Dr T says: “If shaming reduced obesity, there would be no fat people”

by Angela

Back in December, Daniel Callahan published his piece “Obesity: Chasing an Elusive Epidemic” where he made the controversial suggestion that stigmatization of the overweight/obesity will ease the “obesity epidemic”. As you may know, the DiSH Lab strongly promotes weight acceptance, and much of our current research investigates the detrimental physical and psychological effects of exposure to weight stigma. So Dr. T and Traci Mann (from the University of Minnesota) put together a strong rebuttal to Callahan’s claims in their piece “If shaming reduced obesity, there would be no fat people.” You can read each piece on our publications page, but here are some highlights:

Callahan Says:

“Those who are overweight hardly notice anymore:

it is just the way ordinary people look. We need them to notice.”

Dr. T replies:

“The same survey [that Callahan uses to make this claim] found that

67 percent of the sample described themselves as weighing over

their ideal weight… they are aware of their weight.” Maybe this discrepancy

arises from “people being reluctant to describe themselves as overweight…

consistent with the view that obesity is stigmatized.”

Callahan identifies his solution:

“The most promising strategies, I believe, fall into three categories:

strong and somewhat coercive public health measures, childhood

prevention programs, and social pressure on the overweight.”

Dr. T says:

“If stigmatizing fat people worked, it would have done so by now.

Obese people are already the most openly stigmatized individuals in

our society, with published data showing that weight stigma

is more pervasive and intense than racism, sexism, and other forms of bias.

Weight-based discrimination is one of the few legal forms of

discrimination that remain in America.”

Callahan suggests:

“I would couch the social pressure in the following terms, finding ways

to induce people who are overweight or obese to put some uncomfortable

questions to themselves.” These include questions like: “If you are overweight

or obese, are you pleased with the way you look?” and “Fair or not, do you know

that many people look down upon those excessively overweight or obese,

often in fact discriminating against them and making fun of them…”

Dr. T refutes this suggestion:

DiSH Lab research asked Callahan’s questions to a sample of

overweight and obese individuals and found that 91% said yes to

whether they knew that “many people look down upon those

excessively overweight or obese…” and 88% said they were not

pleased with the way they looked.

Callahan’s justifies these questions:

These questions aim “to make people acutely aware of pervasive

stigmatization, but then to invoke it as a danger to be avoided:

don’t let this happen to you! If you don’t do something about yourself,

that’s what you are in for.”

Dr. T’s Response:

DiSH Lab research asked a randomized sample of 372 individuals

either Callahan’s six questions or a set of neutral questions.

They then saw an array of food and chose any and all foods they

would like to eat in that moment. “Those who answered Callahan’s

questions selected items amounting to a statistically significantly

higher amount of sugar foods… as well as more calories.

This does not bode well for his strategy.”

Callahan claims:

“It will be necessary to make just about everyone strongly

want to avoid being overweight and obese.”

Dr. T cites:

“People already want to avoid being obese more than they want

practically any other thing. In a survey of patients who had lost

one hundred pounds after having gastric bypass surgery,

nearly every patient agreed that he or she would rather be

deaf, blind, have heart disease,or lose a leg than gain

back the weight… They all said they would give up being a

multimillionaire to be normal weight.”

Callahan says:

People who are overweight or obese are “beyond help”.

Dr. T concludes:

“It would be unconscionable for the medical community

to give up on over 200 millions Americans including

2.4 million children. Using the word ‘edgy’ does not disguise

what his cynical and unscientific strategy truly is:



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