By Elizabeth Heywood
London, United Kingdom
Fatphobia is the most normalized form of prejudice. The word fatphobia itself does not help its cause. Not only is oppressive behavior distinctively different to phobias, but also people who hold anti-fat prejudices would never consider themselves ‘afraid’ of fatness or fat people in the way that the suffix ‘phobia’ suggests. Instead, anti-fat people just hate fat people.
Referring to these attitudes as a phobia legitimizes them instead of condemning them. And, it invites anti-fat people to immediately become defensive, and often leads to a justification of their intentions of actions, instead of an apology or a desire to change the impact of their actions. So, instead of using the word ‘fatphobia’ or ‘sizeism’ which fails to place fat people at the epicentre of size-related prejudice, I will use the term ‘anti-fat bias.’
There is undoubtedly a cultural bias against fat people. This is seen in all aspects of life, but especially in medicine, the workplace and, of course, in the media. Fat people often cannot get medical care because they are told to lose weight before being treated, and the continued use of BMI in the medical sphere that neglects gender and racial bias is harmful. In the workplace, fat people face severe job discrimination and receive much lower pay. John Cawley’s paper The impact of obesity on wages showed that fat white females earn 11.2% less than non-fat white females. In the media, the problem is amplified, making fat people the most openly stigmatized people in society.
From ‘fat Monica’ in Friends to the underrepresentation of fat people in the fashion industry—in both female and male fashion—even the tiny representation that fat people get is often skewed. In TV and film, fat characters are more likely to be found eating and often are the subjects of humor. They are depicted as unattractive and even disgusting. Harvard’s implicit bias testing has shown that four out of five people, regardless of their own size, show anti-fat bias. Even fat people are taught to hate themselves.
On a quest to eradicate anti-fat bias, it must be understood how these biases are normalized in society. Like most forms of prejudice, most anti-fat people will try to justify their bias, mostly with ‘greater-good’ arguments, but I will explain how these are not only wrong but also immoral.
The belief that weight loss results in a better quality of life underpins our everyday practices in how we respond to fatness. Media and medicine constantly tell us that being fat is bad through the promotion of fitness apps and weight loss products. The problems with the belief that fat shaming will achieve an overarching good result are twofold. Firstly, it assumes that fat shaming causes people to lose weight, and secondly, it assumes that weight loss makes one physically and mentally healthier.
Anti-fat bias assumes that fat shaming actually causes people to lose weight. This is very much not the case. A 2014 University College London survey concluded that those who reported weight discrimination actually gained more weight than those who reported no weight discrimination.
The second problem is the belief that weight loss makes one physically and mentally healthier. Weight loss is often linked to mental health problems, especially when anti-fat bias is displayed to children. In 2019, Weight Watchers launched the application ‘Kurbo’ intended for children from as young as eight to track their food intake in order to ‘promote healthy eating habits.’ Unsurprisingly, the app became the object of much controversy, and rightly, since this type of anti-fat propaganda can lead into a life of insecurity and even self-hatred.
Physically, weight is impacted by many factors, including underlying health conditions, metabolism, genetics, sleep and mental health. Yes, weight is also affected by diet and activeness, but even if every person ate the same diet and partook in the same physical activity, there would still be huge discrepancies in weight.
It is morally impermissible to shame individuals for circumstances beyond their control, but even when individuals are in control of their weight, it is still wrong to fat shame; it is still discrimination. It manipulates people into feeling that they must change either something they can’t control or something that places a significant burden on them. Just like anything else, enforcing a specific value system onto others is wrong.
With the stakes for being perceived as attractive being very high and the Western dominant standard for attractiveness being thoroughly against fat bodies, it can take a huge mental toll on fat people to resist internalizing the aesthetic ideal for thinness. While the fight against anti-fat bias is starting to pick up pace in its ‘grassroots’ phase, we must fight against the immoral justification and normalization of anti-fat bias. But most of all, we must bring it into the conversation, as fat people or fat allies, and finally consider it as the serious form of prejudice that it is.