Ethics Quiz: Fat-Shaming Or Legitimate Criticism?

Belgian health

That’s Maggie De Block, the Belgian Minister of Health from October 2014 to October 2020. She is currently serving as a member of the World Health Organization’s Pan-European Commission on Health and Sustainable Development.

For some reason her photograph came to the attention of social media over the weekend, and she is being made the target of considerable mockery (though she is being incorrectly labeled as Belgium’s current Minister of Health). At 59, she is estimated to weigh between 350 and 400 pounds.

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz to begin a busy week is…

Is it fair to criticize her for her weight when she is in a position involved with health promotion and policy?

I was once referred to a heart specialist for my persistent and asymptomatic arrhythmia. He was also about 350 pounds. I found it…strange. It took some doing for me to trust an expert telling me how to keep my heart healthy when he was so morbidly obese. (And indeed, his diagnosis and prescribed treatment turned out to be wrong, but that was just moral luck.) I analogize his weight to having a heart specialist chain-smoking during while performing a check-up.

Maybe this is a Belgium thing. I find it difficult to believe that the U.S. public or the media would tolerate, for example, a 400 pound Surgeon General. Which culture has the ethics right?

34 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: Fat-Shaming Or Legitimate Criticism?

  1. “Is it fair to criticize her for her weight when she is in a position involved with health promotion and policy?”

    I think the correct answer is no. We don’t know why she is overweight and being overweight, even to the point of obesity doesn’t make the person unable to do the job. There are medical reasons that can cause obesity, yes many times these things are treatable but sometimes the treatments have negative side effects that are unsurmountable.

    On the other hand; appearances do matter when it comes to a Minister of Health and this looks bad.

    • Whether we want to admit it or not appearances matter a great deal in *leadership*. Therefore appearances *are* an ethical component of leadership. And failing at that is an ethical failure. It is not unfair to criticize a minister of health who is one excited heartbeat away from cardiac arrest. But there is here room for tone and volume of criticism. The critics in this scenario are probably too loud while the non-critics are too quiet.

  2. One of the things I hate most about fat shaming is that people seem to feel they have a right to shame others based on weight. I mean, you can SEE how fat someone is. No matter the reason for the weight, there’s no hiding it.

    We have all kinds of people who should be/could be shamed for far worse things. The difference is, we can’t see it on the outside the way we can see fat. I don’t think we should shame anyone for a physical characteristic. Imagine if real reasons for shame were as visible as fat. Pedophiles, psychopaths, animal and child abusers, and wife beaters can hide their flaws, but fat is out there for everyone to see.

    Is this woman good at her job? Is she competent, reliable, and trusted by peers and subordinates? Was she thin and fit when hired? If she wasn’t, this shouldn’t even be in question.

      • Depends, I guess, on why. If she has some condition that makes her unable to keep her weight down, then that should be taken into account. If not, then I wonder how she came to be appointed in the first place.

        I remember reading an article in which a patient joked with his doctor about having “fallen off the snack wagon.” The doctor was unamused, and simply said “Fortunately, we’re here to discuss you, not me. Now, I need you to take off everything except your shorts and get on my super-accurate scale, then we’ll have a look-see at your chart and take some blood to see how you’ve been keeping up with your diet and exercise.”

      • What did she weigh when offered the position? Was she always quite heavy, and we’re just now aware so it’s an issue? Ultimately, the only way this can be an issue is if she was fit as a fiddle when hired, and gained weight. Otherwise, her weight wasn’t a consideration to the employer, so what business do we have to comment (aka shame) now?

      • No way around that cognitive dissonance, which is why it’s unethical for her to be a health minister, although there are appropriate non-public facing roles at WHO.

        • I looked up a “photograph of members of the World Health Organization’s Pan-European Commission on Health and Sustainable Development.” There is such a picture, head-shots only, and only one approaching obese (a Russian woman closely resembling a Russian woman).

      • Been overweight can be the result of causes beyond a persons control and outside of the weight problem they might be very able people. Also some people can and do use drugs including nicotine and marijuana to control their weight and outside of their nice weighted bodies they might be totally inept. Therefore we should not judge by appearances but rather by a persons performance.

  3. 400 pound Surgeon General…. Immediately thought of Stacey Abrams. We could try her in that position and she just needs appointment, not election.

  4. I will admit that to attack the person and not the idea is an ad hominen attack, but it is hard to take a person seriously when they don’t essentially “practice what they preach.” Afterall, this isn’t some random joe on the street this is someone in a position of authority and expertise. If she were to go on TV or i don’t know, maybe to a baseball game without a mask and then tell me I need to wear a mask, I might say, look in the mirror. But if she’s just minding her own business then I see no reason to comment on her weight/mask/or whatever is the issue.

    Maybe the naked teacher principle applies here?

  5. I have to say that it is probably not appropriate, even for someone who was Minister for Health for years.

    But I still look at someone such as that and want to strongly urge her to get help, before it is too late. I have a very close relative who is at least that obese, and I can see how much it impacts her health and many many things in her life. And I know how tough it is to reverse course. I struggle with extra weight myself, and I know it’s much harder for people who are morbidly obese.

    But not impossible.

    So I come down against the fat shaming — but I also don’t think it’s right to celebrate obesity. It’s not a good thing — just for fun, try to imagine how many people have died (who might not otherwise) because they were markedly obese when they came down with Covid.

    p.s. Just to accentuate that point, she would have been in the very first tranche of folks eligible for the Covid shot, even at 58.

  6. I think some people find it difficult to follow their own advice. Can a medical professional who is obese still know their stuff? I think so. Are the optics bad? Absolutely.

    The vast majority of people who are obese are obese because they don’t live a healthy life (and I say that as someone who isn’t obese but is overweight). I could still theoretically go to medical school and become a doctor and do my job. I know many others who could as well. There’s a difference between not knowing how to do something and just not doing it. The obese doctor is different from health professionals who don’t follow their own COVID advice or politicize the science.

    Now, if someone is obese and they are self-righteous about other people making good decisions, then I think there’s a legitimacy issue, but if someone is competent and just gives the advice as is without any judgment attached, I don’t have any problems listening to the person. Information and arguments can be separated from the individual making them.

    Should medical professionals be healthy to give the profession more legitimacy? Yes. Is it required? I don’t think so.

  7. Is it fair to criticize her for her weight when she is in a position involved with health promotion and policy?

    I’m with Steve on this one. I think the answer to the ethics question is “No.”

    I believe there is complexity in that type of role, primarily related to non-medical considerations like planning & strategy. I think if we dissected the various role components, a small portion of it would be related to “spokesperson for healthy eating and exercise.” Not only that, but for that specific role, I think you can properly have someone delivering the message, credibly, from a position of lament. “I want children to eat healthy and establish positive habits at a young age because I feel like I went off the rails and wish I could get it together myself.”

    That isn’t to say that there aren’t or couldn’t be legitimate ethical criticism, but it would be in a specific scenario, for example, if this person was advocating a policy that would apply to her except for her government status. Or if this person was advocating for her lifestyle for others in direct contradiction of the known science. Or if this person was advocating for a vaccine mandate but not for regular daily cardiovascular and weightlifting exercises in a time of a respiratory pandemic.

  8. Would you criticize Fauci for not getting a shot?
    Would you criticize a global warming promoter for flying on a private jet?

    I think this falls under the same umbrella. Unless she has openly shown her lifestyle is healthy and is dealing with some deeper medical issues, she cannot do the job effectively and someone else should take over.

  9. Is it fair? Two words. Hell yes.

    With all the therapies available for morbid obesity, this woman has no excuse for killing herself through her pie hole. She obviously has no common sense whatsoever and shouldn’t be allowed out without a leash.

    And people who rave about how fabulous various obese and morbidly obese influencers are are doubtless among the tons of lefties who fat shamed Trump and Chris Christie without mercy.

    Back before electricity, in the ’60s, our family GP was adamant about his patients being educated as to the risks of obesity. As a twelve-year-old, I’d sit in Doctor Talbot’s examination room staring at a poster with two disembodied human hearts in stainless steel surgical pans, one red, the other basically white. The red heart was the healthy heart and the white one (encased in fat) was “the heart in obesity.” My mother watched her weight per the doctor’s orders because she suffered from high blood pressure (which eventually killed her but not until she was 85). Dr. Talbot was about 5’8″ but trim as could be. I weigh myself every morning. Fat … is no way to go through life.

    Given her line of work, she’s estopped from making any excuse.

    • Other Bill says:
      “With all the therapies available for morbid obesity, this woman has no excuse for killing herself through her pie hole. She obviously has no common sense whatsoever and shouldn’t be allowed out without a leash.”

      Have you ever considered being a weight coach?
      I foresee excellent results for certain clients.

      • Oh Caped Crusader, I have my hands more than full keeping myself out of the stringent obese category as defined by those charts at the cardiologists’.

        I remember an old school Italian restaurant waiter on Miami Beach serving Mrs. OB and myself and saying of the pasta, I think it was, but maybe the dessert, “On the lip is on the hip” as he put it in front of us. The place was owned by the parents of twin daughters I taught in the seventh-grade class of a little Parochial grade school on North Miami Beach. We were comped. Pretty sure it was a mob hang-out. There were a fair number of mafioso families in the parish. I’m virtually certain the modest little ‘fifties bungalow they used as Hyman Roth’s house in “The Godfather II” was in the neighborhood. Hilarious.

  10. As John Paul said above, attacking her credibility on the basis of her weight is a kind of ad hominem argument.

    That sounds accurate, so I have to agree that it is not proper and no logical person should suggest otherwise. On the other hand, if you are of an illogical ilk, by all means, follow your instincts.

    If she is an expert on a certain topic, she is so, regardless of her particular personal issues.

    However, to acknowledge the position of the other side, I will offer these lyrics from Alice Cooper as an example of such reasoning:

    “It’s not like we ain’t on the ball
    We just talk to our shrinks
    Huh, they talk to their shrinks
    No wonder we’re up the wall”

    However, the older I get, the more complicated things seem. In my late-20’s, I reached my highest weight ever because I worked out a lot and was in pretty good shape. I have now eclipsed that record because I am now in my 50’s and just got fat. Some is caloric intake, some is exercise, and some is simple metabolism.

    Biology is hard to fight. My Father-in-Law’s dad died of a heart attack at 57. He was very cognizant of that risk. At 50, he had 10% arterial blockage; at 60, it had jumped to 90%. He was probably overweight but was active in trying to control it and was likely never classified as obese.

    Then, there are those people who have always been fat. I was one of those skinny kids. There were those other kids who were always a little heavy. This person looks like one of them. She was always heavy and always would be.

    Then, I saw my wife go through pregnancies. She is heavy and got hit with gestational diabetes both times. It kind of taught me how modern people are ill-equipped when living in a body that is probably not much different from people living 12,000 years ago. Our bodies are equipped for going several days between meals. But, we live in a world where we feed ourselves constantly. Add to that, the quality of our food is more processed than it was 50, 100, or 150 years ago. And, thank god for that, but there is probably a downside to that.

    Then, my wife had a cousin who was diabetic. She was rail thin, because she did not use her insulin when she should have. She had a sort of eating disorder she managed through insulin. She could eat all she want by withholding insulin. She had chronic health problems and died young.

    There are several reasons that could explain increases in obesity in the population. I am not smart enough to make a snap judgment in this case; by the same token, I am not dumb enough to to make a snap judgment in this case.


    • This is the Bill Cosby argument, you know. Evaluate the message, and don’t allow the messenger to invalidate it. Why shouldn’t Cosby be able to lecture young blacks and parents on responsible and ethical conduct? If what he advises is wise, it’s wise.

      But one cannot ignore the power of cognitive dissonance to drive people away from advice and expertise that they need to heed, and would, from a more credible or admirable source.

      • Jack, isn’t cognitive dissonance just a kind of bias that makes you stupid? Yes, it is bad, but it is your problem, not hers. Part of resisting one’s biases is identifying them; the same is true for cognitive dissonance. You need to be able to recognize where you have cognitive dissonance and then you try to minimize its influence on your thought process.


        • I heartily agree that we are all simply self-propelled food processing units stationed at the end of the food industrial complex’s production and distribution chain. We don’t need three squares a day past being active teenagers. The other huge culprit is TV advertising. Has there ever in the history of man been a more powerful way to make people over-eat than pizza and chicken and hamburger commercials aired between six and nine PM in HD? I can’t imagine any.

  11. At what point on the BMI scale do we begin shaming? I have a BMI of 32 which classifies me as obese. However, I do 120 minutes of rigorous cardio every other day and strength train on the other days. At 65 I can bike 20 to 40 miles in under 3 hours yet my Dr. told me today that my risk of a cardiovascular event jumped two points despite dropping my triglycerides over a 100 mg to a mere 95, lowered my total cholesterol 10 points increased my HDL 5 points and dropped 20 lbs since my last visit. For me to not be obese I have to be under 165 lbs. When I was 40 I weighed in at 185 and wore size 33 waist trousers. I worked at it so it that I would not be discriminated against because I was short and stout rather than tall and thin. Unfortunately when people saw me after time had passed they asked me if I had been sick because I looked gaunt.
    I have to restrict carbs and fruit otherwise my liver turns those calories into fat.
    Unless it can be shown that this person does not practice what she preaches then we should not be so quick to judge her qualifications. I’ll be more likely to take advice from someone who struggles with the same problem as I might have on weight issues before I listen to a genetically wired person whose body processes food in a manner that allows the person to easily fall into these prescribed but questionable norms.

    • You may have a BMI that’s “obese”, however your risk factors are clearly not linked to that anymore. I would personally find a sports medicine doctor who sees more athletic people, but that’s just me. This is a measurement and your doctor is taking it as such, completely ignoring your overall health outlook. There’s many articles on BMI and muscle mass, this is just one of them.

    • “I’ll be more likely to take advice from someone who struggles with the same problem as I might have on weight issues before I listen to a genetically wired person whose body processes food in a manner that allows the person to easily fall into these prescribed but questionable norms.”

      Agreed. But that genetically wired person is pleasant to look at, so bias makes us stupid in the other direction and we assume they’re more smart and competent.

  12. Fat shaming is just mean, golden rule says “no”. So, no not ethical, leave her alone, walk a mile and all that. Weight control’s a bitch. “Minister” sounds like an appointed position. She should not have been appointed to the role. Unless, as Steve-O opined above, she was svelte when appointed and blew up as minister (unlikely). Never seen this many comments on EA. Must hit a chord.

  13. Who cares if my financial advisor is a spendthrift in his own life, if the advice he gives is sound?
    Who cares if my personal trainer was never a weight lifter, if he can instruct me in proper form?
    Who cares if my mechanic drives a coughing rust-bucket, if he can keep my car purring like a kitten?

    My own 2 cents on this: Being judgemental of fat people is easy to do, because if you’re called out for being a nasty jerk you can retreat into the convenient line that “oh, I’m just concerned, they’re not healthy, you know!” while gleefully making jokes about killing yourself with your pie hole or being one excited heartbeat away from death.

    Do we even know that any significant part of her role as a national health minister involved pushing for weight loss and portion control? Do we know how health metrics changed in her country during her tenure, to gauge her effectiveness? Or do we just want to say “haha, look at fat fatty… er, uh, I have concerns about her credibility as a health advocate due to her body weight”?

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