Michael Orsini, a professor in the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa, is currently a Fulbright Visiting Research Chair at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. He is conducting research on the role of emotions in policy controversies, drawing on obesity as a case study.
"There is an obesity crisis in this country. Canadians are paying for it with their wallets – and with their lives." Scary stuff, indeed. So begins the new, presumably groundbreaking, report of the Senate standing committee on social affairs, science and technology. The 56-page report summarizes insights from testimony collected across the country from experts and stakeholders, including health researchers, not-for-profit groups, food industry representatives and policy-makers.
Disappointingly, it appears the senators did not hear from anyone who is actually living with obesity or identifies as fat. Talking to people who actually experience the effects of a fat-shaming society might have yielded some important insights about the wisdom of looking for a magic bullet to fight obesity.
It would have been illuminating, for example, to hear how obesity-prevention messages are painful to some people because they communicate that it is hopeless to talk to fat people, who are presumed to be beyond help.
If you have any doubts about the severity of this "crisis," the Senate report's cover bears a large image of a bathroom scale with an arrow pointing past 280 pounds. To talk about a "crisis" is, I suppose, less dramatic language than "epidemic" (a description also used in the Senate report), but it is equally insidious. When confronted with a crisis, we must make decisions – and fast. And even if obesity is complex and multifaceted and cannot be reduced to a single cause, in a crisis, who has time for complexity? We need action and we need it now!
The trouble with the Senate report is that, with the exception of issues related to food labelling, few of its 21 recommendations will result in the type of swift, co-ordinated action that a purported crisis is supposed to generate. Recommendations are made on a range of relevant policy issues, from imposing new taxes on sugary drinks to revamping Canada's admittedly confusing food guide, but many support further study.
While the report covers a lot of ground, one glaring omission is anything that tackles weight stigma or fat bias.
There is evidence that stigma and discrimination against fat people can be just as threatening to their health as being obese or overweight. That might be a difficult message to digest, because it seems careless or irresponsible to suggest that stigma is a problem rather than the weight. If people would just shed those pounds, it might be argued, or return to that mystery "healthy" weight that is referenced in the report, they could be spared discrimination or never have trouble fitting into that airplane seat.
Stigma and bias have real, demonstrable effects on people living with obesity. They are discriminated against in the workplace, or avoid the health-care system for fear of being hectored by well-meaning professionals about the importance of "calories in, calories out." Researchers at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity in Connecticut have done important work exploring the impact of weight bias and stigma, and the need to counteract messages about the dangers of obesity with protections for people who experience discrimination, much as people with disabilities have legal recourse in situations involving discrimination.
Weight stigma and bias intersect with other forms of oppression, such as poverty, race and gender. While the Senate study mentions the importance of social determinants of health in a "whole of society" approach to tackling obesity, it chose to focus on factors that are presumably easier to control, such as physical activity levels and access to unhealthy food. As with issues related to stigma and bias, it seems as if the broader environments that structure these choices were beyond the scope of the report.