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Shaming the obese ‘tastefully’: An oxymoron if ever there was one

We are a nation of increasingly jiggly bellies, but that's hardly news. At last count, nearly half of Canadians were overweight or obese, and kids are packing on the pounds with their parents. What is wrong with us? It's not like we don't have skinny actresses smiling at us at the grocery checkout for inspiration. Or the constant "latest research" on how to lose weight. And the pervasive message that those wobbly thighs will make us die young, or age infirm.

Come on people, shake that bulging booty! Maybe the fat citizen among us really just needs a metaphorical wake up slap, a new essay from Amercian bioethicist Daniel Callahan suggests. Writing in the Hastings Center Report, Callahan makes his case for what Atlantic magazine calls in a headline, "shaming obese people tastefully," an oxymoron if every there was one.

Yes, Callahan says, government intervention is useful, and school-based programs are helpful, but fat people also need to get the message "that excessive weight and outright obesity are not socially acceptable any longer." He then goes on to cite some of the "uncomfortable questions" that society might pose to those citizens piling on the nation's pounds. For instance: "Are you pleased with the way you look?" and "Are you pleased when your obese children are called 'fatty'?" and this oh-so-gentle shaming: "Fair or not, do you know that many people look down on upon those excessively overweight…making fun of them or calling them lazy and lacking in self-control?"

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Fair or not (to use Callahan's language), it's safe to say that most people struggling with their weight are more than acutely aware of the answers to most of those questions. Never mind that the prevailing media message about body image is already one of judgment, and that countries have already tried to use campaigns of congealed fat to shame us thin. It hasn't done much, if any good, so far. Our society didn't just wake up fat, complex societal factors got us here, such as urban sprawl, double-income families crunched for time, food marketing, cuts to physical education in schools.

Callahan makes a link to smoking and how he was convinced to quit by the "forces of shame" and being "beaten upon socially." But, in fact, social pressures for smoking emerged from intensive public policy – taxation, health education and messaging (that targeted the risks not the person), a focus on kids and teenagers, and restrictions on advertising and where smokers could light up.

And it's a bit disingenuous to compare smoking to eating. As one researcher in the area once told the Globe, "No one has to smoke. But we all have to eat." (What's more, Callahan mentions but then discards, the research demonstrated clear links between obesity and poor mental health – and how making people feel worse about their weight, hasn't been shown to be especially motivating.)

Of course, Callahan's over-arching point is an important one – obesity, with all the underlying issues it raises, is a significant, and complex problem. It's just hard to see how it will be solved by shaking a finger at those who already know they are being judged. There's nothing tasteful about shaming half the population. But there is something shameful about it.

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About the Author

Erin Anderssen writes about mental health, social policy and family issues. More

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