14 July 2009

Anti-obesity campaigns: generating stigma with the Obesity Cost Calculator

This is the most depressing fat panic intervention I've come across in a long time, it's so stupid and ill-conceived that I had to check the date and make sure that it wasn't April Fool's Day.

So this is it: The Centers for Disease Control in the US, the health promotion agency of the US government's United States Department of Health and Human Services, have released an online Obesity Cost Calculator to help employers calculate the cost of obesity on the company funds, and suggests the savings that would be gained by making employees lose weight.

This is so many shades of wrong I can barely begin to untangle it, I'm almost speechless. Luckily the Association of Size Diversity and Health have issued their own statement, which condemns the Calculator on the grounds that it is a licence to discriminate against fat people.

I will add that not only does the Calculator dehumanise fat people, it dehumanises all employees as BMI numbers, and it is likely to divide people from each other, which is a crappy way to run a business. It tries to quantify fatness in the most banal way, and it reeks of state-sanctioned pseudoscientific social engineering in a way that makes me wonder if anyone actually remembers what the Nazis did.

I propose a number of responses to this tool:

A nicely or nastily worded letter to the CDC saying exactly what you think of their Obesity Cost Calculator. Let them know what workplace harassment and discrimination is like for fat people and how their software is likely to encourage it.

If people have it in their power, they might think about saying no to company weighing and measuring programmes. Unless you are a wrestler or a jockey there is no reason why your employer should know how much you weigh. Don't allow them to harvest employee's weights, or to dignify Body Mass Index with use.

Research that exposes the costs, including the tax dollars, that have been spent on developing the CDC's LEAN Works! programme, the Calculator in particular.

Research that names the commercial weight loss companies allied with the CDC in developing and sponsoring their weight loss programmes, and a Calculator that estimates their potential profit increase should employers start to implement the Obesity Cost Calculator.

A Calculator that works out the cost of discrimination, stigma, scapegoating and junk science on fat people, and which further exposes the social cost in financial terms of weight obsession, weight loss interventions, weight cycling and the diminished physical and mental health they bring about in people of all sizes.

Research that estimates the financial and social contributions made by fat people.

In addition, I call for people to boycott any company found to be using this tool, and to let them and the CDC know why.

Document and share what you did and how you got on.

Ugh, ok, now back to Tuesday...

PS. Are there any hackers in the house?


Kenmore Bookclub said...

Well, pardon my french but FUCK ME! I thought your post was a joke, but unfortunately, it's real.

I think I'm going to stick my head under the blankets and pray for this stupidity to go away

Charlotte Cooper said...

Praying won't make any difference, and neither will sticking your head under the blankets. Why not write them an email and tell them what you think?


Jess said...

That's really horrendous, and like you say just shores up the idea that employers can and should discriminate. In what universe did they think this would be a good idea?!

wriggles said...

The CDC also hasn't bothered itself with potential weight differences between races. We all know who's going to look the worst, again.

Fantine said...

Thanks for e-mail address, Charlotte. Here is what I sent:

"I am appalled by the LEAN Works obesity cost calculator and the outright discrimination that you are promoting with it. At the very least, you should reveal what members of the diet industry have funded this project. There is already enough social stigma surrounding obesity; thanks to this program, fat people are now going to have to worry even more about not being hired for jobs they are qualified for, or about being pushed out of the jobs they already have, all because of some phantom calculations of "cost" that have no connection to real life.

If you really want to promote better health, you would promote Health at Every Size programs that are focused on nutrition, enjoyable exercise, and overall wellness, rather than basing it on arbitrary numbers like BMI, which are NOT indicative of anyone's actual health or health care costs. Improving one's diet and engaging in enjoyable exercise are proven to improve health. There is no study that shows it is possible for the average fat person to lose weight and keep it off for more than five years, but there is plenty of evidence to show that 98% of dieters regain everything they lost within that time frame. There is also research showing that yo-yo dieting and weight loss and regain damage a person's health far more than maintaining a steady weight, even if that weight is part of the "overweight or obese" definition. The focus on weight loss as a cure for everything is misguided at best and malicious at worst.

Finally, workplace and hiring policies based on this program are going to discriminate against racial minorities and women far more than they will affect anyone else. The CDC should not be promoting this."

Charlotte Cooper said...

Nice work Fantine.

Erin said...

Including the Nazis in there is quite ridiculous. They certainly weren't the only ones in history to dictate social matters.
Why is it that whenever something involves discrimination, whether it be gender, race, religion, politics, identity issues, the automatic cop-out comparison is Nazis or the Holocaust?
And if you're going that way, what about the Japanese government?

Charlotte Cooper said...

Thanks for your comment Erin.

Anonymous said...

I can't help but wonder, constantly, if shit like this is why I can't find a job. I've been unemployed for over a year now in spite of having an excellent work record (employed for sever years with good reviews at my last job and laid off for monetary reasons). I go to agencies who tell me "your resume looks great!" But I never get a call back after an interview, even if it seemed to go great.
I'm neat, clean, responsible, have lived in the same town for years, you name it. But I'm also a fat woman who is no longer young. Do they look at me and think "higher insurance premiums?" Or what?

Anonymous said...

Huh, I actually thought that the reference to the Nazis - though I agree that there is a kneejerk tendency to mention them whenever discrimination comes up - was in this case rather apt. Didn't they talk about how much money handicapped people and other so-called "undesirables" were costing the state? Clearly the situation is nowhere near as grave here, but still, the spirit of it seems uncomfortably similar...

Amy said...

Wow. I am so glad i live in a country which actually has labour law, and in which it would be a CRIME to fire or refuse to hire someone because they're fat (or pregnant, or disabled).

Isn't this unconstitutional?

Anonymous said...

This hateful "calculator" has rendered me speechless and enraged. How can they pretend that this will have any consequence other than the further discrimination and marginalization of fat people? What--will they implement this weight-loss incentive with group calisthenics in the office every morning? A calorie-controlled cafeteria? I'd be willing to bet that the (and I love that they use this term) "normal" employees would never be expected to alter their own lifestyle choices. Let's not mention the folks who eat whatever they want and never exercise, yet remain thin (not necessarily healthy) due to their amazing metabolisms. Would the fat employees have a special fatty identity card? Mandatory weekly weigh-ins? Is it work or Weight Watchers?

If this calculator is capable of accomplishing anything, it's adding exponentially to the number of employees using their insurance for therapy and depression medication. That's a big FAIL for the CDC. Boo.