March 4 is World Obesity Day. It is a globally recognized opportunity to reflect on how to solve the “world obesity crisis.” Obese people exist around the world, including the United States, and many health professionals and people in general hold the belief that this is a problem worthy of the “crisis” label.
I would argue, though, that a fat body cannot be a crisis. The way we treat fat bodies is the real crisis.
Fatphobia and weight stigma run rampant around the world, particularly in America, and they present themselves in myriad ways. The fear or dislike of fatness exists because of all the assumptions we hold about people in large bodies.
Where do we get these ideas? Mostly from the media. When fat people are portrayed on television, which is a rare occurrence compared to the number of obese people in America, they are often the butt of jokes. Either that or their fatness or weight loss quest is their defining personality trait.
If a fat person is portrayed as happy or successful without pursuing weight loss, it is looked down upon as “glorifying obesity.” The notion that a person can be healthy at any size is completely foreign to many people.
Because of society’s views equating fatness to laziness and badness and thinness to innate goodness and other admirable qualities, fat people are on the receiving end of discrimination in a variety of settings.
Given the number of obese people who exist, a lot of public spaces are still not accommodating for people of size. Take theaters or airplanes for example. On a similar note, it is far harder for fat people to access affordable clothing than it is for straight-sized shoppers.
Systemic weight discrimination does not stop there. According to studies, fat people are less likely to get jobs, less likely to date and marry and more likely to experience stigma in the form of both micro- and macro-aggressions.
Most alarmingly, I think, fat people frequently receive biased health care. We are often dismissed as having our excess weight being the cause of our poor health, are prescribed diets which often turn out to harm our health and are blamed for the ailments we have, which only exacerbates them.
I will preface this next bit by saying that just like we do not owe the world a thin body, we do not owe the world health. But it is almost comical how we think that body size and health are within our control in a country where the most accurate predictor of our life expectancy is our ZIP code.
We cannot demand health if we as a country are not equitably distributing the option to pursue health-promoting behaviors. First, and most obviously, health care is not a right in America. How can we demand health when we do not even encourage it?
According to data from the Trust for Public Land, only one-third of people living in America’s 100 largest cities live within a 10-minute walk from a park. When exercise, a health-promoting behavior, is not achievable for everyone, how can we demand health?
Based on several studies from the last 10 years, people in low-income neighborhoods live farther from grocery stores than people in higher-income neighborhoods. People in low-income neighborhoods are then faced with a choice between fast food restaurants or small stores that offer healthier options at higher prices. When health-promoting food choices are not accessible to everyone, how can we demand health?
This country is not facing a “World Obesity Crisis.” The toxic nature of promoting health and thinness while also failing to provide access to healthy tools and actively discriminating against obese people is the crisis.
The crisis is an absence of safe places to exercise, particularly in dense urban areas. The crisis is denying obese people the same unbiased careful medical care that our thinner counterparts receive.
The crisis is having to pay for health care. The crisis is the inequitable access to healthy food. The crisis is the demonization of obese people existing, healthy or not, and the harmful stereotypes that we perpetuate about fatness.
My body is not the crisis.