The Fine Line Between Personal Responsibility and Shame

In the absence of truly effective treatments for obesity, a strong resolve is one of the best tools a person can muster to overcome obesity. But encouragement to overcome obesity is very different from admonition to take personal responsibility for it. A new study reminds us of the fine line between personal responsibility and shame.

Angelina Sutin and Antonio Terracciano collected data on height, weight, and weight discrimination experiences from more than 6,000 people in the the national Health and Retirement Study of Americans 50 and older in both 2006 and 2010. They found that people who experienced weight discrimination  were 2.5 times more likely to develop obesity four years later if they didn’t already have it. People who already had obesity and experienced weight discrimination were three times more likely to still have obesity than those who did not. Commenting on her study, Sutin said:

Discrimination is hurtful and demeaning, and has real implications for physical health. In the case of weight discrimination, people often rationalize that it is OK to do because it will motivate the victim to lose weight. Our findings suggest the opposite. In addition to the well-known emotional and economic costs, our results suggest that weight discrimination also increases risk of obesity. This could lead to a vicious cycle where individuals who are overweight and obese are more vulnerable to weight discrimination, and this discrimination may contribute to subsequent obesity and difficulties with weight management.

Personal responsibility is so much a part of our language about obesity that it has become jargon we use without giving it much thought. But it’s worth considering what personal responsibility means to a person with a serious chronic disease.

Do we tell a person with breast cancer that they must take personal responsibility for their condition? No. What message would that send? Yet messages abound with encouragement to muster the force of determination to overcome breast cancer.

Can’t we do the same for obesity?

Click here to read more from HealthDay and click here to read the study in PlosOne.

Shamed, photograph © D.Reichardt / flickr

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