Why I won’t be watching ‘Weight of the Nation’

Count me out of the audience tonight when “Weight of the Nation,” the much-anticipated HBO documentary about obesity in the United States, makes its television debut.

If the trailers and pre-show publicity are any indication, “Weight of the Nation” stands a good chance of further fueling the stigma, stereotypes and alarmism about being fat, and ultimately doing little to solve the crisis it purports to address (although I hope I’m wrong about this).

Others have articulated this far better than I can. Here’s Fall Ferguson, a health educator with a law degree, with a list of 10 reasons to be concerned about the potential messages behind the HBO documentary.

Some excerpts from the list:

10. The misguided focus on obesity. The series identifies weight as “the problem” when the focus of our public health efforts should be health promotion and the prevention of chronic disease.

9. The appeal to fear. The publicity for the series (and I am guessing the actual documentary itself too) uses fear as a means of persuasion and motivation for change. Few things are as destructive to health and well-being as fear. I also question whether health professionals who use fear to influence people are behaving ethically.

8. Disservice to thin people. Thinner people may get the message that their lower weight means they don’t need to take care of their health or be concerned about preventing chronic diseases.

There’s more. Ferguson questions the message the documentary may send to children. She’s concerned it’ll add to the stigma that already surrounds being overweight or obese. She worries that the documentary won’t include alternative points of view or recognize the issues of body shame and eating disorders in the U.S.

The final point on her list? That “Weight of the Nation” will serve to escalate the cultural war on obesity while sidestepping a more critical look at how we frame this national conversation. “As a fat person, I am tired of being engaged in a war that I didn’t start and that uses my body as cannon fodder,” Ferguson writes. “As a health educator, I deplore the damage done to people’s health and self-esteem by our cultural war on obesity and I deplore the misinformation about health that masquerades as ‘public health messaging.’”

None of this is to say we shouldn’t be concerned about the quality and amount of food we eat or the environment we live in. We ought to be concerned because all of these things do matter to health. It’s frustrating to note, however, the way the message is so frequently shaped: that it’s all about the numbers on the scale and that if people could only lose weight, they would be healthy and their problems would be solved.

Here’s something else to think about: Has the war on obesity become so shrill that it’s counterproductive? A provocative new article by science writer Sharon Begley suggests it has. She writes that as long as we continue to stigmatize fat people and blame them for their weight, we’ll make little progress in more substantive changes such as altering the environment – and we’ll probably make the situation worse for fat children and adults.

Is it time to reframe the conversation? Perhaps so, because the current conversation doesn’t appear to be resulting in much progress. Maybe it’s time to recognize there’s more than one way of talking about obesity and that there are alternate points of view that ought to be heard.

Update: Read more from reviewers who posted today about “Weight of the Nation:” Mary McNamara, television critic for the Los Angeles Times: “Weight of the Nation” pounds away at obesity; Michele Simon at the Huffington Post, More empty recommendations on junk food marketing to children; Tom Conroy, Media Life Magazine, “The Weight of the Nation,” weighty; NPR, Pounding away at America’s obesity epidemic.