The Binge Eating Disorder Association (BEDA) Objects to Language and Inaccuracy of Statements Perpetuating Stereotypes of the Obese in the New York Times February 19, 2011 Article.
To the Editors of NY Times,
I am writing in response to an article published in the NY Times on February 19th, 2011 entitled, “Today’s Lab Rats of Obesity: Furry Couch Potatoes” by Andrew Pollack. I have two major concerns with the article: (1) terminology used that perpetuate negative stereotypes of individuals with obesity, and (2) inaccuracy of statements that are not based on empirically-based research.
Regarding the first concern, the terminology – couch potatoes – is pejorative, offensive, and not scientifically sound. This type of language perpetuates the negative stereotype that all obese individuals are lazy, inactive, and blameworthy for their excess weight. Obesity research shows that there are genetic, biological, and environmental factors implicated in the etiology of obesity. In fact, research suggests that 40-80% of weight is due to genetic factors (Herrera & Lindgren, 2010; Lee, 2009), suggesting strong genetic underpinnings and a predisposition to obesity. By describing obese monkeys as “couch potatoes,” the New York Times is maintaining the stereotype that behavioral characteristics are solely to blame for excess weight, discounting the role of biology. I am shocked that the “obese resource” director at the Oregon National Primate Research Center used the “couch-potato” term himself – whether implicit or explicit prejudice, this shows just how pervasive these negative stereotypes are today. Research does not support that “many [people] these days….sit around too much, eating rich, fatty foods and sipping sugary drinks,” as implied by the author.
Such stigmatizing attitudes and bias against obese individuals may lead to weight-based discrimination in the educational, employment, and health care setting, and may negatively impact interpersonal relationships (Teixeira & Budd, 2010; Brownell & Puhl, 2003). These stereotypes make individuals with “greater than average” weight vulnerable to social injustice, unfair treatment, and impaired mental health and quality of life (Puhl & Heuer, 2009). I urge you to be mindful of the language you use when discussing weight-related problems, and to refer to the scientific literature for accuracy in reported statements; these faulty descriptors have major implications in the lives of many of your friends, family members, peers, and colleagues.
The above touches on my second concern regarding statements made that are not based on empirical research. In the article, humans are accused of “fudging their daily calorie or carbohydrate counts” when questioned and go on to state that nonhumans “‘don’t lie to you.”‘ While research does suggest that dietary recall is not the most accurate assessment of actual food intake, we cannot say whether this is due to blatant lying (as implied in the article), memory disturbances, difficulty with estimating portion sizes or other factors. Such over- or underreporting may be unintentional. Further, as with non-human samples, other measurements exist for use in humans to increase accuracy with dietary assessment. If we do lie on dietary recall, it is likely partly a result of the negative messages (such as those in the article) that tell us we lack self-control and are to blame for any weight-related issues. This may lead to guilt and shame and render some hesitant to fully disclose health behaviors. Even if people are honest, would they be trusted by those who hold these stereotypes in the first place? And do those who hold these stereotypes respond in such a way that make these individuals feel unsafe to disclose anything personally sensitive?
I feel it important to write you about these concerns because language can significantly impact societal perceptions about individuals with obesity. As weight is not necessarily an indicator of health, it is important for us to dispel the myth that individuals with “above-average weight” are lazy, inactive, and lack self-control. I appreciate your coverage on the current research in obesity, but strongly advocate for greater sensitivity to the language used in describing such research. I also urge for a more critical review of the research to prevent misinterpretation of data and ensure evidenced-informed statements.
Cristin Runfola, M.S.
Eating Disorders Psychology Intern
Eating Disorders Program, Dept of Psychiatry
University of North Carolina School of Medicine
Doctoral Candidate, Clinical Psychology
Palo Alto University
Pacific Graduate School of Psychology