On his namesake show on HBO, Bill Maher recently claimed that “fat isn’t a birth defect” and “fat-shaming doesn’t need to end, it needs to make a comeback.” Just a few days prior to this, in his viewpoint published in Radio Times, Michael Buerk writes “Leave couch potatoes alone. They’re weak, not ill.” He goes on to argue that letting obese individuals die away will ultimately save the UK precious healthcare dollars. In doing so, Buerk humiliates, dehumanizes, and degrades the nearly 2 billion people around the world who are overweight or obese, many of whom are our colleagues, friends, and family.
Sadly, this type of hate speech—let us call it what it is—may resonate far more strongly with the general public than we may realize. Weight stigma is rampant in modern society and stems from false perceptions about the root causes of obesity, many of which Maher and Buerk espouse. That obesity can simply be prevented by better self-control and compliance is antiquated and ignores the genetic, environmental, and socioeconomic factors that contribute to the disease.
According to the Obesity Action Coalition, a non-profit organization dedicated to giving a voice to individuals with obesity, weight stigma has been shown to play a role in wage inequities in the workplace, bullying and teasing in the classroom, and decreased quality of healthcare received. In one study, of 2,400 adult women surveyed about their experiences with weight bias, 69% reported that physicians themselves were a source of weight bias .
Clearly, weight stigma is deeply rooted in our society. We must unroot it. We must be more compassionate.
Our physicians must do more to empathize with the men and women they see everyday in their clinics who are suffering from obesity. Our scientists must do better and recognize that the multifactorial causes of obesity are just as complex and worthy of research as those that cause cancer. Our journalists should reject such hate speech and give obesity the well-balanced coverage any complex disease would deserve. Our politicians should treat obesity as a pressing public health crisis deserving of evidence-based and data-driven initiatives.
And finally, we must demand common decency, respect, and compassion from one another, without which the dialogue we must create around obesity degrades to hateful drivel.