It’s a shame what Bill Maher has been saying about the obesity epidemic in more ways than one. Back in 2019, on his HBO show “Real Time with Bill Maher,” Maher literally asked people to “fat shame” others more, as I covered for Forbes. Yes, you heard that correctly. Now, in the latest episode of his show, Maher complained that America has “gone from fat acceptance to fat celebration.” Huh? Who said that there’s been such a “celebration?”
To justify this claim, Maher asserted that “There’s a disturbing trend going on in America these days with rewriting science to fit ideology or just to fit what you want reality to be,” as you can see in the following tweet from Maher and the accompanying video:
Just to be clear, Maher is not a scientist. During this segment, he also didn’t present any real scientific studies or have any, you know, real live scientists present. So, hmmm, was he in fact presenting actual science or was he rather rewriting science to fit his ideology or just to fit what he wants reality to be? Well, let’s take a look at what else Maher had to say.
Maher’s next lines were, “that is new, to view yourself letting go as a point of pride. We used to try to be fit and healthy, and society praised those who succeeded. Now the term ‘body positivity’ is used to mean, ‘I’m perfect the way I am because I’m me.’” Umm, that statement may fit the Bill but does it fit the bill of reality? Who said that body positivity should be about saying, “I’m perfect the way I am because I’m me?” When have real health professionals said that anyone should believe that he or she is perfect and has no room for improvement? It’s not as if doctors have been telling patients, “You are perfect, don’t do anything,” or rather “Do whatever you feel like doing” or “Higher than recommended body mass indices (BMI) or obesity are absolutely no problem.” When have scientific journal articles said, “Everyone is perfect. Everything is perfect. The end.” Quite the contrary. health professionals and public health experts have been trying to get policy makers, business sectors, and more of society in general to acknowledge and do more about the obesity epidemic. Body positivity does not necessarily deny these realities.
Instead, body positivity is about understanding that one size or one shape does not fit all. If, for example, everyone were supposed to look like NBA star Lebron James, then Maher would have a lot of work to do on himself, possibly a body transplant. Instead, body positivity is about understanding that even when a given person works very hard and does all the “right things,” such as eat healthily and exercise a lot, he or she may still never achieve the same body size as someone who can eat an all-hot dog and pizza diet while retaining the body shape of Groot from the Guardians of the Galaxy. You can maintain body positivity while treating obesity. The two are not mutually exclusive.
Therefore, when Maher continued with “‘Healthy at any weight’ is an unchallenged lie that people tell themselves so that they can go on and eat anything they want,” he was not accurately portraying what the phrase really is and means. First of all, the more established phrase is Health at Every Size (HAES), as described by a publication in the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH). And HAES doesn’t mean that you can just eat anything that you want, not exercise, and add extra body weight with no consequence. Instead, it means that body size (or weight) is just one measure that alone may not necessarily reflect a person’s actual overall health. Otherwise, someone who is very, very low weight and just skin and bones, eating nothing all day, would be considered the healthiest of the healthy.
Later in his rant, Maher asserted, “At some point, acceptance becomes enabling. And if you are in any way participating in this joyful celebration of gluttony that goes on now, you have blood on your hands. Full stop.” Umm, full stop, indeed. Again, who exactly is having a “joyful celebration of gluttony?” Have any real obesity experts actually said, “Yay, gluttony?”
Also, during his rant, Maher labelled Ted Kyle, RPh, MBA, founder of ConscienHealth, as a “Fat activist.” Yeah, labelling may be a fun thing to do in high school, but advocating against weight-based and body size-based bias and discrimination as Kyle has done is not being a “fat activist.” The words “fat activist” makes it sounds like someone is actually pushing for the interests of adipose tissue, which doesn’t seem to be the case with Kyle. There is no adipose tissue lobby. As you can see in the following American Journal of Managed Care (AJMC) video, Kyle has emphasized how public stigma can actually hinder the proper treatment of obesity:
As Kyle indicated, fear of being stigmatized or mistreated by the healthcare system can prevent those suffering from obesity from seeking appropriate care. Once again, body positivity and obesity prevention and treatment are not mutually exclusive. You can emphasize the health risks associated with overweight conditions and obesity without shaming people. ConscienHealth did respond to Maher’s comments with a post entitled “A Troll Returns to Bully People with Obesity.” The post included a subsection named “Same Stupid Schtick, New Easy Target,” which said, “Bullies don’t like picking on someone their own size. So this time, Maher chose to mock ConscienHealth’s Ted Kyle to make his hateful points about fat people. After all, Kyle is no celebrity. He’s an easy target – no TV show, no studio audience.”
Maybe next time Maher can bring Kyle on his HBO show so that everyone can hear directly from the source what Kyle has been saying rather than Maher’s interpretation of what Kyle has been saying? It would be interesting to see what Maher would say when in the company of real experts in the field.
Speaking of company, Maher’s rant included the following statement as well: “Nike, Sports Illustrated, Victoria’s Secret, companies that are specifically about fitness nevertheless promote people who are plainly not into fitness.” OK, “specifically about fitness” may not be the first thing that you think of when one mentions Victoria’s Secret. A lot of their lingerie is probably not designed specifically for spinning class, the 100 meter hurdles, or other fitness purposes. Moreover, in that statement, Maher was doing exactly what anti-bias advocates have warned against doing: assuming that someone of a certain body size or type is “plainly not into fitness.” Maybe Maher should go visit some NFL linemen and tell them to their faces that they are plainly not into fitness because they may be beyond a certain body weight.
Throughout his rant, Maher continued to advance stereotypes of those who may have larger body sizes or higher BMIs, which caught the ire of those on social media such as @SER1897:
Near the end of Maher’s rant, Maher acted as if he already knew how to solve the obesity epidemic and that it’s simply a matter of telling people to be less gluttonous. Maher said that in response to people saying that they struggle with obesity, “Everything’s a struggle. Life’s a struggle. But somehow 50 years ago, this country looked entirely different. You don’t think it was a struggle for them?”
This waaaayyy oversimplifies the obesity epidemic and overlooks a lot of the scientific studies that have shown that many other factors may be contributing to the obesity epidemic. As I have written before many times for Forbes, the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) International, and Nutrition Reviews, the obesity epidemic is a major global crisis that’s a systems problem and not one that can be solved simply by telling everyone to eat less and exercise more. It’s certainly not one that can be solved by shaming and bullying people more. That tact was attempted in the 1990’s and the 200o’s, and again the 2010’s with all those fad diets and fitness programs. And where has it gotten our society? Obesity rates have continued to go up and up.
Simply blaming individuals for the obesity epidemic neglects the fact that a lot in our society has changed since the late 1970’s when obesity rates began rising. For example, some on Twitter wondered aloud (because you can’t really wonder silently on Twitter) why Maher didn’t say more about the food industry, which has added more and more additives and processing steps to food and beverage items over the years:
While the composition of food may be playing a major role in the obesity epidemic, it’s certainly not the only culprit. Anytime a major public health problem persists, the cause is a system of different factors. In the past several decades that have had corresponding rises in obesity rates, other changes have occurred such as more and more chemicals in food and the environment, neighborhoods becoming less walkable, sleep problems increasing, and work becoming increasingly sedentary. These are just some of the factors that have changed.
Furthermore, the obesity epidemic has paralleled the rise of other health problems such as other chronic medical conditions, loneliness, and mental health issues that started in the 1980’s and have continued their upward trends in the decades since. So chances are some of the same factors are contributing to each of these different trends. Maher was right when he said, “But somehow 50 years ago, this country looked entirely different,” but probably not in the way he meant it.
This certainly wasn’t the first time that Maher has ranted about a scientific issue yet not included real scientific experts on his show. During the Covid-19 pandemic, he’s criticized vaccines and face mask use while talking about using ivermectin for Covid-19 and suggesting that sunshine and vitamin D could be used to prevent Covid-19, as I covered previously for Forbes. One Twitterer pointed out how a lot of things Maher said on his most recent show were a bit of a shame, so to speak:
Maher was right about one thing, though: the “disturbing trend going on in America these days with rewriting science to fit ideology or just to fit what you want reality to be.” Would an example of such a trend be a talk show where the host talks about a scientific topic but doesn’t really bring on verified scientific experts to talk about that topic? Wouldn’t it be a shame whenever such a thing happens?
Life Sciences, Forbes – Healthcare