Opinions & Editorials

When good teachers ask bad questions

By Linda Bacon/Contributor to The Guardsman

I see it every day on campus: Teachers who enter the classroom not just with briefcases and books, but toting heartfelt ideals to share with their students about progressive causes, usually, like race fairness, feminism, queer and disability rights, fair labor and ethical eating.

Admirable, really, but it can also go wrong, as when the “lesson” is fat stigma.

One recent day, I found the walls of my shared classroom covered with posters from a previous class.

Under prominent banners reading “Preventing Obesity,” students had listed supposed strategies to avoid looking like – well, like some of their classmates. Not one talked about weight stigma or size diversity.

I recognize that faith in conventional weight-loss suggestions persists nevertheless, including among some of my colleagues, who presumably also buy the notion that plastering such nostrums on posters promotes thinness.

Just go for a walk on campus to view these well-intentioned memes.

Still, I can’t imagine that any well-meaning educator would want to spread shame and bias from the blackboard. That’s why I call on them to change the dialogue on “obesity” now.

The questions we ask set the stage for the answers we get and form ideas in students’ minds.

That’s the hope, in fact, as well as the danger.

So when we champion a “fight” against fat, and suggest that you have to be thin to be healthy, we are teaching that appearance matters, that weight is a matter of choice and character and that fat people should therefore be judged differently and more harshly than everyone else.

When the health question is framed on the backs of fat people, it stigmatizes and, let’s be honest, won’t really change anyone’s behavior (or size).

It also embraces a fallacious rhetoric that no progressive teacher would apply to other social ills.

For example, we know black Americans die earlier and suffer cardiovascular disease at higher rates than white Americans, but would never strategize about how to prevent blackness, nor label their skin color as the cause.

That fatter people more often have certain diseases says more about correlation than cause: confounding factors obscure the relationship between weight and health.

Trying to reshape bodies as a cure makes as much sense as “preventing” blackness to reduce heart attacks.

So making students feel bad about their bodies or others’ does no one any good. Instead of asking students what we can do to “prevent obesity,” let’s question them on what we can do to promote good health for everyone.

Rather than focusing on individuals’ girth (hardly very scientific or enlightening, after all), we can ask students to examine sources of illness from a public health perspective, including data on how poverty and discrimination jack up metabolic stress, and what we as individuals and communities can do to effect change.

We can discuss how to prevent weight stigma and view body size not as a category for disdain on campus but for inclusion, alongside race, national origin, sexuality, gender and other types of diversity we celebrate.

For all well-intentioned teachers, if what we really want is to promote health, justice and well-being, it’s time to start asking different questions.

And for well-intentioned students, it’s time to speak up and challenge professors promoting weight stigma in the classroom. Oh, and also to tear up those dumb posters.

Join us for a new City College course, Hlth 36: Health at Every Size: Shifting the Paradigm for Weight to Well-being.

Linda Bacon is a City College instructor with a Ph.D. in physiology from the University of California, Davis. She is also an author, scientist and nutritionist.

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