THE BLOG

The Stigma of Obesity

03/06/2013 06:13 pm ET | Updated May 06, 2013

Ours is a world full of agreements. Some are given by law, others are socially and culturally enforced. Here in the U.S., we keep our voices down in restaurants and avoid eye contact on the subway. We shake hands, we say thank you. We throw our food wrappers and cups in garbage cans (or at least, most of us do).

There are also agreements we've yet to make whose time has been long coming. For instance, putting a stop to the dropping of cigarette butts on the street and the rude and lewd catcalling of women and girls, as well as requiring equal pay for equal work.

If you're unclear of how pervasive and engrained our agreements are, try kissing a stranger on the sidewalk, or screaming in a restaurant. Try dumping your entire garbage can onto your street corner or out of your window, or staring for a full minute at someone on the train.

In certain cultures and countries, each of these is entirely acceptable. But not here in the states.

It's funny when we're called on breaking even the simplest and most inconsequential of agreements. Just yesterday morning, I ran out of my Manhattan apartment in flip flops to a café a block away for a coffee, only to have a homeless woman scream at me about the inappropriateness of my footwear in the winter.

Being social animals, the need for agreement is part of our nature. We all long for acceptance and to fit in; once for actual survival and now primarily for a sense of the same, we struggle to do what's right in order to remain safe, included, and accepted.

Unfortunately, this holds true even when the accepted things to do are altogether unacceptable. Which in my mind includes the ongoing bashing of Chris Christie's weight.

To be clear, I'm not referring to comedians. It's their job to poke fun at everyone and everything. By cultural consent, we've granted them this permission, just as we grant ourselves the freedom to enjoy and laugh at whatever they have to say.

But TV anchors and guests on respected news shows? Journalists in top publications? Other politicians?

Cultural agreements are interesting, as are how they come into being. For one, they're neither necessarily nor universally morally inspired; not everyone "agreed" to stop persecuting African Americans, bashing gay people, or beating their wives and children. Some people, sadly, still continue to do so.

Publicly, however, our agreements become standards that must be adhered to, lest we face the shame-inspiring and often legally-binding consequences of collective disapproval.

The opposite is also, and oddly, true. So intent are we to remain in the good graces of people we do and don't know that we'll often do things we personally and even morally disagree with. (If interested, Elliot Aronson's excellent The Social Animal provides for a further exploration of the topic.)

The media pummeling of Chris Christie is no exception. The majority of us would be outraged by, and would not stand for, the same slandering of Asian, black, female, gay, elderly, or disabled Americans.

Why, then, do we tolerate those who focus the same vitriol on people who are overweight?

To begin, we have a cultural agreement permitting us to insult and slam anyone in the public eye. Indeed, we allow ourselves great license when talking about the personal and professional failings of those who choose -- and don't choose -- to be in the national spotlight. Divorces, plastic surgery gone awry, business scandals and more -- those who enjoy gossip and reveling in the pain of others unfortunately have free reign in this arena... for the time being.

I've also heard the argument that unlike being black, female, elderly, or disabled, being overweight is something people can help. It is, on some level these people say, a choice and therefore, a viable option to criticize what they see as unhealthy, undesirable, and unattractive.

Concerned and constructive criticism about someone's health and well being is one thing. But insulting, slamming, and ridiculing other people, regardless of the reason, is quite another; it's fascinating to me, those who, hidden behind the veil of obscurity or a "normal weight," can't muster up the compassion to look into their own lives and consider how they would feel if their own equally sizeable issues were on display for the world to see.

Whatever the logic people use to engage in this type of discrimination, the real reason it continues, quite simply, is that we haven't yet agreed to discontinue the behavior, or to withdraw our collective approval of those who engage in it. Only when we do will we resume our journey along the path toward equal rights and respect for, and civility toward, all people... an end goal whose time has come.

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