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CW: This article will use obesity and versions of that word in this discussion. We do not use nor apply this word in our daily work, however it makes sense to use this term in our exploration of its categorization. Let’s Talk About Debunking the Obesity-as-a-Disease Myth!

Today, we delve into a topic that has sparked intense debate and controversy in recent years – the classification of obesity as a disease. While some argue that it’s a clear-cut case, I invite you to join me in exploring the nuances and questioning the accuracy of labeling obesity as a disease.

Before we embark on our exploration, let’s establish a common understanding of obesity. Obesity is generally defined as a condition characterized by excessive body fat, often measured by the body mass index (BMI). It’s crucial to acknowledge that BMI, while widely used, has limitations and may not be a precise indicator of an individual’s health. Please read our blog on the BMI model.

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The Obesity-as-a-Disease Model

Proponents of labeling obesity as a disease often argue that it helps destigmatize the condition and encourages individuals to seek medical attention by framing it within a medical framework (something is wrong with the body and how it functions) rather than a moral or personal failing.

By acknowledging obesity as a disease, they contend that it validates the experiences of those affected and legitimizes their struggles, fostering empathy and understanding.

Furthermore, they believe that this classification facilitates access to treatment and support, as it prompts healthcare providers to prioritize interventions and resources for obesity management.

Ultimately, by recognizing obesity as a disease, proponents claim they can support dismantling societal biases and promote a more inclusive and compassionate approach to healthcare, thus contributing to the creation of a healthier society overall.

However, let’s pause for a moment and critically examine this viewpoint. Does categorizing obesity as a disease truly lead to better outcomes, or does it oversimplify a complex issue?

The Oversimplification Trap:

One of the primary arguments against classifying obesity as a disease lies in the oversimplification of a multifaceted problem.

Obesity is not a monolithic entity; it’s influenced by a myriad of factors, including genetics, environment, socio-economic status, mental health, and many factors outside of individual control.

Reducing it to a mere disease sidelines these crucial aspects, ones that often are rooted in systemic oppression, and minimize our understanding of the root causes and various systems responsibility in working towards health.

Individual Responsibility vs. Systemic Factors:

The debate around obesity often circles back to the question of individual responsibility. Critics argue that labeling it as a disease may absolve individuals of accountability for being fat, which again they reduce to a byproduct of a person’s “lifestyle choices.” However, it’s essential to acknowledge the role of systemic factors in shaping behavior.

Racism, societal norms, access to nourishing food options, advertising, capitalistic systems, access to education, the built environment, etc. are just some examples of outside or systemic influences that affect body size. Viewing fatness as a bad thing, something that individuals should run as far away from as possible is an even deeper root belief that pins this argument. 

When we do that we see that as a society, we believe being fat is unhealthy, unhealthy is bad, and therefore obesity and the folks it impacts need help to change. They can’t possibly have a good life if they are fat! They can’t possibly be healthy and fat? They can’t possibly stay “unhealthy” and be okay!

Many public health programs, campaigns, doctors, pharmaceutical companies, and even other individuals have realized that blaming individuals isn’t the way to go. We’re not getting enough fat people to adhere to diets to shrink themselves.

Therefore the argument is that labeling obesity as a disease removes the “blame and shame” from being bat  and instead goes the route that “it’s not your fault, so let us help you with drugs and other unsuccessful diet attempts.” This encourages false solutions, a band aid if you will, for a problem that straight size people created instead of addressing the  larger systemic issues that would actually impact people’s ability to move towards their own version of health with support, access, and respect.

Blaming individuals isn’t the way to go! Doctors, pharmaceutical companies and public health programs finally realize…

Medicalization of Normal Variations and The Psychosocial Impact:

By classifying obesity as a disease, we medicalize what is a normal variation in body size and shape. Human bodies naturally come in diverse forms. They do not need to be fixed.

Placing a medical label on body variation leads to stigma, under and overtreatment, limited or no access to affirming medical and mental health care, and more.

Moreover, framing obesity as a disease may have unintended psychosocial consequences. Individuals labeled as having a disease may internalize a sense of pathology, potentially leading to negative self-perception and mental health issues.

This medicalization can create a vicious cycle where stigma and discrimination exacerbate the very condition they aim to address.

A Holistic Approach:

So, what’s the alternative? Many folks will start with weight inclusive care or a health at every size model, and yes, these are amazing frameworks to implement, especially in healthcare.

And these still don’t solve many of the issues and places fat folks experience discrimination and stigma.

Taking a truly holistic approach involves a much deeper cultural shift towards embracing the complexity and variety of bodies, understanding that individuals have varying definitions, desires, and outcomes for health.

There is no one way to look or be. And health is not the end all be all. All bodies deserve access to the services and healthcare that allow them to achieve whatever vision they’ve decided works for them.

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Do we need to reframe how we think about fat bodies?


Is labeling fatness a disease the answer?

Absolutely not.

Obesity is not a disease and we definitely don’t need to treat or cure it. We don’t need to rid the world of fat people. This issue is more complex than the simple labels and solutions folks want to slap on it.  What we need to do is remove the ridiculous significance we place on “health” and the size of one’s body and accept like everything else in this world, there is value and beauty in difference.

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