According to a front-page article in the March 31, 2011 edition of New York Times describing research by Dr. Alexandra Brewis of Arizona State University, there seems to be a global aversion to fat people.
She, along with her team, interviewed people via the Internet in 10 countries and cities including American Samoa, Mexico, New Zealand and London to assess attitudes towards the obese. Even the Samoans, who are used to regarding a large body as beautiful, are changing.
The reasons for this stigmatization of obesity range from cosmetic to economic and from fashion to financial. Obese people are viewed as aesthetically distasteful. The financial costs of obesity-related illness grow higher every year, and it is easy to blame fat people, along with smokers, for the ever-increasing price of health insurance.
Unfortunately, the obese are an easy target for our ready-made willingness to believe the worst about someone else. Many studies have shown that normal-size individuals are more likely to be hired than an obese candidate with similar qualifications. Others often regard obese people as lazy with no self-discipline or concern with their health or appearance. How often have you thought, "How can she look that like that?" or "You would think he would lose weight rather than trying to squeeze into this airplane seat."
In contrast, if a thin person is seen eating a slice of pizza or a cheeseburger, no comment is made about the food choice.
Don't stigmatize and blame the obese for their weight gain. Some of the blame should be upon our society. Consider:
1. Do we really need at least half a supermarket aisle devoted to sugar-filled soda and another entire aisle stacked with cookies, chips, and candy?
2. Who is stigmatizing the fast-food restaurants for concocting ever bigger and more caloric sandwiches?
3. Does anyone point a finger at the calorie pushers on the Food Network? Why do so many recipes require vast quantities of olive oil, cheese, bacon, heavy cream, egg yolks, butter and sugar?
4. Am I the only person to notice the schizophrenic nature of women's magazines that have the diet of the month in one section and the fattening recipe of the month in another?
5. Must restaurants serve food in gargantuan sizes or use lots of butter or olive oil to add some flavor or aura of freshness to a food?
6. Let us not forget the toxic work and commuting schedules of many Americans leaving little or no time for exercise. Do they have to wait until they are in a retirement home to get to a gym?
7. Have you noticed the weight of shift workers? Probably not, since you may be asleep when they force their bodies to stay awake in order to work. Obesity as a consequence of shift work has been known for decades but no one has figured out what to do about it.
8. Anyone stressed lately? Unemployed? Going through a divorce? Living with teenagers? Alcohol and fatty, sugary foods deaden stress but at a substantial caloric cost.
9. Why is it so easily forgotten that eating helps emotional and physical pain?
10. And why is weight gain from certain medications ignored? Antidepressants, mood stabilizers and anti-psychotic drugs have turned many skinnies into fatties.
Every behavior that has health risks should be changed, if possible. We all should increase our sleep and exercise and vegetable consumption, drink less alcohol, and decrease the time we spend with our iPads, iPhones and computers. If you smoke, you should stop.
Decreasing obesity means altering our culture of eating too many calories, exercising and sleeping too little and helping people resolve problems that cause emotional overeating. These actions will be considerably more helpful than muttering something nasty about an obese person sitting next to you on a plane.
Follow Judith J. Wurtman, PhD on Twitter: www.twitter.com/stopmed_wt_gain