The bias harming two-thirds of Australians

More than two-thirds (67 per cent) of Australians are classified as ‘overweight’, a mostly meaningless term based on the thoroughly debunked Body Mass Index, which is known to be arbitrary and inappropriate for determining individual health status.

Yet this statistic highlights that most ‘real’ people do not look like those we see in mainstream media, which are almost always thin, white people without disabilities. It seems obvious, but it directly contradicts the idea that thinness is not only desirable but also ‘normal’, and anyone with a larger body is somehow diverging from the laws of nature and health.

These ideas form the basis of body shaming those who don’t fit into our extremely narrow beauty ideals and harm the social, emotional, physical, and professional wellbeing of people who deserve more respect and dignity.

People of higher body weight face rampant discrimination in social, professional, and medical settings and are denied potentially lifesaving treatment for eating disorders due to the false belief that they must be underweight to be in serious danger.

The serious, legitimate health concerns of larger individuals are dismissed, and they are sometimes flat-out refused medical treatment until they lose weight. This discrimination reflects the dark side of the ‘personal responsibility’ philosophy of health and directly contributes to healthism, a bias that destroys lives but remains more socially accepted than other types of prejudice.

People who make ignorant and hurtful comments to or about someone’s weight or eating habits often insist it is simply an act of compassion and concern for their health. This excuse is embarrassingly flimsy, considering that it is seldom directed at thin people.

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Our obsession with health as a proxy for attractiveness is nothing new. The term healthism was coined by Robert Crawford in 1980 in a paper published in the International Journal of Health Services.

He described it as “the preoccupation with personal health as a primary focus for the definition and achievement of wellbeing; a goal which is to be attained primarily through the modification of lifestyles”.

It may seem innocuous, but pinning all responsibility for one’s health on individual behaviours while ignoring the glaring systemic, socio-political, racial, and classist inequities that directly influence our health status is more sinister and dangerous than it seems.

What’s so bad about wanting people to be healthy?

Healthism is tricky and divisive because it is often well-intentioned but rooted in privilege, access, and moral judgement. We don’t all have the same ability (or desire) to access the time, resources, motivation, or support it takes to achieve optimal wellbeing.

Furthermore, reducing a human’s worth to their health status erases the experiences of people with disabilities and chronic illnesses and has concerning links to eugenics.

If the only lives worth living are healthy ones, what message are we sending those who live with chronic illnesses they have little control over? It’s perfectly fine to value and prioritise your own health, but we need to respect that others may value or interpret it differently and stop using it as a thin veil for our unconscious biases towards people who look or live differently than us.

We’ve seen this highlighted during the pandemic. When deaths were announced as a result of COVID-19, some breathed a sigh of relief upon hearing it was someone with ‘pre-existing conditions’. I understand that in scary times, it’s natural to seek any information as reassurance that you aren’t next. However, this mentality is inherently ableist and implies that it is somehow less devastating when fat people, sick people, or people with disabilities lose their lives.

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Fat-shaming and perpetuating weight bias is unkind and ignorant, but it’s not actually dangerous, right? Wrong. Research presented at the Canadian Obesity Summit in 2019 found that body shaming is directly related to worse health outcomes and an increased likelihood of further weight gain.

Contrary to the problematic but widespread belief among diet culture enthusiasts and some medical professionals, telling fat people to eat better or exercise often has the opposite effect.

“The more people are exposed to weight bias and discrimination, the more likely they are to gain weight and become obese, even if they were thin to begin with,” the study found.

“They’re also more likely to die from any cause, regardless of their body mass index.”

If you think you’re doing a good deed by trying to instil ‘healthier’ habits into a loved one or acquaintance you think is heading down a dangerous path, think again and practice caution. You will probably hurt their feelings at best and severely damage their physical and socioemotional health at worst. There are a million things to talk to someone about or compliment them on, but their body should rarely be one of them.