by Izzy Kalman (September 2007)
I want to ask you an important question. What is worse–obesity, or the stigma of obesity?
Obesity, of course. Stigma doesn’t kill people, clog their arteries or give them diabetes. Perhaps people’s health will suffer if they can’t handle the stigma, and they may even want to kill themselves, but those are subjective responses to the stigma. In other words, they do it to themselves, albeit often unintentionally. There are obese people who respond to the very same stigma with a different attitude that does not lead to self-destruction. And if people weren’t obese, they wouldn’t be suffering from the stigma of obesity in the first place.
Trimming our bodies is a challenging task, as so many people have discovered. But people (using my Bullies to Buddies rules) can easily learn to handle the stigma of obesity if they wish. Psychologists, like other scientists, recognize the problems caused by obesity and are adding their voices to try to rein it in. However, human beings have been solving problems long before the field of psychology came into being. In fact, all social creatures, not only human, have developed mechanisms for solving problems. If our species had to wait for modern psychology to solve our problems, none of us would be here today.
One natural mechanism, as I will explain, is stigma.
The Psychological Importance of Stigma
Having earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in science (Bachelor of Science and Master of Science), I was trained to think as a scientist. One of the scientific tools I learned is observation. We are supposed to look at behavior and try to understand it’s purpose. If there is a universal human behavior, it must serve a positive purpose. Otherwise the behavior would eventually have disappeared. It is unscientific to take a universal human behavior, decide it is undesirable, and declare that we have to get rid of it.
One universal social mechanism for protection of both the individual and the group is stigmatization. Stigmatization is often engaged in consciously by the group, but it can also go on without anyone’s awareness. To discourage individuals from engaging in dangerous behavior, the group stigmatizes those who practice it.
Being stigmatized is not a pleasant experience. But it is not meant to be pleasant. Solutions to problems often require the experience of pain. If stigma were pleasant, everyone would engage in the destructive stigmatized behavior and we would be doomed.
Admittedly, not all stigmatized behaviors are actually undesirable, and the targets don’t necessarily deserve the treatment they receive from the group. Nature isn’t a perfect system. But the purpose of the stigma remains the same: to protect the individual and the group from harmful behaviors.
My intention here is not to justify all stigma, just to explain its purpose. Almost all social groups engage in stigmatization. There may be some groups, such as certain orders of monks, who have taken a vow to treat all living things with equal respect, and they won’t even kill a mosquito. But they are acting contrary to human nature, and they are extremely rare.
Even our “enlightened” society constantly engages in stigmatization. The most powerful stigma today is against racism. We have to walk on eggshells when talking about people of other groups because if we say something about them that sounds negative we can literally lose our jobs. If you’re a celebrity, society will treat you like you’re guilty of genocide, and expect you to make groveling, tortured public displays of contrition in the hope that you will be forgiven and allowed to continue with your life as before. While the stigmatization of bigotry has not had much success in getting people of diverse groups to want to be friends, neighbors and in-laws, it has done a wonderful job of getting us to guard our tongues and to react with horror when others express bigotry.
Society has done a nice job of using stigma to discourage cigarette smoking. Until a couple of decades ago, it was considered cool to smoke. Smoking has become less cool, and smokers are increasingly treated like pariahs, with regulations pushing smokers farther and farther away from public spaces. In more recent years, society has undertaken a campaign to stigmatize bullies. Popular and professional magazines have published articles demeaning bullies. I have seen TV commercials with celebrities urging us not to be bullies. Schools hang up posters and have assemblies against bullies. Our professional organizations lobby for laws against bullying. The stigmatization campaign hasn’t made bullying decrease, but it sure feels good to satisfy our desire to have a group–bullies–to stigmatize with impunity. My guess is that the reason stigmatization of bullying hasn’t made bullying decrease is that stigmatization falls in the category of bullying, so how can you teach people to stop bullying by bullying them?
When stigma goes down, obesity goes up
According to an August 7 Reuter’s report, two economists, Frank Heiland and Mary Burke, published a study in the journal Economic Inquiry finding that Americans’ acceptance of excess weight has increased in the past decade along with the actual rise in weight. Two weeks prior, a July 25 Associated Press article reported a “startling new study” (“startling” to anyone who doesn’t possess common sense, that is) by sociologists Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler published in the New England Journal of Medicine. They found that “obesity is socially contagious”; when your friends become overweight, it dramatically increases the likelihood that you, too, will become overweight. You come to see being overweight as normal, so you tend to judge your own excess poundage as normal.
In other words, the less social stigma there is attached to being overweight, the more likely people are to gain weight. Though one would hardly need a higher degree to expect such a finding, it is nice when research corroborates common sense.
Hurt feelings are worse than hurt bodies–aren’t they?
For decades, psychological organizations have joined campaigns to make things like bullying, sexual coercion and drug & alcohol usage less socially acceptable. One would expect that they would do the same for obesity–the greatest danger of all. But there is a problem in doing so. The predominant view among the psychological establishment is that hurting people’s feelings is even worse than hurting their bodies. That is why we hear today that “the sticks and stones slogan is a lie.” The new slogans are, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can hurt forever” (see the title of the recent book by child violence expert James Garbarino); “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words kill.”
How, then, can we stigmatize obesity without hurting people’s feelings? The experts therefore conclude that it is better to let people grow in obesity rather than to criticize obesity!
Sounds crazy? Think I’m making this up? On July 12, Yahoo! News carried an article entitled, Weight Bias Threatens Obese Children’s Health And Quality Of Life. It tells of a study published in Psychological Bulletin about the misery of children who are stigmatized for being overweight. The authors, led by Rebecca Puhl of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, found that children who felt stigmatized for being overweight were at greater risk for high blood pressure, binge eating, avoidance of physical activity, and suicidal ideation than overweight kids who didn’t experience stigma. The article concludes with the following quote from Rebecca Puhl: “The childhood obesity epidemic is rapidly accelerating. That means thousands of children in North America are at risk for serious emotional and physical health consequences that science shows are connected to weight stigma. We cannot overestimate the urgency of combating stigma.”
As we get rid of stigma, though, obesity goes up, as the previous articles and common sense tell us. Is Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity concerned with reducing obesity? Or is it concerned with reducing stigma? Because you can’t do both.
Unfortunately, academic psychology has replaced science with social activism. It is trying to create an Emotional Welfare State in which the government is responsible for guaranteeing that no one upsets us. A basic understanding of human psychology and biology would inform us that such a society is both a logical impossibility as well as unhealthy for the individual and the collective. Pain is necessary for our survival, for it motivates us to change what we are doing wrong. Nevertheless, our psychological emotional welfare state scientists abandon logic and fight for protecting people’s feelings at all costs.
Cutting back successful school anti-obesity programs
On September 9, Yahoo! News (I confess–I get a lot of my news through Yahoo!) reported about changes in an Arkansas policy designed to help children fight obesity. Arkansas had made the bold move–adopted in turn by some other States–to officially stigmatize obesity by weighing kids every year and giving them an “Obesity Report Card.” Though some kids found this embarrassing, it has apparently helped many kids significantly reduce their weight. School officials have been very happy with the success of the program.
However, in order to protect children’s self-esteem, pressure was put on Arkansas to change the law, and now kids will be weighed only once in two years. As the article reports, health researchers are worried that the change in policy will cause kids will go in the other direction and become heavier.
If health scientists can understand this, why can’t our psychological scientists? Don’t they realize that overweight kids’ self-esteem will be increased more by their losing weight than by having society make believe there is nothing wrong with them?