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Is Staying Slim a Moral Responsibility? February 2, 2010

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
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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?



1. melthompson - February 2, 2010

I work in a kitchen where staffing levels have been decimated over the last year by diabetes, stroke and heart disease issues. While I know it isn’t the fault of the organization, there is something to be said for employer responsibility. The employer happens to be a hospital, which makes the situation glaring. Management is moving toward a portion control and healthy eating mandate, while many employees are simply leaving the building for nearby quick-service outlets. In the end, we can try education, marketing, personally responsibility training…but it all comes down to the individual. Sorry, long comment, but I enjoyed your post. mel @ http://spatulainthewilderness.com

2. Bob Macdonald - February 2, 2010

I worked in a healthcare facility where the office was evenly split between obese managers and slim managers. And I am afraid the obese managers were just not that good at their jobs. Day-in, day-out, they would be struggling to handle the pace of work and the need to make fast and effective decisions. They also were emotional roller coasters and engaged in some unsavoury (and unprofessional habits), like passing wind in the office regularly, picking-and-flicking their noses, eating too much at the desk etc.

There was a correlation between poor physical condition and weak personal behaviour and performance. Not to mention their slovenly appearance was off-putting to many clients and patients.

I think if you work in healthcare then you should set a good example. Being a fat slob is not a good example.

steve - February 2, 2010

yeah just about half of healthcare’s management needs to get their fat/slim butts out of the desks and on to the floor where there is work to be done. god I hate paper-shufflers of all sizes. You are the high cost of healthcare.

3. DL Fields - February 2, 2010

A frightening trend. I wonder if these beliefs are held by hypocrites who live in McMansions and drive gas guzzling cars.
I’m all for good health, but sometimes there are other reasons that cause a person to be obese.
It really does come down to an individuals’ decision to eat healthy and exercise (said the woman who had four chocolate chip cookies before bed), but it shouldn’t be mandated.

4. slamdunk - February 2, 2010

Interesting post. I anticipate more pressure from employers on workers to stay slim–much like employers are pressuring employees to not smoke.

5. Bob Macdonald - February 2, 2010

The scientific and biological fact is this: the vast majority of people do not have to be obese. Yet currently, 60 percent of people are obese and these rates are increasing in countries like the UK. That has nothing to do with biological determination and everything to do with diet and lifestyle: in a word: choice. You choose to be fat.

Historically, the US used to be home to some of the most healthy people in the world: sporty and with good nutrition. This went down hill by the late 80s. Go visit countries where most people aren’t obese yet are healthy (and great to look at). Being obese is not normal; it is abnormal.

steve - February 2, 2010

nice invented number.

it is not anyone’s job to look good for you, nor conform to your idea of normal. People in the US have forgotten about personal responsibility; your attitude is a symptom of that problem, not the cure.

6. shoutabyss - February 2, 2010

LOL! You say 60 percent of people are “obese” and then you say being “obese” is not “normal.” Perhaps you should rethink your definition of the word “normal.”

7. Awareness Home Funding - February 2, 2010

I agree with Slamdunk’s comment and add that obesity is similar to smoking in that it increases the cost of health insurance and cost of doing business. What if everyone who wanted to qualify for health insurance had to have an acceptable “health score” (weight, BMI, cholesteral levels, etc) in the same way we have to have an acceptable credit score to borrow money ? Can personal responsiblity be mandated? Or just rewarded? Until recently, financial risk-taking has reaped many more rewards than financial responsibility. Perhaps the pendulum has to swing way to the other side for finances and health before the center is found.

8. Sandy - February 2, 2010

I think a lot of commenters here are forgetting that is is possible to be obese and healthy…just as it is possible to be thin and unhealthy. Don’t start in with the “but the majority” because unless you are a personal physician to these
unhealthy” people, you don’t know that for sure.

steve - February 2, 2010

No what they forget is that: obese, unhealthy, uber-sickly; none of it is any of their business unless it is them, or someone that is interested in their input, being discussed.

9. kathy - February 2, 2010

great comment, sandy. i was going to say the same thing. and i would like to add that portion control and counting calories is not the only thing to loosing weight. it is what we eat that’s the problem. we have way too much “convience” food, whether it’s at the drive-thru or a box of something in the grocery. there are many books and websites that promote healthy living. yes, it is a sacrifice to live a healthy life, but just like anything, people need to be educated to be successful at it.

10. 1dental - February 2, 2010

Really interesting post. Personal responsibility is a value that really could use more emphasis. As an independent dental plan provider, one of the major selling points of our plan is that it allows people to “take control of their dental bill.” It may sound like another selling pitch, but actually, it’s an opportunity to become more independent and take responsibility for one’s own needs. Although I would not advocate any sort of discrimination against those who do not take responsibility for their weight, somehow re-instilling the value of personal responsibility within our culture is much needed!

11. dressingmyself - February 2, 2010

Sometimes I do feel angry with people who are overweight. I have noticed on some long haul flights they get upgraded to Business Class because they don’t fit into Economy seats. This seems all wrong to me.
However, the economic reality is that if one is poor in the Western World one is more likely to be overweight.

12. Bob Macdonald - February 2, 2010

There is this great concept called ‘nudge’, where people are given the incentives and rewards to change their behaviour. I think this could do the trick with obesity. People could get an extra $10,000 year if they are fit in their job, or lower rates on everything for the fit. Plus-size clothes should be more expensive. Also, food portions need to come down in size: no more monster plates of beef and greasy fries.

There should also be a visual element: people should be bombarded with images from the past when people were thinner, or from other countries where people are normal size (like Scandinavia). Combat this normalising of fatness.

wanderinggrizzly - February 2, 2010

Bombarded with images from the past when people were thinner?

I dare you to find any female in the US media who is more than a size 6. We’re bombarded with overly thin images in the media, images of eating disorders as well as images that have been airbrushed beyond anything attainable or natural.

It’s not an issue of fat vs thin. I don’t think we’re accepting ‘fat’ as ok (take this from a fat kid) it’s that we have lost all concept of what is a healthy weight. Culturally with struggling with our relationships with food and exercise. No one seems to know what ‘healthy’ is anymore. The images we see in the media are unattainable and we have ‘pills’ for just about anything that ‘fix’ our problem without changing our lifestyle…

Sorry didn’t mean to rant.

13. Andrew - February 2, 2010

First, the glaring issue — the word ‘slim’. As Sandy and others have suggested, body type isn’t so much the issue. Body health is the moral biz-niz.

But, I really just want to add this idea– yes the individual is morally responsible for the individual. That’s nearly self-evident. However, there is a web of responsibility in place due to how we live socially. Because individuals are being influenced by so many more institutionalized lifestyles, those very institutions (gov’t, corporations, etc.) need to change what they are pushing on individuals.

Like kathy said, “people need to be educated to be successful at it.” That goes for practically anything. If people are told to eat poorly, or told to eat fast food, or told to indulge, what do you think is going to happen? For years now people have not been given the proper education (or time) to practice proper eating habits (or proper financial habits, for that matter…)

People certainly need to be ‘nudged’ in better directions. The nudge Bob is suggesting sounds like good ol’ fashioned behaviorism, so I would bet it certainly works…

14. ImpassionedPlatypi - February 2, 2010

I think it’s interesting that no one besides dressingmyself has really brought up the fact that healthy food costs more than most unhealthy food and therefore it is NOT a CHOICE for many people. I’m overweight, and I agree that people who are obese or overweight should take responsibility and attempt to improve themselves; however, I take issue with the idea that it’s 100% a matter of choice. I have known more than one overweight person who is perfectly healthy and exercises on a regular basis, but cannot lose the weight and slim down. Some people really are just built bigger. Then there’s the various health problems that are outside personal control which contribute to being overweight. And, as I said in the beginning, there’s also the economic standing of the individual to consider.I’d also like to point out to Bob Macdonald- plus size clothing already is more expensive in many cases because once you get big enough (and I mean over a size 18 or so for women) you can’t find decent clothing that fits at places like Walmart, which means you’re forced to look at places like Lane Bryant where the clothing is NOT cheap. I do agree about food portions, but that has less to do with helping people slim down and more to do with not wasting so damn much food when eating out at a sit down restaurant.

15. Eric - February 2, 2010

This all sounds like a concept that, if left unchecked, could grow into quite a polarizing agenda. Slim people vs. the obese. Slim rule the world. Maybe I’m overstating it, but isn’t the arrogant attitude some are taking here similar to what once grew into Nazi Germany? I’m thin, but I’m not jumping on this wagon.

And a thought about the “greed, overconsumption, overspending, over-leveraging and overusing resources” analogy: We often get there by spending money we don’t have. Most people haven’t become obese on credit. I once had a co-worker (since retired) who, when he was teased about his central obesity, would proudly pat his gut and say, “Hey, don’t laugh! It’s paid for!” 🙂

steve - February 2, 2010

ah some good-sense!

16. Oksanagleba - February 2, 2010

It’s realy interesting blog

17. Vee Pee - February 2, 2010

Obesity is not the issue; health is. Slim does NOT equal healthy. Chunky and fit beats slim and run-down any day. It’s a matter of degrees and of balance. Obesity is the result of _____________ fill in the blank. Laziness and poor self-control, sometimes. Anxiety, depression, stress, low self-esteem, sadness, boredom, etc.

Even those of us who ‘know what is good for us’ do the opposite. It’s a question of motivation – not what we do but why we do it. A recent health scare changed my eating and exercise habits. The condition is chronic (colorectal in nature) but the recent episode was extreme in duration and pain.

I did research and came up with ideas that I implemented. A big one is diet: I eat only fruit in the morning til noon. For the rest of the day, I eat lots of veggies, whole grains, and I don’t eat protein (meat) with starch (potatoes, rice, pasta). Meat and veggies, yes. Pasta with veggies, yes. I feel better, I look better. I exercise too. I lost a few pounds but that wasn’t my motivation. I was ill and it was in my power to get better. So I did.

Now, how do we convince (or convict) people who are obese – and have health problems that will only get worse- to choose to get fit and healthy? You can’t legislate it. Workplaces can and should encourage it and help their workers. Ultimately, a person must decide to admit it’s a problem and choose to aleviate it.

If all else fails, perhaps we could implement a Fat Tax 😉

To stop the pain and replace it with

18. David Hennessey - February 2, 2010

Hi Nina,
Without having looked at the poll questions I am curious as to why so many Danes want their workplace to assist them. Perhaps, access to quality information does not exist in Denmark. I can’t tell.

Indeed, the internet is a big source but you always have to question the reliability of the source.

I do understand that during the many years I have worked with people in the area of health and wellness that some organizations I have worked with work eagerly to assist their employees. Since they recognize that not every person has the time or resources outside of work to assist themselves with health issues like obesity which can lead to a lot of suffering if the obese person (as medically defined) gets diabetes.


19. thisrainykitten - February 2, 2010

And Ayn Rand? Please.

20. Katz - February 2, 2010

I think ImpassionedPlatypi is onto it: In our culture, being slim is not a sign of “doing without.” That’s a construct we’re importing from the Irish Potato Famine or some other time when people actually starved to death, but in modern America, people don’t starve to death.
Being overweight is actually the sign of doing without: Doing without sports equipment, a gym membership, and so on. Poor people eat fast food and drink soda; it’s rich people who eat seafood and drink bottled water.
Of course there are many factors at play beyond income, but thin people shouldn’t act like they’re suffering while fat people are living high.

21. Nina Rosenstand - February 2, 2010

Hello and welcome to our new WordPress readers, and thanks for interesting and (mostly) thoughtful comments! We just had a lively discussion on this subject in my “Reflections of Human Nature” class based on the blog and some of your comments. Please stop by again and check out our ongoing discussions.

22. steve - February 2, 2010

It is not any one person’s ‘personal responsibility’ to look good for you nor contribute to some statistic that makes you sleep better at night. A person’s purpose is their own. Personal responsibility means being responsible for YOU and yours. Not your fat neighbor. Not your fat co-worker. Not the smoker on the corner. Being born on the same continent does not give you even the tiniest bit of right to judge and impose your purpose on others.

Look folks, you don’t know what it is to be someone else. Your understanding of this life, if you have any to begin with, will change with time. You may think it’s all about looking good, fluffing statistics, being hollywoodawesome, but others may be on a track to find meaning elsewhere, in places and things that are incomprehensible to you. To put this as clearly as possible, not everyone is interested in being ‘healthy’ or maximizing their life-span.

We are inundated with propaganda encouraging us to be judgemental and nosey for the purpose of advancing someone else’s purpose. The people that dream up all these ‘crises’ and try to stir up judgement are living to their purpose; manipulating you (thereby fluffing their resume). Don’t be the tool of the social engineer wanna-bes. Focus on your life, family, and friends; mine are not yours to worry about.

23. ktktheheathen - February 2, 2010

It is safe to gather that it depends on what part of the world you are from if your focus is being slim or big. Many places within the world embrace men and women of stature, so it is safe to gather that it depends on where you are from.



24. Andrea - February 2, 2010

Has anyone posting these comments watched the documentary “Food Inc.” ? If not, then I suggest those of you who believe taxing fat people, should.

There is a poignant scence in the movie where a lowerclass family explains that it costs less to buy their children a meal at MacDonalds then it does to buy the ingredients to cook a healthy meal at home. The husbands diabetes medication costs so much they have to chose between eating healthy, or paying his medical bills. Yes, people are not starving like during the pataoe famine…but they are being forces to consume empty calories in order to survive. this family tries hard to make it work, you can tell as they try to make selections in the grocery store saying that soda costs less than bottled water and healthy juices. The broccoli they wanted to purchase was more than a burger.

We as a society need to take control of the food industry. We need to say that it us unacceptable for fast food to be cheaper than the healthier alternative. And for those of you who complain about the pressure obese people put on society, consider this – if you want something to change, stop blaming the fat people. You can make a difference by getting involved in government legislature and organizations in your community. We all need to work together, fat and thin, healthy and not, old and young.

And finally, this will benefit you, oh thin people. If we can acheive a healthier society together, hospital wait times and taxes will stay down. Consider that while it is cheaper to eat poorly, it jacks up healthcare costs enomously.

If you’re so angry with people who are obese, DO something. Stop blaming them, and start working with them. In order to change society, the whole society needs to make changes.

Stop hating and start helping.

25. Andrew - February 3, 2010

Awesome comment, Andrea!

This is a bit of an eye-opener for me, especially the details on costs of groceries. There is a grocery store about 10 minutes away from me and the broccoli there is about $1.49 for a bunch (maybe feeds 4 people, well portioned). And by no means am I in any kind of privileged community or anything.

I have been thinking that the problem was time — families need time to prepare proper meals. But if there is this big a problem with pricing, then there just may be a bigger (corporate?) problem underneath.

Can we get a consensus of some kind here? Just how much are fresh vegetables, for an average grocery store in everybody’s community? Let’s see how varied the prices are and see where we can go from there.

26. Kristina-Philosophy 107 class - February 3, 2010

Obesity has always been a topic of interest to me. I have always been very into different styles of fitness and diets. Since I was a kid, my mom always instilled the ideal in me that being fat is morally irresponsible, so this blog kind of hit home. I do not necessarily agree with it, because some people just can’t help it. I exercise daily and eat fairly healthy, and I will never be “skinny”, although I believe I am in good shape. I live by the motto of if you feel good and are happy, size and shape are irrelevant.

Since my mom always told me that it’s not good to be overweight, I think it has affected my self esteem (negatively). I feel like I judge people on their size and shape when it may not be something that can be helped. Anyways, that is a whole ‘nother story! Back to the real topic…
My boyfriend I were discussing how in Japan the government regulates your pant size, literally. I believe if a male citizen exceeds the waist size of 33″, he must go on a diet and is monitored yearly. If they do not comply with these regulations, they are taxed higher than a “fit” citizen. This concept is ridiculous to me. How can the government control what you look like? In a society were we are almost overcoming the idea of a “normal” human being, ideals like this are still implemented in other countries.

I just can’t imagine something like this happening in the United States. We are supposedly a free country, and monitoring what people eat and drink and how much they exercise is a violation of freedom of choice. Although being healthy should be a natural instinct/urge, everyone is different.

27. Tuffy - February 9, 2010

While the rise in obesity is unquestionable, its effect on health isn’t the reason everybody is talking about it. We talk about it because, at a time when we all feel out of control of our corporate-run health care system, obesity seems easily fixable. It’s much easier to criticize fat people for ostensibly “driving up premiums” than to think about the reality: we pay high premiums because giant companies have paid off the politicians who were supposed to pass health reform.

28. Physical and Financial Fitness – Who is Responsible? « Awareness Home Funding's Blog - February 9, 2010

[…] and Financial Fitness – Who is Responsible? By AwarenessHomeFunding We recently found a blog post by Philosophy Professor Nina Rosenstand from San Diego Mesa College where she raised the question of whether or not staying slim was a moral […]

29. Awareness Home Funding - February 9, 2010

Hi Nina,
Thank you again for your thought provoking post. Your comments led to our current post. (www.AHFblog.com) As a college professor that is perhaps your biggest goal – to insight healthy dialogue and thought behind our opinions. Just thought you might want to know about the reference and link we made to your article.

30. Art Ruiz - May 12, 2010

In my opinion, I don’t believe that staying slim is the moral responsibility. I do believe, however, that maintaining a healthy lifestyle is, and it shouldn’t be shunned because someone – slim or not – proudly advocates it. In my case, I can’t help that I’m slim; I have a fast metabolism and have to age for that to slow down. I have the same problem when I hear the word “skinny” as obese people have when they hear the word “fat” – it bothers me and lowers my self-esteem. So I proudly exercise and work out, and I highly encourage other people like friends and family who are uncomfortable with their weight to do the same. My struggle with weight is my own personal responsibility, but my boasting and encouragement ironically enrages the overweight community I’m trying to parallel my struggle with.

As for the workplace taking responsibility for the fitness and weight of their employees, I agree with you that it “seems like nothing short of a Sartrean ‘Bad Faith’”. I believe a program like that will, in time, only be underappreciated and taken advantage of – similar to how some low-income students take advantage of the financial aid system to gain “free money”, which in turn creates an under appreciation for why the system exists.

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