Mental Health and Public Policy

*This blog is a part of the PH8001: Mental Health and Public Policy course at the University of Missouri.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Obesity in America: Being Sensitive, Not Stigmatizing

On Thursday, February 11th, I caught an intense conversation about childhood obesity on the Diane Rehm's radio show. I don't know the specific statistics regarding obesity, but I keep hearing that childhood obesity is on the rise and that more people will be diagnosed with Type II diabetes. The rise in obesity related diseases and conditions are also thought to require greater spending on health care.

In the past weeks, network media have also highlighted Michelle Obama's initiative to reduce childhood obesity.

Because I care about issues of public health, I naturally support any effort to improve health and prevent illness and disease. However,efforts and campaigns to reduce obesity are sometimes criticized for perpetuating the stigma against individuals who are obese. By focusing on "reducing obesity," our public health professionals and Michelle Obama worsening the stigmatization of individuals who are not "normal weight"?

According to some researchers, our concern with obesity has more to do with morality than science, and the danger of campaigns against obesity is greater hatred and disgust (much of which may be subtle, rather than blatant) of individuals who are not "normal weight." So, in the end, could this campaign adversely affect how obese individuals view themselves?

What is interesting to consider is the link between obesity and socioeconomic status. It costs more money to eat healthier. Also (to add another "mental health" spin to this post), marginalized groups are more likely to experience stress and stress-related health outcomes, such as unhealthy fat gain and clogged arteries. Clearly, there are many factors involved in weight gain.

The question remains: If we agree that obesity is a problem in America (not everyone agrees), how can public health professionals sensitively address this issue?


  1. Public health professionals need to emphasize that obesity is a complex issue that results from a variety of interrelated and overlapping factors. To boil the cause of obesity down to personal responsibility is incredibly naive and unjustly places blame on the individual. As PH professionals, we should aim to create policy changes and environmental infrastructure changes that make choosing healthier behaviors easier and more automatic for everyone. The focus should not be on pathologizing the obese individual but on recognizing the multitude of risk factors and seeking to address those for the sake of population health. While promoting healthy behaviors and behavioral change, I think it is also important for our approach to promote acceptance of where one is at and the joy that can be found in engaging in healthy behaviors with other people for a lifetime.

  2. Well said, Stephanie! I agree with you completely. I think that PH professionals should try their best to implement programs that are sensitive and try taking out drama and defensiveness out of this issue. I think it's hard, because PH has to work with cultural attitudes that are already judgmental and critical about obese individuals.