Scientific American Accused of ‘Public Health Disinformation’ After Claiming Fight Against Obesity Rooted in ‘Racism’

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The fight against obesity is rooted in “racism,” according to a Scientific American essay that claimed black women “consistently experience weightism in addition to sexism and racism,” and the prescribing of “weight loss” has “long since proved to be ineffective.”

In a tweet from the Scientific American Twitter account sharing the piece on Wednesday, the popular guide — which is the oldest continuously published magazine in the U.S. — claimed the “heightened concern about black women’s weight reflects the racist stigmatization of their bodies.” 

“It also ignores how interrelated social factors impact black women’s health,” it added.

The piece, originally published in volume 323, issue 1 of the science magazine and titled “The Racist Roots of Fighting Obesity,” was authored by Sabrina Strings, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine, and Lindo (formerly Linda) Bacon, a self-proclaimed “genderqueer,” who serves as an associate nutritionist at the University of California, Davis.

While asserting that the prescribing of weight loss to black women “ignores barriers to their health,” the essay details the health challenges they face.

“Black people, and Black women in particular, face considerable health challenges,” it begins. 

“Compared with their rates in other racial groups, chronic cardiovascular, inflammatory and metabolic risk factors have been found to be elevated in Black women, even after controlling for behaviors such as smoking, physical exercise or dietary variables,” the essay continues.

In addition, the piece claims black women “have also been identified as the subgroup with the highest body mass index (BMI) in the U.S., with four out of five classified as either ‘overweight’ or ‘obese.’” 

Many doctors, the authors contend, “have claimed that Black women’s ‘excess’ weight is the main cause of their poor health outcomes, often without fully testing or diagnosing them.”

“While there has been a massive public health campaign urging fat people to eat right, eat less and lose weight, Black women have been specifically targeted,” they allege.

Though the “heightened concern about their weight is not new,” the authors argue that it “reflects the racist stigmatization of Black women’s bodies.” 

“Nearly three centuries ago scientists studying race argued that African women were especially likely to reach dimensions that the typical European might scorn,” they write. 

The authors also claim that many medical practitioners in the late 19th century viewed black women as being “destined to die off along with the men of their race because of their presumed inability to control their ‘animal appetites’—eating, drinking and fornicating.”

“These presumptions were not backed by scientific data but instead embodied the prevailing racial scientific logic at the time,” they write. 

“Later, some doctors wanted to push Black men to reform their aesthetic preferences. Valorizing voluptuousness in Black women, these physicians claimed, validated their unhealthy diets, behaviors and figures,” the authors added.

According to the essay, nowadays “The idea that weight is the main problem dogging Black women builds on these historically racist ideas and ignores how interrelated social factors impact Black women’s health.” 

“It also perpetuates a misinformed and damaging message about weight and health,” the essay continues. “Indeed, social determinants have been shown to be more consequential to health than BMI or health behaviors.”

Though doctors frequently “tell fat people that dietary control leading to weight loss is the solution to their health problems,” the authors maintain that “many studies show that the stigma associated with body weight, rather than the body weight itself, is responsible for some adverse health consequences blamed on obesity, including increased mortality risk.”

The essay declares that black women — regardless of income — frequently experience “weightism” on top of “sexism and racism.”

“From workplace discrimination and poor service at restaurants to rude or objectifying commentary online, the stress of these life experiences contributes to higher rates of chronic mental and physical illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, depression and anxiety,” it states.

It also cites an opinion piece arguing that “bias against fat people is actually a larger driver of the so-called obesity epidemic than adiposity itself.” 

The essay also posits that “living in racially segregated, high-poverty areas contributes to disease risk for Black women” due to “a lack of potable water and higher levels of environmental toxins and air pollution” as well as featuring an abundance of fast-food chains “and a dearth of grocery stores offering more nutritious food choices.” 

According to the authors, by “blaming Black women’s health conditions on ‘obesity,’” they are ignoring “critically important sociohistorical factors.” 

“It also leads to a prescription long since proved to be ineffective: weight loss,” they write.

Additionally, the essay argues that initiatives to help people reduce weight are overwhelmingly unsuccessful:

Despite relentless pressure from the public health establishment, a private weight-loss industry estimated at about $70 billion annually in the U.S., and alarmingly high levels of body dissatisfaction, most individuals who attempt to lose weight are unable to maintain the loss over the long term and do not achieve improved health.

“This weight-focused paradigm fails to produce thinner or healthier bodies but succeeds in fostering weight stigma,” it adds.

The authors conclude by asserting that “the predominant reason Black women get sick is not because they eat the wrong things but because their lives are often stressful and their neighborhoods are often polluted.”

In response, many ridiculed the popular scientific magazine essay.

“If you focus on the unique challenges of obesity in particular groups, you’re racist. If you don’t, you’re racist because you’re erasing bodies of color and girth,” wrote professor and author Gad Saad.

“All roads lead to bigotry,” he added. “I’m allowed to say this because I used to be differently-weighted.”

“You know what seems way more racist? Ignoring science and common sense information that is literally killing people under the guise of protecting them from ‘racism!’” wrote Donald Trump, Jr. 

“Pretending that certain people are somehow immune to health issues associated with obesity seems sociopathic!!!” he added.

“Telling people not to be fat is not racist,” wrote conservative host Sara Gonzales.

“This is literally ‘public health disinformation’ that would have real-world potentially fatal consequences, if anyone took it seriously,” wrote DeSantis campaign spokesperson Christina Pushaw.

“Yet it is published by Scientific American and promoted on social media platforms while real science is censored,” she added.

“This is exactly what ideological capture looks like and why being more intelligent isn’t a prophylactic against moral fashions,” wrote philosophy professor Peter Boghossian.

“Once venerable legacy institutions have become irredeemably corrupted. I see no way out of this other than building parallel institutions,” he added.

“‘[T]he racist roots of fighting obesity’ -SCIENTIFIC American,” mocked author and conservative commentator Dr. James Lindsay.

“Congrats on doing your part to destroy all respect for science,” wrote author John Hawkins. 

“Remember when New Atheists thought abandoning Christianity would free science from the shackles of religion?” wrote right-wing political commentator Auron MacIntyre.

The issue comes as obesity continues to be encouraged by many on the left and in the entertainment industry, despite it being a condition that puts adults of any age at an increased risk of severe illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In October, entertainment giant Disney unveiled its first “plus-sized” heroine in a short film about an oversized ballet dancer dealing with “body dysmorphia.”

The obese ballet dancer in the film marks the first time an overweight character is treated as the hero instead of as comic relief, or a villain.

Earlier this year, SELF magazine published a column claiming that “anti-fatness” and “fatphobia” restrict accessibility of fitness endeavors for fat people.

In addition, many have found themselves being attacked for so-called “fat shaming.”

Pop megastar Taylor Swift faced backlash after “hurting the feelings” of fans over what some considered “fatphobia” in the video for her song “Anti-Hero,” criticized as demonizing and shaming the overweight alongside those with eating disorders.

Last year, Cosmopolitan magazine promoted plus size women as “healthy.”

HBO comedian and talk show host Bill Maher has criticized the tendency to claim fat is “beautiful,” suggesting the government shame overweight people because they are a burden on the healthcare system, while expressing concern that “fat celebration” is oversimplifying the obesity epidemic.

“There’s a disturbing trend going on in America these days with rewriting science to fit ideology,” he wrote. “We’ve gone from fat acceptance to fat celebration.”

Earlier this year, Canadian psychologist and bestselling author Dr. Jordan Peterson sparked controversy after declaring that plus-size Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Yumi Nu — who joined the ranks of plus-size models Ashley Graham and Hunter McGrady — is “not beautiful.”

Follow Joshua Klein on Twitter @JoshuaKlein


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