Why we should stop using the word 'obesity'

printer friendlyprinter friendly

Quick, what image pops into your mind when you see or hear the word "obesity"? You think of a fat person, right? I know I do. I also know that I don't think of junk food or the industry that so heavily promotes it, even though they are a primary culprit behind America's rising rates of type-2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other chronic illnesses.

Obesity is merely a symptom of a much bigger problem. Yet many of the very groups that are working hard to improve health equity by exposing the role of junk food marketing, income inequality, and other forces beyond individual control have nevertheless placed responsibility -- and shame -- for the country's growing waistlines and related health issues squarely on the shoulders of individuals. It's not intentional. But it happens every time we utter that all-too-familiar "O"-word.

This is a problem because once the conversation is framed in ways that highlight individuals, public health advocates must jump over even higher hurdles to show that we have a need for solutions beyond changes in individual behavior.

That's the trap that former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher and physician Pamela Peeke fell into in February when they debated law professor Paul Campos and TV host John Stossel in a panel called "Is Obesity The Government's Business?" Without saying a word, Satcher and Peeke started off at a disadvantage, given the title of the debate.

Similarly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may have done themselves a disservice by framing their recent Weight of the Nation conference using words that focus on fat bodies, rather than on the unhealthy foods that saturate our surroundings or environments that impede physically activity. Genes and lifestyle aren't enough to explain the country's growing battles with food-related chronic illnesses. And even though the CDC ultimately wants to reframe the conversation to show this, approaching the issue with a focus on weight accomplishes just the opposite.

Airing tonight on HBO, a Weight of the Nation documentary series presented by the Institute of Medicine with the CDC and National Institutes of Health will no doubt face the same challenges.

Framing health issues in terms of obesity not only stigmatizes fat people, it also benefits the food industry. As public health lawyer Michele Simon writes, "[I]t is a problem food companies can supposedly help fix. They can market healthier foods! They can help fund playgrounds and exercise programs!" Ever notice how food companies don't shy away from the word? That itself should sound alarm bells for public health advocates.

Of course, avoiding the "O"-word is difficult even when we know it's problematic. BMSG discussed the trouble with using "obesity" as far back as 2006, yet we still find ourselves reaching for it from time to time.

To successfully reframe the issue will be challenging and may take more than a single word. Still, public health advocates should make it a priority to do so. After all, the people who control how a problem is framed have the best chance of influencing the solution. Public health advocates showed this to be true with tobacco when they stopped talking about smoking cessation and started talking about tobacco control. A small shift in language -- coupled with attention to the policies that shaped environments -- produced a big shift in the public's thinking so that we now see the problem as one related mostly to industry, not just individuals. With enough collaboration and creative thinking, public health can do the same with food.


public health data (1) food (1) gun control (2) health equity (10) FCC (1) safety (1) gatorade bolt game (1) San Francisco (3) public health policy (2) ACEs (2) Bloomberg (3) American Beverage Association (1) SB 402 (1) public health (70) george lakoff (1) cigarette advertising (1) community (1) beauty products (1) Pine Ridge reservation (1) Twitter for advocacy (1) Bill Cosby (1) nanny state (2) sugar-sweetened beverages (2) soda taxes (2) sexism (2) SB 1000 (1) Coca-Cola (3) Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes (1) news monitoring (1) healthy eating (1) product safety (1) collaboration (1) junk food (2) framing (14) political correctness (1) auto safety (1) Measure O (1) Newtown (1) water (1) Johnson & Johnson (1) Twitter (1) Marion Nestle (1) election 2016 (1) equity (3) Citizens United (1) environmental health (1) seat belt laws (1) advocacy (3) social justice (2) Berkeley (2) media analysis (6) nonprofit communications (1) tobacco (5) choice (1) Rachel Grana (1) food access (1) corporate social responsibility (1) abortion (1) target marketing (8) messaging (3) water security (1) adverse childhood experiences (3) genital warts (1) language (6) beverage industry (2) Penn State (3) default frame (1) diabetes prevention (1) Big Tobacco (3) tobacco industry (2) Jerry Sandusky (3) Colorado (1) food environment (1) world water day (1) violence (2) built environment (2) media (7) breastfeeding (3) food industry (4) stigma (1) Black Lives Matter (1) soda industry (4) Happy Meals (1) cancer prevention (1) communication strategy (1) Golden Gate Bridge (2) sanitation (1) food swamps (1) education (1) prevention (1) front groups (1) communication (2) Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (1) cervical cancer (1) digital marketing (2) sandusky (2) Whiteclay (4) Dora the Explorer (1) community organizing (1) youth (1) Let's Move (1) women's health (2) prison phone calls (1) SSBs (1) soda tax (11) Chile (1) mental health (2) democracy (1) food justice (1) Tea Party (1) Proposition 47 (1) children's health (3) white house (1) Merck (1) ssb (1) Texas (1) summer camps (1) community health (1) junk food marketing (4) child sexual abuse (5) Aurora (1) snap (1) Oakland Unified School District (1) suicide nets (1) alcohol (5) health care (1) Pine Ridge Indian Reservation (2) community safety (1) emergency contraception (1) soda (12) paula deen (1) institutional accountability (1) food and beverage marketing (3) industry appeals to choice (1) social media (2) McDonald's (1) vaccines (1) childhood adversity (1) paper tigers (1) government intrusion (1) cap the tap (1) Joe Paterno (1) news (2) privilege (1) inequities (1) apha (3) tobacco control (2) sexual violence (2) childhood obestiy conference (1) marketing (1) campaign finance (1) cannes lions festival (1) social change (1) naacp (1) Oglala Sioux (3) suicide prevention (2) tobacco tax (1) new year's resolutions (1) childhood obesity (1) childhood trauma (3) Gardasil (1) diabetes (1) weight of the nation (1) reproductive justice (1) race (1) El Monte (3) childhood lead poisoning (1) autism (1) prison system (1) community violence (1) indoor smoking ban (1) california (1) sexual health (1) suicide barrier (2) Proposition 29 (1) obesity prevention (1) regulation (2) PepsiCo (1) authentic voices (1) Michelle Obama (1) sports drinks (1) elephant triggers (1) news analysis (3) measure N (2) Sam Kass (1) Telluride (1) chronic disease (2) news strategy (1) sexual assault (1) strategic communication (1) Catholic church (1) online marketing (1) SB-5 (1) personal responsibility rhetoric (1) cancer research (1) obesity (10) racism (1) social math (1) Wendy Davis (1) filibuster (1) structural racism (1) Sandy Hook (2) HPV vaccine (1) cosmetics (1) sugary drinks (10) news coverage (1) soda warning labels (1) media bites (1) Amanda Fallin (1) Big Food (2) personal responsibility (3) values (1) physical activity (1) Donald Trump (2) Food Marketing Workgroup (1) journalism (1) food marketing (4) media advocacy (23) Richmond (5) junk food marketing to kids (2) gender (1) Connecticut shooting (1) liana winett (1) Nickelodeon (1) violence prevention (8) gun violence (1) Big Soda (2) food deserts (1)
  • Follow Us On Facebook
  • Follow Us On Twitter
  • Join Us On Youtube
  • BMSG RSS Feed

get e-alerts in your inbox: