Memo to Michelle: Fat Shaming Is Not OK!

The First Lady's anti-obesity campaign paints fat people as slothful and selfish—and it's wrong on the science

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Alex Wong / Getty Images

Michelle Obama in Washington, DC, in February 2013.

Michelle Obama, who has made fighting childhood obesity her signature issue, recently appeared on the NBC television show The Biggest Loser to encourage people to drink more water. Encouraging viewers to choose water over sugary drinks is a good thing. But the First Lady’s endorsement of this abusive show—and its enduring popularity as its 15th edition marks its mid-season finale—is indicative of all that is wrong about the broader “war on obesity.”

The show’s premise is that anyone can be thin if they work hard at it. Not only are fat people slothful and gluttonous, but—because obesity is a deadly and costly disease—they risk their own health and the economic health of the nation. Contestants describe themselves as “selfish” and as throwing their lives away; a trainer explains that if the contestants “want it bad enough, if they can change themselves mentally and emotionally right here, the rest will follow.” Over and over again, the show portrays being heavy as both a death sentence and a personal choice.

(MORE: If Obesity is a Disease, Why Are So Many Obese People Healthy?)

In fact, body weight is determined by a host of biological, genetic, and social factors, often beyond one’s personal control. According to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, 70 percent of the variation in people’s weight can be accounted for by genetic inheritance.

The extent of shaming on The Biggest Loser is extreme, but the general attitude that anyone can lose weight by applying themselves is pervasive. News reports on obesity overwhelmingly emphasize individual responsibility. A typical article will blame children’s weight gain on “lazy hours in front of the TV” rather than reading, playing board games, or engaging in other sedentary—but virtuous—activities.

There are health risks associated with higher body mass, the clearest being Type 2 diabetes, which becomes more likely with increased weight. But the association between weight and Type 2 diabetes is far from perfect—and it’s unknown whether being heavy causes diabetes, whether diabetes causes weight gain, or whether both conditions are caused by a third factor.

A 2008 study showed that a person’s weight is not a perfect predictor of other health issues. Almost a quarter of normal-weight people had abnormal metabolic profiles, while more than half of overweight people and almost a third of obese people had normal profiles. In other words, treating weight as a proxy for health could result in the under-diagnosis of more than 16 million normal-weight Americans and the over-diagnosis of almost 56 million overweight and obese Americans.

Meanwhile, there is growing evidence that our widespread societal anti-fat bias is taking a toll. Yale researchers have shown that weight discrimination in the United States has increased dramatically in the past decade and is now comparable to rates of reported racial discrimination, especially among women. Heavier women are less likely to be hired, to earn a higher salary, to marry, or to marry a higher-earning spouse compared to their similarly qualified thinner peers.

My colleagues and I have conducted research that suggests that exposure to moralizing messages promoted on shows like The Biggest Loser worsen anti-fat prejudice. We found that people who read a news report discussing an alleged obesity health crisis were more likely to agree with stereotypes of fat people as unlikable, untrustworthy, and less intelligent than thinner people. By aligning herself with The Biggest Loser, Michelle Obama further legitimizes anti-fat attitudes, and the ills they spread.

Moreover, discussing physical activity and nutrition solely as weight matters, instead of contributors to one’s broader health, is counterproductive. Given how difficult it is to lose weight, the First Lady should consider using her platform to promote a more constructive message: that people of all sizes can make positive nutritional and exercise changes.

 This article first appeared Zocalo Public Square.

82 comments
GuoLiang
GuoLiang

"Abigail C. Saguy is an Associate Professor of Sociology and of Gender Studies at UCLA. "


So she has the academic value of a high school graduate. Opinion invalidated. 


LenoreK
LenoreK

A few things going on here: 1. You can control your weight. It is really, really hard work and if you have never fought the battle do not even pretend to understand it but yes you can work with your "fat genes" through a lot of diet control and regular exercise. 2. Yup, being overweight is not healthy but a lot of other things are unhealthy as well.3. Kids are fat as much from sitting in front of keyboards and computers all day as diet, if not more. This likely goes for adults, too. 4. We voted for Obama, so no politics here but frankly, Michelle is hypocritical, judgmental,and ill informed on this whole topic. The Biggest Loser is another stupid reality TV show, not a good weight loss plan. Michelle is not thin, and if she ate and exercised the way she claims she does, or at least the way she pushes for she would likely be 30 pounds leaner. She may be fine BMI/health wise, but her butt is still wider than it would be if she was really walking the walk. Unless she has a really lousy metabolism, which happens I grant. 4. I grant the uptick in fat kids is scary, but honestly could not the first lady find a better cause in some of the very worst years for the American economy in our history? In 2008-11 particularly, she should have been doing something with the poor and the unemployed, not kids school lunches.

RonWaverley
RonWaverley

Well, i wouldn't exactly say she is a toothpick either, as a matter of fact if someone was to tell her to "haul a#$" she'd need to make two trips!

joenxn
joenxn

"... and it’s unknown whether being heavy causes diabetes, whether diabetes causes weight gain, or whether both conditions are caused by a third factor."


Umm, a diet consisting of high glycemic foods makes you fat and inhibits the production of insulin in the pancreas. The sugar causes diabetes AND makes you a fattie. This article is hilariously biased. What's wrong with fat? Nothing in moderation and plenty when you have an abundance of it.

 

GrahamParker
GrahamParker

"Written by PROFAT women's study professor"

NOPE! NO BIAS HERE FOLKS!

WompWomp
WompWomp

Interestingly, just 17 days ago, Time magazine published this: http://healthland.time.com/2013/12/02/you-cant-be-fit-and-fat/ . Tl;dr: "it’s not possible to be both overweight and healthy." Obese people with normal metabolic profiles still had a higher risk of dying from heart disease than normal-weight people with normal metabolic profiles. Basically, all else being equal, metabolic profiles isn't enough to dictate health; obesity is still a net-negative.

Also: "A typical article will blame children’s weight gain on 'lazy hours in front of the TV'...". Actually, if you google "childhood obesity and TV", you'll see that most news articles say that excessive TV time usually causes obesity, not that obesity is usually caused by excessive TV time. That's a reversal of logic even the most junior of law students would understand. 


Is there discrimination against heavier people? Absolutely. (As much as there is for short men or certain minorities.) Is The Biggest Loser a terrible, unhealthy bastion of weight loss? Of course. But your science is deeply flawed and trying to pin your anti-fat-prejudice argument on misleading talking points only serves to weaken your case.

EssBen
EssBen

as an ex fatty, I hope you manage to get past these delusions and turn your life around one day.

GussieFinknottle
GussieFinknottle

>Heavier women are less likely to be hired, to earn a higher salary, to marry, or to marry a higher-earning spouse compared to their similarly qualified thinner peers.


This really opened my eyes. I need to check my privilege and teach myself to be attracted to larger ladies. 

rusty_shackleford
rusty_shackleford

If fat is genetic, how come there are tons of obese people in the UK and the United States where there are a lot of processed foods rich in sugar, and not in places like Japan, Korea, or a lot of developing nations. Weird.

KristenDunn
KristenDunn

Hooray for some common sense! All children deserve good food and lots of joyful movement. Targeting fat kids does nothing but increase bigotry.

ChristinaNorman
ChristinaNorman

This author seems to have self worth issues that she is blaming on Mrs Obama. Surely she isn't saying that 1 in 3 children being overweight or obese is a genetic issue that they should just learn to live with?  I agree that Biggest Loser sends wrong message, but to blame Mrs Obama for that and miss the bigger picture of helping our nation's children lead healthier lives is pure selfishness, in my opinion.

jcq707
jcq707

The best First Lady we ever had !!!!!

Sabrina
Sabrina

Thank you Dr. Saguy!! In Saguy's book, she also outlines the cultural phenomena of "confirmation bias." Though she discusses the effect mostly within the context of trusted public figures (doctors, politicians, journalists, etc.) and how anti-fat messages and reporting are interpreted and communicated to the public, it's very clear that the concept reaches to ordinary civilians as well. So many are so invested in having to make fatness a health issue, because for so many of us, it's a moral issue (as evidenced by these sad, hateful - often self-hating - posts). And being able to say, "It’s bad for your health" has become a subversively non-confrontational way to really say, "Your fatness is unappealing." At the very least, that it can't be agreed that this ridiculous show is entirely vitriolic, and the FLOTUS made a bad choice in endorsing its sensationally harmful methods in order to proselytize her message, seems to provide further proof to the level that the campaign to end "obesity" is not about health.

CraigMcClarren
CraigMcClarren

So, just to summarize: people's weight problems aren't their fault, it's genetic and not related to lifestyle. Encouraging people to make healthier lifestyle choices is harmful. Michelle Obama is a bad person because she thinks drinking a glass of water instead of a can of Mountain Dew is a good idea. Encouraging kids to watch less TV is a misguided and pointless endeavour with no benefits. 


So I guess Time is letting just anyone with a beef about anything have a rant now, regardless of the merits of their argument. Pretty sad.


As a side note, my mother blamed genetics for her obesity problem for over a decade. After finally giving up on every fad diet she found, she focused on a healthier diet and bought a gym membership. She lost close to 100 pounds in about a year. Anyone who claims that encouraging lifestyle changes is pointless should be completely ignored.

juls52406
juls52406

@GuoLiang  Right...sociology is not a "real" field of study and Max Weber was an uneducated quack.
Why are Americans SO American sometimes?

AmberRoark-Steen
AmberRoark-Steen

@rusty_shackleford It's actually pretty interesting; it's called epigenetics! It means that while your DNA largely predicts how your children will turn out, your life choices do have an effect on your DNA. So in effect one could blame genetic obesity on the poor health choices of the parents. It doesn't just apply to obesity, but to everything. Another reason to make good health choices! Not just for yourself, but for future generations too. 

sndsfnny
sndsfnny

@ChristinaNorman Surely you aren't saying that how children look is more important than anything they do?     Surely you would never insist that you can "just look at someone" and know even one thing about their health, food choices or activity level?      Surely you would never insist that one's body size is so much your business that millions of people ought to agree to be defined by your opinion of how they look?

Surely not.

Openminded1
Openminded1

@jcq707 Bs she is a phony racist muslim. you are naive or maybe you are black and say that because she is black and in your eyes she can do no wrong. racist

KristenDunn
KristenDunn

@jcq707 She is indeed a great FLOTUS, but that doesn't mean she is right about this. Dr. Saguy is spot on.

ChristinaNorman
ChristinaNorman

@Sabrina If it's not about health, what is it about? What other motive could Mrs. O have for wanting to make sure that the 1 in 3 children in this country who are overweight or obese don't go into adulthood with the inevitable diseases waiting for them if they don't change their habits? It sounds to me like you, this writer and all those complaining about a dumb show are missing the big picture here which is about helping our nation's children to live healthier lives....period.

colossalanimeeyes
colossalanimeeyes

@CraigMcClarren Encouraging healthy lifestyle choices is great, but encouraging them specifically for losing fat and actively associating fat with negative traits is very harmful. Even if an overweight person exercises and eats well people will think that they're lazy and eat poorly based on their appearance, along with assuming a slew of other negative preconceptions like a lack of willpower or a lack of intelligence.


They shouldn't have to wait until they reach a certain physical ideal for people to give them respect, and a person's health shouldn't dictate how others treat them anyway. We should be teaching people kindness and respect for people of any appearance/weight while also encouraging healthy lifestyle choices for health's sake, not just for the sake of weight loss. That leads to unhealthy choices like crash diets and the development of eating disorders because people are overeager to shed weight to be seen as worthy of attraction or respect, not for their health.

ChristinaNorman
ChristinaNorman

@sndsfnny @ChristinaNorman No, but it looks like you are saying that and trying to pretend like I said it for some dumb reason. But since you asked I am saying that 1 in 3 of our nation's children deserve more than a like of impaired movement and an almost certain life plagued by heart disease, diabetes and all of the other ills that go with being obese. Got it?

timgrady123
timgrady123

"Dr. Saguy is spot on."

No, she and you are both out of touch with reality.

KristenDunn
KristenDunn

@ChristinaNorman Nothing that the anti-fat-kid campaign is doing will "make sure" of anything, except that fat kids are targeted for even more bullying and bigotry than they currently are.


Unless you are operating under the delusion that every single peer reviewed study ever about intentional weight loss is wrong, and long-term weight loss is actually possible?

ChristinaNorman
ChristinaNorman

@colossalanimeeyes @CraigMcClarren  If that's your issue, your beef is with The Biggest Loser, not Mrs.Obama. Childhood Obesity is an extremely serious issue impacting 1 in 3 children in this country. That's what this is about for Mrs. O, not a tv show.

CraigMcClarren
CraigMcClarren

Funny how people without a specific argument simply call people they disagree with dummies

CecilyMibilleau
CecilyMibilleau

@sndsfnny @ChristinaNorman I know in certain circles it's popular now to try and convince others that overweight people eat healthy and exercise plenty, and are just cursed by angry jiggle gods, or some such nonsense, but most people have enough sense to know better. Just stop already. They're not 'curves', it's not your thyroid--9 times out of 10 its the fact that your caloric intake is greater than your energy output. Simple. You're not being cute, you're not being supportive. You're walking around with spinach in your teeth, and instead of having the gumption to pick it out, you're trying to convince all your friends that spinach in your teeth is natural and cool so that you don't have to look silly alone.

sndsfnny
sndsfnny

@ChristinaNorman  I guess preoccupation with body shape and body size is your hangup.

I support the encouragement of healthy habits.     Some people may eat more healthfully, move more, become healthier and shrink.     Some people eat more healthfully, move more, become healthier anyway and do not shrink.      I don't see what's so hard about removing preoccupation with body size from the equation.

Got it?

http://www.jabfm.org/content/25/1/9/F1.expansion.html

WayneShingler
WayneShingler

@KristenDunn@ChristinaNorman

Kristen, when I was in Army basic training, I saw overweight young men lose fat and gain muscle tone through increased exercise and sensible eating. Same thing on sports teams and in gyms. Body builders change their shape. Wrestlers and boxers are able to decrease and increase their weight through diet and exercise. I've seen it. I know from personal experience that if my lifestyle consists more of taking calories in than of burning them up, I get fatter. Pictures of starving people in concentration camps and developing nations show us that when people don't get enough food and/or are overworked, they lose body mass.

These things are empirically true. They don't justify bullying fat people or making them hate themselves; but at the same time, the fact that such bullying goes on does not negate the easily observable fact that if calories are consumed and not used, they will be stored as fat. There's empathy, and then there's enabling. You've crossed the line into the latter.

I'm fat, and I know why. I'm an addict. I don't drink alcohol or use drugs, but I like a good dopamine bump as much as users of those substances do. If I'm bored, irritable, depressed, or frustrated, and I can't immediately fix whatever problems are making me feel that way, I can still make myself feel better just by indulging in eating certain things. Sugar, salt, and fats all push the buttons necessary to get my brain cranking out the chemicals to make me feel happier.

And I don't want to quit. I don't want to be fat, but I also don't want to give up eating foods I enjoy, nor in quantities that make them enjoyable. I like some recreational exercise, but there never seems to be room in my schedule for that kind of "playing." And strenuous exercise hurts. If my mind isn't distracted by something else, like controlling a bike or playing a game, I can't bear to just exercise for its own sake. I've never had a "runner's high," even when I ran for miles as a teen training for soccer. I've felt discomfort and pain and the onset of what seemed like symptoms of heart attack and stroke. Sweating and panting and getting sore isn't half as fun as eating a pizza. I don't feel that acknowledging this makes me a bad person, and I also don't think that pretending that none of it is true is going to help make my life any better.

colossalanimeeyes
colossalanimeeyes

@PropTrendTrader I wholeheartedly encourage eating well and exercising, but making healthy lifestyle choices doesn't always go hand-in-hand with reaching a "healthy" weight. People on the whole want to be thin for social and aesthetic purposes, and if someone is becoming healthier through eating well and exercising but their weight loss isn't significant they'll likely feel like a failure, become very discouraged and stressed over it, and may turn to more extreme measures to reach their goal weight.


A person with a naturally heavier build who is desperate to lose the weight that they can't seem to shed through healthy methods may go on a crash diet or get dangerous weight-loss surgery, possibly because they think that reaching a certain weight automatically means they'll be healthier because that's what the public conception seems to be.

If a person reaches a weight that they're happy with in a safe and healthy way all the more power to them, but by constantly associating anything above preferred aesthetic weights with failure and unhealthiness we're just perpetuating disappointment and encouraging those more extreme measures.

PropTrendTrader
PropTrendTrader

Give me a break. I know a few obese people that have to take breaks just when walking across the office. I know of one lady in particular that has to sit down while on her walk. If that were my experience in life I would want to change it. Please don't chalk up people's motivation to lose weight only to societal pressures.

ChristinaNorman
ChristinaNorman

@sndsfnny @ChristinaNorman @Misha @colossalanimeeyes @CraigMcClarren  That's your opinion, and sounds like it's also your hang up. I very much doubt that Mrs O has ever sat down to watch any of the dozens of shows she has appeared on but believe what you want. The important thing to me is that someone is finally tackling this important issue of Childhood Obesity...and having great results in doing so:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/06/childhood-obesity-rate_n_3714436.html

sndsfnny
sndsfnny

@SamanthaDale  I am acting precisely that way because fat hate and body shaming are so ubiquitous in American society.     

You are correct that the contestants have the right to go on a reality show if they choose, and I would not interfere with a person's free choice.     However, if you had spent your entire life being browbeaten and bullied and shamed while, at the same time, being told that the only way to make it stop was to change your body no matter how futile a quest that is, I bet your free will might be slanted towards giving the bullies your lunch money, just to claim the promise of "passing".

Please don't act like the contestants are all living happy, shame-free lives before "TBL" came along to "save" them.

SamanthaDale
SamanthaDale

@sndsfnny Please remember that the contestants on Biggest Loser TRY OUT for the show--the show's producers aren't just plucking people off the streets to "abuse" them against their will. YOU might disagree with the show, but please don't act like the contestants don't have the agency to make their own choices about whether or not they want to lose weight and how.


Misha
Misha

@ChristinaNorman @Misha @colossalanimeeyes @CraigMcClarren  

If someone appears on a specific show, like Mrs. Obama did with The Biggest Loser, how is she not giving some sort of tacit approval?  While she may not approve of the Biggest Loser's methods, at the very least she is sending an unintentional message that she supports the show.  It seems counter intuitive and contradictory to promote healthy behavior through a show that encourages unhealthy behavior. 

sndsfnny
sndsfnny

@ChristinaNorman @Misha @colossalanimeeyes @CraigMcClarren Mrs. Obama chose a TV show which routinely abuses fat people for being fat and makes its contestants thank their abusers for the privilege, to announce and promote her initiative.      To insist that she does not share any of the opinions of the show's trainers and producers is more ridiculous.     If she felt at all bothered by how the contestants are treated, she would have gone elsewhere.

Silence is approval.

ChristinaNorman
ChristinaNorman

@Misha @ChristinaNorman @colossalanimeeyes @CraigMcClarren No she did not endorse the show unless you can provide a link to her endorsement. Mrs.O has appeared on dozens of shows talking about this issue and the purpose is to get the word out about Childhood Obesity a very serious issue in this country. To claim that she "endorsed" one of dozens of shows she has appeared on to promote this important issue is ridiculous. This author's beef is with The Biggest Loser, not Mrs. Obama.

Misha
Misha

@ChristinaNorman @colossalanimeeyes @CraigMcClarren 

But the thing is, Mrs. Obama endorsed this show by appearing on it, a show that employs extremely unhealthy and harmful ways to lose weight.  What's the point of losing weight for one's health if the method used does far more harm than good?