Are Fat People Really Oppressed?

I got a great comment yesterday asking about my use of the word oppression to describe my experience as a fat person.  The comment read:

I wonder if using the word oppressed is maybe a bit dramatic. Maybe the experience is different when you weigh more than I did, (I was 220lbs) and it’s surely different being an obese woman, but from MY experiences I’m not sure that I would ever feel right referring to myself as having been oppressed. I’m new to the whole “embracing [my] body” thing, and I’m not trying to start a fight or anything. It’d be helpful if someone could just point me to some empirical studies on specific ways in which fat people are treated differently. I’ve certainly had shaming experiences that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been overweight, but I’m just hesitant to describe them as acts of oppression. It has certainly devastated my confidence in probably irreversible ways, and that HAS held me back in some ways in my life. I guess I’m just uncomfortable viewing myself as oppressed.

And maybe this is just my ignorance showing, I don’t mean this as an attack or as an attempt to set your efforts back; I’m just trying to learn.

Thanks for asking respectfully Max! Here is where I’m coming from:

The definition of oppression is “the exercise of authority or power in a burdensome, cruel, or unjust manner; to burden with cruel or unjust impositions or restraints”.

The simplest explanation I can give is that as long as my government is waging a war against me (the War on Obesity) a war in which they are actively trying to involve everyone from employers to restaurants to healthcare and insurance companies – and as long as there are people who assert that we should all hope for a world where people who look like me don’t exist – I will assert that I am the victim of oppression.  I think that society’s attempt to police my body and eradicate (at least part of) me without my permission and by any means necessary constitutes the exercise of authority or power in a burdensome, cruel and unjust manner.

But let’s go deeper here, you had asked about studies and evidence, here’s some of that:

This article discusses workplace weight discrimination (which is legal almost everywhere) -trigger warning for possible victim blaming language

Here is a more scholarly article about workplace weight bias and wage discrimination

If I worked at Whole Foods, I wouldn’t get the same benefits package as my thin co-workers. No amount of healthy behaviors or metabolic health could get me the same benefits, I have to be thin.  This idea of rewarding thin employees and punishing fat employees at the workplace (aptly nicknamed “Carrot and Stick” benefits) is gaining popularity.

Studies show that 24% of nurses said that they are “repulsed” by obese persons. More than half of the 620 primary care doctors questioned described obese patients as “awkward, unattractive, ugly, and unlikely to comply with treatment.”

I’ve personally had doctors refuse to set my broken toe unless i agreed to go to a class about weight loss surgery, tell me that my strep throat is due to my weight (and admit the lie when confronted, but defend that no matter what was wrong with me I would feel better if I lost weight), try to lie to me about my blood pressure to scare me into weight loss (and try to justify the lie as “for my own good” when confronted).  I’ve been prescribed weight loss for anemia and a dislocated shoulder.

I get so much hate mail for giving people the option of focusing on healthy habits instead of weight loss that I created a separate website for it.

We get almost 400,000 negative messages about our bodies every year.

As a fat woman people feel comfortable making comments about what I eat, mooing at me out of cars, blaming me for everything from global warming to world hunger with absolutely no proof, and being unspeakably rude.

Behaviors that are considered unhealthy for thin people are encouraged for me.

People argue that I deserve to be shamed and ridiculed because my body proves that I’m not being personally responsible.

I was put in a movie as an example of a fat healthy woman. A professional editor, being paid for his work, went against the express wishes of the filmmaker to try to make a joke out of me.

People who look like me are not allowed to have any success, except weight loss, without the ridiculous accusation that we are promoting obesity. This creates a situation where people try to make sure that I neither have role models who look like me, nor am I a role model to others.

People posit that because I am fat I am an idiot who, if not told exactly what to eat, will simply binge on Twinkies and call it healthy eating.

I am told that because I’m fat I’m not a credible witness to MY OWN experience and that other people know better than I how I behave and what I truly want

Not to mention that studies funded by people who profit from selling weight loss that make ridiculous claims about fat people, from which they profit, are published as factual news

All of this, and there is not a shred of evidence that any intervention will be successful at bringing even a simple majority of participants into a “normal” weight range, since 95% of all participants gain back their weight (and often more) within 5 years.  Stated eloquently by Wayne Miller, an Exercise Specialist from George Washington University:

“There isn’t even one peer-reviewed controlled clinical study of any intentional weight-loss diet that proves that people can be successful at long-term significant weight loss.  No commercial program, clinical program, or research model has been able to demonstrate significant long-term weight loss for more than a small fraction of the participants. Given the potential dangers of weight cycling and repeated failure, it is unscientific and unethical to support the continued use of dieting as an intervention for obesity.”(emphasis added)

So yeah, I believe that fat people are being oppressed.  I’m not trying to say we are more or less oppressed than any other group.  I don’t believe in wasting time playing the Oppression Olympics. I believe in stepping up and getting involved which is why I do what I do.  I think the idea that oppression is too strong a word is one of the things that keeps us oppressed which is why I use it.

That’s what makes sense to me. I also believe that everyone has the right to their own experience and so if someone doesn’t feel like oppressed is the right word for them I would never say that they should use it.

This blog is supported by its readers rather than corporate ads.  If you feel that you get value out of the blog, can afford it, and want to support my work and activism, please consider a paid subscription or a one-time contribution.  The regular e-mail subscription (available at the top right-hand side of this page) is still completely free.   Thanks for reading! ~Ragen

Published in: on March 20, 2012 at 8:15 am  Comments (30)  

30 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. you always say everything so amazingly! I am bookmarking this forever, thank you for this and for all your work :)

    • Hi Lucy,

      Thank you so much, I’m glad that you like it :)

      ~Ragen

  2. Yesterday I was talking to a lady who lives in an apartment complex where I used to live. The manager was a very large woman, and an absolutely great manager. I asked the lady how the manager is doing, and just to make sure we were talking about the same person, described her physically as “the larger lady manager”.

    I was told that the manager is no longer “larger”, because she was told by the owners of the complex that she had to lose weight in order to keep her job. Her job that she does very well. Her job that has nothing to do at all with her body.

    There’s your oppression right there.

  3. Here’s another example: My mom destroyed her body with weight cycling and eventually had a host of medical problems. It took her years to find a doctor who understood that she could no longer “just lose weight.” When she became immobile from severe arthritis, she needed a power scooter because she was too large for an electric wheelchair (of the kinds available at the time). Medicaid would not pay, even though they would have paid for the chair and the scooter was cheaper by far. Nothing her doctor said or did would convince them.

  4. Just thanks thanks thanks, for the reality check. It’s sad, but empowering. At least we have some brave voices out there like you.

  5. I think we mix OPPRESSION with VICTIMIZATION. Victimization implies that it’s OUR FAULT for the experience, whereas oppression implies that someone has so much power over us that our efforts to stand up may or may not alleviate the matter. We feel empowered (esp. in our culture) by oppression, hopeless by victimization. All in all, our personal power is connected to our social power – but just because we are oppressed by this size-ism ideology, doesn’t mean we are victims. Just my take on it…

  6. I would sadly have to agree with the use of the word oppressed. I am currently trying to obtain treatment for atoummune issues which are impacting my ability to eat. I automatically got seen by a PA edven though my fat friendly physician specified a specialist because of my other disabilities.

    She would not touch me. There was no physical exam and the first question she asked was “How much weight are you losing?”. When I told her I don’t allow myself to be weighed, she dismissed me without further follow up. Never once did she ask about physical symptoms, just my weight.

    When the nurses do touch me they are rough, the way one would be with an inanimate object. I always have bruises from their handling or marks where they purposely used a smaller cuff on me than necessary (which incidentally is guaranteed to drive you blood pressure through the roof!)

    Last year, I fell and hurt my arm. They checked me for diabetes and lectured me about weight loss but didn’t x-ray or treat the arm (turns out it was broken and now it’s too late to reset the break without surgery).

    Yeah, I would call us oppressed.

  7. Not accepting my fat body has held me back in life too. Right now, I look way fatter than I really am due to Lymphedema in my legs. People everywhere love to stare, and it is so uncomfortable.

    How it holds me back……..I have multiple talents. One for writing and another for singing. My brother suggested I try out for American Idol. Although I know I will never be the next Idol, even if I do sing well, I don’t want to suffer public humiliation as everyone would be attacking me for my weight. (I am currently 430+ lbs…..allot of it due to Lymphedema) America would never choose me as their idol because of my weight alone.

    My fiancee suggests that I audition for a local talent show that is publicly broadcasted. Again, I cringe at the thought of that because of my huge body.I wish I could be happy in my body, but I just can’t. It is allot easier said than done, I’m afraid. Although I love the spotlight on stage, I feel forced to remain behind the scenes as a writer….where I am not seen but heard. It makes me depressed because my talents are meant to be on stage…but I feel society would focus all their attention on how big I am, rather than how talented I am. Sure, there have been fat actresses and fat singers, but how many of them eventually slimmed down, claiming it was for their health, when I am sure the real reason is they couldn’t take society’s abuse any longer.

  8. Here’s another example. My roommate likes to use stereotypical insults against people who make him angry, but he never calls them to the person’s face. Yesterday when we were at the grocery store a fat woman took the parking spot he was waiting for. He got out of the car and walked after her yelling at her about how fat she was, and other fat stereotypes. He wouldn’t have yelled racial slurs (for example)at anyone; only because she was fat did he feel it was okay.

    I yelled at him to stop. I told him just because he was mad at her for taking his parking spot didn’t give him the right to say these things to her. He told me not to yell at him, or he wouldn’t drive me to the grocery store. I told him I’d rather walk home with my groceries than be seen in public with someone who would say things like that. That made him stop and think about it, and we had a respectful dialog about it after that, and I was able to set some limits with him, not just about that but about the other stereotypes he liked to insult, so some good came out of it. I just wish it hadn’t been at that lady’s expense.

    • You are so right about this…that people may say insulting racial slurs behind someone’s back, but just because someone is fat, they feel the need to shout as they drive by, etc. When are we big people going to get the respect we deserve?

      We need a fat woman to be elected President! Nevermind just having a woman President will be good, but a fat one would be just what society needs!

      • Considering the level of fat hatred these days, I doubt even a fat MAN can become president. Remember when Chris christie’s name came up? He wasn’t even a candidate but the fat-bashers came down like a ton of bricks. Even the Simpsons tv show did a hateful spoof depicting him gobbling a giant pile of food and choking on it. We got a long way to go to get to the promised land.

  9. Also, don’t forget the very powerful way that society works to keep fat people from pair bonding, and forming lasting relationships with others, because, as society reminds us, fat is ugly, unsexy, disgusting, and so on. Talk about how dehumanizing a feeling that is, having society bombard you with messages that you are not even worthy of love, because of how much you weigh. Nothing crushes the human spirit more than feeling as if you are not even worthy of the positive esteem of others, and that you should never expect to have the kinds of relationships others take for granted.

    That is such a fundamental example of oppression, it surprises me how often if gets overlooked when discussing social justice for people of all embodiments.

    • AMEN…

  10. A relative of mine went in to a doctor to ask about a lump in her breast. She was told it was fat tissue and that she should just lose weight. 4 years later she was taken by breast cancer. If that isn’t oppression, what is it?

    • Wow….that woman’s family deserves to win a major lawsuit and that doctor deserves to have his MD license taken away!

  11. For what it’s worth, Ragen, you ARE a role model. Your blog has helped me grow a spine and find my own voice. I have a sense of empowerment I never had before because of repeatedly reading here that my body size does NOT make me unworthy of basic respect. Thanks for doing whatchya do.

  12. A couple of things I thought of (serious trigger warning for point 2):

    1) There is a distinct lack of things available in sizes and/or weight capacities available for people of size, and often those things are much more expensive than their counterparts made for smaller people. Clothing is kind of the obvious example here — depending on where you go in the Fatosphere there is regular discussion about how clothing options are VERY limited (especially for women who wear anything above a US 24/26) and also tend to be of lower quality while still being very expensive. I can’t speak to the situation in men’s clothing because, as a single woman, I don’t shop for men’s clothing very much, but my recent foray into Target’s men’s clothing section in pursuit of a Star Wars t-shirt tells me that their situation isn’t necessarily any better. The size and/or weight capacity of things like furniture and airplane seats is also problematic.

    2) If you have the emotional fortitude or Sanity Watchers points to burn, go find some articles about weight or dieting on the internet. There is usually at least one on the Yahoo news homepage at some point every day, and often more than one (though some of them will be sneaky). Skip down to the comments. Count how many comments are absolutely awful to fat people, up to and including death threats (including my all-time favorite from an article that was only tangentially related to weight: “obese people should be lined up and shot.”) Keep in mind that every one of those comments represents at least one real person who is out and about in society with you on a daily basis. And then let’s talk about oppression of fat people again.

    I think it’s entirely possible that Max hasn’t experienced any obvious oppression. It occurs to me that privilege and oppression aren’t about individuals. A person can belong to a privileged group and never experience the privileges typically afforded to members of that group, for whatever reason. Likewise I think a person can belong to an oppressed group and never experience the things (or at least never experience the worst things) that would lead people to declare that group oppressed. But that’s mostly because privilege and oppression are about trends across groups, not about individuals. Most of us can probably point to an example of a white man who seems to really struggle through life without any apparent privileges, even though white people and cisgendered men are two of the most privileged groups in Western society today. So Max, I would say that if you haven’t experienced/don’t feel you have experienced weight-based oppression, that’s great. There is nothing wrong with you, and I hope your experiences continue to be positive. Just bear in mind that your experience may be vastly different from the experiences of other fat people or from the experience of fat people as a group.

  13. A good friend of mine is an avid reader of your blog, and she often shares posts with me and other people, and I really appreciate and enjoy seeing the things you post. I think that the more things like this get out there and the more people are reading them, the more circumstances will become better (hopefully).

    Thank you for posting all of those articles and studies about workplace weight discrimination and similar situations- I was shocked to read about even doctors not looking past the weight to address whatever medical issue might be present (and some of the previous comments… wow).

    That shouldn’t really surprise me- my old pediatricians office had doctors that would comment about my weight, and I was never even considered overweight! When I was 15, I was 5’7″, weighed 150lbs. Pretty “normal,” and I was active, played sports, generally lived healthily… I distinctly remember my doctor telling me after weighing me that my weight was far above the average for my height, and was I maybe eating too many sweets or drinking too many sodas? Maybe she meant that for my age, or something, but as a 15-year-old, I felt like she was indicating that there was something wrong with me and that I should try to change.

    The other side of that story is that over the two years after that, I lost 20 pounds because I started dancing regularly and pretty much stopped drinking sodas, but weight loss hadn’t been my intent. I barely even noticed that I lost weight, until I went back to the same doctor and she told me how much I weighed. Then I had to do a whole bunch of tests to make sure I wasn’t anorexic or anemic or had some sort of disease, even though my weight was then around average for my height, apparently. So doctors are uncomfortable also when people lose weight… that’s not how it should be.

    I feel like part of it might have had to do with my mom, who was 5’4″ and weighed over 200lbs when I was growing up. I never cared or noticed her weight being a certain way- she was my mom! And when I was 16, she started changing her exercise and diet so she could lose weight, and when I asked her why, she said she felt she was setting a bad example for me and my sister. What kind of message is society giving people when it tells them the only way they can set a good example for their children is by looking a certain way?

    Thank you so much for your blog!

  14. I have never seen The Biggest Loser, not even a clip on YouTube, and I’ve gotta say that the image you included at the beginning of this post FREAKS ME OUT. The power dynamics in their body language! People think that sort of thing is ENTERTAINMENT?!

    Is there a direct source for that quote from Wayne Miller? I want to quote it so badly, but I also want a good citation, and Google is not cooperating.

    Also, regarding oppression, I have a Delicious.com account where I bookmark lots of links, including 30 (and growing!) relating to formal obesity research. There’s a TON of information there that I’ve found super helpful, as well as incredibly illustrative of the landscape fat folks walk through every day.

  15. A phrase I saw recently being used about another oppressed group was that the majority were trying to “morally mandate us out of existence”. I rather like that.

  16. 10 years since I could get healthcare (being told to lose weight for Meniere’s disease, hernia, rheumatoid, torn rear thigh muscles, 6 month continual menses, is not healthcare) that’s oppression! But I just got told by the doctor yesterday “we will lose weight & cure my Meniere’s, I’ll be famous, lol.

    • I’m so glad (NOT) that your doctor is so intuned with your body that he has decided after all these years he has the solution and will become famous off of your pain! Please, please get another doctor who feels your pain!

      • Yes, now that Ragen has a way to go about the search; request a call back, ask does dr believe a fat person can be healthy, can dr touch a fat person…

  17. I’m beginning to realize that the “problem” of obesity is like all the other things that television, magazines, etc. keep reporting on. They seem to take the worst scenarios and plaster them all over without offering a single rebuttal or a single ray of sunshine in all of this. This is the reason I don’t watch a whole lot of news…it just depresses me. It makes me think there is no hope of a better world and that only bad things are going to happen. It’s also clear to me that the world is sort of obsessed with certain things…i.e. there are shows on television about “obese” people who don’t have a healthy lifestyle and someone comes into save them and help them lose weight. So the world must want to see the bad side, right? I try to steer clear of the negativity that is taking over a lot of people, but it’s becoming an arduous task. I just wanted to share this epiphany with you because I don’t think I was quite getting how serious your fight is. You are certainly correct. If the world would take weight out of the equation, maybe we could get more afforable healthy food options or more affordable ways to persue activities that promotoe movement. It’s like the world only wants to focus on results and not how we get there. And that could be very dangerous indeed.

  18. Agreed. That image is very disturbing. I’m not usually a violent person, but I’d like to think that if I was that fat lady, I’d lose it and kick the shit out of that trainer.

  19. So I couldn’t believe I was seeing this, but the United States Postal Service is doing a sweepstakes/promotional tie-in with “The Biggest Loser.”

    https://www.usps.com/biggestloser/

    This is allegedly connected to their new “Heart Health” postage stamp. You can win a week at “The Biggest Loser” “resort.” I think it would be great if a bunch of us let them know how inappropriate that is!

  20. For many, many years–starting in my late teens–I had trouble with my joints, digestion, chronic pain…and was told it was because of my weight, despite the fact that I was a dancer when this all started and that at the time I was actually quite underweight. (125 pounds at 5’5″–but I have a large, wide frame with big bones, and at that weight you could play xylophone on my ribs.)

    I got sicker–and bigger–over the years, and continually they told me I’d get better if I’d just lose weight. I must have taken a thousand tests for diabetes, which I don’t have.

    Well into my 40s I read about celiac disease and realised that every single symptom I have ever had could be attributed to it. I tried going for a few days without eating gluten and felt better, but went back to it in order to get the tests. The doctor didn’t want to give me the tests and I said “let’s just do it to rule it out then, and if it’s negative I’ll take another diabetes test”.

    The day the results came in I got a call from my doctor’s BOSS telling me to immediately go off gluten and not wait for an endoscopy because they had never seen TTG antibodies that high and they were sort of afraid I might, just, you know, die or something.

    Which I did, gladly. I had been having memory problems and wondered if I was going to get something horrible like Alzheimers but it was gluten ataxia, a side-effect of severe celiac disease.

    i am much healthier now after 2 years off gluten. And hilariously, I have been losing weight ever since I went off it, partly because I don’t need to eat a zillion calories a day in order to get 2000 calories worth of actual nutrition through intestines that were probably pretty shredded. When I ate gluten I was pretty much starving all the time, and people assumed I was just gluttonous or a food ‘addict’, not that maybe there is something wrong when someone needs to eat constantly.

    But I am still pissed off. Some of the damage may never quite go away. The chronic pain and mood disorders and gluten ataxia are so much better but I know I’m not what I used to be. I want to dance again and I will, but it’s hard recovering from deconditioning. And I can’t help but think that if I’d ever ever EVER been thin, they might have figured this out for me, like doctors are supposed to do, instead of my having to research, cajole and bully just to get tested.

    And it’s also a little annoying that so many people focus on the fact that I lost weight, rather than the fact that for once in my adult life, I’m able to go out in the evening after putting in a day at work more often than once a week without spending the whole damn weekend in bed recovering. It’s nice to have more options for clothes, but I know which of those things is more important to me, and it’s the part where I actually get to have a life and do stuff.

  21. The more I read this blogs, the more I realize how obnoxious people are. It’s overwhelming. You’ve made it abundantly clear – this isn’t about you – or even weight – it’s about others not being able to tolerate themselves. Period. That and the lengths people will go to oppress others in that process. Oppression is the correct word. Here’s another that comes to mind – the Holocaust. It’s exactly the same mentality. These are exactly the same tactics and types of lies and people. Let me say it again for emphasis – Holocaust mentality.


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