We’re Not Really Ready to Talk About Obesity

When the words are a challenge, then dealing with a health issue is a challenge. Ask anyone working in mental health or addiction medicine. There was a time when people could not even talk about breast cancer. Betty Ford brought these subjects into public discourse. But obesity remains something that people are not really ready to talk about. Sure, we try. The conversation, though, is broken. False and biased ideas dominate. Themes of moral discipline and character dominate over biological reality.

So we talk about it only as an abstraction – something that only affects the other – if we talk about it at all.

Should We Thus Ban Any Mention of BMI?

Because the conversation about obesity is so broken, scammers stand ready to exploit the situation. Selling weight loss miracles, they help people avoid the more distasteful subject of obesity. Pop-up ads and spam for these dubious products plague us all.

So it seems like mostly good news that Pinterest is banning all weight loss advertising from its platform this week. Of course, this is mainly a play for PR and it only affects advertising, not user-generated content. Regardless, we will indeed be better off for every noxious ad we don’t have to see.

However, we note that they are also banning any mention of BMI in ads on their platform. BMI is an easy target. People love to hate its shortcomings as a surrogate indicator for metabolic risk. While we agree that misuse and abuse of this measure is common, we have our doubts that it needs to become a taboo subject.

Understanding ObesityToward Understanding Obesity

Enlarging the taboo perimeter around the subject of obesity is a lousy solution for our inability to talk about it. The STOP Obesity Alliance at George Washington University seems to have a better approach: to foster understanding and dialogue about obesity. The Alliance recently introduced a new messaging framework for doing this.

Their emphasis is on sticking with the facts and the biological reality of this condition. They seek to set aside the moralization and false narratives that cause us to stumble. In a classic essay, Simon Williams describes the problems with health as a moral performance that positions illness as a transgression. That flawed framework is all too common in discourse about obesity.

So we are grateful to the Alliance for a more objective and constructive framework to help us toward being ready to talk about obesity.

Click here for the Alliance’s new framework and here for more on the Pinterest ad ban. For Williams’ essay on health as moral performance, click here.

Conversation, painting by Henri Matisse / WikiArt

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July 3, 2021