Benevolent discrimination of “Obesity”

What is discrimination?

On Tuesday, I went on a walk with a friend of mine who is a health and societies major. Wanting to test the ideas of Marilyn Wann’s Fat Studies, I asked him vaguely what he thought of “obesity” (which I will put in quotes just as Wann does)? He admitted that before studying “obesity” he thought fat people were largely to blame for their fatness but that his studies led him to believe fat people are not to blame. He cited the idea of “food deserts” (places where “healthy” food can’t be found/afforded for miles) and how “obesity” was, among other things, a product of the government pushing high fructose corn production. Although the extent of my knowledge with this stance is limited to watching Food Inc. I nonetheless noted that he supported Wann’s point: “obesity” and “overweight” seen as health issues means “weight prejudice becomes accepted and preferred”(xxi). This seems to me the most dangerous and counterintuitive form of discrimination. It’s benevolent discrimination under the guise of general “health”. With this mask, the anti-“obesity” movement seems to have swept the minds of most everyone.

What struck me also throughout our conversation was the arbitrariness of our knowledge. We were only debating what we had been told. (This may be the case often but here it disturbed me much more).  In this arbitrary state, the position that prevailed, the anti-weight stance, lost out to such claims as, “weight is an inaccurate basis for predicting individual health or longevity” (xiii) simply because his arbitrary knowledge had more popularity and educational backing. Benevolent discrimination turned to arbitrary benevolent discrimination. This made me more unsettled. The only requirement for this prejudice was permission not direct experience of the perceived issue.

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2 Responses to Benevolent discrimination of “Obesity”

  1. marthao16 says:

    As discussed in your post, discrimination against “obese” or “overweight” individuals typically comes in two forms. On one hand, overweight people are viewed hostility because their body type symbolizes laziness or lack of self-control to some people. In this case, there is no sympathy for overweight individuals because it is assumed that they brought their “condition” upon themselves through their poor lifestyle choices. On the other hand, overweight people are pitied because they are viewed as victims of unfortunate circumstances. This type of discrimination is subtler in the sense that this type of discrimination comes from those that believe that they are doing overweight individuals a favor by making them aware of their body type. However, in both cases, obesity is viewed as a condition or a disease that overweight people need to be cured of.
    The major problem with benevolent discrimination of obesity is that, like you said, can be hidden under the guise of health. In that sense, it is even worse than blatant discrimination because benevolent discrimination can rely upon scientific facts and well-known facts. I have witnessed people discussing overweight individuals they see out in public, and more often than not, the people state that the overweight individual is “so unhealthy”. This is troublesome to me because this is just people trying to validate their prejudices using “health”, but health isn’t visible and there are numerous ways to measure health. So, while some may view pitying and sympathizing fat people as better than harshly criticizing them, I believe that this nuanced form of discrimination is even more harmful.

  2. monicamrocha says:

    I know exactly what conversation you speak of, because when we’re not in food scarcity, we can tend to work from abstractions dictated to us by the medical and college industry. Spreading health becomes evangelical and arguably destructive to the authenticity of communities.
    I assume that health has much to do with the quality of food that is put in one’s body. We’d like to attribute it to obesity because it is what people recognize as a visual of what a poor diet is. Yet obesity seems to stand in for what actually is a failing of the food industry to provide everyone with affordable, accessible, nutrient-dense food.
    But is eating this way what makes communities healthier? Not necessarily. I might hate to go to New Orleans and be offered the “light” version of a 200 year old recipe. Or I might not.
    Changing anything for the sake of health seems problematic because health is such a personal and cultural experience. Speaking about personal experience(s) of health may be much more productive to these conversations as opposed to just citing experts.
    But does the fight against obesity, as rife with misinformation and discrimination as it is, provide the basis to create truly healthier communities? As we try to solve the issue of a failing food industry, realizations like this are necessary towards a reclaiming of obesity. I can’t help but to appreciate the reforms in cafeterias that center around a child’s nutrition and growth rather than their abhorred fatness.

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