By James S. Fell
There is no defense for bigotry.
A couple of years ago I wrote an article with the opening phrase, “All right, fatso …” I’d never refer to a reader as “fatso” now, because I’m striving to be less of an asshole. Also, I’m sorry.
You’re probably familiar with a whole range of “yo mama so fat” jokes, but how many have you heard about how black, gay or Jewish “yo mama” is? Why is making fun of the overweight still okay?
“There is no question that the stigma and bias and discrimination surrounding obesity is the fairest game,” Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, an obesity expert in Ottawa told me. “In popular culture the vilification of obesity is constant, whether it’s obese characters who are lazy, clumsy and gluttonous, or the types of responses to public policy statements about dealing with obesity.”
Freedhoff told me that these responses stem from a simple fact: most people erroneously believe that the overweight are somehow choosing to do this to themselves. They think if we’d just push away from the table we’d be all be slim.
What a crock.
To paraphrase President Bill Clinton’s campaign strategist, “It’s the environment, stupid.” I’m not calling you stupid; the stupid ones are those who believe obesity is a choice people make. As a result, “We as a society don’t see discrimination against the obese as being a big deal,” Freedhoff said. “I’m not aware of any laws that specifically protect the obese.” There are laws to prevent racism, but not fatism.
In 2011, the International Diabetes Federation released a position statement to combat the common belief that obesity is the result of a personal failing or lack of motivation, writing that “this perspective ignores the very strong genetic and developmental bases to severe obesity compounded by physical, emotional and societal issues. It also fails to consider the pervasive obesity promoting effects of modern societies (the ‘obesigenic environment’) where an abundant food supply, changes in food preparation, increasing sedentary behavior and other lifestyle factors mitigate against weight control for individuals.”1
The statement also explained that obesity stigma leads to discrimination at work, socially and even in the healthcare system. Yes, some healthcare workers guilt-trip the overweight. Dr. Freedhoff wrote on his Weighty Matters blog of being on national television alongside Toronto pediatrician Dr. Mickey Lerner, who proposed there be a box on tax forms for people to enter their Body Mass Index so they could be levied taxes proportional to their weight.
Fat taxes, guilt and shaming are not the way to motivate people. In fact, a 2012 study by researchers in the Department of Psychological and Brain Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, found that people who experience stigma over their weight experience elevated stress, which reduces self-control, which in turn can lead to weight gain.2 In a 2013 paper published in PLoS ONE, researchers from Florida State University were more damning, asserting that not only does stigmatizing obesity lead to poorer mental health outcomes, but the authors stated that, “Rather than motivating individuals to lose weight, weight discrimination increases risk for obesity.”3
Again, when obesity is stigmatized, it causes weight gain.
Kris Beneteau, 48, is an office worker in Windsor, Ontario. At her heaviest she weighed 271 pounds and had to face a lot of stigma both for being overweight and for choosing bariatric surgery as a tool to combat her condition. Now maintaining at 145 pounds, she told me how poorly people treated her when she was heavier.
“There was definitely a stigma attached,” she said. “Once a stranger told me I shouldn’t be in a Baskin Robbins to get ice cream, like it was somehow his business.”
And no matter how talented or accomplished a person may be, for some, only that extra weight is visible. In 2009, Brent Smith, lead singer for the multi-platinum selling band Shinedown, was on The Today Show. Right before his performance, host Kathie Lee Gifford said, “At first I thought he was Meat Loaf,” and her co-host Hoda Kotb laughed aloud at the gibe. I asked Brent how that made him feel.
“It really stung,” Smith told me. “I’m a fan of Meat Loaf, but she wasn’t talking about a musical comparison. It was national television and my heart kinda fell on the ground … It was like the performance didn’t even matter. It was a tough comparison for me that morning.”
The jokes aren’t so funny for those who are the brunt of them.
Fat shaming leads to extreme dieting, depression, eating disorders and more. TV show host Wendy Williams told me her parents called her fat all the time when she was growing up, and it led to decades of disordered eating.
Saying, “Eat less, move more” to an obese person is like saying, “Spend less, earn more” to someone living in crushing poverty. Again, we live in an obesigenic environment, and people are not obese by choice. Being lean is a choice in most cases, and a damn tough one to follow through on.
And yet the world is rife not just with fat shaming, but those who think they’re being helpful by “being concerned about a person’s health” because of their size. This post exposes how IDEA Fitness brainwashes trainers into thinking fat is unhealthy by default, and that their overriding mission is to get their clients to lose pounds. The post references the IDEA newsletter as saying in regards to the obese: “we can better help them become healthy and vibrant.”
Because, like, if they’re obese, they’re totally not healthy and vibrant, right?
In reality, there’s ample evidence to show a person who is physically active on a regular basis and eats a quality diet can still be “overweight” or even “obese” and live a long life.4
“Exercise trumps a lot of other bad behaviors,” Dr. Michael Joyner, a physician-researcher and expert in exercise physiology at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota told me. “Large people who are very physically active are only at a slightly increased risk of all-cause mortality and cardiovascular disease compared with those who are lean and fit.” It’s worth noting that Dr. Joyner also said that those who are large and sedentary are at a two to four times risk.
Here is an important thing to remember: Everyone is different. Some people are fat and fit; some are lean and unhealthy. And yes, for some their weight is a health issue. Some people are unhappy with their weight; others don’t care. Regardless of anyone’s situation, it is no else’s place to judge.
I used to be overweight, now I’m not. Weighing less now than I did then doesn’t make me a better or worse person. I write about fitness. I encourage people to exercise and eat healthy. I also encourage them to screw the scale, because it’s a damn liar. It is not a measurement of anyone’s worth as a human being.
[Shameless self-promotion alert!]
Okay, I’m the guy behind www.SixPackAbs.com, so what right do I have to write about fat shaming? First off, the whole six-pack abs thing is more a metaphor for self-improvement, where all shapes and sizes are welcome. Second, I experienced shaming myself when I was overweight. But more important is that I have the right to call out fat shaming whenever I see it because it’s an injustice. It’s an evil that should not be allowed to persist.
And I know there are trainers who are not doing their clients any favors by getting them to hate their bodies. And I also know there are fit people who think the overweight are fair game to poke fun at.
For those who are interested in losing weight, being motivated to change doesn’t require that you hate who you are right now. Seeing yourself with shame is not a healthy starting point. Yes, people who work hard to get in good physical condition have done something admirable, but this does not mean those who are overweight should be shunned.
Even if you’re only aiming to lose 10 pounds, don’t look at the extra fat on your butt, thighs or belly with disgust. This is not a healthy attitude, so reject the stigma. Embrace the new body you achieve and strive to improve it further, but don’t hate the old one. Love your body and do nice things for it.
It’s the only one you’ll ever have.
Throwing down the gauntlet
The reason why I wrote this post was because of something I saw on Facebook. Someone posted a photo that was blatant, brutal fat shaming. People were laughing away in the comments, and one woman was expressing her disgust at their bigotry, and then others were jumping on her for “not being able to take a joke.”
Again, the jokes aren’t so funny for those who are the brunt of them. I spoke up as well, saying I agreed with her that this was not funny, and that fat shaming was wrong. And I was attacked as well.
Think about it. If someone posted something on Facebook making fun of skin color, religion or sexual preference, would you speak up? I’m hoping you would. That stuff is wrong. Doing it about a person’s weight is equally wrong.
And so, I challenge you. If someone spreads hateful, prejudice garbage that pokes fun at people because of their weight, speak out. Tell them it’s not funny.
Tell them there is no defense for bigotry.
Because there is no defense for bigotry.
- J.B. Dixon et al., International Diabetes Federation Taskforce on Epidemiology and Prevention. “Bariatric Surgery: An IDF Statement for Obese Type 2 Diabetes,” Diabetes Medicine 28, no. 6 (June 2011): 628–42.
- Brenda Major et al., “The Psychological Weight of Weight Stigma,” Social Psychological and Personality Science 3 (November 2012): 651–58.
- Angelina Sutin and Antonio Terracciano, “Perceived Weight Discrimination and Obesity,” PLoS ONE, 8(7) (July, 2013): e70048.
- Timothy Church et al., “Exercise Capacity and Body Composition as Predictors of Mortality among Men with Diabetes,” Diabetes Care 27, no. 1 (January 2004): 83–88; Peter Katzmarzyk et al., “Metabolic Syndrome, Obesity and Mortality,” Diabetes Care 28, no. 2 (February 2005): 391–97; Chong Do Lee et al., “Cardiorespiratory Fitness, Body Composition, and All-Cause Cardiovascular Disease Mortality in Men,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 69 (March 1999): 373–80. Gail Marchessault, “Obesity in Manitoba Adults,” University of Manitoba Faculty of Medicine, October 2011.