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Arguments For Calling Obesity A Disease #7: Demands Empathy

Empathy-Four-ElementsNext in my miniseries on arguments for calling obesity a disease is the issue of empathy.

Our normal response to people who happen to be affected by a disease – including lung cancer and STDs – is at least some measure of empathy (even if residual stigma continues to exist).

Even if the disease was entirely preventable and you did your lot to hasten its development, once you declare yourself as having diabetes, or heart disease, or stroke, or cancer, the expected social response is empathy – and not just from family, friends, and colleagues.

Thus, diseases demand empathy – that’s the normal, ethical, humane response.

But apparently not towards people affected by obesity.

Here the response is blame, shame, disgust, jokes, name calling, and even physical attacks (spitting, pushing, shoving, beating – you name it).

No empathy, so sympathy, no understanding, no compassion – i.e perhaps until we call obesity a “disease”.

Then, suddenly, everything changes – because diseases demand empathy.

Perhaps this is the real reason that some folks are so vehemently against calling obesity a disease – to fully accept that obesity is a disease, they would have to show empathy – not something they feel people living with obesity quite deserve.

After all, how can you still make jokes and poke fun at people living with a disease?

How can you still shame and blame people living with obesity, if we call it a disease?

How can you still wage a “war” on obesity – take no prisoners?

That’s definitely a spoiler!

Think about it!

Edmonton, AB


  1. Great post. It is so true, that obesity is still seen (even by medical professionals) as the result of some sort of personal failing… such as gluttony or laziness. There is such a deep sense of shame associated with being obese. Personally, I have never been an over eater, yet here I am, with a BMI of 40. I eat very heathy, but recently my (normal BMI, by the way) boyfriend wanted me to pick up some treats from the grocery store. I felt so embarrassed that someone might see me buying junk food. Glad you are here, working to educate people.

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  2. From the standpoint of those who have excess fat, this argument is a two-edged sword. Empathy is fine as long as it is not confused with sympathy. Empathy entails a person being present with another, with an open mind and open ears, and without judgment. Fat people don’t want sympathy at all, unless there are extraordinary circumstances. Ordinarily, there’s nothing to grieve about being fat. Fat people want to be as joyful as anyone else at any other weight. Fat people also resent the assumptions that sometimes come with sympathy — presumed limitations that others assume fat people have.

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    • Yes, that’s why I said “empathy” not “sympathy” – also, I’m referring to obesity – which is when excess fat affects your health – healthy large people don’t need empathy – they’re not sick!

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    • Yes, that’s why I said “empathy” not “sympathy” – also, I’m referring to obesity – which is when excess fat affects your health – healthy large people don’t need empathy – they’re not sick!

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      • Actually, healthy fat people can benefit from empathy (not sympathy) because they do face extraordinary and unfair prejudices. They are presumed to be limited or lazy, etc. and often people won’t listen to them when they protest. Empathetic friends (of “normal” weight) who recognize that their friends are not lazy or limited, and point the finger at cultural mythology and ignorance are invaluable.

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  3. I totally respect Sharma’s disinclination to lump all fat people into the same category, and he writes compellingly about the discrimination faced by most. But I’m never a fan of classifying any kind of obesity as a disease–even as I recognize that doing so might offer them better treatment in some quarters!

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  4. Certainly changes the perspective. Recognizing it differently would also shift responsibility from personal to societal.

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  5. I’ve run a mailing list for fat people with diabetes for 20+ years. My experience with fat people with T2DM is that empathy is the last thing they get.

    People who develop T1DM get tons of empathy because there’s no way to blame them for their disease. Fat T1s are considered unicorns, because “Everyone Knows” that there’s no such thing as a fat T1.

    T2DM is considered a “lifestyle disease” — the insistence is still that being fat causes T2DM, despite decades of research that shows that that’s putting the cart before the horse.

    People with T2DM are assumed to be people who never exercise and sit around all day eating junk food. While a sedentary lifestyle and a high carb diet can have an effect on insulin resistance, this goes back to your own comments about “Why do some people get fat and some not, on the same diet?” And why are some fat people insulin resistant and some are not?

    If overeating and lying around was the sole cause of T2DM, every college in the US would have piles of sudden diabetics.

    Fat people who develop T2DM get little empathy from society or medical professionals. As fat people are already poorly treated by doctors, who too frequently see fat people as lazy and non-compliant; as such there also is the presumption that fat T2s aren’t going to take care of their own disease.

    I’ve heard too many stories of fat T2s being actually denied medical care for diabetes until they lose weight. What a fine way to kill off your patient, or doom them to complications. But that’s ok. They deserve it for giving themselves the disease!

    Another rant. :/

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