MONTREAL – La Pinière MNA Dr. Gaetan Barrette was Quebec’s Minister of Health and Social Services for less than an hour when a petition about his weight began circulating on social media.
It suggests that the newly appointed health minister should consider a lifestyle change in order to “regain his credibility with the public,” and after just 24 hours, it has garnered over 4,000 signatures.
The petition asks the health minister to lead by example, change his sedentary lifestyle and create an inspirational provincial fitness campaign based on his own personal efforts and progress.
Pierre-Étienne Vachon posted the petition on his blog 6xSix at 4:20 p.m. on Tuesday afternoon and he told Global News that he’s shocked by the reaction it’s gotten.
“It just exploded,” said the 36-year-old director of a marketing strategy agency.
He said that he was compelled to act after learning through the media that Barrette would be appointed as health minister.
“I thought like a lot of people, maybe he’s not got the right image to do so,” he said. “I took a step back and thought about it in a marketing perspective: if he was my client, how could I turn this into an opportunity?”
While Vachon acknowledged that “it’s hard to turn disadvantages into opportunities,” he said that he hoped the petition would create an “opportunity for Dr. Barette to act as an example and inspire a nation.”
Is body weight a clue to good or bad health?
Dr. Barbel Knauper, who heads the Health Psychology Laboratory at McGill University, was a little less enthusiastic about the possible positive effects of the petition.
“Studies show that there is not a linear relationship between body weight and health,” she said.
Although she noted that severe obesity is linked to diabetes, heart disease and mortality and losing weight can help prevent chronic illness.
“It is also clear from many longitudinal large scale studies that losing weight is related to the prevention of chronic disease, particularly diabetes type 2.”
It’s not the first time that Dr. Barrette has faced what is often described as fattism, or discrimination on the basis of weight.
When running as an MNA for the Coalition Avenir Quebec in 2012, Barrette came under fire from former Parti Quebecois premier Pauline Marois, who said “I believe a health minister has an obligation to be exemplary.”
Barrette responded by describing his personal battle with weight loss.
“I’m one of those people who is overweight and who has tried in life to deal with this,” he said.
“But when we’ve reached the point in society where we say we have to give priority to appearances over competence, I find it completely deplorable.”
This was a statement that rang true with Dr. Knauper.
“People perceive excess body weight as a sign of lack of competence, a lack of self-regulation abilities, and infer that this has implications for how good he can do his job as a health minister,” she noted.
“Although there is likely no correlation between the two.”
She suggested that the issue around Barrette’s weight seems to come from people seeing a conflict between what he does and his personal lifestyle choices.
“It seems that the petition arises from the contradiction that people perceive between his office and dossier (health) and his visual appearance,” she said.
“It seems to create cognitive dissonance, and people are motivated to somehow resolve this cognitive dissonance so that their world makes sense again. Putting out such a petition, or signing it helps people to resolve the cognitive dissonance that they are perceiving.”
According to Knauper, this kind of discrimination happens most often when body weight is visually apparent and the person becomes a target.
“Other health ministers before might have had issues that could be regarded as contradictory to the dossier,” she said.
“But it only becomes a problem when it is something that is visually apparent and something that people can easily attribute to a person (rather than the environment in which the person lives, or genes, etc.).”
Petition not meant to be critical
When asked whether he felt the petition and a blog post titled “Petition for a healthy health minister” could stir up allegations of fattism, Vachon acknowledged that he understood it would capture people’s attention.
“Obviously, I knew it would stir things up. I work in marketing, I know how to get a hold of people’s attention.”
He distanced himself from any negative consequences, saying that even though it was a touchy subject, he was trying to promote change and not criticize people.
“I hope that everybody can see that I’m trying to put forward something to inspire and change people and not criticize something,” he noted.
“I hope people will stay positive about this but I can’t stop people from saying what they want to say.”
He also appeared taken aback that anyone would interpret his petition as a criticism of Barrette’s abilities as a health minister.
“I’m not criticizing his ability to perform his role, it’s not for me to do so,” he said.
Ultimately, Vachon said that he hopes that the petition will encourage everyone in Quebec to talk more about healthy lifestyles and have an open discussion with the minister of health about changing people’s habits.
“We’ve never talked this much about health,” he said. “If I could make a little change in how people do things, I would be really happy.”
Encouraging a healthy lifestyle is a goal that Dr. Knauper would support wholeheartedly, however she did have reservations about how Vachon’s campaign could work in reality.
“People who are overweight or obese might perceive this petition and the discussion around it as revealing how many people really think about them and feel stigmatized,” she said.
“A few might take it as an impulse to try losing weight, but given the difficulty of doing so – at least without a long-term plan and support – they might get easily discouraged.”