by Fall Ferguson, JD, MA
Over the last few days, I have been involved in preparing ASDAH’s “Debate the Weight” response to HBO’s documentary series, The Weight of the Nation (WOTN). As I write this, I still haven’t seen the series yet; it’s scheduled to air on May 14 and 15. Nevertheless, like many of you, I am already worried about it. Here are my top 10 reasons why. [Other than the last two, the order of the reasons should not be interpreted as a ranking of importance. They’re all important to me.]
10. The misguided focus on obesity. The series identifies weight as “the problem” when the focus of our public health efforts should be health promotion and the prevention of chronic disease.
9. The appeal to fear. The publicity for the series (and I am guessing the actual documentary itself too) uses fear as a means of persuasion and motivation for change. Few things are as destructive to health and well-being as fear. I also question whether health professionals who use fear to influence people are behaving ethically.
8. Disservice to thin people. Thinner people may get the message that their lower weight means they don’t need to take care of their health or be concerned about preventing chronic diseases.
7. Unhealthy behaviors. The emphasis on obesity—indeed the tagline alone (“We have to lose to win”)—increases the pressure people are already feeling to engage in unhealthy behaviors such as restrictive dieting, weight cycling (“yo-yo dieting”), and other disordered eating patterns.
6. Wrong message to children. Some defenders of the documentary have pointed out that it includes a nuanced treatment of how we need to change the “environment” in order to change the incidence of obesity. Changes in our infrastructure and health care system that promote health are all well and good, but I disagree with framing those changes as needed to “solve” obesity. Moreover, I am afraid this point will be lost on many, especially kids, who tend to focus on the big picture. I think the big picture that kids will take away from WOTN is: Obesity bad, thin good. With public health campaigns like this, no wonder weight bullying is more prevalent than any other form of bullying, and more kids than ever are being diagnosed with eating disorders.
5. Increase of weight stigma. Based on the trailer, I expect to see lots of people blaming themselves and expressing shame over their weight—creating the impression that it’s blameworthy and shameful to be fat. And, spare me the “experts” engaging in hyperbole such as “Obesity will crush the United States into oblivion” (a quotation from the trailer). Notice the not-so-hidden metaphor—clearly there is a fat person lurking behind every corner, ready to jump on you and crush you with her humongous fatness! (Boo!)
4. No recognition that our obsession with obesity is contributing to the rise in eating disorders. The producers appear to be completely oblivious to the notion that their fear-mongering and hyperbole might contribute to the marked increase we are experiencing in the incidence of eating disorders in all demographics.
3. Misuse of our tax dollars. This series is being co-produced by several government agencies. I’m angry—and I think you should be too—that our tax dollars are being spent this way. We all deserve better.
2. Misinformation abounds. I don’t have the time or space here to catalog every item of misinformation that I found on the website. ASDAH has created a “Debate The Weight” response that provides some guidance on this, and watch for additional resources to be added after we’ve gotten a look at the documentary itself. For now, I’ll just start with the fact that the information in the “weight loss” tab makes it sound like anyone can lose weight and keep it off permanently. Not!
1½. What’s not being said. (OK, I couldn’t limit my list to 10, but who ever heard of a “top 11” list?) One of my biggest concerns is what I suspect won’t be said anywhere in the documentary. ASDAH offered to consult with the producers to offer a Health At Every Size® point of view, but never heard back. Based on their website and the trailer, I don’t see any acknowledgement of alternative points of view.
And, where is the recognition that we have serious problems with body shame and eating disorders in U.S.? The things that worry me about “the weight of the nation”—for example, I worry about how much people hate their own bodies and how much they fear the bodies of fat people—well, I’m guessing these things don’t even make the grade in the HBO series.
And the number one reason I am concerned about WOTN…
1. Escalation of the cultural war on obesity. WOTN is getting everyone even more worked up than they were before about the so-called “obesity crisis.” This shouldn’t be a surprise; I believe that is the producers’ intention. With a few welcome exceptions, no one seems willing to bring a critical lens to bear on these issues. As a fat person, I am tired of being engaged in a war that I didn’t start and that uses my body as cannon fodder. As a health educator, l deplore the damage done to people’s health and self-esteem by our cultural war on obesity and I deplore the misinformation about health that masquerades as “public health messaging.”
I know there are some great resources out there for coping with the media storm to come. Deb Burgard’s blog piece on Stereotype Management Skills for HBO Viewers provides a brilliant and most welcome “’viewers’ guide’ to conserving sanity points.” And I was part of creating ASDAH’s “Debate The Weight” response to the documentary (debatetheweight.com), so I know there’s some useful tools there. Still and all, these are tough times, right?
A colleague who works in PR recently reminded me that controversy is almost always good publicity for everyone involved. I’m not so sure about that right now. What I am sure of is how grateful I am for the HAESSM community, and for the sense that we are in this “peace movement” together for the long haul.
What are your reasons for being concerned about WOTN?