By Dan O’Connor, PhD


You have perhaps heard of “mansplaining”. It’s the observed phenomenon wherein men, assuming that perfectly capable women are, by virtue of their being women, ignorant, generously explain things they already know to them.


Today I came across a close relative of mansplaining. I call it thinsplaining. It’s where people who aren’t overweight assume that people who are overweight need their problem explained to them in detail.


Dan Callahan is one of the elder statesmen of bioethics, who has made numerous extremely important and valuable contributions to the field, on issues  from abortion to euthanasia and everything in between. And now he has turned his attention to obesity, by which I mean he thinsplains it. I have no idea if Dan Callahan is thin, but in his article, ‘Obesity: Chasing an Elusive Epidemic’  he sure writes like he is. In it he declares that, having himself been shamed into quitting smoking, the only way to end the obesity epidemic is to shame the fat right off people. That’s right: a good ole’ fashioned public stigmatizin’ to mortify the flesh away.


But wait! This isn’t just any kind of stigmatization. Oh, no. This is special, bioethical stigma that, quoth Callahan, “does not lead to outright discrimination” (well, as long as it’s not outright…). This, ladies and gentlemen, is “stigmatization lite.” Alas, Callahan misses the opportunity to name it “Diet Stigma.”


You see, thinsplains Callahan, because nothing else seems to be working, we must turn to making obese people feel bad about themselves in order to shed the pounds. (Because no fat person ever felt bad about themselves, obviously). What we need, apparently, is a concerted system of social pressure that makes obese people “put some uncomfortable questions to themselves.”  (Because overweight people only ever softball themselves with questions about the last episodes of NCIS and Two and Half Men.) Would you like to know what those questions are? Of course you would:


  • If you are overweight or obese, are you pleased with the way you look?
  • Are you happy that your added weight has made many ordinary activities, such as walking up a long fight of stairs, harder?
  • Would you prefer to lessen your risk of heart disease and diabetes?
  • Are you aware that, once you gain a significant amount of weight, your chances of taking that weight back off and keeping it off are poor?
  • Are you pleased when your obese children are called “fatty” or otherwise teased at school?
  • Fair or not, do you know that many people look down upon those excessively overweight or obese, often in fact discriminating against them and making fun of them or calling them lazy and lacking in self-control?


Can he possibly believe that people who have struggled with their weight would need to be made to ask themselves these questions? Does he think he is the first person to think them up?  Can he never have read Fat is a Feminist Issue? (Rumours that this list originally included “Aren’t you disgusted with yourself, you big fat fatty?” are unconfirmed at this time).


One of the interesting things about Callahan’s piece is the way in which he makes obese people into a sort of amorphous ‘other’ to himself and the reader:


“When it is as common as is now the case, those who are overweight hardly notice that others are the same: it is just the way ordinary people look. We need them to notice the others and to want something different for themselves – and those others will be similarly motivated… Only a carefully calibrated effort of public social pressure is likely to awaken them to the reality of their condition… They should not want to be that way.”


“We” need “them” to get with the program; we, presumably being sylph-like and lithe, “them” being lumpen drains upon the economy. The piece, as a whole, is written in pure mandarin: a view from the heights – if only everyone else could see so clearly! Oblivious to the actual lived experiences of the people he would like lite-ly to stigmatize, Callahan’s whole idea is predicated on his own assumption that obese people either want to be fat, enjoy being fat, don’t know they’re fat, aren’t willing not to be fat, or live in a world without any kind of media whatsoever and thus think everybody is fat. These aren’t actual obese people, these are obese people as imagined by Dan Callahan, presumed non-obese person. That it might ever have occurred to “them” that “they” might want to change their weight or their lifestyle, seems not to be something he has considered. “They” are as much of a fantasy as Marie Antoinette’s shepherdess’s cottage, except now he’s declaring “let them not eat cake!”


Callahan provides us with scant evidence that shaming works when it comes to obesity. Although he understands that there are socio-economic factors involved, he presents stigma as a cure-all for them. He seems to think that the reason government won’t legislate to curb the availability of cheap, obesity-causing food is because we, as a society, simply aren’t grossed out by fat people enough. If we were then government would suddenly be able to extricate itself from the 60+ years of  post-WW2, post-Great Depression legislation designed to enable Americans to afford to feed themselves. Because of course it is a lack of public shaming, and certainly not a wildly complex matrix of poverty, commodified crops, subsidies, politics, psychology and economic necessity, that currently prevents the government from mandating that Nebraska turn its corn fields over to artisanal squash cooperatives.


This isn’t evidence-based public policy, it’s organized bullying masquerading as being cruel to be kind. It’s not bioethics, it’s thinsplaining.


(For more on the perniciousness of fat shaming and discrimination, see Deborah Lupton’s excellent post here)


DanOConnor_BWDan O’Connor – Research Scientist, Faculty, Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. Dan has two main research areas: the ethics of social media in healthcare and historicising the ethics of emerging diseases

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7 Responses to “Dan Callahan Thinsplains Obesity”

  1. “It’s not bioethics, it’s thinsplaining.” Not sure if you just invented that term, but you just know it will be included in your obit some day. Brilliant!

    It seems to me that the concept of “mansplaining” has been very useful in other health-related debates, too. One of my favourites was around the health media watchdog Health News Review, which took aim at an American Heart Association women’s heart disease awareness campaign called “Just A Little Heart Attack” in 2011.

    This was a hilarious – yet bang on accurate – short film by Elizabeth Banks, who portrays a busy woman trying to get her chaotic family out the door one morning while ignoring her textbook heart attack symptoms (a regrettably – and deadly – real life common problem with women heart patients).

    The Health News Review piece (written by a non-woman/non-heart attack survivor) slammed this AHA campaign as “disease-mongering” designed simply to get women to shop at Macy’s (the company provided funding for the AHA film).

    And when the avalanche of opposing comments (from actual real-life women heart attack survivors) got too hot to handle, the comment section of the post was simply shut down. More on this mansplaining example at: http://myheartsisters.org/2011/10/12/mansplaining/

    Both mansplaining and “thinsplaining” can provoke this one potential reaction in common:

    “You have no frickety-frackin’ clue!”

  2. NR says:

    If you are overweight or obese, are you pleased with the way you look?– Yep!

    Are you happy that your added weight has made many ordinary activities, such as walking up a long fight of stairs, harder? Huh? I have no problems climbing stairs, biking, dancing, playing DDR, doing drag or any other activities I love!

    Would you prefer to lessen your risk of heart disease and diabetes? Totally! You can change my family history now???

    Are you aware that, once you gain a significant amount of weight, your chances of taking that weight back off and keeping it off are poor? Well, I’ve always had this weight, so I didn’t think it was going anywhere anytime soon.

    Are you pleased when your obese children are called “fatty” or otherwise teased at school? No, it leads me to believe the parents of my children’s classmates have been raised with very bad manners, at best, or in an abusive or shaming environment at worst.

    Fair or not, do you know that many people look down upon those excessively overweight or obese, often in fact discriminating against them and making fun of them or calling them lazy and lacking in self-control? Yes. I have moved through the world as a fat person– clearly something this quack who quit smoking has not done.

  3. Barb Caffrey says:

    Thank you so much for writing this, Dan. Between this post and another one (Samantha B.’s with Kristi the guest-blogger that is mentioned in comment #1), I am glad to see that at least a few people are taking aim at the central fallacy of this argument by Callahan (or as I just called it at the other blog, He Who Must Not Be Named Anymore — mostly because he’s a moron despite his higher education, but I can’t remember what clever way I just put it over at the other site).

    It’s ludicrous to believe that every overweight or obese person is in a One Size Fits All category. And it’s also completely ludicrous to believe that the only way most heavy people will lose weight is to be shamed into it — in fact, it’s so far beyond ludicrous, it’s nearly sinful in the absolute sense of the world (as such terrible behavior would promote much pain and suffering that is needless at absolute best, even if it actually worked, which it never would).

    Your term of “thinsplain” makes perfect sense. Because that is exactly it is — a bunch of nonsense made up by someone who thinks he has all the answers ’cause he’s not heavy — and it’s uncompassionate, cold and utterly cruel nonsense at that.

    Thank you for calling He Who Must Not Be Named Anymore (For He is a Moron) on it.

  4. Evan says:

    This is the first article I’ve read from this website. I was hoping something with such an official-sounding name would have more journalistic merit and meat to its arguments, but this reads just like every other snark-filled Facebook post that includes the phrases “No. Just no.” and “How. DARE. You.”

    It doesn’t seem like your brand of ethics is concerned with doing what is right, so much as establishing that the WORST possible thing is for anyone to feel bad. Which, evidently, is seized upon by your commenters, who eagerly eat up (lol) another opportunity to practice their own style of shaming, while excusing obesity as a problem someone ELSE created. Bowing at the altar of feminism so often has apparently dulled your wit along with your connection to reality.

  5. Amanda says:

    Where on earth does Dr. Callahan live? Has he ever met an actual fat person? Read a standard women’s magazine? Spent 10 minutes surfing the Internet? These questions are bizarre, absurdly so. I can’t fathom how a person who appears to be quite intelligent and accomplished could have come up with this.

    And I am equally baffled by Evan’s comment.

  6. I had been 60 pounds overweight the last 3 years, actually, since I hit 40. We don’t know Dan Callahan’s motives for making such a suggestion, guess what guys, I’m married to someone who asked me those same questions. Yes, I was shamed into losing weight and I feel better, look better too.

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