People who are deemed overweight or obese (as the medical terms have it) or fat (as many fat activists prefer to call their body size) suffer discrimination, prejudice and humiliation from several fronts.
Television programs such as The Biggest Loser hold them up to contempt and public shaming. News media reports on obesity constantly display photographs of fat bodies with their heads cropped off – the “headless fatty” representation – and commonly use derogatory expressions ranging from “lazy” and “flabby” to “fat arses” and “unsightly slobs”.
Weight stigma has significant effects on fat people’s lives. Compared with others, fat people are statistically more likely to live in poverty, earn less income or be unemployed, have lower education levels, be employed in lower status jobs and experience lower living standards. Women in professional occupations are particularly discriminated against in the workplace if they are overweight, failing to reach the higher echelons compared with thinner colleagues.
In social terms, fat people receive less respect from others and are often subjected to derogatory humour and pejorative comments from co-workers, friends and family members and, in public settings, from strangers. Health care workers openly admit to being “repulsed” by fat people.
Fat children are subjected to greater harassment and prejudice than other children, and experience ostracism, teasing and bullying to a greater extent. Remarkably, even their own parents may favour their thinner children over their bigger ones.
In a society in which most people understand that discriminating overtly against social groups such as women, people of minority ethnic or racial groups, gays and lesbians and people with disabilities is wrong, and where such discrimination is legally prohibited, fat people are apparently fair game.
Why this hostility and lack of compassion towards fat people? Why this apparent urge on the part of many to shame and blame people who are deemed to carry too much flesh?
Perception of fat bodies
Fat bodies are culturally represented as inferior, deficient, ugly and disgusting. These meanings have developed over centuries, derived from the Judeo-Christian idea that the disciplined body is closer to God. An ascetic self-control over such bodily urges as hunger and sexual desires is evidence of moral superiority and relative lack of sin.
While we live in a more secular society today, these moral assumptions still dominate in our understandings of the value of self-discipline and how it is reflected in our body size and shape.
Added to these meanings are the newer ideas derived from medicine and public health, intensifying in the late 1990s, that an obesity epidemic has emerged in many countries that it is predicted will lead to higher rates of disease and premature mortality. Intensive mass media coverage of this issue has led to the idea that fat people are not only ill-disciplined but also inevitably sick and physically unfit, regardless of where they fall on the body weight spectrum.
Unlike other attributes that commonly attract discrimination and marginalisation such as skin colour, gender or disability, fat people are viewed as deserving of their fate because of their apparent lack of self-control. They are also often represented as threatening others by attracting higher health-care costs. This reasoning is used to justify fat stigmatisation, even though others who may need higher levels of health care are not treated to such revilement.
Ironically, fat people often avoid attending medical appointments because of their concerns about being judged negatively by the doctor. This means they may not receive early preventive treatment for medical conditions they may have.
Fat equals failure
People who identify as fat or overweight are highly aware of the moral failure that their bodies represent. Research with fat people has identified the shame they may feel about their bodies, and the social humiliation to which they are often exposed by others. In an English study, for example, one man spoke about his emotional distress at being laughed at by some young men while sitting in the sun in his shorts while on holiday:
“…they could see me and they were laughing and joking and carrying on and it was only as they got past that I realised that they were laughing at me, about how fat I was. And er, I mean, it hurts.”
Fat people often express highly negative thoughts about their bodies. As a weight-loss blogger who wrote about her weight gain explained: “I felt ashamed. I felt ugly. I felt like some sort of animal.”
Fat people often feel very self-conscious about going out in public, particularly eating out or grocery shopping. They are highly aware that others are examining and making judgements about what and how they’re eating. They feel out of place, open to mockery and very exposed. As one fat woman commented, for her, “even grocery shopping is an exercise in courage.”
Given the discrimination to which fat people are subjected, it’s not surprising they’re more likely than others to suffer from depression, anxiety and low self-esteem, which in turn may lead to a greater likelihood that they will eat for comfort. Medication taken for these mental health conditions may also lead to gaining weight.
Whether or not socioeconomic disadvantage leads to fatness, or whether fatness itself causes poverty and other forms of social and economic disadvantage is a point of debate.
The lower socioeconomic status of fat people in itself is more likely to cause health problems. The combination of living in poverty, experiencing stigma based on body weight and accompanying diminished social status causes continuing stress.
In conjunction with poor living conditions and the lack of opportunity to exercise and consume a high-quality diet, disadvantaged people’s exposure to stress may result in illness and disease. These medical conditions in turn may not be treated effectively because of lack of access to high quality medical care.
Lack of compassion
People who discriminate against fat people or consider it appropriate to use fat-shaming terms when talking about or to them don’t seem to view fat people as real human beings who are hurt and humiliated by their actions and may be struggling with significant socioeconomic disadvantage or mental health conditions.
Or perhaps they simply don’t care about this in their belief that fat people deserve punishment for their supposed inability to control their urges and their lack of conformity to idealised notions of physical attractiveness.
In a supposedly modern and compassionate society such as Australia, shouldn’t fat discrimination be viewed for what it is? It is a kind of bigotry and represents a lack of understanding, compassion and tolerance for bodily difference.
It shouldn’t just be fat people who call attention to fat bigotry and fat phobia. All of us are implicated if we accept the negative concepts of fatness that currently circulate in our culture and tolerate fat discrimination from others.
Deborah Lupton is the author of Fat (Routledge, October 2012)