Is Staying Slim a Moral Responsibility? February 2, 2010Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
Tags: bad faith, obesity, resentment, Responsibility
The Los Angeles Times Health section reports that Americans (who are fit) are getting increasingly impatient with fellow Americans who are obese. And it may not just be a concern over societal costs:
“In our society, being heavy has become more of a stigma lately because we’re struggling with other issues of consumption,” says Abigail Saguy, associate professor of sociology at UCLA.
The economic climate, a recent history of people buying more than they can afford as well as environmental issues, including the depletion of our planet’s resources, are making people feel more angry about society’s overconsumption, she says. Obviously overweight people are an easy target.
“They’re almost a caricature of greed, overconsumption, overspending, over-leveraging and overusing resources,” says Saguy. “Though it’s not entirely rational, it’s an understandable reaction, especially in a country founded on the Puritan ethics of self-reliance, sacrifice and individual responsibility. If people feel they’re sacrificing, then see someone spilling over an airplane seat, they feel angry that that person is not making the same sacrifices they are.”
That perspective is interesting in itself: according to the analysis, those among us who are not obese or even overweight—because of hard work, or luck (youth and/or good genes)—consider their fitness a personal achievement reached through deprivation and hardship, and resent those who appear as if they don’t want to do their share in the department of suffering. “If I’m going to suffer and go without, the least you can do is not flaunt your unwillingness to suffer with me!” The article takes for granted that resentment toward people who are heavier than oneself boils down to the assumption that we all can, and should, take personal responsibility for ourselves, and those who don’t are viewed as the losers in an Ayn Rand-style universe of self-reliant people.
There may indeed be a streak of resentment based on a philosophy of personal responsibility in this growing attitude, but since I just got back from a trip to Denmark where the debate has taken another direction I can’t help but compare the tendencies. The Danish newsmedia reported a few weeks ago that, according to a new poll, a majority of employees polled were in favor of their workplace taking responsibility for their fitness and weight. In other words, overweight workers would be put on weight loss and fitness programs through their workplace (with sanctions if they didn’t stick with the program), but the ultimate results of the program would be the responsibility of the workplace, not just the individual worker. The resentment toward heavy people is on the rise in Denmark, just as it is here, and it is assisted by an attitude of publicly accepted ridicule to the point where “fat jokes” are becoming commonplace and acceptable (among fit people, that is), at a level of cruelty that we are simply not used to (yet) on this side of the Pond, because we have a higher level of sensitivity toward issues of discrimination, and legislation to match that level. But instead of insisting on personal moral responsibility, the majority of the polled Danes placed all responsibility for their weight and fitness on the workplace. So essentially, if they remain heavy, it’s management’s fault, not theirs. So, while the “personal responsibility” ideology may be insensitive to genetics and health issues that may make it hard for a heavy person to slim down, the “workplace responsibility” attitude seems like nothing short of a Sartrean “Bad Faith,” a complete abandonment of the idea of taking charge of one’s own life. Interesting contrast, huh?