Ethics and anti-obesity campaigns

I got to present the first seminar in the SHAPE series this past Wednesday (edited slides below). SHAPE, Society, Health and Political Economy, is a research cluster at UCC operating under the aegis of ISS21, the Institute for Social Science in the 21st Century.

In my talk, I argued that public health campaigns advocating individual weight loss are unjust. My claim is that it is not possible for most people to achieve or (especially) to maintain clinically significant weight loss. By sending the message that it is possible, public bodies contribute to fat stigma and weight bias, while also obscuring the crucial role of social and environmental factors in obesity and in health more generally.

Photo by Eluska Fernandez

I really enjoyed giving this talk, and I got some great feedback. It’s given me a lot to think about. My reading of Venkatapuram and the capabilities approach more generally still needs to be refined. Among a lot of great questions and comments, I was especially grateful to hear from Prof. Ivan Perry, who argued that the problem I identify is not coming from public health (the discipline) but government/state bodies who want quick, low-cost fixes to complex issues. This makes a lot of sense to me, as I don’t think any reputable public health expert seriously thinks obesity is going to be solved by everyone going on diets, yet that is the message the keeps getting reinforced to the public. So it seems I need to target my accusations of injustice more carefully! Overall, I am really happy with how this talk went, and I am excited to get back to work on this project.

That said, one thing I’m uncomfortable with on reflection is that, throughout the discussion, both I and other contributors spoke as though it is obviously bad for people to be fat. But actually I am not convinced of that. I still think we need to consider the possiblity that this is just how the population looks when everyone has enough to eat. The problem with our eating habits may be quality, not quantity, and it seems likely to me that, in a perfect society where everyone had the capability to be healthy, there would still be fat people. Possibly there would be fewer of them, and they would certainly be healthier — in this imaginary ideal society, everyone would be — but they’d still be fat, and that’s ok.