Callous Bias and Anger In Place of Curiosity and Caring

The Kingdom of Heaven Suffers ViolenceThe Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) is out with its annual report on obesity. The headline? It’s bad and getting worse. But any mention of the lived experience for real persons with obesity is absent. Empathy doesn’t fit with a strategy focused on catastrophizing the problem of too many people living with obesity. The implicit bias here is simple. Those lives don’t count. At the other end of the spectrum, that bias breeds anger and rage at the obesity machine. On Twitter, Harry Minot described the reaction:

“When the bias is ritualistic, actual human beings are hurt. And they may respond by being ‘caustic.’ There’s nothing genteel about bigotry.”

Preventing Something That Affects Half of the Population

TFAH is all about preventing obesity. Perhaps this makes sense for an organization whose mission prioritizes prevention. However, nearly half of adults (42 percent) are already living with obesity. Add in overweight and it’s close to three fourths of the population. So honestly, it’s hard to understand the TFAH goal to “strengthen obesity prevention.” How will they prevent something that’s already widespread?

Furthermore, the report makes no mention of the lived experience of people with obesity. Nowhere does the report even hint at the problems that weight bias and stigma create. Nothing suggests that real people face real challenges every day of their lives because of systemic implicit bias against them.

Nope. TFAH simply wants to prevent this condition. It’s a plague.

Anger at the Other Extreme

This combination of a catastrophic narrative with such callousness toward the lived experience of people with obesity fits the description of a moral panic. It leaves people feeling dehumanized and full of anger at such obvious bias.

It also prompts narratives that falsely deny the health harms of obesity. Natasha Wiebe offered us one recently:

“Fatness cannot be randomized. Therefore in order to show that fatness causes disease, you must show that it meets the Bradford Hill criteria. It does not. Metabolic researchers need to come to grips with the fact that fat growth is a protective symptom of disease and start to focus on what is actually causing disease. There is more than enough evidence. Move on and stop stigmatizing fat people.”

Toxic Polarization

So we are left with a state of toxic polarization. At one end, we have folks with strong implicit bias. Bias gets in the way of acknowledging the humanity of people living in larger bodies. At the other extreme, we have anger boiling at obvious injustice. No wonder progress in reducing the health harms of obesity has been nil.

In an essay for Psychology Today, Mike Brooks describes the problem succinctly: “When we are consumed with anger and hate, we are wrong.”

TFAH needs to get curious about the lived experience of people in larger bodies and get real about obesity in the lives of real people. Fat activists would do well to channel some of their righteous anger about systemic bias into constructive engagement for change. Rage, especially when it mixes with conspiracy theories, does not take us to a good place.

Click here for the essay on anger by Brooks.

The Kingdom of Heaven Suffers Violence, painting by Evelyn De Morgan / WikiArt

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September 19, 2021