Fat chance of success

BY Archana Venkat| IN Media Practice | 23/08/2012
People have been discriminated based on looks, caste, or language. Now add one more to it: body size.
ARCHANA VENKAT analyses a health story which is poorly researched and purely one-sided.

If I go under the scalpel, I will get employed/ promoted. That is what many would be prompted to think when they read the latest piece of health news that appeared last week. Relating cosmetic and other physique-improving surgery to better employment prospects looks more like a gimmick to attract readers than to responsibly report a trend.

Health, a supplement of The Week magazine, carried a cover story on surgical makeovers and how they had boosted the careers of every person they had interviewed. The piece carried interviews with professionals of all types--pilot, airhostess, lawyer, software engineer, businesswoman, and salesman--to capture the trend of people opting for all varieties of surgeries, even if they were not part of glamour-driven industries. Some of the treatments mentioned include physique contouring, cosmetic surgery to alter facial features, breast and arms reduction surgery, gynaecomastia, high-definition body-sculpting for six-pack abs, rhinoplasty, liposuction, smile makeover, and teeth bleaching.
All those interviewed said the surgery boosted their careers. Really? How do we know for sure that the only reason they got a job or did better was solely because of their new look? What about other needs that are part of one’s job such as technical skills, good communication, and general performance at work? None of this was discussed in the piece.
A plastic surgeon at a popular Delhi-based hospital was quoted as saying that 60 percent of his patients underwent surgical procedures to improve their job prospects. To balance this opinion, the piece quoted just one cosmetic surgeon as saying there was no correlation between surgery and better job prospects. He added that surgery of any kind was risky and unless a medical condition warranted, one should stay away from such procedures. No information was provided on what exactly happens as part of these surgeries, side effects, and whether the results are permanent in a person’s lifetime.
What are readers more likely to believe? Reams of anecdotal evidence supplied by the people interviewed or two conflicting perspectives offered by specialists?
The media often highlights that only around 40 per cent of our graduates and 25 per cent of our post-graduates are employable. Will they all get jobs, if they just look good?
The second piece published by the magazine in the same issue is more direct. Titled “Thin chance for the fat”, it briefly chronicles the experiences of four individuals who claimed to have lost jobs because they were obese. The piece quotes the CEO of a head-hunting firm as saying: “If you are obese, chances of getting a job of your choice is almost 100 per cent gone now as most companies don't recruit you instantly. Further, even if you are employed, in 50 to 60 per cent cases, the appraisals thereafter are not as good as the regular-weight candidates'.” No clear evidence of such a case is presented in the entire story. This recruiter does not say if his clients specifically ask him to provide candidates who are not obese. Also no corporate view has been sought on this issue. The supporting research quoted by this piece does not have any figures pertaining to India.
Employers' bias?
While being obese is certainly not healthy, nowhere does the story attempt to realistically state what obese individuals cannot do that people of normal weight can. For example, are obese individuals slower in completing certain tasks? Or can normal-weight people multi-task faster? What about those who are genetically predisposed to being large or are large-boned? Many doctors agree that calculating the body mass index (BMI), a commonly used method to determine if one is obese, is not the most accurate method to determine fitness and health.  How then can we determine one’s health?
Is this reflective of the employers’ bias towards those who are generally better looking, glib talkers and better networked? Indian society has been prejudiced and has discriminated against people based on their looks, caste, regional affinity, and everything else apart from factors that really matter--talent, knowledge, and ability to perform on the job. Thanks to such news, one can now rationalize discrimination and have employers justifying that they have hired the average-weight person because such a person would put less strain on the employee health insurance scheme, take up less space in the office elevator, and eat less food at the cafeteria. After all, these are business costs and a company has a right to limit its costs.
Strangely no piece talks about how corporates are largely to blame for the sedentary lifestyle and lack of work-life balance which results in health issues. Most don’t encourage employees to take vacations or go home on time.  Instead, the story highlights aspects such as rise in corporate memberships at gyms for employees to get healthy. Is that the only way to lose weight? What about alternative forms of exercise such as yoga, jogging, or free running? There is no mention of diet and nutrition either.
Other types of discrimination are also possible, if one were to read news reports of the rising number of eye lid surgeries performed in the north-east so patients can look “Aryan” as the rest of Indians. The story says children as young as 15 years are undergoing such surgeries to have a chance at a “normal college life” so they will not be addressed by derogatory terms such as “chinki.” Nowhere does it talk about the dangers of such surgery or whether such an operation was sufficient to mask one’s identity. Those from the north-east are recognisable also by their slim physique, good fashion sense, and polite manners. Will these not give away their identities?
This issue is explored in an article by The Times of India where doctors urge patients to undergo counselling as part of planning for a cosmetic surgery procedure. The article quotes a plastic surgeon saying, “People who want plastic surgery often blame their features for functional inadequacies, like a salesman claiming that his crooked nose affects his performance at work.” Such articles presenting the other side of surgeries, however, are far and few in the Indian media.
Trend reporting is much more than just talking about success stories. Reporters should strive to look deeper into the issues they are covering to see the bigger story. In my opinion, the bigger story here is not of the search for perfection by individuals but of the very real possibilities of using this perfection as a tool to discriminate. Those without the means (or inclination) to afford such surgeries will stand to lose in this unfair battle. And the media would have had a hand in promoting such a surgery-driven lifestyle.
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