The perceived criminality of obesity

July 03, 2012


-Photo by Eefa Khalid/

With jokes based on one’s race, gender, ethnicity and religion becoming increasingly distasteful, obesity is among the very few traits left marooned on the island of politically-correct satire. It’s important to acknowledge that in Pakistan, obesity and ‘fat acceptance’ rightfully take the backseat in the presence of more dire matters. Poverty, hunger, misogyny and sectarian violence easily trump all other social woes in a bigger picture. However, for those afflicted with problems like obesity, these seem anything but trivial.

The entertainment industry is known to go out of its way to avoid anthropomorphizing large individuals. In most television shows, they’re usually portrayed as villains, delinquents and failures. In many cases, they are employed merely to provide comic relief. It is highly unlikely to find an obese character depicted as a normal, functional human. Never as a protagonist, and almost always as the protagonist’s goofy or incompetent buddy.

Consequentially, it’s becoming progressively more taxing to ward off hurtful stereotypes. Fat people are widely perceived as lazy and clumsy, with little or no self-control. It came as no surprise when a study published in the International Journal of Obesity earlier this year, claimed widespread discrimination against plus-sized people in the workplace. While a study of this nature has not been conducted specifically for the Pakistani society, it’s axiomatic that if such discrimination exists in more socially-secure and educated nations, it exists here too.

Having a weight problem of my own, I’m very particular about the kind of foods I eat in public venues and large social gatherings. I’m acutely aware of several pairs of eyes keenly observing the amount of food on my plate, as their minds attempt to psychoanalyze me. Most overweight people I know are quite shy, often enduring great pains to avoid causing any discomfort to people around them because of their larger sizes.

The generally accepted view is that fat people deserve such humiliation because unlike many other factors, motapa is what a person brings upon himself or herself. That’s a grossly reductionist and mean-spirited approach. While a picture of a fat policeman is likely to outrage us and make us question the competency of the force, an image of a smoking policeman isn’t. This is because the sickly black lungs of the smoking officer are invisible to us, while the obese man’s vice is a lot more visual. Therefore, the obese person will elicit a far more negative reaction from the public.

Science had once almost closed the file at the finding that eating excessively results in obesity, scientists are now asking why people eat excessively. Beneath the veneer of free will, a man is a prisoner of his internal biochemistry.

It’s not about genetics alone. There are many acquired factors involved that may be beyond an individual’s control. For instance, studies show that H Pylori, bacteria normally found in our stomachs (the inordinate growth of which is infamous for causing ulcers), is associated with an increased production of the hormone ghrelin, which suppresses one’s appetite. People lacking sufficient populations of H pylori in their stomachs, are always hungrier than others and gain more weight. This is, of course, just one example. There are many genetic, epigenetic, hormonal and irrepressible environmental factors that may result in weight gain. The idea that just because you are thin, means that it should be an equally simple task for everybody else is an unreasonable one.

Nevertheless, the role of will power and self-determination cannot be downplayed. While obese people should admit at least some responsibility for their condition and must be motivated to lose weight for the sake of their own health, this motivation must not come through social admonishment. It is a known fact that you cannot shame or harass an individual into changing his lifestyle. You may only reason with him, without being condescending and overstepping your boundaries.

Fat acceptance is not about denying the health problems associated with obesity. It is the acknowledgement of a person’s autonomy over his own physical self. It is a rejection of stereotypes that dehumanize large individuals, and unjustly reduce them all to lazy simpletons. It’s about comprehending the scientifically established fact that losing weight is harder for some than it is for others, and most importantly, about civil coexistence with those who look different.

The author is a doctor from Rawalpindi who writes mostly about science and prevalent social issues. He tweets @FarazTalat.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.