Posts Tagged ‘Self-Esteem’
Should carrying extra weight be judged as a matter of personal failure? Considering the fact that two thirds of Americans are now diagnosed as overweight and one third as obese, it feels strange that there should be any prejudices against body fat. And yet, stigmatizing heavyset people is more common and seemingly acceptable than any other form of discrimination left on the planet.
Women in particular are routinely targeted for their appearances. Their ‘imperfect’ bodies can keep them from advancing in their careers (if they can get lucrative jobs in the first place), from getting married or finding partners, even from receiving proper healthcare.
Overweight itself is widely seen as a problem. Obesity is now officially called a disease. But people who are afflicted by it are not treated like other patients who, for example, have cancer or heart disease. Presumably, they brought their ailments upon themselves – by their self-indulging, undisciplined and irresponsible behavior. That makes them easy prey.
The reasons why body weight is so often looked upon as a moral rather than a health matter are complex and not easily understood. In my own practice as a dietitian, the topic comes up frequently by clients who despair more over their looks than what is happening to them health wise. In fact, many accept some of the discriminatory messages they receive in person or in the media as ‘truth.’
Sadly, when it comes to weight issues, moral judgment is never far away. Not by accident, love for food, a.k.a. gluttony, is listed in Christian religious teaching as one of the seven cardinal sins. With such labeling, eating behavior becomes a matter of right and wrong, of good and evil. And because weight control can take effort and struggle, those who fail at it or don’t try hard enough are then viewed as losers or slackers who don’t put in the necessary work, and should be called out for it.
In reality, there are countless causes for unhealthy weight gain. Lack of self-control is not the most common. Traumatic childhood experiences, poor self esteem and body image – resulting in all kinds of eating disorders, genetic predispositions, lack of access to quality food, among many other possibilities, are much more decisive factors in overeating.
The worldwide obesity crisis we are facing today is not the product of personal failure. Overweight people don’t just overindulge because they cannot resist their urges. The undeniable fact is that much of our food supply – especially the cheap, fast, and highly processed kind – is harming us. Period.
Moreover, most consumers are basically illiterate when it comes to nutrition. Nobody teaches them how to eat right – not in schools, not at the workplace, or anywhere else, and certainly not in ways that are commonly understandable and actionable.
To the contrary: Lunches in many public schools remain of poor nutritional quality, kids are constantly bombarded with junk food and soda ads, and low-income families struggle to put half-decent meals on the table.
These are structural, not personal failures. Here is where the root of the ‘evil’ lies. As long as these issues are not addressed, no moralizing about weight has a place.
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®. For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.”
The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) leadership has announced that it will ban obese members from participating in this year’s national Jamboree, a gathering taking place every four years that includes a number of physically demanding activities, including rock-climbing, whitewater rafting, mountain-biking and strenuous hiking trips. The newly imposed fitness requirements potentially eliminate a growing number of overweight young scouts from such events.
The decision has quickly raised objections from parents and advocacy groups who see it as a form of discrimination against children who struggle with weight problems and already suffer from widespread stigmatization in society.
Setting fitness standards for participation in the Jamboree was not meant to exclude obese kids but rather to motivate them to lose weight and improve their health, according to Dan McCarthy, a high ranking official in the BSA who spoke to Fox News on the subject.
That may be a good intention in theory, but the results can be quite different.
“While the BSA deserves credit for its commitment to the health and well-being of children, and for its efforts to address the difficult issue of childhood obesity, the decision risks perpetuating a stigma, which could in fact make the problem worse,” says Dr. Michael A. Friedman, a clinical psychologist practicing in New York City. “There is perhaps no group that is the subject of more stigma than obese children. This plays out in the form of teasing, ridicule for their appearance, blame for their condition, and assumption that they are lazy or lack willpower. All this, despite evidence of powerful genetic, biological and environmental forces that maintain childhood obesity.”
These assessments are supported by a study from the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta, Canada, that found obese children to be twice as likely to develop low self-esteem, compared to their normal-weight peers.
“The current childhood obesity epidemic may trigger an increase in the prevalence of low self-esteem in the future. [It] may increase the prevalence of not only chronic diseases but also poor mental health,” the authors of the study report concluded.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 17 percent, or 12.5 million, of American children and adolescents are currently diagnosed as obese. Obesity prevalence among the young has nearly tripled since the 1980s, and there seem no measurable improvements in sight.
Self-esteem and body image become more closely connected as children move into adolescents, about at the age of 14, says Dr. Richard Strauss, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and author of a study on childhood obesity and self-esteem. He found that “obese children with decreasing self-esteem demonstrate significantly higher rates of sadness, loneliness and nervousness, and are more likely to engage in high-risk behaviors such as smoking and consuming alcohol.”
Sadly, prejudice, stereotypes, stigma and discrimination towards obese persons of all ages remain a socially acceptable form of bias in our culture, says Dr. Rebecca Puhl, a research scientist at Yale University and co-author of a study on the effects of stigmatization of obese people.
Based on her findings, Dr. Puhl says, weight stigma is not a beneficial tool to promote health or reduce obesity. “Rather, stigmatization generates health disparities, and interferes with implementation of effective obesity prevention efforts.”
Especially in growing children, negative thinking about one’s body can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy, says Dr. Helen Pavlov, a radiologist and frequent contributor to Huffington Post on a variety of health issues. Instead of adding to the insecurities youngsters inevitably go through, parents, teachers and other adults in their lives should help instill feelings of self-worth to contribute to their becoming healthier and more confident adults, she says.
Perhaps, the Boy Scouts could schedule an event next time that includes exercises in tolerance and support for those who need it the most.
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com. For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).
Obesity rates may be on the rise worldwide, but thinness continues to be the standard for physical beauty and attractiveness. Conversely, obesity is often linked with poor body image and low self-esteem, which only adds to the struggle with weight and weight-related health problems.
“Modern Western culture emphasizes thinness, denigrates excess weight and stigmatizes obese individuals, making it likely that obese people internalize these messages and feel badly about their physical presence that brands them,” said Dr. Kelly D. Brownell and Dr. Marlene B. Schwartz of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University in a study report on obesity and body image.
Prejudices against the overweight seem to develop early. One study found that children as young as three years of age believed fat people were “mean, stupid, ugly, and had few friends.” A majority of adults responded similarly, associating obesity with self-indulgence, laziness and lack of discipline. One poll conducted by Reuters found that over 60 percent of respondents believed the current obesity epidemic was caused by personal diet and lifestyle choices alone. Half supported the idea of charging obese patients higher health care premiums.
Views like these are also reflected in the job market, where obese candidates on average fare much poorer than their slender peers, according to a report on the subject by Reuters (5/11/2012). Statistically, obese workers receive lower wages, are more often passed over for promotions, and are less perceived to have leadership potential than their slimmer colleagues.
The effects of stigmatizing obesity have not yet received wide attention in our society. Unlike discrimination based on race, gender, religion or sexual orientation, exhibiting bias against the overweight is not illegal and would in any case be difficult to prove. One of the reasons for this discrepancy may be cultural. Many of us like to think that hard work leads to success and that failure results from weakness. The same applies to our standards of health and beauty. We each are responsible for our own well-being, so the thinking goes, and if we don’t manage, we have only ourselves to blame. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that obesity, especially when it’s seen as a self-inflicted disorder, is judged so harshly, even in moral terms.
Fat people are increasingly becoming scapegoats for all sorts of cultural ills, said Dr. Linda Bacon, a nutrition researcher and author of “Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight.” “There is an atmosphere now where it’s O.K. to blame everything on weight. We have this strong believe that it’s their fault, that it’s all about gluttony,” she said.
Even health care professionals are sometimes found to have prejudicial attitudes towards heavier patients, as studies have shown. In one survey, more than half of the interviewed doctors said obese people were “less likely to comply with treatment.” Consequently, they tend to spend less time with them and, as a result of feeling embarrassed and disrespected, the patients themselves avoid seeking the care they need.
In sharp contrast to many popular views on the causes of obesity, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) has recently published a report that identified the increasingly “obesogenic” environment we live in as the root of the crisis, rather than individual behavior.
Dr. Rebecca Puhl, a psychologist at Yale’s Rudd Center, agrees with the IOM’s conclusions, but she warns that “as long as we have this belief that obese people are lazy and lacking in discipline, it will be hard to get support for policies that change the environment, which are likely to have a much larger impact than trying to change individuals.”
People suffering from emotional distress in connection with weight problems are much less likely to succeed in their efforts to improve their health. Dissatisfaction with one’s size or body type can produce great amounts of stress. The results can be eating disorders like binge eating or bulimia, social isolation, depression and other psychological dysfunctions. Comprehensive counseling and support from family members, friends and people with similar experiences can be lifesaving. For our society in general, a shift in attitude would help as well.
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.