Obesity and disgust revisited

You may remember that in May of this year, I blogged about a study conducted by Dr Lenny Varatanian that found that negative attitudes towards ‘obese’ people are based on an emotional response of disgust. The study was fascinating as it confirmed what fat people had long been aware of: that fatness, due to the notion that body size is infinitely malleable, was seen as disgusting as it transgressed people’s morals.

Dr Vartanian followed this research with a study, published in the journal Eating and Weight Disorders, into whether the use of the terms ‘fat’ or ‘obese’ impact societal attitudes. In the study, a target group of 425 undergraduate students (side note: I do wish that Dr Vartanian would test a more diverse group than undergraduates, but that’s a rant for another day) were asked to answer questions about a range of social groups, including overweight individuals. Compared to ‘fat’ people, ‘obese’ people were rated as less favourable and more disgusting. In addition to this, participants saw themselves as being less similar to obese people and less likely to become an obese person than a fat person. Dr Vartanian posits that this is due to ‘obesity’ being a medical term, whereas ‘fat’ is more familiar.

I would add that media reporting of obesity is also a strong factor in these attitudes, given that the vast majority of obesity-related articles and stories are accompanied by grossly objectified ‘headless fatties’. After all, it’s difficult to identify with something portrayed as less than human.

So far, so interesting. Unfortunately, the coverage of the story descended into the medicalisation of fatness. A Sydney Morning Herald article about the study stated that Dr Vartanian believed that ‘obese’ should continue to be used medically to refer to those who have a body mass index of 30 and above and those people “are at increased risk of type two diabetes and heart disease … [Fat] doesn’t have a place in (public health) forums, and while obese might be seen more negatively and as less desirable to obese individuals themselves, at least it has an official definition.”

It pains me that, despite his research into societal attitudes towards fatness, Dr Vartanian still does not/will not/cannot question the usefulness of the BMI. The BMI is a deeply flawed concept and not at all reliable indicator for determining the health of a population, let alone an individual. The medical profession and health policies should be moving away from its reliance on the BMI, not continuing its use – and further stigmatising fat bodies – because it provides a convenient definition. My body is not a medical condition.

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8 Responses to “Obesity and disgust revisited”


  1. 1 Living 400lbs 16 December, 2010 at 7:12 am

    I would add that media reporting of obesity is also a strong factor in these attitudes, given that the vast majority of obesity-related articles and stories are accompanied by grossly objectified ‘headless fatties’. After all, it’s difficult to identify with something portrayed as less than human.

    Not to mention that most “headless fatties” show very fat people like myself and not the run-of-the-mill 30-to-35 BMI fatties who are actually MUCH MORE TYPICAL. Because someone who’s officially “obese” (but not very fat) isn’t scary enough. Result? People assume that only people my size are actually “obese”.

    • 2 Frances 16 December, 2010 at 9:25 am

      Yep, I agree completely. The SMH article about the study also argued that obesity is being normalised. Dr Vartanian said, “As the population gets heavier it would certainly skew people’s perceptions … There are many people who we see walking down the street with a BMI over 30 and we might not necessarily recognise them as obese.” I think it has a lot less to do with the population getting heavier than using 5% of the population to illustrate close to 100% of obesity related articles.

  2. 3 heavyaura 16 December, 2010 at 11:13 am

    this is so relevant to the work i’m doing right now (on identity and fatness) — and so interesting. i didn’t get to talk about the “headless fatty” phenomenon in my project, but i should have thought to include it while i was planning the outline.

  3. 4 Mich 4 January, 2011 at 6:05 am

    The ironic thing is that some people who are obese (over 30 BMI) are not even, in the average person’s eyes, fat. Check out the 30-35 BMI folks on the BMI project, illustrated height-weight chart, or mybodygallery for evidence.

  4. 6 Erin 12 February, 2011 at 12:16 pm

    Hey. I heard your interview for the Drum and it was great, you seem really apt at the radio interview-thing.

    I think this question of morality as related to health is a really interesting one. I’m starting my honours thesis this year on how people manage type two diabetes, which I think is similar to obesity in that people often see it as a moral failure caused by a lack of will.

    Anyway, I just wanted to pay you kudos for your work and blog :)

  5. 7 James 16 February, 2011 at 2:53 am

    So the BMI is flawed. Its an old old formula designed to create a correlate for body fat in a person of sedentry lifestyle. This accounts for the vast majority of the population in your field of interest. Flawed or not it is still a practical indicator.
    As published author of an academic paper you can clearly understand the practical difference between using a formula a high school student can work out in under 10 seconds compared to the time and money spent on a highly trained individual performing time consuming anthropometric measurements or another expensive surrogate. The bottom line is there is a well defined correlation between BMI and health concerns and it appears, social attitudes too.

    The logic of BMI bashing in this context, taken to the extreme, is like claiming the recent flooding in QLD did not occur because the equipment used to measure the flooding had not recently been calibrated against a 1 meter rod of platinum held in France somewhere.

    If Dr Varatanian is not addressing the issue, it may be because its a non issue in this context. Would the overall result have been any different if another surrogate other than BMI had been used?

    While the limits of where normal, overweight and obese lie on the BMI scale may be an issue, its part of a linear progression. The further you are from a BMI in which there are the fewest health concerns, the higher the health risks you run with respect to your body composition. That is fairly well documented, researched and understood. (We are clearly not talking about a group of very fit athletes , in whom the BMI is usually unhelpful)

    Your comment comes across as an excuse to to cast doubt on a study which is valid in its context.
    I applaud your personal approach toward body image and the multitude of associated issues, good and bad. Are you turning a blind eye to the health issues related to a raised BMI (or however you want to define it) and allowing your blog readers to feel that it is fine to ignore these by arguing a definition? One would hope your positive outlook and effort could have minimising these associated health threats as a positive side effect.

    • 8 Frances 16 February, 2011 at 9:37 am

      So the BMI is flawed. Its an old old formula designed to create a correlate for body fat in a person of sedentry lifestyle.
      No. The BMI was developed a quick and dirty way to allocate health resources and, whaddayaknow, it still is. It doesn’t calculate body fat at all, it just calculates weight in relation to height and ignores that things like bone density and muscle mass outweigh fat. This is why footballers are technically obese.

      Flawed or not it is still a practical indicator.
      As an extremely broad indicator before other more refined health indicators are applied, perhaps. But it is not being used in this way. The reliance on the BMI had led to it being used increasingly as a diagnostic tool ie. obesity is an illness in and of itself.

      The logic of BMI bashing in this context, taken to the extreme, is like claiming the recent flooding in QLD did not occur because the equipment used to measure the flooding had not recently been calibrated against a 1 meter rod of platinum held in France somewhere.
      That’s the worst simile I’ve ever read.

      Your comment comes across as an excuse to to cast doubt on a study which is valid in its context.
      It shouldn’t. That’s why I said “Unfortunately, the coverage of the story descended into the medicalisation of fatness.” Because that’s what I have the problem with. Study good, coverage bad.

      Are you turning a blind eye to the health issues related to a raised BMI (or however you want to define it) and allowing your blog readers to feel that it is fine to ignore these by arguing a definition?
      I like that unless I’m ranting about the health issues associated with obesity, I’m obviously condoning bad health (hint, since you seem to be a bit obtuse: that was sarcasm and I don’t like it at all). Health outcomes can be improved through good nutrition and physical exertion for people of all sizes.

      I’m allowing my blog readers to feel like adults in charge of their own bodies and health.


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