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Reading the Signs

by Fall Ferguson, JD, MA

Sometimes I feel that I am witnessing the beginnings of a paradigm shift away from the war on obesity and toward a more diverse and nuanced conception of health, one in which we are at peace with and in our bodies. At other times, I get discouraged because it seems that our cultural obsession with thinness and professional obsession with “obesity” and weight loss are more entrenched than ever.

Signs of a Shift?

If you have read our blog post about being at the American Public Health Association’s meeting a few weeks ago, you know that we were thrilled with the reactions of the health professionals we encountered at the ASDAH booth. Dissatisfied with the weight-based messaging and with the use of the BMI as a proxy for health, they experienced our HAES® message as a welcome alternative to a tarnished approach that they had already begun to realize is ineffective and even harmful.

In the media, at least before we moved into the month of January, the incessant yammering about the perils of obesity seemed to be gradually giving way to a more balanced and thoughtful approach. There have been a host of media stories emphasizing the importance of fitness rather than body weight or size, questioning the framing of the so-called “obesity paradox,” and other welcome reframes. For example, this lovely article on body image, written by ASDAH member Dr. Katja Rowell and featuring ASDAH member Ragan Chastain, appeared recently in New Moon, a publication for girls ages 8 and up that features no advertising and “no diet advice.”

And Disney’s “Fairy Mary” recently rocked her ice skates with no reference at all to the fact she is a fatter-than-average fairy…

Fairy Mary 1

These are just a few examples—I’d love it if every reader of this post provided an example of the shifting paradigm below in the comments. We could perhaps accumulate a nice collection of evidence that we are making a difference.


Unfortunately, my optimism is frequently challenged when I turn on the TV or go to the Internet. What are we to make of the extremes that the thin-obsessed among us seem to be going to? Even as some celebrities defend their right to inhabit their “real bodies” (see Ashley Judd’s essay in the Daily Beast, for example), others seem to grow thinner than ever. And it was pretty horrifying when Barney’s New York and Disney joined forces recently to slim down Minnie Mouse so she would “fit” into the designer clothing they were hawking (See Ragen Chastain’s petition here). (“Fit” in quotation marks here, because she is, after all, a cartoon, as are the clothes she needs to fit into…)

One of the more recent obesitrocities comes from the world of academic research. The decades-old Nutrition Research Center, a joint research project funded by the NIH and jointly implemented by the Boston Medical College, the Harvard School of Public Health, Tufts Medical Center, the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, and three Harvard hospitals, has renamed itself the “Nutrition Obesity Research Center.”

This organization is apparently the pet institution of renowned obesity warmonger Dr. Walter Willett, so on the one hand this change shouldn’t surprise me. But, on the other hand, why now? Dr. Willet has been waging war on obesity for decades. Why is this change coming now instead of 15 years ago? I don’t know the answer, but I can speculate. Perhaps, after decades of earmarking ridiculous amounts of funding for research into “obesity,” Dr. Willett and his cronies seem to have belatedly realized that they could feed even more readily at the trough they built by throwing the word “obesity” in their title.

Fun with Acronyms (‘Scuse me while I snark for a moment…)

Or maybe it’s all about the acronym. After all, “NRC” just doesn’t have the same ring that “NORC” does.  The new acronym is also delightfully reminiscent of the word “narc,” bringing to mind a cadre of undercover obesity police infiltrating our high schools to monitor the caloric intake of our youth.

It can’t be just me—the word “obesity” seems just kinda thrown in there, right? Maybe the lesson is that when it comes to getting that precious obesity funding, the title doesn’t need to make sense!? Well, if the title doesn’t need to make sense, why, just think of all the different organizations that could get more media attention, obtain NIH research funding, and simultaneously transform boring acronyms into cool-sounding words by cynically adding the word “obesity” to their names!

  • Registered Orthopedic Technologists could raise their profile and rid themselves of what must be an annoying acronym by becoming Registered Orthopedic Obesity Technologists (remember—it doesn’t have to make sense!). A ROOT, after all, sounds so much more friendly— and hygienic— than a ROT.
  • Organizations with unfortunate acronyms could transform their identities overnight. For example, the Canadian Opera Company, a group that must surely shy away from acronym usage altogether, could embrace a warmer, cozier identity reminiscent of chocolaty drinks consumed by the fire on snowy days by becoming the Canadian Obesity Company of Opera, or “COCO.”
  • Lloyd’s List, a UK shipping trade publication, could both lighten up their image and invoke popular texting lingo by becoming Lloyd’s Obesity List, abbreviated as the jocular and fun-loving LOL.
  • And if the word “obesity” is so serviceable when added to one’s organizational title once, why stop there? Why not use it twice? The Department of Motor Vehicles seems to be missing out on a fantastic opportunity to get additional funding and at the same time acquire a truly apt acronym by becoming the Department of Motor Obesity Obesity Vehicles, or DMOOV.

Death Grip of a Dying Paradigm?

All kidding aside, it seems telling that the same company that gave us a subtly size-positive message in a fairy video thought nothing of slimming down a classic icon when given an opportunity to make a buck in another venue. There is a certain cognitive dissonance around weight and health in our culture: at the same time that we are beginning to come to our collective senses about the so-called “obesity epidemic,” certain voices seem to be becoming even more strident and more rigid about the code of thinness.

I choose to regard these extremes as a good sign; we’ve got their attention. I think we are changing the culture for the better, and the more extreme things that are being done in the name of thinness and weight control may just represent the death grip of the warmongers on their tired old way of doing things. Although these obsessed warriors perhaps aren’t ready to admit it yet, the HAES peace movement is gaining ground.

This blog post was inspired by an enjoyable and useful discussion with my colleagues on ASDAH’s Public Policy Committee. Thank you, PPC.


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