Obesity examined: Health Ethics Conference talk at MU encourages compassion

Thursday, October 10, 2013 | 11:03 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — There are no easy answers about how or why Americans struggle so much with their weight. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2009-10 that 35.7 percent of the adult population was obese. That's more than one-third of all American adults.

Anna Kirkland, an associate professor of women's studies at the University of Michigan, gave a presentation about obesity Thursday night at MU's Memorial Student Union.

Health Ethics conference

Kirkland's talk is part of the Ninth Annual Health Ethics Conference sponsored by the Center of Health Ethics, part of the MU School of Medicine. The theme of this year's conference, which runs from Oct. 10-12, is "The Ethics of Obesity."

More information can be found at by clicking on "events."


Her talk focused on understanding environmental factors that lead to obesity and how weight discrimination affects people. The lecture hall was standing room only and attendees included MU nursing students, community members, health care professionals and professors, both active and retired.

Kirkland studied discrimination in law school. She wrote her dissertation for her doctoral degree in law on weight discrimination and has been studying it ever since. She has extensively interviewed people who qualify as obese in the United States.

Rather than placing blame on individuals, Kirkland said she believes it may be more useful to examine the environmental factors that lead to and sustain obesity, such as food deserts, agricultural and food policies and weight discrimination. She called these factors "obesogenic environments."

"There is extensive antipathy towards fat people/overweight people, whichever word you want to use, and that it has very significant effects and somewhat sadly, it can often bring about weight gain," Kirkland said. "The stigma doesn't work because it promotes the very thing that people are trying to stigmatize and help."

Kirkland acknowledged that while individual choice is important to consider, obesity can be viewed from other perspectives. She asked the audience: Does poverty make people overweight or does being overweight make people poor?

She encouraged individuals to avoid stigmatizing language and alarmist terminology, such as "obesity pandemic" or "public health crisis." Fat panic and discrimination are not effective, she said. She suggested health care workers and community members cultivate empathy and compassion within this complex issue.

"I think that it was a very thorough and descriptive way that we have to deal with the problem that obesity gives," said Boyd Terry, professor emeritus in the division of burn and wound surgery at the MU School of Medicine. He and his wife, Carolyn Terry, a retired pediatrician, worked with obese patients for decades as health care professionals.

Addressing the compassion issue that obesity presents, Carolyn Terry said: "If you think it's hard to be a heavy adult, try being a heavy child."

Kirkland's talk started off the Ninth Annual Health Ethics Conference. This year's theme is "The Ethics of Obesity."

Supervising editor is Stephanie Ebbs.

Like what you see here? Become a member.

Show Me the Errors (What's this?)

Report corrections or additions here. Leave comments below here.

You must be logged in to participate in the Show Me the Errors contest.


Leave a comment

Speak up and join the conversation! Make sure to follow the guidelines outlined below and register with our site. You must be logged in to comment. (Our full comment policy is here.)

  • Don't use obscene, profane or vulgar language.
  • Don't use language that makes personal attacks on fellow commenters or discriminates based on race, religion, gender or ethnicity.
  • Use your real first and last name when registering on the website. It will be published with every comment. (Read why we ask for that here.)
  • Don’t solicit or promote businesses.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through. If you see something objectionable, please click the "Report comment" link.

You must be logged in to comment.

Forget your password?

Don't have an account? Register here.