Last month, I published an article on fat-shaming and ethics. A few weeks later, I opened the latest issue of Philosophy Now to discover another article on the same subject. In “The Ethics of Fat Shaming,” Charlotte Curran attacks fat-shaming, fatism and a purported societal obsession with weight loss. While I agree with Curran’s conclusion that fat-shaming is unethical, I also find some of her arguments unconvincing.
Obesity and Health Risks
Let me start by stating definitively my position on this issue. I believe that 1) fat-shaming is unethical and 2) being obese is not healthy or desirable.
Curran appears to resist the latter belief in her article. She writes, “The positive case for fat-shaming is particularly interesting to investigate because the belief that weight loss results in a better quality of life underpins our everyday practices pertaining to fatness.”
According to research summarized by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, when compared to people with a healthy weight, obesity increases the risk for several serious diseases and health complaints, including all-cause mortality, type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, gallbladder disease, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea, several types of cancers, depression, anxiety, body pain and low quality of life. So moving from obesity to non-obesity (by losing weight) leads to reduced disease risk and better quality of life. Thus, the belief that an obese person who loses weight can expect a better quality of life is based on a wide body of scientific research.
To put the situation another way, imagine that Condition X leads to all of the conditions mentioned above but causes no visible changes to a person’s physical appearance. All other things being equal, surely no one would choose to develop Condition X. Whatever aesthetic or ethical judgments one associates with obesity, it remains an unhealthy and undesirable condition.
Fat Shaming and Weight Loss
“The idea that being overweight is bad for us is evident for instance in the popularity of calorie counting app MyFitnessPal, with 19.1 million active monthly users in 2018, or with weight loss products such as detox teas, meal replacement shakes, and even appetite suppressant lollipops, which generate an estimated $37.5 million in yearly revenue for lifestyle brand Flat Tummy Co. However, acts of fat shaming underpin weight loss support groups, which use public weigh-ins, positive reinforcement, and rewards, as motivation for individuals to achieve their weight loss goals. The notion of accountability in such groups is an implicit example of fat shaming. If someone is held accountable or responsible for their weight loss journey, the fear of people’s reaction on social media or other members of their support group knowing that they have failed will provide motivation for persisting. Here social stigma is seen as a positive motivating force that will help us achieve our weight loss goals. If we associate weight loss with positive consequences, such as an improvement in an individual’s overall health and quality of life, then in these instances fat shaming could be seen as justified in order to improve someone’s life.”
As Curran points point, much of the health and fitness industry encourages weight loss. Some of their products are more beneficial than others. Some of their marketing efforts are more tolerant of people of different sizes than others. But as a general rule, we should probably not derive our ethical values from commercial trends. While advertisements might reflect social beliefs and desires, they should not dictate our behavior.
Curran also highlights the fine line between fat-shaming and encouraging a healthy weight. If the accountability and support provided by a weight loss group can help a person lose weight and avoid serious health consequences, such groups can be beneficial. But if such groups stigmatize obesity or encourage practices that embarrass members who don’t meet their weight loss goals, these groups can be harmful. Again, the Condition X example proves useful. We would all encourage our loved ones to take measures to avoid Condition X. At the same time, we would be wrong to attack them or shame them for developing that condition. Similarly, there is a difference between encouraging a loved one to stop smoking and trying to shame them into quitting.
The Problem of Appearances
In what I find the strongest section of her article, Curran elaborates on issues with making snap judgments about obesity.
“We are rarely in a good position to know someone’s underlying health conditions. Nor can we assume an individual’s lifestyle from their appearance alone. The common stigma behind fatness assumes that weight gain is caused simply by laziness or a lack of self-control, but this is not necessarily the case. Along with diet choices and lifestyle habits, body size can also often be influenced by metabolism, genetics, sleep, medication, financial stability, mental health, or pre-existing health conditions such as hypothyroidism. This shows that the ‘solutions’ to weight gain are not always as straightforward as eating less or exercising more. Rather, fatness is a complex socio-economic, psychological, and physiological phenomenon.”
I emphasized a similar point in my article. Obesity is not a marker for other character traits. And it doesn’t tell us about a person’s recent actions. In addition to the points Curran raises, we also don’t know from looking at an obese person what behavior changes they have adopted. Maybe they have started eating healthier and exercising more. Maybe they have already lost weight.
A False Dichotomy
But then Curran strays again to undermining the health issue. She writes:
“Let me introduce orthorexia, a condition which might be thought to constitute an internalisation of the ideology behind fat shaming. Orthorexia Nervosa, meaning ‘correct eating obsession’, is a condition in which the subject becomes obsessed with identifying and maintaining the ideal diet. An orthorexic individual typically avoids both pleasure and experimentation in eating by rigidly avoiding foods generally perceived as unhealthy. In her paper, ‘Eat Y’self Fitter: Orthorexia, Health and Gender’ in The Oxford Handbook of Food Ethics (edited by Anne Barnhill, Mark Budolfson, and Tyler Doggett, 2017), Christina Van Dyke discusses society’s obsession with health using orthorexia as her central focus of study. She argues that orthorexia is a manifestation of age-old anxieties about human finitude and mortality, which twenty-first century Western culture is prone to obsess about.”
Here, Curran mistakenly presents health and body weight as an either-or proposition. Either a person engages in behavior that leads to obesity, or they become obsessed with “correct eating” and health. Setting aside the contradictory association of obsession and health, we have no reason to believe that orthorexia is the sole alternative to obesity. Instead, the common view of health more closely alights with the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean. According to Aristotle, every virtue is a mean or intermediate between two opposite states. The virtue of bravery is the mean between cowardice and rashness, just as good health is the mean between obesity-inducing behavior and orthorexia.
Yes, fat-shaming is wrong, but that does not mean that obesity is good or being health-conscious is bad. As Aristotle observed and as many of us have experienced, it is possible to practice healthy behavior without going to extremes. We should strive to be physically active and eat food that nourishes our bodies. As I have argued previously, doing so is ethical behavior, and it is behavior, not physical appearance, that counts.