Scales of Injustice
As U.S. obesity rates increase, so does fat discrimination.
While the majority of Americans in every single state is overweight or obese, says a Gallup poll examining adults and their weight in the U.S., many obese Americans reports feeling discriminated against, reveal findings from Harris Interactive. More than half of Americans who are obese or morbidly obese report having suffered from job discrimination and social exclusion, and more than one-third report being discriminated against when being seated at restaurants or theatres.
Peggy Howell, public relations director at the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA), discussed the implications of fat discrimination in America with demodirt.com. Howell provided personal insight as well as scientific references to complement her commentary.
“For those of us growing up fat, this isn't really news as most of us have experienced it much or all of our lives,” Howell says. “This is not surprising to NAAFA. We have seen discrimination of fat people and been fighting it since 1969.”
Citing a 2008 Yale University study, Howell notes that national estimates indicated an increase in weight-based discrimination by about 66 percent over the past decade.
Despite the rising numbers of obese Americans, size discrimination has been condoned and even encouraged by various well-established institutions. Often, Howell argues, there is an implication that one’s own size is everyone else’s business.
“The so-called ‘dangers and expense to everyone else’ of being fat, has been so widely hyped that most everyone feels justified in criticizing, ridiculing, mocking and discriminating against people of large body size, ‘for their own good, of course,” she contends.
“These dangers are not supported by science, but our own government is on the bandwagon, so it is assumed to be true!” Howell adds. “The majority of people have been convinced by the medical, pharmaceutical, diet and exercise industries that weight is as simple as calories in/calories out— so personal responsibility is strongly attached to one's body size.”
Moreover, she contends, despite mounting evidence that body size is genetic, the discrimination continues, and is worsening.
“Science has now shown that your body size is about 70 percent heritable; about the same as your eye color,” Howell adds. “There is no outrage about this ignorant mistreatment, as many fat people are convinced that they deserve such treatment, and so it continues.”
One’s size even affects how one fares in terms of employment, education and health care, a 2001 Yale study says. From more than one-quarter of teachers stating that becoming obese is “the worst thing that can happen to a person,” to one-quarter of nurses saying that they are “repulsed” by obese persons, even parents have been found to provide more college support for their thin children than for their overweight ones.
Why is fat discrimination so deeply rooted and pervasive, even within families and well-trusted institutions like education and health care?
Howell says it is due to public insecurity and fear of people who engage in perceived over-consumption—or taking beyond their fair share.
“The public is insecure in the basic physiological and safety hierarchy of needs; food, shelter and providing for yourself and your family,” she says. “So they act out of that insecurity with bias toward people who, in their mind as a result of the constant barrage of anti-fat messaging, obviously have ‘over-consumed’—obviously because we are fat.”
The perception, Howell says, is as if overweight and obese people “are taking money out of their pockets and food from their plates.”
One of the greatest obstacles to eradicating fat discrimination is the tendency for fat people to blame themselves, thinking that they deserve inferior treatment, and not fighting for equality.
“The majority of people, who we are told are overweight and obese—68.3 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control—have bought into the ‘fat is bad’ propaganda and have taken the guilt and responsibility on themselves, therefore they don't unite to combat the discrimination.”
The most dire consequences of fat discrimination go beyond feeling unwelcome at the beach or the nightclub (a deejay friend revealed to Howell an unwritten rule among doormen: “over [size] eight, make ‘em wait”) but one’s health and finances can be adversely affected as well.
Often overweight and obese patients suffer from inadequate medical care, Howell explains. “Disease or illness is often blamed on one's body weight without diagnostic testing ever being done,” she says. “As a consequence, disease is allowed to progress unchecked until things become critical.”
Because of job discrimination, heavier people bring home smaller paychecks.
“People of large body size are often passed over for jobs, promotions and raises without regard for their skills and performance,” Howell says. “It has been found that a fat woman makes up to 12 percent less than her thin counterpart doing the same job. And now some employers want to charge fat employees more for healthcare. I think we already cover the cost of our healthcare by being paid 12 percent less for doing the same job!”
The impact that this kind of pervasive fat discrimination has on society is serious, Howell says.
“We are wasting untold talent by ignoring and overlooking people based on their body size,” she says. “Being fat does not mean we are stupid. So society loses the chance of discovering the cure for cancer, or a renewable energy source that would eliminate the need for oil, or the latest new electronics fad or who knows what because we stifle people based on their body size.”
What can be done to combat size discrimination in the U.S.? Howell suggests educational outreach in various capacities.
“Education is a key to changing the attitudes of people today and in future generations,” she says. “NAAFA has created two tool kits to assist in educating people in recognizing fat bias. The first is the Size Diversity Toolkit directed at employers and employment environments for companies with fat employees.”
People who live with or work with children may be interested in the Child Advocacy Toolkit (CATK) that has been created to assist educators, family members and other caregivers in recognizing fat bias and bullying along with providing resources to combat them and help fat children grow up with better self-esteem, Howell explains.
“The CATK offers positive body messages and teaches body diversity along with health at every size and the importance of equality at every size,” she adds, noting that the NAAFA site offers a variety of printable brochures that can be distributed to providers that deal with fat clients such as healthcare providers, therapists, fitness professionals and even travel tips for plus-size passengers.
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