Moving Ahead

Hope for Understanding Obesity?

Getting discouraged about deep public misunderstanding of obesity is way too easy. So waking up to two thoughtful reports in top tier news media – the New York Times and The New Yorker – was a pleasant surprise yesterday. Good reporting can lead to better understanding obesity.

First, Gina Kolata wrote a lengthy article in the Times about the terrible medical care that people with obesity receive from healthcare professionals stemming from both ignorance and bias. Kolata filled her piece with excellent insights and examples such as this one:

The patient, a 46­-year­-old woman, suddenly found it almost impossible to walk from her bedroom to her kitchen. Those few steps left her gasping for breath. Frightened, she went to a local urgent care center, where the doctor said she had a lot of weight pressing on her lungs. The only thing wrong with her, the doctor said, was that she was fat.

“I started to cry,” said the woman, who asked not to be named to protect her privacy. “I said: ‘I don’t have a sudden weight pressing on my lungs. I’m really scared. I’m not able to breathe.’”

“That’s the problem with obesity,” she said the doctor told her. “Have you ever considered going on a diet?”

It turned out that the woman had several small blood clots in her lungs, a life­threatening condition, Dr. Kahan said.

Even better was the lengthy examination in The New Yorker of the growing consensus for the value of bariatric surgery in treating obesity. Typically, such articles are incomplete, misinformed, and full of bias. But in this case, Rivka Galchen relied on a broad range of well-informed experts to produce a really complete and informative piece. Tom Wadden, one of many experts consulted, told Galchen:

Look, I’m a dyed-in-the-wool behavioral psychologist, and even I will tell you that there’s no question that bariatric surgery is going to provide a larger and more durable weight loss than life-style modification, medication, or even a combination of the two.

Problem solved? Hardly.

Kolata consistently writes about the “obese” as if they are a separate class of people. The idea that these are regular people who happen to have obesity does not appear in her writing.

Her writing about diabetes is distinctly different. In her most recent article (just as an example) on the subject, she writes about “people with diabetes.” She mostly avoids using the stigmatizing “diabetic” label to dehumanize her subjects.

So on some level, she understands people-first language. She just elects not to use it for obesity.

Language and labels matter. People deserve respect for their human dignity first. We don’t deserve being reduced to a label that designates us as diseased creatures.

But hey, we’ll take every bit of progress we can get. In The New Yorker, Galchen acknowledged the importance of respectful people-first language. And he used it consistently in his writing about people with obesity.

So we’ll take that as progress, with miles to go before we rest.

Click here and here to read more from Kolata in the Times and here to read more from Galchen in The New Yorker.

Moving Ahead, phtograph © Obesity Action Coalition / Obesity Image Gallery

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September 27, 2016

One Response to “Hope for Understanding Obesity?”

  1. September 27, 2016 at 8:06 pm, Bennett Matthews said:

    It’s good to see a lovely photo from the Obesity Image Gallery at the top of the post.