The Right to Be Fat or the Right to Health?

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Photo: Newsis

No one likes fat-shaming. Our generation has it that people—all people—have the right to be whatever size they want, be it super slim or obese. The so-called “right to be fat” was clearly stated in anti-discrimination lawyer Yofi Tirosh’s 2012 article that “the law should recognize a new realm of liberty: the realm of body size” and that everyone should “scrutinize governmental policies aiming to create incentives for losing weight.”

Tirosh argues throughout the course of her article that it is strange for a government to impose any laws prohibiting weight gain when it ensures freedom of personal choice in matters ranging from sexual orientation, contraception, and numerous aspects of matters considered private to individuals.

But when organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) began laying out the facts: that worldwide obesity has nearly tripled since 1975, that 41 million children no older than 5 were overweight or obese in 2016, and that cardiovascular disease (considered the common heath consequence of obesity) were the leading cause of death in 2014, the words “obesity is preventable” on the WHO’s main page suggest the value of the right to live, and the right to a quality life.

This was the underlying argument for Japan’s 2008 ruling of its “Metabo Law”, named after metabolic syndrome which is a collection of symptoms that can lead to diabetes and heart disease. For a country that has consistently had one of the lowest obesity rates out of all OECD nations—averaging 3.6% obesity amongst adults (15 years and older) over the years—it came as a surprise that national authorities would see a need to take out the measuring tape. Professor at Tokai University’s School of Medicine Yoichi Ogushi even said that there was “no need at all” for the Japanese to lose weight.

It is said, however, that growing concern over health costs for a large elderly population resulted in the government taking preventive measures. Strictly speaking, the Japanese government does not outlaw citizens from being overweight, but it imposes a fine on companies if a percentage of their workers’ waist circumferences exceed the state limit of 90cm for women and 85cm for men. These numbers adhere to the standards given as a guideline by the International Diabetes Federation to prevent lifestyle-related diseases.

Under the Metabo Law, people between the ages of 40 and 74 are required to take annual checkups measuring their waistlines administered by their local corporations. Since 2008, the Japanese government was bent on shrinking the overweight population by 25 percent by 2015. Comparable figures for obesity rates in 2008 are unclear as measurements were not officially taken in the past. But fast-forward to 2017, and Japan now has the lowest obesity rate amongst OECD nations with 3.7% obesity (South Korea comes in second lowest at 5.3%).

Although Japan’s current figure does not differ greatly from its 2014 measurement, it seems government regulations and a variety of weight-maintenance programs have effectively kept the national weight in check.

Interestingly enough, sumo wrestlers are also placed under the same government restrictions when they, too, become 40 years old. Fortunately, most wrestlers retire in their mid-thirties, before time for the checkups (Nihon Scope).

What remains debated is the issue of personal choice and matters of private concern; and whether the negative light imposed on overweight individuals will only provide more anxiety in Japanese society. After all, don’t we all have “the right to define [our] own concept of existence, of meaning, and of the mystery of human life” (Yofi Tirosh)?

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