I’ve been reading a lot lately about the so-called “War on Obesity” and find myself wondering about both the terminology and the idea of waging war on what amounts to a difference between people, much like skin color, age, or gender. Now before you fly into righteous umbrage at my comparison of weight (which many people believe to be completely controllable, much like smoking) to factors that are completely out of one’s control, please listen to one fact: Weight is in between controllable and uncontrollable. I know, I know…I can hear the vitriol on both sides of this issue pour forth…sigh. However, research shows that body weight is as about much genetics and biochemistry as it is sensible eating and exercising.  Ok – one argument down – it’s not completely controllable, and it’s not completely uncontrollable – so let’s get on to the meat of this idea.

Given that whatever the cause we know that people who are overweight and obese suffer discrimination, I wonder if our “war on obesity” actually amounts to war on the obese. Study after study has documented that overweight men and especially overweight women experience discrimination in their jobs and in the rest of their lives (see http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/weightloss/2008-05-20-overweight-bias_N.htm and http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/BeautySecrets/story?id=4568813&page=1 for more information). We hear terms such as “fatty,” “pig,” “heifer,” or “fat cow” more often than many of us care to admit. We’re oinked at, barked at, and yelled at. We get rejected by dates, bosses, and family members because of our appearance. In this war on obesity, the obese are the casualties. My question is, does it have to be this way?

I get that obesity is not healthy, again no matter the cause. But if that’s true, why don’t we support the obese in their attempts to become healthy? Discriminating against people does not cause them to be more motivated to change; rather, it pushes people into resentment, anger and defensiveness, making them less likely to change. When you see someone who is overweight out walking, or exercising in any way, what stops you from saying, “Way to go! Awesome!” rather than “Fat Rear” or “Moo”? Why aren’t there more plus-size exercise clothes, exercise equipment, etc? If we truly want to fight obesity and help people get healthier, we need to STOP discriminating and start motivating.

Any psychologist can tell you that reinforcement (rewarding behavior you want to see increase) works way better than punishment – so why do we punish people and expect the behavior we want to see increase? It simply doesn’t work that way – punishment is designed to decrease a behavior. So guess what – when you discriminate against overweight/obese people, you’re NOT motivating them. In fact, you’re decreasing the likelihood that they’ll want to engage in change behaviors.

In this war on the obese, if we really want to see change, we’ll reward the behaviors we want to see – we’ll make accomodations to exercise equipment, we’ll make more comfortable, attractive workout clothes, and we’ll make access to health care services targeted to obesity more affordable and less stigmatizing. We’ll support people who are working on their weight AND we’ll recognize that people do come in different sizes – and that’s ok. We’ll support movements like Health At Every Size (http://haescommunity.org/). Most of all, we’ll accept that people who are obese having feelings, and have the same rights and privileges as every other person when it comes to access to jobs, employment assessments, and salaries/promotions – size simply is NOT an indicator of worth.

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