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De-Stigmatizing Our Workplaces: adaptable boilerplate text
Bacon, Linda

March 17, 2012 - Source:

Because I [know/believe] you to be caring people with the best intentions for the people with whom we
work, I hope you will be concerned to know that actions and messages in [our organization’s recent
health campaign/ incentive policy/public service messaging] may be unintentionally harming
everyone who comes into contact with them.

For reasons I’ll explain, I urge you to [remove the obesity-campaign poster today]. An issue of
prejudice is at stake here, with implications for the health, morale and productivity of our

I hope you will take this as seriously as you would a claim of racism, because it is parallel.
Unfortunately, the [current/proposed company policy/poster campaign/incentive program]
encourages weight stigmatization. (It should also be mentioned that this stigma falls especially
on minority and disempowered groups, including women and people of color.) I realize the harm
is unintentional, but so long as you continue this program, you are hurting people – fat and thin

Even setting aside the serious issue of prejudice, the company’s new [program/campaign/policy]
is unlikely to have the intended effect of helping people. There is no evidence that educational
campaigns like this one, based on fat stigma, yield any long-term benefit for people’s health and
lives – rather, the evidence suggests that providing this “education” is damaging. Regardless of
whether the information is accurate (and I would argue that it is very misleading), consider that it
is delivered in a context where fatter people are regularly pummeled with “news” that their
bodies constitute a horrifying health crisis, and the “fat is bad” message is already well established
in everyone’s mind.

Even if fat alone does play a role in an individual’s ill health (social inequity, and nutrition,
fitness, and other behaviors actually prove far more significant), studies repeatedly find that it’s
nearly impossible to banish. Most every diet fails in the long run for almost all people. Biological
mechanisms dictate that the majority of us could no more diminish our girth, lifelong, than make
ourselves taller or modify the shape of our ears.

Meanwhile, data show that the repeated loss-regain cycles that result from trying to lose weight)
are far more harmful, medically, than maintaining a stable weight, even if it’s high. Yo-yo
weights are linked to cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other (“obesity-related”) ailments, so
implying that the pursuit of weight loss is valuable is just bad medicine.

What does our organization gain by shaming some of us for how we look? How will we measure
the success of this [campaign/policy]? Unlikely as it is, suppose stigmatization worked and some
people started exercising more as a result of seeing this poster: If they lost no fat (the typical
outcome of exercise programs), would the poster have failed? If each managed to lose just five
pounds (hard to do but still a medically insignificant amount), would that be a “win”? If the
weight loss resulted from disordered eating or had no effect on health, what then? And would
results be measured over time (given that most lost weight is regained and sometimes more), or
would it be forgotten by the next cycle of [posters/incentives/policy revamps]?

This campaign will succeed in little more than shaming the larger members of our community
and making the rest of us feel insecure about becoming like them. The fact is that anti-obesity
efforts have been shown to discourage the very types of behaviors –good nutrition and exercise –
they try to promote. Fat people already know they’re fat. “Obesity awareness” efforts are not
just pointless but counter-productive; no psychologist would argue that shame – or even fear -
stimulates positive long-term behavior change. Thin people, meanwhile, may wrongly conclude
they’ve got a “free pass,” that fitness and nutritional considerations don’t matter for them.

The worst part is, by pursuing a misguided strategy, we may be missing the chance to do good.
Evidence increasingly shows that a focus on health and health habits, rather than weight, can do
a world of good.  The weight-neutral, body-positive Health at Every Size® movement has shown
that people who accept the bodies they’re in are far more likely to care for them through good
nutrition and exercise. If our organization truly wants to improve the lives of its members,
greater acceptance is the way to go, not stigmatization.

There’s more we can do. I would be glad to provide more information about the data and support
behind the Health at Every Size approach and happy to brainstorm with you on ways our organization
could encourage better health for our [students/colleagues].

For all these reasons, I ask you to [take the poster down/rescind the policy/change the incentive
program]. If you don’t think that’s appropriate, then I would like to meet with you [include colleagues
if you have allies] in person and/or hear your justification, addressing the points I’ve made, for
perpetuating stigmatizing “education” likely to have damaging results.

Again, please know that I do not question the motives behind this program. I believe we share a
desire to benefit our organization and do what’s best for its people. That’s why I feel sure we can
work together to more find positive, affirming ways to advance those goals. Thank you.

For more information on weight and health, and Health At Every Size®, check out Health at
Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight
by Linda Bacon. The HAES Manifesto,
taken from the appendix, is a short user-friendly synopsis of these issues. Bacon and Aphramor’s
peer-reviewed article, Weight Science: Evaluating the Evidence for a Paradigm Shift, provides
academic support.

I can never forget these words I heard from a student named Juanita, age 17, tears streaming as
we walked down the a hallway emblazoned with messages for Childhood Obesity Prevention

     “Can they imagine what it’s like to walk down the hall and see posters essentially
      blaring, “We don’t want anyone to look like you?”” Do they really think that’s
      going to motivate me to eat better? Sure, I eat junk foods sometimes, but so do my
      thin friends. Why am I the only one for whom that matters? The only result I’ve
      seen from this campaign is that I feel worse and kids are even more mean to me.”

Prepared by Linda Bacon, PhD ( Freely available for adaptation

"Health At Every Size is a registered trademark of the Association for Size Diversity and Health and used with permission."

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