How to Actually Stop Stigmatizing Obesity

fight backOne of the most interesting conversations I hear occurs when people who are actively and vocally trying to “eliminate obesity,” “fight the war on obesity,” or work on “obesity prevention” etc. discuss how they might be able to do that work without stigmatizing fat people. I suppose in some ways it’s laudable that they are asking the question, but let me suggest this:

It is impossible to avoid stigmatizing a group of people for how they look while simultaneously calling for the eradication of everyone who looks like them.  Suggesting that everyone who looks a certain way should be eradicated, and/or that every future person who might look that way should be prevented is, in fact, a form of stigma.

If effective, the obesity elimination/prevention movement convinces all of us that we should look at every fat person as someone who should be eradicated, at every child as a possible future fat person who should be prevented, and also convinces fat people that we shouldn’t exist.  I don’t think it’s possible to do that and not stigmatize fat people.

The only way to stop stigmatizing fat people is to be clear that fat people have the right to exist in fat bodies without shame, stigma, bullying, oppression, or attempts to eradicate us including and especially against our will.

If people are interested in public health then they can work to make sure that everyone has access to the foods they want to eat, safe movement options, and true information, and that their choices are respected.  They can also stop trying to use public health to make individual’s bodies the public’s business, or to suggest that everyone whose weight in pounds times 703 divided by their height in inches squared is not between 18.5 and 24.9  should be eradicated/prevented.

To make this more clear, consider these statements:

I’m not against activists who are trying to do strategic work/coalition building  with groups that do this, but that work is just not for me – I don’t choose to try to find common ground with those who advocate for my eradication.  Regardless, I think that it’s important to see this for what it is – ignorance at best, polite lip service about not stigmatizing fat people while aggressively profiting from attempts to eradicate and prevent fat people at worst. Either way, not something that we have to be happy about, or ok with.

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Published in: on April 15, 2014 at 9:09 am  Comments (15)  

15 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. If anyone still doesn’t get it,take those three statements, substitute any other group of people who have been discriminated against for fat people and see how bad it is.

  2. A few months ago, a couple of nice young people showed up on my doorstep asking for donations for a group I used to occasionally support when they were an environmental activism group. But when they explained what they were doing there, they were all about preventing and eradicating childhood obesity. I told them that even if I had money going spare at that moment (which, as it happened, I didn’t) I wouldn’t give it to them for that cause.

    They were dumbfounded. They asked me how I could possibly be against what they were fighting for. I pointed to my waistline and asked them how they could possibly ask me to join in the stigmatization of my own body. They replied canned lines about diabetes and doomed to death before full adulthood. I told them I had neither diabetes nor Stockholm Syndrome and sent them on their way.

    I hope I made at least one of them think a little bit, but I very much doubt I had any real effect. The disconnect was too profound and is too heavily reinforced by society at large. Still, if someone from that group shows up again demanding money to help eradicate bodies just like mine, I will tell them the same exact things. If I say it enough to enough people, someone is bound to actually hear my words and rethink the matter.

    • I have diabetes. I also have hypertension. I have hypothyroidism as well.
      They hypothyroidism was diagnosed when I was 16. The hypertension came along when I was 45. The diabetes was diagnosed earlier this year. (I turned 49 in February)
      Since all of these things are under control, it’s likely that I’ll be around to annoy and stymie fatphobes for quite some time. Women on both sides of my family tend to live into their 80s and 90s.

      • Let’s get together in thirty years or so and have dinner together as two old fat broads in a very public place letting everyone know we’re fat and proud and OLD and don’t give a damn what anyone else thinks about us.

    • Well done. I’d like to think I’d have the presence of mind to do likewise if I was approached (it’s more likely to be a professional approach than being doorstepped at home) to get involved with an initiative to reduce childhood obesity.

      As it happens, two of my own children were overweight as pre-teens, having had the same access to food and exercise and social privilege as the two who were never overweight. One of them, at 16, is still overweight according to BMI numbers and the other, at 20, is a thin lad. They’re both healthy and active and they’re both competent eaters and I think they are both the right weight for THEM at this time in their lives.

      My 16-year-old daughter’s boyfriend of the same age is a well-upholstered lad, and I’ve had to talk to her about stopping nagging him to lose weight. “But I don’t want him dying of a heart attack when he’s, like, thirty,” she protested. They really are hammering the Fat Is Unhealthy And Thin Is Better meme in our kids hard at a young age. And this is a youngster who is “overweight” herself, has four grandparents, all of a substantial body size, still alive, independent, and physically and cognitively healthy, in their 70s and 80s without a single obesity-correlated disease between the lot of them, and has a thin sister in hospital with the consequences of a restrictive eating disorder.

      I actually had one of my patients tell me this week, in the context of discussing his own health, that “you don’t see any fat old people around”. I suggested that he should have a good look at the people in the waiting room on the way out of the surgery and then take a walk along the local high street. For I see lots of fat old people.

  3. Reblogged this on Sly Fawkes and commented:
    Think about other times in history when one group of people have decided that another group of people should be eliminated.
    Its never a good thing.
    I also love how some of these people truly believe that fat people didn’t exist “back in the day.”
    Fat people have always been around, and will continue to be around.
    What needs to be stopped is the sanctioned bullying and stigmatizing of people with larger body types.

    • “Think about other times in history when one group of people have decided that another group of people should be eliminated.
      Its never a good thing.”

      This. Period.

      If you’re asking “How do we get rid of obese people without doing anything unethical?” the answer- the ONLY answer- is “You can’t.” You’ve singled out people for elimination based on a naturally-occurring cosmetic variant. There’s no “ethical” way to do that because it is inherently wrong. It always has been wrong, and it has never ended well.

      And, yeah, thinking fat bodies sprung as punishment from fast food and sedentary office work and the world before those things was some kind of fat-person-free thintopia shows such a willful ignorance of history, it could only have come from a society that’s decided it wants, not only to get rid of its current fat population, but erase its previous ones as well.

      • There is also the argument that only rich people in the past were fat, ignoring the fact that only rich/powerful individuals are generally recorded in history and everyone else struggled with starvation on a regular basis.

        Still, our society (the US anyway) puts so much weight on individual behavior and so little on making changes as a society that it drives me nuts.

        • “There is also the argument that only rich people in the past were fat, ignoring the fact that only rich/powerful individuals are generally recorded in history and everyone else struggled with starvation on a regular basis.”

          Just off the top of my head, but didn’t a naturalist (and I want to say it was Darwin) write about a group of fat people not wealthy, nor political elites, nor even in a particularly food-secure position and describe them as “gifted by nature with bustles?” Much as I hate referencing a quote I can’t specifically site, hunting through all the naturalists of the time for that one quote is beyond my abilities (or at least isn’t how I want to spend my day, lol). All I mean to say is that, even with patchy primary sources and nobility-skewed focus taken into account, you still find such references to fat people who were not of the nobility.

          But we all know how this works. They say “There were no fat people before McDonald’s!” and you present a fat person who existed before McDonald’s, and then they say, “Fine, there were fat people, but they had to be rich enough to overeat!” and you present a fat person who was not rich enough to overeat, and then you get, “FINE! But they had a certain waist-to-hip ratio that implies they didn’t actually have a lot of body fat in spite of those measurements!”, and you provide an example of a fat person who did not have that ratio, before you know it, you’ve fallen into the goalpost-moving Moebius Strip of Derailing, which demands increasingly specific and outlandish examples from you, *to infinity.* No matter how many demands you can meet, it’s never enough… and should you finally stump them, you get, “Okay, so maybe there are a few exceptions, but for MOST people…” and the strip loops around on itself and starts all over, the original point lost, which was the goal.

          So here’s that original point: fat hatred, misinformation, and attempted eradication is wrong. The “there were no historic fat people ever,” “there were historic fat people, but they were evil oppressive gluttons bearing a suspicious resemblance to the current popular stereotype of what fat people act like,” and “there were historic LARGE people, but they weren’t the same kind of fat as people today,” arguments are all made on the premise that if any one of those things were true, that would somehow make it okay to lie to/about and attempt to eradicate present-day fat people. It wouldn’t. There have always been fat people, but even if there hadn’t, hating people for being fat would still be bigotry. Their Moebius Strip of Derailing’s not gonna find them any loopholes through that.

          • You are absolutely right, the goalposts keep moving. What I meant to get at was that even if there were fewer fat people (which we have no way to prove), that could have had something to do with food insecurity.

            Now that we have more food security, maybe we have more fat people. But if so, why is that automatically bad and do we really want to reinstate regular starvation for everyone?

            As a side point, fat people were also criticized historically. I’m not sure why.

  4. I recently saw an article which says, OBAMAS ARE HYPOCRITES! LOOK AT THEM EATING ALL THIS JUNK FOOD! and what followed were shots of Michele and Barack tucking into chili fries, burgers, hot dogs, and loads of other things that would personally give me intestinal distress for days.

    And I know their defense would be, “Well, we don’t eat like this all the time, and we’re thin, so it’s okay. Besides, it would be rude not to…” with the clear indication that fat people DO eat like this all the time…it’s why they’re fat…DUHHHH….

    It’s still stigmatizing people, just going the other way. An article like that doesn’t prove the point it thinks it does and actually makes things worse.

    • And if they didn’t eat the food at the various photo ops, you know the battle cry would be how they are elitist snobs who are too cruel to allow their daughters a hot dog.

      Personally, you couldn’t pay me to eat a hot dog, but if I liked to eat them it would be nobody’s business but mine.

    • Lemme guess; this article was in the same kind of book that wasted dead trees on the weight fluctuations of Kim Kardashian? I saw a particularly vile one about Kristie Alley yesterday and seriously thought about running back and buying a notebook and marker just so I could cover it with a placard reading “You are beautiful. Bullying is ugly.” But I was in a hurry.

      • Nope, it was on-line…which says something about the source, really.

        I did see that magazine of poor Kirstie: DOCTOR SAYS “YOU’RE OUT OF CONTROL! LOSE WEIGHT OR DIE!” and I thought, Maybe they should just leave the woman alone…


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