When I got on the plane for a recent flight, I found a seat belt extender on my seat. It’s one of those additional sections of seat belt that airlines use when a passenger is so obese that they cannot fasten the regular seat belt. Apparently the last user of my seat — or perhaps of my seat and the seat next to it — had needed it.
Belt extenders are one of the ways we accommodate overweight people in our society. Most grocery stores provide motorized carts to allow obese customers to roll through the store rather than walking. Products, ranging from clothing to the beds and chairs in hospital rooms, have been redesigned to account for the needs of the super-sized among us. Lawsuits have been filed about employer obligations to take special steps to accommodate heavy employees and whether health care plans are required to cover weight-related operations, like bariatric surgery, and under what conditions.
The Chief Medical Officer of England now has raised concerns about whether society is “normalizing” obesity, to the point where obese people simply accept and rationalize their condition, and the many associated health risks, without feeling any incentive to do something about it. The British doctor pointed to studies that showed that people who in fact are overweight nevertheless consider themselves to be the right weight. And since most obese people have the ability to do something about their condition by changing their eating habits and lifestyles, making them realize that they are, in fact, overweight and need to do something about it is an important first step in treating their conditions.
There’s a fine line here. Obviously, we need to have devices on hand to allow overweight people to be belted in to seats on airplanes, and we need to be sure they can purchase clothing and buy groceries and receive health care. In our capitalistic society, obese people have every right to use their buying power and frequent stores that accommodate their needs, and it’s not surprising that businesses do so. And yet, it is fair to question whether we are enabling obesity, rather than using societal norms to try to combat it. If we are making people comfortable with their grossly overweight condition, are we in fact condemning them to a life of bad health, and condemning society to pay for it?