Commentary

Turning Fat into a Four-Letter Word

By Patrick Basham and John Luik
This article appeared in Spiked (Online) on August 5, 2013.

Discrimination against fat people is a disturbing trend throughout Western society. Public-health bureaucracies, in concert with their media and educational allies, are attempting to engineer the cultural environment so that the public becomes less tolerant of those people categorized as obese.

A key instrument in this crusade, according to Dr Colin McMillan, president of the Canadian Medical Association, is ‘denormalisation’ — that is, the process whereby the obese come to be perceived as abnormal, aberrant, even deviant individuals.

The denormalisation approach is confidently spelled out by Dr Kawshi De Silva, public-health director of the Problem Gambling Foundation of New Zealand. She says: ‘The perceptions and beliefs in society about obesity can profoundly influence behaviour change and resistance to it.’ In practice, denormalisation means that public-health elites attempt to shame fat people into changing their lifestyle habits.

For the denormalisation campaign to succeed, the obese must be stigmatized. In other words, they must be placed apart from the rest of civilised society until, and unless, they learn to behave in the approved manner. Denormalisation pushes the obese from being a health hazard to being a moral hazard, nothing less than flabby blots on a nation’s moral landscape.

The most recent examples of denormalisation include a South African chef who has just learned he will be deported from New Zealand following Wellington’s refusal to renew his visa on the grounds that he is simply too fat. A fortnight earlier, America’s Boy Scouts announced they were excluding obese boys from their national jamboree.

Yet, here’s the twist: even in its own empirical terms, the denormalisation campaign is already a well-documented failure. In fact, new research from the US provides strong clinical evidence that denormalising the obese actually results in more, not fewer, obese individuals.

Between 2006 and 2010, medical researchers Angelina Sutin and Antonio Terracciano studied 6,157 Americans to determine whether weight discrimination is associated with the risk of becoming obese (that is, a body mass index (BMI) above 30) or with the risk of remaining obese. The researchers found that participants who experienced weight discrimination were approximately 2.5 times more likely to become obese.

Furthermore, participants who were already obese were three times more likely to remain obese than those who had not experienced such discrimination. According to the researchers, their findings demonstrate that ‘rather than motivating individuals to lose weight, weight discrimination increases risk for obesity’.

Although such a conclusion will be news to public-health elites, it shouldn’t be. Four years ago, Lynne MacLean and her fellow Canadian researchers expressed a well-founded concern regarding the stigmatisation of obese people, particularly of children.

They examined the deeply negative consequences of this social process. While there is much written about stigma and how it is exacerbated, MacLean and her colleagues pointed out that few, if any, guidelines exist for public-health officials who design and implement obesity-prevention programmes.

Additionally, food-marketing expert Charlene Elliott’s research demonstrates the obesity denormalisation campaign’s dangerous ambitions. Elliott finds the campaign central to the connection between obesity and citizenship in contemporary Western society.

According to Elliott, denormalisation has connected one’s physical body to that of one’s citizenship. In tracing the evolving narrative, Elliott explains why denormalisation campaigners believe that the ideal citizen is, literally and figuratively, a ‘fit’ citizen. The person with the larger body is quite simply categorized as a lesser citizen than his or her smaller countryman. Elliott outlines the ways in which the fat body or ‘failed body project’ is equally positioned to that of the ‘failed citizen’.

Hence, the figurative concept of citizen fitness is often mistakenly conflated with the visible look of leanness. Given that the majority of adult Westerners are officially classified as overweight or obese, the framing of the fat body as the failed citizen is, to put it mildly, of considerable significance to both policymakers and non-policymakers alike.

The goal of denormalisation goes beyond making the thin think of the obese as aberrant. It extends also to convincing the obese to see themselves in this way. For denormalisation to ‘work’, it must be able to convince the obese to see themselves as deeply compromised both in terms of their self-esteem and their self-respect.

As such, denormalisation represents a vast and unacceptable instrument of social engineering. Its proponents are not hesitant to trump this as its great virtue; they openly proclaim that their goal is effectively to reorder the consciousness of individuals with respect to food and drink.

This is does not simply mean providing information or even using a bit of persuasion; instead, it is social marketing designed to manipulate the cultural environment so that the central aspect of democratic life — individual autonomy, the right to shape one’s own mind, behaviour, and life — is effectively suppressed. Rather than allowing individuals the freedom to come to their own conclusions about risk taking, denormalisation represents the government’s imposition of its own values and its crude attempt to create an environment in which what it considers aberrant choices have no chance of realization.

The lowly social status of the fat Westerner dehumanises a whole category of people, which may be the most damning aspect of the whole denormalisation campaign. Like so much in the anti-obesity campaign, denormalisation is a bad prescription for supposedly good public health.

Patrick Basham is a Cato Institute adjunct scholar; John Luik is a Democracy Institute senior fellow. John Luik, a Democracy Institute senior fellow, are the authors of “Health Warnings on Consumer Products: Why Scarier Is Not Better.”