One in a series of posts on my struggles with maintaining a healthier weight, starting in early 2019 and working into the present day
#WEIGHT: 245 LBS IN July OF 2019
I exaggerated when I said nobody wants to be in the big, fat club. Some folks don’t mind. In fact, they embrace their identity as a fat person, decrying fat stigma and working to raise awareness of how socially toxic fatphobia is. They are both fat and proud.
This is great. I’m all for it. But, it also raises a confounding question. If I want to lose weight, is it because I’ve been brainwashed by all the fat-shaming so common in our culture? After all, one of the reasons people deny that they (or their family members) are overweight or obese is because so many cultures stigmatize fat folks.
Fatty Fatty Two by Four
In the United States, fat bias starts when we’re just kids. In 2010, researchers at the University of Michigan started publishing research on the topic after following 800 kids in 10 US cities. They surveyed the kids, their teachers, and their parents and found that “kids who were obese were 65% more likely to be bullied than their peers of normal weight; overweight kids were 13 percent more likely to be bullied.”
I know, shocker, right? When I read that, I thought, “Only 13%? Today’s kids must be a lot more civil than when I was a kid!”
I wasn’t an especially fat as a kid, but I do remember chubbier kids getting called “lard ass” or “fat ass” or “double wide.” I’m old enough to remember some kids using “Fatty Fatty two by four.” In case you’re not familiar with that little ditty, here’s how it went:
Fatty Fatty two by four fatty couldn’t get through the bathroom door, so he shit on the floor, wiped it up and did some more
Sometimes the fatter guys had to prove they were willing to fight, and some of them really could. In those cases, the fat comments started to fade away but no one forgot they were fat. If they football players, they were “a truck.” If they wanted dates, no “regular-sized” girls were available.
Speaking of which, I think the girls had it tougher than the guys, enduring insults like “cow” and “fat bitch.” As we got older, the implication was that overweight girls were happy just to be asked out on a date. Those were the not-so-good-old-days.
So, yes, fat shaming is real, and it starts when we’re kids.
“Have You Lost Weight, Guy?”
Kids might be obvious about their fat bias (aka, weight bias, aka obesity stigma), but I don’t think it ever really goes away, not even when you hit the workforce.
One 2017 survey indicates that fatter job applicants are less likely to be hired because hiring managers sometimes associate fatness with laziness. And fat employees tend to be compensated differently even when they are hired, earning $1.25 less per hour than other employees.
This happens throughout careers. Occupational Medicine & Health Affairs reports, “Qualitative reviews have concluded that individuals who are overweight face weight bias and discrimination at every stage of the employment cycle. These reviews have identified evidence for weight bias across a variety of evaluative outcomes, including selection, placement, compensation, assignments, promotions, assessments, discipline and termination.”
Et tu, HR?
The employment bias can show up not only among employees and bosses but among human resources (HR) professionals who are often trained to be sensitive to discrimination issues. One computer-based study investigated workplace-related weight bias by using a sample of HR professionals who regularly evaluate and make career decisions about other people. These HR pros were asked to evaluate a group of people for whom they had standardized photos.
They were asked to rate people in regard to recruitment, work-related prestige and achievements.
The authors found that the HR professionals showed strong weight stigmatization in terms of hiring. They also found that “participants underestimated the occupational prestige of obese individuals and overestimated it for normal-weight individuals.’ Individuals who were categorized as obese were also less often nominated for supervisory positions. Lastly, they found that weight-related stigmatization was most prominent towards obese females. Findings from this study support previous findings that weight-related stigmatization and discrimination exist in hiring and evaluative outcomes in the workplace.“Weight Bias in the Workplace: A Literature Review”
Speaking for myself, in the workplace it’s hard to know when somebody is biased against you because you’re fat. Unlike when we’re kids, hardly anybody will come out and say it, of course. Instead, during my heavier years, I’ve tended to live in a minor but chronic state of paranoia.
For example, say my boss is rude to me. Is that because he’s having a bad day, or because I did something to make him mad? Or because is it because I’m fat and he’s cool with bullying the fat guy. It brings back all that old playground bullying of the fat kids.
Am I that kid, just bigger and on a different kind of playground?
Sometimes, however, it isn’t rudeness that makes me paranoid. It’s compliments. “Have you lost weight?” is something I’ve heard too many times. Sometimes it’s just a friendly greeting among the guys. Kind of a new “hail, fellow, well met!”
But thin guys never ask other thin guys that question.
Often the query is followed up with, “Looking good!” or “Keep up the good work!”
This all sounds innocuous to people who are not and never have been fat. In truth, I don’t take it to heart. It’s not intended to offend. Quite the opposite. It’s just that it grates on the ears a bit because it indicates that people are always looking, always judging, always weighing you in their minds without even consciously knowing they’re doing so.
The US Civil Rights Act does not protect against the discrimination of fat people. Nor does the Americans with Disabilities Act unless an employee has a disability that results in their being obese.
If you live in the US, you probably live in a so-called “at will” state (because they’re all at-will except Montana, last I heard). This basically means your employer is legally able to terminate you at any time for any reason (except an illegal one such as race or gender) or, in fact, for no reason at all.
My Doctor the Fat Bigot
Maybe even worse is that a lot of doctors aren’t impervious to fat bias, not by a long shot. In 2003, one study found that half of primary care physicians viewed obese patients as “awkward, unattractive, ugly, and noncompliant.”
Yikes. Yet, as the son of a doctor, I have a little sympathy for them on this score. Unless a doctor has personally struggled with weight issues, it’s probably easy for them to get frustrated with patients who don’t lose weight even when those patients seem to be suffering ailments caused by or associated with being obese. My guess is that some doctors feel as if a fat patient is just ignoring their advice or even sabotaging their treatment plan.
But these doctor biases can be deadly. In an interview with Healthline, Dr. Lilia Graue, MD, LMFT, said that doctors often “fail to provide adequate and timely diagnosis and treatment due to all kinds of assumptions, [which] affects patients along the full weight spectrum.” For example,
These biases can have a deadly impact on fat people because whenever they seek medical attention, doctors and other healthcare professionals assume overweight patients’ health issues are weight-related even when their symptoms are unrelated to weight. As a result, fat people often shy away from doctors, having learned that “doctors repeatedly advise weight loss for [them] while recommending CAT scans, blood work, or physical therapy for other, average-weight patients” who display the same symptoms.
This means that fat patients sometimes needlessly suffer or die simply because their doctor can’t see past their weight issues and so misdiagnose them.
The Fat Acceptance Movement
Given the well-documented bigotry against fat people, it’s little wonder that the fat-acceptance movement (aka, fat pride, fat empowerment, and fat activism) has emerged. I’ll delve more into this movement later, but for now I’ll quote a small section of of the Wikipedia entry on the topic:
Fat activists argue that anti-fat stigma and aggressive diet promotion have led to an increase in psychological and physiological problems among fat people. Concerns are also raised that modern culture’s focus on weight loss does not have a foundation in scientific research, but instead is an example of using science as a means to control deviance, as a part of society’s attempt to deal with something that it finds disturbing. Diet critics cite the high failure rate of permanent weight-loss attempts, and the dangers of “yo-yo” weight fluctuations and weight-loss surgeries. Fat activists argue that the health issues of obesity and being overweight have been exaggerated or misrepresented, and that the health issues are used as a cover for cultural and aesthetic prejudices against fat.
This debate about health versus social bias is one that arises again and again in discussions about about the stigma against overweight people. And it’s a topic that I’ve wrestled with in regard to my own attitudes toward weight loss. At some point in the future, I’ll try to craft a more cohesive stand on the topic.
Featured image: Portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger