Not all weight discussion is fat-shaming

I’m fond of Al Lewis, but we don’t always agree. In this HuffPost column, which I’m just catching up on, he equates all efforts to address obesity within wellness programs as fat-shaming. And that’s just overstatement born of inadequate understanding.

It’s OK, Al, I’m here to help, in the spirit of sharing.

Mocking someone as, say, “pregnant Prager,” as kids did to me on the playground, is fat-shaming. Staring at a 400-pounder struggling down the street, with or without disapproving facial expressions, is fat-shaming. But not every mention or even intimation of concern over a valid health concern is fat-shaming.

We certainly accept an employer’s right to express concern over an employee’s alcohol use — when it affects performance, or results in disproportionate health-care costs.

The fact is that obesity is a health problem. Yes, there’s a range, so that moderate overweight isn’t a death sentence, and certainly, thin is not necessarily well. But the more overweight someone is, the more likely that person is to have more sick time, higher healthcare costs, more absenteeism, less engagement in the mission. Not without exception, but more likely.

In my decades of fatitude, I was absolutely more inconsistent, less reliable, and less engaged than in the years afterward, when I was given the best jobs of my career, at the largest, most prominent employer I ever had.

Sometimes the inconsistency was food- or body-related, such as when I was thinking more about what I could eat next than whatever I was writing or editing at the moment. But obesity is commonly a systemic problem, often reflecting inner turmoil and unhappiness. Even though denying it was one of my highest values, this was undeniably central to my experience. And I have enough experience to know that I wasn’t the only one, by far.

Does it not seem obvious that employees struggling with relatively higher levels of inner turmoil and unhappiness would have more performance issues than others?

I add the obvious, important provisos, which I feel deeply: 1) None of this sanctions actual fat-shaming. 2) These matters are not black and white, so there is no one right way to address them. 3) A supportive, collaborative work culture is the vastly superior way to address the issues raised in this discussion.

But when we allow fat-shaming to trump any mention of any concern about health and performance, we’re saying that how employees feel about a fact is of higher importance than the fact itself. It shouldn’t be unimportant, but it shouldn’t be paramount, either.

I've got a second reply to this column queued up for tomorrow. Y'all come back! ~ MP

Author and wellness innovator Michael Prager helps smart companies
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