In response to the current obesity epidemic this country faces, Daniel Callahan, a bioethicist, suggests in a paper released Jan. 24 that increased stigma towards overweight and obese individuals could curb the problem. He must not be aware of the current amount of weight stigma prevalent in America or the recent research that suggests stigmatizing obesity does not help the problem.
Callahan is the co-founder of The Hastings Center, a bioethics center since 1969 that aims to address biethics issues that are in the public interest. However, this position paper has hit home on an issue that is very personal and concerning to many Americans. Obesity is a considerable public health concern, but Callahan proposes to address it by shaming and stigmatizing the individuals who are suffering.
His suggestions include public posters that would ask: "If you are overweight or obese, are you pleased with the way that you look?" He also wrote that “safe and slow incrementalism that strives never to stigmatize obesity has not and cannot do the necessary work." These statements were made despite research that has shown that lower body satisfaction is actually related to higher rates of binge eating and reduced physical activity. Think also of the term "emotional eating," which some individuals may turn to when they are stigmatized against.
Callahan makes the point that the stigmatization of smoking helped to curb rates of use, especially among the younger generation, which he uses to bolster his argument for the stigmatization of obesity. However, obesity and smoking are two very different issues and cannot be easily compared. Humans do not need to smoke to survive, but they do need to eat and their weight is not always completely in their control when genetic factors come in to play.
If stigmatizing obesity was an effective strategy to use, we would not be concerned about obesity anymore, because there is currently an excess of vitriol against overweight and obese individuals. Clearly that approach is not working.
Rebecca Puhl, the Director of Research and Weight Stigma Initiatives at the Rudd Center, has stated that Callahan's "proposal is misguided, unethical, and problematic on many levels." Hopefully these responses to Callahan's proposal will continue so that our society does not add to the weight stigma that is already rampant in our culture.