When Do Obesity Public Health Messages Become Fat Shaming?

How do you tell someone they are overweight? It’s a touchy subject. Making people aware of the health risks without causing offence can be tricky.

Cancer Research UK has found that out after launching its latest campaign. It pointed out the link between obesity and cancer but it’s run into claims of fat shaming.

Its series of adverts has obesity warnings on what look like cigarette packets, highlighting the fact that both smoking and obesity are risk factors for cancer.

View image on Twitter

View image on Twitter

It made the point that obesity can cause 13 types of cancer and it’s now a more common cause of bowel, kidney, ovarian, and liver cancer than smoking.

Fat Shaming Accusations

The backlash that followed came from many quarters.

A group of academics and nutritionists from institutions including the University of Cambridge and King’s College London warned that the findings were flawed and might make people too ashamed about their weight to ask for help.

In an open letter to Cancer Research UK  the authors said: “Your campaign’s focus on weight as a leading cause of cancer is misleading. Body mass index is a crude indicator of health and while there is an association between higher BMI and cancer, the reasons and mechanisms for this are unclear.”

People also took to social media with cries of fat shaming. “It makes people feel worse and responsible for their cancer,” said one tweet: “Correlation is not causation.”

‘Judgemental and Unhelpful’

Chelle Bell is a plus size model and a proponent of body positivity. She thinks the campaign is “appalling and stigmatising”.

“It’s lazy and misrepresents the facts. There is obviously a correlation between obesity and cancer but there is no evidence to suggest obesity causes cancer,” she told Medscape UK.

As for the comparison with smoking Chelle Bell says: “Putting a cigarette in your mouth is voluntary, it’s just not the same as eating food which you need to survive. The campaign basically says if you are fat you will get cancer and it will be your fault, which is cruel and shaming.”

Obesity, of course, is a complex and multi-factorial problem. There’s more to it than eating too much and moving too little.

“Obesity can be a consequence of physiological factors as well as lifestyle choices. It is not something you should be blaming people for,” says Aisling Pigott, a dietitian and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association.

“Accusing people of causing their own cancers through being obese could be perceived as judgemental and unhelpful to those people who are already tackling their own complex issues around food and diet,” she told us.

Making people feel bad about being overweight and obese may be counter-productive.

“If you are basically being told you are fat, you are going to die, it’s not going to make you suddenly decide to eat healthily and go to the gym. It’ll make you either eat more, go on a crash diet or stop eating altogether,” believes Chelle Bell.

Too Sensitive

The campaign’s message is bold but are people being too sensitive? Shouldn’t people be made aware of the risks so they can do something about it? If the public health message is watered down to pander to people’s feelings maybe it wouldn’t be as effective.