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A Big, Fat Important Story

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I had planned on beginning this Blogcritics feature on TV news with a brief history of broadcast journalism. But I find myself sidetracked by raging anger regarding a current “minor” news story about an issue that has long been a pet peeve of mine: the discrimination against and demonization of fat people.

The story that has fired my ire is the one regarding Lincoln University in Pennsylvania’s stated refusal to allow two dozen academically-qualified students to graduate, because they’re fat. Have you seen much about this on CNN or anywhere else on TV news? Except for a brief mention in the distracting bottom-screen crawl, I have not.

This is an important story, because it significantly ups the ante on an ongoing story: fat people have long been discriminated against by employers, life and health insurance companies, and society at large, which considers fat to be ugly as well as unhealthy. Now, with health care reform on the front burner, we are becoming a society that believes people are obliged to alter their private behavior in the name of the greater good and the creation of social change. In short, it is now irresponsible to be fat — and, apparently, grounds for academic punishment.

While this specific story has caused something of an uproar in print and on the Internet, it’s getting scant attention on TV and certainly no one I’ve seen is making important connections. For example, it is by no means a coincidence that obesity in general is getting even more attention than usual by health insurance companies just as Congress blunders its way through an attempt to craft health care reform. The insurance companies are doing everything they can to 1) stymie reform, 2) convince the public that reform will result in increased health insurance costs for most of us, and 3) attack one of the conditions – obesity – that they claim costs them the most. And since the public generally agrees with the insurance companies in this regard, it only serves to fuel the existing antipathy toward fat people. As a result, this population is getting a lot of Nanny State heat, which I regard as illegal, undemocratic, and a social outrage — but you wouldn’t know it from watching TV news tonight.

Not being a sociologist or anthropologist, I don’t know what societies have done historically to effect social change, but I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if ostracizing those exhibiting the objectionable behavior is usually a major component, along with changes in law. Therefore, in keeping with “tradition,” our society is promoting what might be considered a positive change for very wrong reasons, and with punitive tactics, as well as little or no understanding of the physiological, medical, and social factors that create and maintain obesity.

Accordingly, denying fat people a college degree they have properly earned simply because they are fat sets a very dangerous precedent and also continues the ill treatment of fat people in all circumstances that has existed since forever. This latest story epitomizes the outrageous measures being used by corrupt insurance companies and financially frightened institutions and corporations to justify their greedy profits and continued disregard for those they serve or employ.

When will an issue like this take center stage on TV news, instead of stories like the one that has been preoccupying recent newscasts: Tiger Woods and his one-car accident? We’re about to send thousands of more troops into the expensive, pointless quicksand of Afghanistan; we can’t figure out how to create meaningful health care reform without spending billions we don’t have; public education is in the toilet; our infrastructure of roads and bridges is crumbling; our economy remains in crisis; and millions of people are out of work or their homes or both.

But our news sources are fixated on a billionaire athlete, and our social efforts are focused on oppressing fat people. Is there not something very wrong with both of these pictures?

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About Jeanne Browne

  • Paulette Esposito

    Thank you for commenting on this absolutely outrageous piece of “news.” Although I had not seen the news story, I can’t imagine what the university is thinking to allow this kind of discrimination. What’s next, people with acne? I’m disgusted.

  • The students in question are not being shunned from graduating for being fat. That’s some mighty convenient spin, but it glosses over the facts: The students in question chose to enroll and stay enrolled in LU even as they were made aware of the requirement. The students in question chose not to meet the requirement. The students in question had and still have every right to apply to, enroll in and attend another university.

  • Even assuming Diana is correct, the entire concept is off kilter – beyond the proper purview of an educational institution. Any school can and probably should provide classes and perhaps counseling as regards nutrition, health and fitness. But imposing weight standards tied to earning a degree is too far outside the box. I hope the kids sue the school and win.

    I am amongst the diaphanously challenged. I can’t say I’m happy about it, and I DO accept that there are most often very real and serious health issues involved with obesity.

    However, overweight people are looked upon in our society with less sympathy, with less tolerance, than druggies, alcoholics or smokers. And yet, it’s all of a piece. Being fat for many is the result of an addiction.

    First of all, there are a # of people who are genetically predisposed to being overweight. They might well be fat even with a spartan diet. Second, in many instances the cost of establishing and maintaining a proper diet is comparatively high. Fattening foods tend also to be the cheapest, the most widely available and the most pervasively touted. Watch TV for a couple of hours and attempt to add up all the calories included in all the “edible” adds. A large portion of our most obese citizens are also amongst the poorest and the least active.

    Third, bad habits die hard. I am 63 years old. My mother – who managed to survive 92 years – generally prepared what is now – lovingly or derisively – refered to as “comfort” food pretty much all the time. Her menus included lots of meat, lots of fat, lots of carbs, lots of salt and lots of sugar.

    The same is true of my wife’s experience. She is Italian. She grew up with lots of pasta, lots of sauce, lots of cheese. It’s just hard to let go of all that. Our understanding of what constituted a proper diet was far less sophisticated back in the 50s and 60s, and that largesse was, in the minds of our parents, hard and justly earned having survived the deprivations of the Depression and a world war.

    In our case at least, it’s not that we don’t understand, it’s simply very difficult to turn the corner and walk away from our culinary past – try as we might.

    It should be added also that a number of “full figure” people are comfortable and happy where they are. They may be guilty of turning a blind eye to probable health concerns, but the social ostracism they often experience is both unkind and unfair, and ultimately no one’s business.


  • Paulette — Many thanks.

    Diana — You may be technically correct, but simply by having one standard of requirements for fat students and another for thin/normal-weighted people is in itself discriminatory. I’ve also read other news stories on this incident and it’s my impression that the course was never presented to students as a requirement for graduation. Your cold attitude about all this leads me to believe that at your core, you’re among the many who find fat people…distasteful, to say the least. As for the kids having the “right” to go to another school instead, may I remind you that the same was once said of women and blacks when they were in educational settings that simply didn’t want them there.

    Baritone — Thanks very much for your detailed, factual and compassionate response.

  • I am technically correct – and overweight. I am also aware of choices, such as to attend or not attend a school with discriminatory standards. That the school discriminated is a given, as was the choice the students had to seek an education elsewhere and the choice they made to stay.

    The students in question were in no danger of being discriminated against at another college where they could easily have used that venue and their own education to further their cause. Instead they opted to align themselves with the same institution they now decry. I don’t recall any black or woman having done the same because, at one time, blacks and women didn’t have the same or as many choices as these students had.

    Being overweight is a condition of the body, not an excuse for what one chooses to do. If I allowed someone else to use my condition to make my choices for me I would be guilty of a form of self-discrimination that would wreak more havoc in my life than any policy ever could.

  • The course was presented as a requirement in 2006. On top of everything else, it would not bode well for LU if it were found the students were inadequately advised. This has the potential to put current and future LU diploma holders in the precarious position of defending a less than cum laude alma mater.

  • Diana — I too am overweight; more factually, very fat. Your most-recent comments notwithstanding, I continue to feel that LU’s action was/is discriminatory. And while women and blacks certainly have more options now than in the past, blacks (more so than women) still function at a disadvantage in seeking (and being qualified for) a higher education. There are also many blacks who prefer to attend all-black (or largely black) institutions, for a variety of reasons.

    However, I feel that the responding comments so far have missed my larger point, which was that discrimination against fat people is a very real and disturbingly accepted thing, and that news media, particularly TV news, largely ignores this issue or outright dismisses it as a ridiculous fringe attitude.

    As a result, there’s a great deal of social hostility increasingly directed at fat people by the rest of the population that incorrectly believes (1) that obesity is a poor choice made by slovenly people who could easily be normal-weighted or thin if they just ate right/better/less and exercised more, and (2)that obesity, along with smoking, are the primary reasons that health care and health insurance are so costly for everyone else.

    Neither of these ideas is correct, but TV news — the chief source of news for most Americans — does not do (and never has done) anything to explain why these notions are not true, or to portray discrimination against fat people as a legitimate, serious issue.

    As our population ages, we are becoming increasingly obsessed with youth, beauty, doing everything possible to fight age and be more [conventionally] beautiful, and discriminate against those whose appearance and attitudes seem to fly in the face of these attitudes. I consider this to be a real and important news story, an ongoing story, and TV news in all quarters is failing to report this story in all its dimensions.

    As a result, they validate the idea that it’s okay to treat fat people like a joke, an enemy, an affront to social standards of health and beauty, and an obstacle to necessary, positive change.

    In this regard, the LU story, whatever the academic specifics/requirements may be, is an important and symbolic story — and in the context of this NewsWire feature, a significant example of how and when news media outlets fail to serve the greater public interest.