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.