In his post yesterday, Kelly Brownell of TIME Magazine revived an old idea: tax soda. Various states and cities, he says, are considering leveling such a tax against sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs). Besides discouraging the consumption of unhealthful beverages, the economic benefits of such a tax, says Bronwell, would be significant: “$50 billion in health care savings and $150 billion in revenue over ten years.” I’m not sure if these numbers apply to a national tax or to the various local and state taxes Brownell mentions, but either way, this is indeed impressive. I’m all for such a tax.
But I have one big problem with the way this proposal is framed: the tax is designed to combat diabetes and obesity, and often it’s even called a “fat tax.” It’s this demonization of fatness that I’m not comfortable with.
(Disclaimer: I’m not a scientist or a health professional, and I’m in no position to offer an official opinion on health science. What I express below is simply the result of my own experiences, observations, and reading.)
The stigmatization of fat is damaging. Weight discrimination or “sizeism” makes it less likely for fat people to get a promotion, a job, or even adequate medical care. This last point might even help partially explain why fat people are considered to be less healthy on average than their skinnier counterparts. For, indeed, there may be reason to think that the negative health effects of fatness may themselves be overblown. Some scholars like Linda Bacon contend that the research linking obesity so strongly to other health problems is flawed, and that a focus on nutrition and exercise rather than weight is the best way to address personal health.
None of this is to say that no relationship exists between weight and health, nor is it to claim that foods that make you unhealthy don’t also make you fat sometimes. It’s simply to point out that these assertions are likely exaggerated and are mere generalizations that will never apply perfectly to any given individual. I may not be able to say exactly what the relationship between weight and health is, but I can say with confidence that weight discrimination and the stigmatization of fat is damaging on a psychological and health level. For that reason alone, we should stop framing public conversations about health around weight and focus more on factors like nutrition and exercise that don’t marginalize or oppress entire groups of people.
(If you want to learn more about this topic, check out our issue on whether you can be fat and healthy.)
(Photo by Alexander Kaiser under a Creative Commons license)