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PETER WICKHAM: ‘Fat-shaming’ debate


Peter W. Wickham

PETER WICKHAM: ‘Fat-shaming’ debate

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RECENT COMMENTS by one member of the medical community regarding a proposed solution to the chronic problem of obesity have offended some among us. 

The issue, is obesity, has for some time been a proverbial elephant in the room, which is particularly fascinating because it contrasts a serious medical/financial problem, with delicate psychological, social and human rights issues. It is an undeniable fact that obesity is a major medical problem and one which has the potential to consume copious financial resources.

The response that is popularly known as “fat-shaming” can; however, have negative psychological consequences and can easily become discriminatory if such sentiments are institutionalised.

Barbadians would like to think of themselves as a progressive society and while I have my own reservations about the veracity of this suggestion, progressive societies generally reject discrimination of all varieties, either through protective legislation or by way of what we understand as political correctness.

We therefore should not refer disparagingly to someone who is different by way of either choice or circumstance. It however still seems perfectly respectable here to shame a person who is overweight.

Obesity shares much in common with several other bases upon which people are discriminated in that our negative perceptions are often biblically inspired. As such, in the same way that persons can quote scriptures to justify slavery or homophobia, there are biblical passages such Proverbs 23:20-21 which speak adversely about gluttony which is compared to drunkardness. Similarly, the so-called “seven deadly sins” which have historically reflected what some Christians consider the most lethal wrongs include “greed” “gluttony” and “sloth”, which are all directly related to obesity. Conversely the Corinthians 6:19-20 reminds us of the need to treat our bodies as a “temple” which would presumably rule out overindulgences of any type.

It is therefore clear that one of the roots of our proclivity towards fat-shaming is biblical, although ironically this is one of the Bible principles that is often conveniently ignored by several Christians who routinely over-indulge immediately after their Sunday church service (if they go at all).     

In the same way that homophobia has negative consequences; it is highly likely that fat-shaming can be equally damaging.    

I am therefore more inclined towards the comments offered by George Griffith who suggested that as a society we would do better to reward healthy lifestyles than to shame people who are fat. This distinction is quite easy to understand if we focus on the behaviour and not the individual since the latter seems always to lead to harmful objectification, which can damage a person who might already be psychologically fragile.  Moreover at the societal level, it seems both wrong and highly contradictory to reject all forms of discrimination, while embracing fat-shaming.

Notwithstanding the foregoing, one has to appreciate the sincere and genuine perspective from which Dr Sealy is speaking (albeit tactlessly). Barbados has a major and chronic problem associated with overindulgence.                                     

Currently, we are facing new medical challenges such as the Zika virus outbreak and our ability to respond to these challenges is being hampered by the need to expend vast resources dealing with obesity related illness that are entirely avoidable. If one simplifies the issue, in much the same way that we have treated smoking related illnesses, it makes sense to direct the cost of treatment towards the person who indulges in risky behaviour.

Human beings and their behaviour is complex, and this is why both public and foreign policy needs to combine the carrot and stick approaches, which our Government already appears to have embraced to some extent. The taxation of soft-drinks is a progressive policy which should be supported and complemented by tax incentives for gym membership or other demonstrated engagement in healthy lifestyle activities.

The conception of “size acceptance” which is advanced by the “Big and Beautiful” contest can; however be as problematic if we accept that the only way to become eligible for such a show is to engage in risky behaviour. Balance is therefore necessary in this debate and difficult to achieve. It therefore seems wise to focus more on the behaviour and less on the person.

Peter W. Wickham is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES). Email [email protected]

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