired or pressured to resign because of their weight (Rothblum, 1990). In 1999, Mark Roehling of Western Michigan University, while being interviewed about a study he conducted about obese workers, said, “One manager said to me, ‘There’s one kind of person I’d never hire – a fat girl.’”
If my reaction to the 2007 study by Crosnoe was essentially “no duh,” I was equally unsurprised at other individual’s reaction to the study. There was a smattering of genuine concern, a call to examine what high schools and colleges can do, as a matter of policy, to help obese girls not only attend college but be successful. Don Beauregard, co-chair of the National High School Association, said in Time Online, “…that part of the problem can be solved with greater awareness by administration and faculty about how obesity can affect high school kids’ emotional and academic lives, and with a willingness to work some of that understanding into the curriculum.” A majority of what I saw, however, were the stereotypical reactions of individuals coming from a society that often sends the message that obesity is a moral failure on the part of the obese person rather than a complex problem that has biological, environmental and behavioral components.
Some examples are in order. The Chronicle of Higher Education website, which had a small blurb about the study, also allows subscribers to provide commentary. “Bill,” a rather vocal commentator on the story, wrote, “A recent news item predicted that 75% of the population will be overweight by 2015, 41% will be obese. That comes from shoving food down your piehole.” A similar reaction happened on Rudd Sound Bites at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. At 7:58 pm on August 8, 2007, an individual identifying himself as David Specter commented on the study, “That sounds like a good reason to lose weight. Maybe parents should talk about this with their girls. ‘Shelly, honey, do you want to go to college and have a good future? Well, then, stop eating so much and exercise!” No one responded, but David couldn’t contain his moral outrage. At 8:03 pm, he commented again, “If you’re suffering emotionally due to weight bias, there’s a simple solution. Lose weight! For God’s sake, do you think parents say to their kids, ‘Don’t listen to those nasties who make fun of dirty people. You can be as dirty as you want, because you’re special?’ When society comes down on people it’s often for a damn good reason. Being overweight is unhealthy, unattractive, and immoral. If a person doesn’t take care of himself, how can he care for anything else?”
And it’s not just men who seem to have this reaction to obesity. Lauren Pearce, one of the “Cute College Girls” at collegehumor.com commented to an interviewer that her greatest fears are losing a loved one and getting fat. The interviewer then says, “What about losing a loved one to obesity, that’s scary,” to which Lauren replies, “Yeah, but no one in my family is obese, thank goodness.” The interviewer goes on: “I don’t get obesity. I think if I were getting really fat there would definitely be a point where I stopped eating.” Lauren again: “Yeah, I don’t understand it either, but I guess it’s lie [sic] any addition [sic]. But I would get off my ass and eat some fruit before I weighed 200 lbs.” I have a feeling that Ms. Pearce is probably one the 83% of college girls who reported in a 2006 study that they were restricting food intake in some fashion to lose weight, regardless of their current body weight.
Over and over again, the comments turn back to the obese individual, to the failure of the obese individual to police his or her eating, his or her unwillingness to take responsibility for him or herself, and, often, his or her stupidity. As Roehling said, “There is a deep, basic-level reaction to fat people, a belief that they could control being fat if they wished, but are too lazy to do anything about it.” In other words, there is a belief that the obese are inherently self-destructive, that their predicament is of their own creation, and that therefore society owes them neither compassion nor the opportunity to reach their full potential. Unfortunately, this reaction to the obese never translates into benign disinterest; rather, it translates into outright cruelty, teasing, put downs about everything from looks to intelligence, “dog fights,” calls for fashion designers to stop making nice clothing for the obese because, after all, if a fat person can wear something other than a mu-mu, it only enables them to remain obese.
As an adolescent fat girl who is now an obese woman, I realize that I am one of the lucky few who have managed to turn my adolescent self-hatred around, through time and hard work and sheer cussedness. And yet, I have faced my own more-than-fair share of stigmatization over the years – from my peers, in school, and in the workplace. It has been a terrible struggle for me to overcome external and internal prejudices; indeed, I struggle with these prejudices every single day. And if I had several “no duh” moments reading Crosnoe’s study, I also faced several all-too-familiar moments of great weariness and sadness when I realized there’s been so little progress in treating adolescent fat girls as worthwhile human beings during the 20 years it has been since I was an adolescent fat girl myself.
There may be, however, a light at the end of the tunnel. A study being released in the November issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that a history of being teased about being overweight was one of the strongest predictors of extreme dieting and later obesity among girls. When that teasing happened within the family, girls were at even greater risk for later obesity. The study’s lead author, Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, professor of public health at the University of Minnesota, said, “We have seen over the years that it does not work to make people feel worse about their bodies. The data are striking — talking about weight, worrying too much about diet, focusing on it increases risk not only of eating disorders, but also of being overweight.” What should people do instead of teasing and taunting the overweight? Eat healthy yourself, exercise, be a positive role model, understand that the obese have just as much to contribute to our society as anyone else, and, above all, be kind and compassionate of the people around you, no matter their size. I, for one, will whole-heartedly welcome the day when those behaviors are the rule rather than the exception.