Are smokers the same as fat people? According to Daniel Callahan, prominent bioethicist and co-founder of the Hastings Center, smokers and fat people are enough alike that they should both be stigmatized. Citing the success of public campaigns to stigmatize smokers, Callahan argues that what he calls “stigmatization lite” could also work to curb overweight and obesity and make people healthier. I disagree.

Since it seems like the obvious must be pointed out, let me start there. Smoking is a behavior. Being fat is, well, being fat. Some people will be fat for their entire lives—no matter what kinds of behaviors they engage in. For a very long time now, the medical community has acknowledged that some people will eat well, exercise, and still be large people and that some inactive people with poor diets will remain thin. Callahan is asking that fat people be stigmatized, apparently because he’s assuming that everyone who is overweight or obese is that way because they’re eating too much and being sedentary.

But let me be clear here and differentiate myself from Callahan a bit more. Even if a person is fat because he or she eats McDonald’s three times a day and hasn’t exercised since Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go was number one, he or she still shouldn’t be stigmatized. I don’t want to engage in a separating of the wheat from the chaff and suggest that it’s okay to stigmatize fat people who aren’t trying but not those who are.

From my perspective, there’s no justification for stigmatizing a whole group of people, especially a group of people who already suffer under multiple forms of discrimination. Given that it’s well documented that fat people already suffer discrimination in the workplace, healthcare settings, and just in their everyday lives, I wonder what else Callahan imagines should be heaped on their plates.

That stigma hasn’t helped people suddenly lose weight and keep it off. Callahan himself acknowledges that only about ten percent of people are capable of losing weight and keeping it off—even though fatphobia is rampant in our society.

And all the discrimination fat people already face proves there is no such thing as “stigmatization lite.” It’s like saying something is just a little racist or a tad homophobic. Or that someone is a little bit pregnant. There’s no way to make discrimination low calorie but still palatable. No one who is stigmatized ever feels like it was done lightly.

If the investment is really in making everyone in our society more healthy, there’s just no way that stigmatizing fat people gets us there.

About the Author

April Herndon, Ph.D.

Dr. April M. Herndon has a Ph.D. in American Studies and is an Associate Professor of English at Winona State University.

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