Obesity social prejudice intensifies health concerns
// Marco Ferreira

According to the Childhood Obesity Foundation “Canada, like many nations, is in the midst of an epidemic of overweight and obesity. Currently, 59 per cent of adult Canadians are either overweight or obese.” More troubling is the rising number of Canadian children adding to those numbers: cases of childhood obesity have tripled in the past 25 years. “If this trend continues, in 20 years we can expect 70 per cent of the 35 to 44-year-olds in Canada to be overweight or obese vs. 57 per cent who are currently overweight or obese.”

The rising numbers are troubling for a few reasons. Often brought up is the cost that overweight and obese people have on the health care system. The COF states, “Direct and indirect costs associated with obesity in 2001 were estimated at $4.3 billion.” That number will rise along with the number of people who are obese and overweight.

In a society where the idea of “personal responsibility” trumps all science refuting it, we still blame overweight people for their burden on society. In the Ricky Gervais stand-up routine FAME he addresses obesity and voices a common opinion: “Obesity is a disease; no it's not, you just like eating, don't you!” Despite our collective efforts to reach equality for everyone, a dead zone has seemingly gone under the radar, resulting in a great deal of insensitive conduct.

Putting the onus on someone with an eating disorder to be completely responsible for their condition isn't fair, and perceptions need to change. If society were more tolerant of obesity and treated it as an illness with less judgment, the health risks associated might be somewhat mitigated. Because overweight and obese people wear their illness everywhere, stigma and prejudice is often experienced.

A 2008 study conducted by the University of Leipzig found that out of 1,000 individuals, 23.5 per cent had stigmatizing attitudes towards obesity. The study concluded that “predictors of greater stigmatization were more causal attributions of obesity to individual behavior, less education, and older age, while causal attributions of obesity to heredity and labeling obesity as an illness predicted less stigmatization.”

The constant public scrutiny placed onto overweight people is not only uncalled for, it's only making these folks' situations worse. Issues such as stress, pressure, and depression also all play into the picture. Researchers from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana found that the higher someone’s BMI index, the more prejudice they felt they had received.

Markus H. Schafer, the doctoral student in sociology who led the study explained in Science Daily that “about 11 per cent of those who were moderately obese and 33 per cent of those who were severely obese reported weight discrimination, and these were the individuals who had the sharpest decline over time in their functional abilities, such as the capacity to climb stairs or carry everyday items. Functional ability is a key measure for health status.”

While it’s been drilled into the collective consciousness that people gain a lot of weight because they don’t take care of themselves and lose track of their diet, or don't exercise, it's really not that simple. Mental health issues like addiction, depression, and body image issues can all play an integral role in how easy it is to lose weight.

"We've seen considerable progress to address racial and gender discrimination in the United States, but the iceberg of weight discrimination still receives relatively little attention," said Ken Ferraro, a co-author of the Purdue report. "This is an interesting paradox because as the rates of obesity rise in this country, one might expect that anti-fat prejudice would decline. Public health campaigns for weight control are needed, but the stigma that many obese persons experience also exacts a toll on health." Clearly, the normalization of body weight shaming needs to end.

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