May 30, 2024

Should fat stigma be banned?

There is no rational defence for it, argues an American ethicist

Fat stigma is pervasive in the United States (and other countries). In an era where stigma is a dirty word, “overweight people remain one of the last acceptable targets of humor and ridicule in North American television and film”. Some bioethicists who regard obesity as a serious public health issue have even defended it as a way of helping the population to slim down.

Writing in Bioethics, Rekha Nath, of the University of Alabama, argues that stigmatization is both wrong and wrong-headed. She tackles the question on two fronts.

The first defence of fat stigma is consequentialist. Stigma is need to reduce public health costs. But this is not necessarily true, says Nath. First of all, fat stigma leads to unhealthy behaviour like binge eating and lack of exercise. Besides, despite on-going stigma, “little progress has been made in reducing the rates of obesity and overweight in recent decades”.

The second defence is that fat people deserve to be stigmatized because they are morally blameworthy. But “As far as we can tell from available evidence, fat avoidance would imply serious difficulties for many, if not most, overweight and obese people – individuals who typically have repeatedly tried and failed to lose and keep off large amounts of weight.”

Even if some fat individuals deserve to be stigmatized, from a practical standpoint, it will be virtually impossible for public policies and social norms to be so fine grained as to adequately distinguish between those who are and those who are not blameworthy.

What consequences will repudiating fat stigma have? Nath confines herself to pointing out its injustice. But perhaps her ultimate aim is to protect fat people from discrimination on the basis of their weight, just as discrimination on the basis of race, sex, and even sexual orientation is banned.

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