Health

Normalizing Obesity Leads to Even More Obesity – Study

The popularization of plus-size models is only increasing the epidemic of obesity, according to a new study reported in the journal OBESITY, and we might do well to consider what we learned from successfully fighting the epidemic of smoking, says public interest law professor John Banzhaf, who played a major role in slashing smoking and saving millions of lives.

Kids Obese Children Childhood Obesity plus-size models
By Dirty29er (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Normalizing obesity by prominently featuring it with attractive plus-sized models leads people to underestimate their own weight and thereby reduce their incentive to achieve a healthy weight, say sociologists from the University of East Anglia who claim such models can undermine efforts to tackle the obesity epidemic.

This is certainly consistent with what we learned in fighting against smoking, says Banzhaf, who has been called “The Man Behind The Ban on Cigarette Commercials” and the antismoking leader who first started the nonsmokers’ rights movement by getting smoking restricted and then banned on airplanes, buses, etc., and eventually in many workplaces and public places.

A major reason why former smokers quit, and current smokers are often trying so desperately to quit, is the social stigma now associated with being a smoker. Smokers say again and again that they are being tired of being considered “second class citizens” and feeling like “social pariahs,” says Banzhaf.

No-smoking sections, in additional to making it more difficult to remain a smoker, also serve as a constant reminder to smokers that the great majority of people don’t want to be anywhere around someone who is smoking.

So the effect of smoking bans – not only indoors in workplaces and public places, but increasingly even outdoors where the dangers of secondhand smoke are more limited – is to de-glamorize and de-normalize smoking as something which is normal and/or generally socially acceptable.

This de-normalization of smoking was a major factor in driving down the incidence of adult smoking to less than 15% from a rate, when Banzhaf began his crusade, which hovered close to 50%.

It is also consistent with the finding that anti-smoking educational messages which emphasized the social stigma of being a smoker (e.g., “stinky,” smelly,” etc.) were much more effective in helping persuade people to quit than messages which emphasized the deadly dangers of smoking, notes Banzhaf.

Thus, while many are arguing in favor of featuring more plus-size models in ads and elsewhere, it is important to remember that doing so may well exacerbate an epidemic of obesity which is already forcing the great majority of adults who are not obese to pay far more in taxes and in health insurance than they should, and that de-normalizing smoking was a key factor in finally turning the tide.

After all, the tobacco industry was able to normalize smoking by featuring attractive models who were smoking, and thereby cost the American public hundreds of billions of dollars in unnecessary health costs linked to this unhealthy lifestyle.

This new study suggests that featuring attractive plus-size models could likewise help lead to unhealthy lifestyles, with enormous costs in lives and in health care dollars, says Banzhaf.