Modern Etiquette: Do the obese really deserve contempt?

SEATTLE (Reuters) - Disgust. Pity. Contempt.

Two audience members watch the 2007 "Farm Aid" concert in New York in this September 9, 2007 file photo. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/Files (

Obesity is everywhere in our society today -- and this is how it is met by a remarkable number of people.

People who would find slurs against other groups unthinkable still seem to think nothing of correcting, lecturing, and even humiliating complete strangers who are overweight.

Not only is such casual obesity-bashing considered harmless, some people actually seem to believe they are “helping” the overweight person by “giving advice.”

And the more overweight the person, the more many people seem to feel entitled either to preach or scorn.

This is not a small issue.

Obesity is fast becoming a worldwide epidemic. More than 25 percent of Americans are obese.

The implications -- higher mortality, greater preventable disease, billions of dollars in often unsuccessful remedies -- are enormous.

Michelle Obama has waged war on it.

Airlines wrestle with it.

Employers prefer to avoid it wherever possible.

And yet feelings of superiority continue to lace the public discourse on this issue.

My question is, while the obesity wars are being waged, can’t we remain compassionate? Wherever we fall on the scale, we all are obliged to give some thought to this matter.

Good manners are based on kindness, respect, and consideration for every human being. They often depend on our ability to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes and, always, on our belief in the dignity of individuals.

Why are these attitudes so often cast aside when the issue at hand is weight?

I’ve consulted with physicians who care for obese individuals and surgeons who perform weight-loss surgery, as well as remarkable, thoughtful patients who courageously shared their painful experiences.

Their days are filled with pressure and embarrassment:

- They are shamed by the disgust and judgment they see in the eyes of others-even from complete strangers

- They live in constant fear of getting trapped in turnstiles, of breaking chairs and toilets, and of not being able to get up should they fall.

- They can well imagine - if not hear outright - the criticism of passengers seated next to them on airplanes, buses, and trains

- They can spot the disapproval and immediate dismissal of those who interview them for jobs (assuming they have the temerity to show up for an interview)

- Above all, they are keenly aware that just about everyone out there believes that they could lose all that weight if they just exerted a little willpower, if they weren’t so lazy, if they didn’t eat this, or do that.

The fact is, most obese people are fundamentally just average-sized folks who have become trapped under layers of fat and can’t seem to find a way out. Most have spent countless hours and dollars trying to do something about their weight.

The remarks they endure on a regular basis run from the borderline illegal, to the openly condescending, to the clueless and patronizing.

“When is your baby due?” “You would be so beautiful if you just lost weight.” “Why can’t you control yourself?” “I don’t think of you as overweight.”

Words aren’t necessary to wound. Stares, snickers, sneers, and smirks cut just as sharply.

Discussing another person’s weight without his or her permission is rude and inappropriate. If you are working with, or entertaining, an obese individual, know that they are very concerned about personal space and furniture that won’t accommodate them. This understanding will help you meet their needs.

- When extending invitations, avoid situations where there are only folding chairs. Chairs without arms are easier to get on and off. Couches can be scary.

- Check that restaurants have chairs without arms, and tables rather than booths.

- Be wary of activities that require a lot of walking or standing. You would do the same for anyone with a walker or wheelchair.

- Suggest that you are the one who needs to stop for a rest, if you’re walking with an obese person. It doesn’t have to be obvious.

- Be as matter-of-fact as possible in asking, “Is there any way I can help?” Or, “Will you need some accommodations for you to be comfortable?”

As one obese individual said: “I think most people want to cover their eyes or look away. I would rather have my size acknowledged than ignored while I continue to struggle.”

Ideally, obese individuals should be encouraged to take responsibility to ensure that their needs are met, their rights protected, and their lives led as fully as they want them to be. However, this does not relieve the rest of us of the need to be more compassionate.

Think about it. If, as we battle to eliminate obesity, we deny ourselves the friendship, the collegiality, the creativity, and the intelligence of one in every four people in the process, who is really the biggest loser?

(Editing by Belinda Goldsmith)

(Mary Mitchell has written several books on the subject of etiquette, including “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Etiquette” and “Class Acts.” She is also the founder of executive training

consultancy The Mitchell Organization with the website The opinions expressed are her own.)