Friday 13 December 2019

Fat lot of good: Why do we show obese people so little sympathy?

A zero-compassion approach is favoured by many when it comes to dealing with our obesity epidemic. Why?

Obese women
Obese women
Barry Murphy of BodyWhys
Nicole Arbour
Gerry Cooney

The Dear Fat People video probably needs no introduction. For those who have yet to be acquainted, however, it's a YouTube diatribe in which comedienne Nicole Arbour suggests that society should shame fat people into losing weight.

Fat people smell like sausages, sweat and Crisco oil and should be socially penalised for carrying extra weight, she says in the video that has been viewed over 20 million times.

For the uninitiated, Nicole has a reputation for taking the zero-empathy approach, and this video is no different. It is six minutes of bile-flecked intolerance masquerading as comedy.

Needless to say, the comedienne came in for heavy criticism, even if her video highlights the body fascism that lurks in all of us.

The truth is that we've all had similar thoughts. We've all looked at an obese person and thought, 'How?'. How can someone gain so much weight? How can they shower, get dressed, make love...?

If we're honest, we've all entertained the 'hows', but unlike Nicole, most of us don't presume to know the 'whys'.

Nicole says people become obese because they eat too much and exercise too little. Ostensibly, she's correct; ultimately, she hasn't got a clue.

Obesity in adults is rarely a simple case of cause and effect. It's a mind-body disorder, thus, we can't condemn the amount of food a person puts into their body without at least contemplating what is going on in their head.

It should be noted that recent studies have connected nutritionally dense diets with a lower risk of depression, anxiety and suicide in adults, while other studies have explored the possibility of obesity being a symptom of addiction.

Dublin-based addiction counsellor, Gerry Cooney (pictured right), isn't so sure, though. "I would suggest yes and no," he says. "Compulsion and impulsiveness are important elements of addictive behaviours.

"Both, arguably, suggest an absence of choice. Over-eating, which essentially contributes to obesity, I believe is a choice made by individuals for a number of reasons. Hence my suggestion that obesity may be described as both an addiction and an eating disorder."


Barry Murphy of Bodywhys (pictured opposite page), the Eating Disorders Association of Ireland, adds that "some individuals affected by obesity may also experience eating disorder behaviours, or an eating disorder, such as binge eating disorder (BED)".

Barry Murphy of BodyWhys

Barry Murphy of BodyWhys

"Research indicates that individuals affected by BED and obesity may experience more distress, an impaired quality of life and psychiatric co-morbidity compared to those who are affected by obesity but not BED," he explains.

"BED is characterised by periods of binge eating or overeating. The person affected by BED may diet frequently, however, they will not engage in purging behaviour (getting rid of food) after a binge.

"Over time, this can, but may not always, result in significant weight gain. In BED, there is no purging. However, there may be sporadic fasts or repetitive diets, and often feelings of shame or self-hatred surface after a binge."

And still, we don't like to think of obesity as an eating disorder. We can sympathise with those that forensically control every morsel that passes their lips, but not those who have lost all control.

Gerry Cooney

Gerry Cooney

Gerry offers an interesting analogy: "Comfort eating is a term often used to describe a difficult relationship with food. However, you would never suggest that an individual who is drinking excessively or using substances problematically is comfort drinking or has a difficult relationship with drugs. Yet we use these descriptions frequently when describing individuals who are struggling with food."

Why is there often great resistance to the idea that obesity can be caused by something other than gluttony, sloth and greed?

Why don't we show it the same compassion that we show to other eating disorders and addictions? Why are we so repulsed by it?

Barry reckons it's simply due to a lack of empathy. "Often, unless someone is directly affected or has personal experience such as through a friend or family member, they are unaware of the day-to-day reality a person is living through. In some instances, they may see the condition overtly, but forget that there is a person involved too."

Or maybe it goes deeper. Perhaps obesity represents weakness in a survival-of-the-fittest society. Our shadow side - the dark part of our psyche that makes us want to tell depressed people to stop moping - doesn't like weakness.

Or maybe it's just too close to home. We have to exercise willpower when it comes to food so perhaps obesity is a corporeal reminder of the potential we have to lose all control.

Nicole Arbour

Nicole Arbour

Nicole suggests that fat people just skip the coke and fries, but deep down, she knows it is not that simple.

It's a surface solution to a deeply-rooted problem.

She's a woman - and all women are locked in a battle with food. We know we have a tendency to gain/lose weight when we feel unfulfilled. Under-eating and overeating - like all polarities - aren't too far apart. Likewise, we know our appetite for food and our appetite for life is linked. It's not as simple as skipping dessert.

Nicole later suggests that we as a society should shame obese people into dieting ... she seems to forget that they are already in an unending cycle of shame and self-reproach...

"I have a serious issue with the Dear Fat People video," adds Gerry. "Personally, I have never met somebody who was shamed into recovery. I believe people have to be helped and supported into accepting help and guidance if they are struggling because of their issues with food, alcohol, substances or any other addictive thoughts or behaviours.

"Shaming or blaming will not, in my opinion, help this process and may, in fact, contribute to resentments and lack of contentment, even if abstinence is achieved."

Barry agrees: "It is difficult to see how it might be an effective motivator...

"Fat-shaming takes little account of the complex causes of obesity and assumes that there is a simple solution. Often, individuals are quite aware of their physical body and shape. Blame-based responses are reductive and not likely to bring about change in a person's life.

"Stigma and shame is unhelpful, problematic and reinforces negative attitudes and perceptions."

Any educated person will tell you that tackling obesity takes more than a measuring tape. It's a process during which they have to explore their relationship with food and relearn how to trust, love and listen to their bodies.

"The process and patterns to be addressed when working with obesity are possibly the same for any self destructive behaviour," explains Gerry.

"Encouraging personal responsibility and accountability is essential. Acceptance is perhaps the most important aspect of recovery. Unfortunately, it suggests for some a white-flag surrender or a throwing in the towel of sorts. In fact, it can be the most freeing thing that an individual will ever do.

"Finally, I make a point of talking about choice with every person I ever meet in my role as a therapist.

"Some people prefer to think they may be lucky or unlucky to turn their life around. That should always be challenged, in my opinion, and a reminder given that self-destructive thoughts and behaviours, including obesity, can be reduced and often completely eliminated with the correct intervention and willingness."

Or you could just take Nicole's advice and "walk to the doors to burn some calories...".

Bodywhys helpline: 1890 200 444, bodywhys.ie; Gerry Cooney works for the Rutland Centre (all views his own), rutlandcentre.ie

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