Is obesity a disease or a matter of beauty?

Here in Minnesota, we are surrounded by obesity, and as this chart from a 2011 study shows, it’s getting worse.

And the link between obesity and poverty is unmistakable. Compare the maps of obesity in the U.S. with the maps of poverty, and you’ll see what I mean.

But is it a disease?

Meeting at their convention yesterday, the American Medical Association declared that it is, according to The Verge.

While this new definition isn’t legally binding, the AMA’s vast influence means that it might very well transform how physicians, legislators and insurance companies address weight loss among those deemed obese. Doctors may be more likely to counsel obese patients on weight loss options, and surgical procedures to promote weight loss, like lap band or gastric bypass, might be covered more comprehensively by health insurance companies. The decision could also see more research dollars allocated to novel pharmaceutical or surgical options.

“[Obesity] is a driver of much suffering, ill health and earlier mortality, and people affected are too often subject to enormous societal stigma and discrimination,” said Theodore Kyle, advocacy chair of The Obesity Society, in a statement applauding the decision. “This vital recognition of obesity as a disease can help to ensure more resources are dedicated to needed research, prevention and treatment.”

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One doctor at the conference said maybe the resolution will help force insurance companies to “stop ducking” treatments aimed at helping obese people.

So why is there a controversy associated with the vote? For that, we can turn to NPR’s Shots blog, which in January interviewed , an associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles and the author of a new book called What’s Wrong With Fat?

She says that as bigger bodies have become framed as a medical problem, those bodies are increasingly seen as bad. “We are living in society in which is it so deeply ingrained that it is bad, immoral to be fat. Fat people are widely seen as lazy, selfish, and consuming too much resources.”

This takes a toll, she argues, in the form of social problems like bullying, weight discrimination and eating disorders. And doctors can make the problem worse by turning their offices into what she says is a hostile environment. Obese women, Saguy says, are less likely to get Pap smears, and thus have higher rates of cervical cancer.

Instead, Saguy would like to see obesity framed as another form of human diversity – beautiful and healthy. And if she had her way, we’d do away with the word “obesity” entirely, trading it for “fatness.”

Discussion point: Is obesity a disease, or a thing of beauty?