Guest Post: Fat shaming: The last acceptable form of prejudice?

 

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.

 

*Facepalm!*

 

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.

 

 

James S. Fell is the man behind www.SixPackAbs.com and www.BodyForWife.com

 

NOTES

  1. 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.
  2. Brenda Major et al., “The Psychological Weight of Weight Stigma,” Social Psychological and Personality Science 3 (November 2012): 651–58.
  3. Angelina Sutin and Antonio Terracciano, “Perceived Weight Discrimination and Obesity,” PLoS ONE, 8(7) (July, 2013): e70048.
  4. 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.

 

40 thoughts on “Guest Post: Fat shaming: The last acceptable form of prejudice?

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  4. Hi there… fairly longtime reader here. I really enjoy your blog’s approach to weight and fitness. And I agree that fat shaming is unacceptable; a healthy body is a beautiful body, no matter what that weight is. I truly believe that.

    I do have a question about the use of the term obese in this article, though. Isn’t obesity sort of, well, unhealthy by definition? Fat does not equal obese, but the terms seem to be used rather interchangeably here.

    I’m aware there’s some controversy about the way we determine obesity. If those concerns were resolved, then would obesity be separate from fat? It really should be now; one is a body type. One is a serious and potentially deadly health issue.

    To use the comparison in the article, I feel like if fat shaming is saying like saying, “Spend less, earn more” to someone living in crushing poverty, then politely addressing obesity to someone you care about is like telling someone who is unemployed that hey, I know the job market’s really tough out there, but you gotta keep looking and not just give up.

    I’m always a little confused when these terms get so muddled together and emotionally bound up with each other, because, like the article says, you can be healthy or unhealthy at any weight. I have always been very slender, but I have not always been healthy. And I’d own up to it, too. “How do you stay so skinny?” “Uh, genetics. I’m actually 95 pounds of pure flab. Don’t congratulate me.” I hated it, because I knew I was underweight, headed for health issues, and would get winded jogging around the block; it just felt so stupid that someone would extoll that as some kind of virtue.

    My sister, by contrast, has always had a good 30 lbs on me (we’re the same height). And she was gorgeous and healthy and ‘vibrant’ when we were teens. She was unfortunately self-conscious about her size (thank you, mass media!), but I could see that most other people didn’t really notice it because she’s gorgeous. I know a few of her friends even commented when she tried severe dieting at a young age. They couldn’t quite put their finger on it, didn’t know if she was dieting or sick or what, but they knew she looked kind of pinched, less like her beautiful self. As her sister, I couldn’t say anything without sounding judgemental, but quietly rejoiced when she listened to them, stopped restricting her food and just enjoyed her normal healthy lifestyle again.

    My mother is incredibly defensive about her body type. She’s sort of a body positive champion through a chip on her shoulder, if that makes sense. And she and my sister have both gained massive amounts of weight over the last seven or so years living together after we graduated high school. It isn’t healthy, and they both know it on some level. If nothing else, they both know that some of their recently-appearing health problems are related to their weight. But both are very outspoken about bigots and fat shaming to the point where no one can say a word without being screamed at.

    And perceived slights are just as bad. I’ve always known that, as someone who is naturally slender, nothing I say on the subject of health will be welcomed or accepted, because I’ve never been overweight. But ever since I went to college out of state and started working out myself, I can’t even suggest going on a bike ride — not even to exercise, just to hang out and have fun on a nice day — or eating a salad (I also just like salad, but I’ve learned not to offer to make one when I visit home!) without being accused of bigotry, because my mom reads thin privilege articles about how unfair it is to be offered a salad by such a terrible, judging person as her daughter. For a good while, my dad’s daily gym visit was seen as a version of silent shaming, but thankfully we’ve all managed to work through that.

    To go back to the job analogy, I’d never tell a homeless person to “man up and get a job, bum!” I have no idea what his/her personal situation is, and it’s also none of my business. But if my 20-something kid were flat-out refusing to even look for a job, and freaked out at me if I asked them just to try, telling me “Generation Y is just screwed, there’s nothing I can do, it’s the environment of the decade, how dare you?” then it’d be a different story. (I draw that comparison because I am that 20-something kid who scrambled for literally years to latch onto a budding career, and I did need to be reminded to just try sometimes. Occasionally with a little bit of tough love from people who cared about me.)

    I’m not trying to justify discrimination. At least, I don’t think I am. I know as a secondhand observer, at least, how tearing someone down makes things worse. And it breaks my heart when someone is judged by their size alone. But I can’t help but wonder if it’s OK to soften the concept of obesity so much that it’s meaningless, and equate drawing caring attention to a genuine problem with being a hateful bigot. I know it’s complicated, because there’s a spectrum and there’s overlap, but this one or the other mentality isn’t working.

    Emotions run high here — everyone wants validation and to feel beautiful and loved. And I am struggling to find the space where the women in my family will believe me if I tell them that they are beautiful at any healthy size, and that right now, they are not a healthy size, and hey, there’s help available. (And not just tell me I’m a ‘skinny bitch,’ but I’d be OK with all the snide comments in the world if it meant fewer health problems for them.) I want them to know that I’d be there to support the both of them in returning to health in any way I could, even if it was just to stay the hell out of the way. Right now I’m doing all the staying out of the way, but none of the actual helping; my hands are tied by this either-or.

    Either I stay totally silent and watch them get sicker and sicker, or I’m a terrible bigot.

    I’m a little bit afraid that this push back against fat shaming that I see more and more often lately — which is so needed, don’t get me wrong — through its extreme inclusiveness can create this defensive solidarity wall against change, something to point to and say, “see, you’re just fat shaming me, there’s a term for it and everything.” When no, I’m not. I’m concerned for someone who is ill. And while ultimately, it’s up to a person to change or not, an honest dialogue is pretty much required.

    In closing, this is a great guest article. My concerns are only around using the terms fat and obese interchangeably. It is NEVER OK to judge a stranger, and it is NEVER OK to tell someone that their health is secondary to their appearance, that they “should” be thinner when they sure as hell shouldn’t be.

    • Wow, very well articulated. I feel your frustration. For many people smoking and drug dependency is not a ‘choice’ – it is a result of exposure and environment, made stronger by stress and other factors. However, if I tell a smoker to “put out that cigarette” can I also tell a morbidly obese person to “put down that donut”? Both statements are rude, but only one is considered shaming.

      I can imagine a reader thinking the above is not comparable because second hand smoke is dangerous – to that I would point out that studies have proven an individual will incorporate the habits of the group – thus if one keeps the company of obese people, one will tend to become obese. If I can tell someone not to smoke in my work place because I am afraid of the potential ill-effects of second-hand smoke, can I tell someone not to be obese in the workplace because I am afraid of the potential ill-effects of excess weight I am likely to gain due to my unwitting adoption of accepted social behaviours?

      How did we turn the corner on the ‘smoking epidemic’? We certainly did not keep silent and arm smokers with the ability to squash every suggestion they quit by crying bully.

      We took a many pronged approach to educated the masses that the product, used as directed, may kill you. In this case the product is food, and maybe it is time processed food came with explicit, picture accompanied warnings of what continued use of these products may do.

      Keeping silent, not speaking for fear your comments will be heard as ‘fat shaming’ and hoping the problem goes away just won’t work. I wish you, and our society in general, good luck.

      And, just for the record, I don’t agree with being rude to anyone, for any reason.

      • Cheryl, there are so many things wrong with this argument that I almost don’t know where to start. But let’s try to unravel the whole smoking vs carrying extra weight comparison anyway.
        1. Smoking is not necessary for survival. People can completely quit smoking and be healthier for it. You can’t quit eating without eventually dying.
        2. There is a lot of data about how the chemicals in smokes cause certain illnesses in a large proportion of people. Most of the studies around weight and illness are correlational, not causational. This means the two things can happen together, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that one thing (weight) automatically causes the other (illness). In fact, newer studies are uncovering that it is often failed dieting that is the factor that links weight and ill-health together. The more weight you carry, the more likely you are to diet, and the effect of yo-yoing weight is what causes the metabolic disturbances that lead to bad health later on. So while we know that smoking causes lung cancer, for example, the more and more research is actually saying that DIETING causes all the health problems normally associated with weight.
        3. There are a number of treatments that are quite successful for quitting smoking. There is NO cure for being overweight. 95% of diets fail over 5 years – with most of those people not only regaining the weight but packing on more. The 5% that ‘succeed’ are usually only trying to lose smaller amounts of weight. Weight watchers offers life memberships- why would you need a life membership if you didn’t keep putting the weight back on?
        4. Your argument that we should stop fat people from eating in front of us because they will influence our own eating habits is ridiculous. Weight is not contagious. Someone being fat in your workplace does not affect you in any way near close to the impact of second-hand smoke, which are actual chemicals you are actually inhaling if you’re around a smoker.
        5. How did we turn the corner on the smoking epidemic? As per my point above, we found solutions that worked, for consumption that is not necessary for survival. When you find a solution for weight loss that works while taking into consideration the many genetic, metabolic, illness-related, hormonal AND environmental reasons people are fat, then we can talk.
        6. You said: “Keeping silent, not speaking for fear your comments will be heard as ‘fat shaming’ and hoping the problem goes away just won’t work.” Making comments about other people’s health and lifestyles, unless you are their doctor and have been asked for your opinion, won’t work either.

        You ARE being rude when you offer an unsolicited opinion on another adult’s body, their health or their lifestyle. You are being rude when you assume that you have the right to have your version of the “truth” about how people should be accepted by other people. If you are being honest about not wanting to be rude, I would encourage you to stay out of other people’s bodies. It’s none of your business.

        • Your post sounds like it came from a very, very defensive person. I think this has become more about you than about Jessie or her loved ones. In hopes that you may benefit from an opinion other than your own, I reply to your points:

          1. You can 100% quit eating processed foods and not die.

          2. The chemicals in processed foods are numerous, many are known carcinogens. I do not advocate diets in the sense that you refer. I do advocate the adoption of a healthy lifestyle, which includes unprocessed foods, exercise and recovery.

          3. Again, I do not advocate diets in the sense that you refer. Weight Watchers is a business, they have a vested interest in repeat customers.

          4. I certainly do not argue “that we should stop fat people from eating in front of us…” but I do invite you to read “The spread of obesity in a large social network over 32 years” Christakis, NA, Fowler, JH. Department of Health Care Policy, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA 02115, USA. The New England Journal of Medicine.

          5. My point about addiction to smoking is that, just like unhealthy lifestyles, there are many reasons and many contributing factors, the majority of which can be at least be helped by education on the issue.

          6. You seem to assume any comment is a snide comment. I do agree telling someone that “smoking stinks” is not very helpful, but telling someone that “I am worried about your health, I want you to live a long and healthy life and I can help you” can be the open door that person needs.

          While I will reiterate, I do not agree with being rude to anyone, for any reason, it is my business – it is all of our business. From healthcare costs to choices in the supermarket to classes taught to our children in school – the health and lifestyles of society’s majority dictates many things.

    • While I applaud you for trying to understand why your family members respond to you the way they do around issues of their health, your post shows very clearly exactly why they do… and you aren’t seeing it. I can tell you what the problem is- but you most probably won’t like it.
      The core issue here is that you’re trying to intervene in something that is NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS. Their weight and health is fundamentally about THEM – not about YOU. And you need to let it be completely about THEM – without passing judgement, not even in your mind.
      You said “And while ultimately, it’s up to a person to change or not, an honest dialogue is pretty much required”. No. A dialogue is NOT required. What exactly do you think will be achieved by such a dialogue? Do you think that you will be able to convince them that they are overweight? Trust me, they know. Do you think that you will be able to motivate them by telling them about the supposed horrors they are facing if they don’t lose weight? They’ve heard it all before- and it hasn’t made a difference. And I do say “supposed” horrors deliberately, because, as the original article pointed out, new studies are showing that more damage to health can be caused by fat-shaming than by fat itself.
      Do you think that “having an honest dialogue” with you will achieve anything other than making them feel judged? Trust me, it won’t. If having a conversation were at all even part of the answer, there would be no obesity in the world (or poverty, for that matter). There is absolutely no benefit to be gained from such a ‘conversation’ – and so it comes back to your wish to do so being about you. Your wanting to talk to them about their weight (even when it is couched in terms of ‘health’) is all about making YOURSELF feel better. You can feel righteous and ‘caring’ or ‘concerned’, and not feel guilty if something happens to them down the track. And that is not a good enough reason to subject them to it.
      You said: “Either I stay totally silent and watch them get sicker and sicker, or I’m a terrible bigot.” Yes. That’s 100% correct.
      At the end of the day, they are adults. Their weight – and their health or sickness – is THEIR business and their business ALONE. Trying to influence them in ANY way – even well meaning – when they haven’t directly asked for your opinion or advice is simply manipulative. Once you can let go of your hidden judgement (you’re not currently saying anything but you are thinking it- and believe me they feel it), then you’ll be able to have a healthy relationship with them. LET IT GO. IT’S NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS.

  5. I feel like I’m missing something with the healthy vibrant thing.

    Where’s the judgement in assuming that overweight people want to be healthy and vibrant? Wouldn’t you assume the same to be true of thin people, morbidly obese people, ultra-fit and gorgeous people, etc. Aren’t those pretty awesome goals?

    Those are my goals and, err … surprisingly those are even the exact exact words I use to describe my goals.

    Being vibrant is being energetic + visible happy
    Being healthy is pretty, well … great … no?

    • What you’re missing is that just as you have the right to choose your own goals for your life, everyone else has the right to choose their as well- and they may not match your own. Imposing your definition of “pretty awesome goals” on everyone else is naive at best, and annoyingly self-righteous at worst.

  6. Mad props to Em for hanging in there and articulating so well her point (which I share). I encourage folks who want to take on fat shaming (a worthwhile endeavor) to consider checking out Dancing With Fat’s Ragen Chastain’s fat activism.* For example: “Fat people have a right to exist in the bodies that we currently have.” Period.

    * See danceswithfat.wordpress.com/2013/05/30/fat-civil-rights-simplified/, danceswithfat.wordpress.com/2013/03/29/im-not-asking-for-fat-civil-rights/

    • One other note: BEDA (the Binge Eating Disorder Association) is holding their third Weight Stigma Awareness Week starting today. Lots of good stuff at bedaonline.com/weight-stigma-awareness-week-about/

  7. a couple of questions…
    is shaming bigots an effective tool for combating bigotry or is bigotry, like obesity, perhaps a more complicated issue than simple choice?
    is “fat” a part of a person’s identity and if so does it stay with you after you have lost the weight or does it fade away in time?

      • possibly… if it makes them feel ashamed (I assume that is the definition of shaming we have been referring to). of course what shames one person might well make no impression whatsoever on another, so shaming is a bit of a fuzzy issue to begin with. I am not moralizing as to whether one should or should not attempt to shame bigots (or bullies), mr. fell’s post simply has me wondering as to the effectiveness of this tactic for inducing change. I like to think that less shaming and more understanding is always a better rule of thumb but I may well be wrong.

    • I found myself wondering the same thing. When I started actively trying to be more understanding and less judgemental … I unexpectedly found myself being less judgemental of judgemental people.

      It’s a tricky situation. On one hand societal pressure and being held accountable for your views “encourages” people to behave in a way that’s more socially acceptable … but it opens up the door to all kinds of self-righteousness. (And we don’t all agree on what’s morally right!)

      If someone is a bully should we shame/bully them?
      Would that then mean that WE should be shamed/bullied?

  8. Well written and thoughtful. I am a fit person who works damn hard to keep healthy. I also have a wide circle of friends, some of whom are overweight, who I know eat well and take care of themselves. There is no excuse for fat shaming, people don’t know the how or they why of a person’s body type. We are teaching our children that people come in all shapes an sizes and that they are beautiful no matter what size they are.

  9. While I am completely on board with fat shaming being problematic (and likely a major contributor to why overweight and obesity is associated with morbidity and mortality), I think it’s worth considering the problems with claiming it as the “last acceptable form of prejudice” (well stated here: meloukhia.net/2013/09/the_last_acceptable_prejudice.html).

    I suspect that focusing on a specific aspect of prejudice is missing the big picture, much like focusing on a specific substance of addiction is. It seems very likely (to me anyways) that prejudice and addiction are human responses to feeling insecure and out of place in our modern world. Perhaps with the former, it’s a case of a good offense being the best defense.

    I think, at least as far as fat shaming goes, things will only improve when we get past the idea that weight is largely an issue of personal responsibility (I found “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.” confusing in that regard … choice or not?).

    I’ve been meaning to revisit “Fat is a Feminist Issue” for a while. Maybe now is a good time!

  10. Amber, I’m a fan of your work, and James, this guest article makes some valid points about fat stigma, but it’s really well past time to retire the “last acceptable bias” line. Aside from pitting marginalized groups against each other, it’s also simply not true. Bias against gay people is widely accepted. Racial bias is ingrained in the fabric of our social world, acceptable in ways that many white people never even notice. I don’t need to keep making a list here. Surely we don’t need this lazy rhetorical device that renders invisible the very real biases that affect the lives of very real people. I’m a fat person, if it’s helpful, and I’m deeply aware of fat stigma, but the bias against me does not render all others moot or lesser, no matter what “an obesity expert in Ottowa” claims.

    • Valid points. Hopefully James will weigh in here. Discrimination based on race and sexual orientation (and religion, and age, etc) is usually expressly prohibited by law, although it still obviously exists. So while it is rampant, at least our culture has made some strides toward acknowledging it is unfair. Weight bias has yet to be acknowledged on a policy level, and in fact, some policy is actually weight biased itself.

      • I agree with you, but as a lifelong fat person who is also an upper-middle-class educated white woman, fat stigma has affected my life on a fundamental level far less than have my class privilege and white privilege. The individualist ethos that feeds the idea of fatness as a failure of personal responsibility (and that would leave fatness out of the list of protected classes for this reason) is also pernicious in its bootstrapping denials of the systemic advantages provided by class, race, gender, etc. And while those biases may be illegal where they are visible to us, those visibilities are the tip of the iceberg—these kinds of bias are (in my personal opinion to a far greater extent than fat stigma) invisible to us even as they shape our lives on a fundamental level.

        There are, as Beth suggests above, a lot of great deconstructions of the “last acceptable prejudice” line from the fat politics blogosphere; here’s one I like: http://www.therotund.com/?p=1030 — Basically, as a fat person, I want it to be clear that I do not think fat stigma is the “last acceptable prejudice,” and I don’t want that line used in my name, because I think though it’s an easy and understandable mistake, it’s one that rests on a serious misapprehension of the role that prejudice plays in our society and our lives. That doesn’t mean I don’t think fat stigma is a great big fat deal; I do. And I appreciate your and James’s efforts to address it here. I just believe those efforts can be honed to a finer point without the oppression comparisons.

        • Oh, and I used “us” in my first paragraph there to refer to a collective consciousness that is self-avowedly universal but de facto white, straight, etc. That consciousness and the people whose alignments coincide with it do not see the ways in which it/they accepts its/their own bias. That’s why I don’t buy this “last acceptable prejudice” thing. We accept racism, sexism, and heterosexism every day—and the fact that we don’t notice that happening (when those against whom those biases are wielded certainly do) is proof of how deeply we accept them.

        • So is it just the use of the phrase ‘The last acceptable prejudice’? Or does it go deeper? Do you feel like using that phrase belies a lack of understanding of the topic?

          Total aside: I’m often told I have no business discussing fat shaming and/or body acceptance because I lost weight. Thoughts?

          • I personally value the thoughts of people who used to be fat and lost weight. Those people are in a unique position to speak to the way the world treats the same person in a different body. My own weight history moves me back and forth between “quite fat, but normal fat” and “very fat, invisible.” I know where that boundary is, what it feels and looks like. I think that’s valuable knowledge. I also think that people who used to be fat and aren’t anymore ought ideally to tread carefully when discussing that transition with fat people (so as not to play into weight-loss narratives of redemption or off of the credibility bump that a socially acceptable body provides, etc.).

            As to the first question, I do think using the phrase “belies a lack of understanding,” and I think that’s well-put. The phrase is itself objectionable because of the way it tries to measure or compare oppressions, but its lack of understanding is about the way bias works, that bias is as much what we don’t see as what we do. I think this happens frequently because discussions about fat stigma and “fat-shaming” (personally I don’t care for this term; it seems to me reductive) often occur within communities of folks who are new to thinking about and examining stigma and bias and aren’t used to trying to see what they don’t see, and sometimes aren’t interested in following the paths that these kinds of analyses open. To me, the “last acceptable prejudice” line’s central misapprehension is about how acceptance and visibility interact in these processes and conversation, and its particular danger is that it seems to signal a kind of self-satisfied disinclination to pursue more complex thinking about the subject (as well as the fact that it forecloses the discussion to people who see and experience other biases being accepted every day of the week).

            • So perhaps “last acceptable form of prejudice” isn’t the best way to put it. I’ll give you that.

              How about, as Dr. Freedhoff said, “the fairest game” in regards to bigotry?

              My point is, among people who consider themselves enlightened, many think nothing of fat shaming. Post something racist or homophobic on Facebook and you’ll get smacked (and deservedly so). Post something fat shaming (especially if it’s “funny”), and you’ll get Likes.

              • “The fairest game” in terms of being the butt of jokes, perhaps, amongst people who already consider themselves against the thing they call bigotry. But bigotry is about way, way more than being the butt of jokes. I see racist and homophobic things posted to Facebook on the regular, some by people who consider themselves brave iconoclasts, some by people who consider themselves enlightened liberals, both getting Likes. But again, racism and homophobia (as all stigma) are about more than slurs, name-calling, and “shaming.” This is what the “last acceptable prejudice” line unacceptably effaces.

                • RE: “I see racist and homophobic things posted to Facebook on the regular.”

                  Really? And you’re still friends with these people? I never see it. Quite the opposite. I see people promoting tolerance. Perhaps I have a better class of FB friends.

                  As for the grander scheme of bigotry, the obese are discriminated against by healthcare workers more than any other group. They can be denied jobs based solely on their weight without the employer fearing legal repercussions. There are legislators who want to tax them for being obese. There are parents who fear for having their obese children taken away from them.

                  I’m not saying racism and homophobia doesn’t exist. Far from it. However, there are at least laws and powerful social movements to combat it. With fatism, there are no laws to protect against it, and the movement to stop the shaming is derided.

                  Obesity affects 1/3 of the population, and yet employers, healthcare workers, and average citizens can marginalize, deride, deny access and potentially even tax unfairly with little fear of consequence.

                  • Or alternately, there are things that I consider racist and homophobic that you don’t (suggested not least because I think “tolerance” is an objectionable framing).

                    Agree about medical discrimination, and as previously noted, also that weight/size isn’t a protected class—though would reiterate what that means about the visibility of stigma.

                  • And really, in addition to the more important notion, which is that there are kinds of racism that well-meaning white, liberal, educated, upper-middle-class people who populate circles like mine and quite possibly yours too do not notice and in failing to notice accept, there is also the obvious empirical fact that racism, sexism, heterosexism, etc. are propagated all over social networking to approval. That there are many groups in which even the “tolerance” ideal is not dominant. Look at what happened just a second ago, when an Indian woman was crowned Miss America. My point here really is that discussions that imply that racism is dead drive away people of color who experience it every day, and discussions that imply anti-gay bias is dead because a DOMA’s been struck down alienate gay people who notice that hate crimes are on the rise—and that to be good, a discussion of stigma *needs* people who’ve experienced it. To be precise, to be incisive, to be effective, analysis of stigma needs exactly the people that the “last acceptable bias” line disincentivizes from participating in the conversation.

                    • I don’t think saying ‘weight discrimination is acceptable in our culture’ (which is what James is arguing with his post and it’s title) equates to ‘racism and anti-gay bias are dead’.

                    • Can’t respond above and comments getting so skinny!

                      But I do think that saying “last acceptable prejudice” says “other prejudices are unacceptable,” and I think that would be disputed by any of the folks on the business ends of those “unacceptable” prejudices.

                    • Dashed that off a little too quickly, perhaps—this text box is really difficult to write in—but what I mean is that people subject to prejudices such as racism, heterosexism, etc. are the ones in a position to discuss how “accepted” they are or not, and the “last acceptable prejudice” line seems to be saying to those people “it has been decided that there is a collective anti-racism in our society,” a statement which seems to me (and, I understand, to many of them) false.

              • To be clear, I *do* see the thing you’re talking about—all the people who would be horrified to think they’re being racist, sexist, anti-gay (even if they are, and even if they’d resist the realization that they are until the cows come home) who are perfectly willing to make fat jokes, and to behave in ways that perpetuate fat stigma. I definitely take your point. I just think that it is really important to be as clear as possible, when having discussions about stigma, about what stigma is, how it works and what it does, and to take the necessary measures to ensure that people who have been on the business end of our foundational stigmas, and thus are in a position to know and teach some stuff about how it works and how it can be coped with, aren’t excluded from the conversation because of assumptions that convey more than they know they’re conveying.

                • I’m with Em. The prejudice and discrimination directed towards the obese IS horrifying and deeply unjust. But as an obese person I always cringe when this is compared to racism. Frankly, it’s counter-productive. It invites an off-topic debate pitting disadvantaged groups against one another for the prize of “most victimized,” as Em has eloquently described.
                  Rather than compare fat shaming to racism at all, it is more constructive and compelling (and on point) to be specific and descriptive, to itemize the injustices suffered by the obese, which are themselves compelling and hard to argue with. When you start talking about how courts sometimes take children away from obese parents on the presumption that obese people are bad parents, you have people’s attention.

          • I for one think the fact that you are a formerly overweight person gives you not just the right, but the responsibility to talk about fat shaming and body acceptance! Having fit allies is important, and it takes cover away from body shamers who may be inclined to dismiss objections to fat shaming as coming from people who can’t take personal responsibility.

  11. What really ticks me off is when people use that approach with children.

    Also they should stop making the overweight character the butt of jokes in television shows and movies, it’s uncomfortable for the overweight people in the audience.

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