Learning from Anger About Obesity Guidance

August StrindbergPerhaps you’ve noticed. Our lives, especially our professional lives, have an abundant supply of hostility these days. So seriously, should we be surprised by the anger welling up from people with strong feelings about guidance on medical care for young persons who face health issues because of obesity? No. But learning from this anger might be a good alternative.

So what can we learn?

A Better Response to Incivility

One of the prime places for hearing expressions of anger is front-line work in a service industry. Especially over the last few years, most everyone has witnessed or read appalling stories and statistics. In contrast to the  impulse to walk away from such work, research from Chong Chen, Mingyu Zhang, and Yihua Zhang offers support for the idea that the response to hostility can have a strong influence for adding to it or diffusing it.

Blaming a customer for incivility leads to impulsive revenge behavior, they found. The situation escalates and, as we know, can end very badly. Clearly some individuals are intent on escalating their expression of anger and cannot be stopped.

But in other situations, self-reflection and an expression of empathy can nudge a situation to a more positive outcome. Tit for tat expressions of anger can become tit for tat expressions of civil discourse. In this situation, both parties to an interaction are responsible for their own roles in it. Policing the behavior of the other? Not so much.

In the Harvard Business Review, Christine Porath offers a fine and practical explanation of these dynamics.

Respect for Lived Experiences

So with an eye toward empathy, the angry responses to the new guideline for pediatric obesity can teach us a lot. Vogue, for example, has an article filled with inaccuracies about the guideline, but it does offer insight into the source of the strong feelings about careful medical guidance for pediatric obesity care:

“At this point in my life, I have tools at my disposal to help me deal with the feelings that arise when I overhear a fatphobic barb on the street or encounter a health care provider who’s clearly decided, without exchanging a single word with me, that my weight must mean I’m not serious about my health.

“I see a therapist weekly and an ED-specific nutritionist biweekly, journal regularly, exercise primarily for mental health purposes, and have an extensive support system of friends and family. Still, accepting my body in its current form is an ongoing struggle.”

This is a lived experience that deserves to be heard with respect. It represents one point on a very wide range of lived experiences with weight, health, and our fat-phobic culture. Laura Gordon does a good job of reflecting this in her article for Scary Mommy, summing it up simply:

“Life in a plus-size body is complicated – especially for kids.”

Moving Forward Constructively

But understanding the anger and fear that erupts from some quarters with regard to guidance on care for pediatric obesity is not enough. We need civil discourse that respects diverse perspectives. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has a mission to improve the health and well-being of children and youth. The organization takes it seriously in guidance on both eating disorders and on obesity. We don’t have to pick sides.

So every one of us has to make a conscious effort to move forward constructively, with empathy for others who come to this subject through the gate of a different lived experience.

Click here for Gordon’s exploration of the complex reactions to AAP guidelines, here for the research from Chen, Zhang, and Zhang, and finally, here to learn more from Porath about coping with hostility in a professional setting.

August Strindberg, painting by Gosta Adrian-Nilsson / WikiArt

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February 13, 2023