The Crippling Weight of Stigma: A Closer Look at a 2012 “Anti-Obesity” Campaign

It’s a special case study in how public health authorities do harm.

Marquisele Mercedes

--

Source: NYC Department of Health

In January 2012, the New York City Health Department promoted a controversial “anti-obesity” campaign that was meant to bring attention to the dangers of “super-sized” portions commonly found in fast food restaurants and convenience stores, which are described as having grown over time. One image in particular was described as especially graphic — it featured a fat Black man sitting on a stool. His right leg appeared to be amputated. Crutches leaned dramatically against the wall behind him. It was later discovered that the man’s image was pulled from a stock photo and that he was not an amputee; the advertisement agency contracted by the Health Department had performed an amputation via Photoshop. The crutches had also been added through photo editing. This campaign, as well as the reactions to and criticism around it, present an opportunity to examine the substantial overlap between fat stigma and disability stigma, how these stigmas are weaponized by health authorities, as well as how, despite performed deference towards socially-focused approaches, public health actually ascribes to a medical model in its approach and conception of fatness and disability.

Historically, disability has been understood through the medical model, which positions it as a consequence of physical deficiency in need of curing or intervention. The medical lens was largely shaped by the overwhelming influence of the biological sciences and the authority of the medical profession in the west during the late 20th century. The disabled person, who requires reasonable accommodations to participate in society at a socially-desirable level is blamed for their needs. They are culpable and their level of culpability increases in proportion to the possibility that they may have prevented their impairment. As something that must be cured, disability is also attributed a varying level of mutability within the medical model. Whether or not an impairment is actually curable doesn’t necessarily eliminate mutability from this understanding of disability; the clinical perspective asserts that disabilities are always worth curing and that there will always be a need for medical intervention. The…

--

--