Study: Fat, Stigma, and Missing the Point

Talking NonsenseOne of the things that helps perpetuate stigma and hold oppression in place is peoples’ tendency, when told about someone else’s experience of stigma and oppression, to immediately engage in an attempt to try to explain it away or justify it.

A comment on an article published by MinnPost about a recent study on stigma and “obesity” (which I’ll call “fat” from here on out because this is my blog and I prefer a term that describes my body without pathologizing it) shows us exactly how this works. First, let’s talk about what the article said:

Women who are obese experience many more incidents of stigmatization because of their weight — an average of three incidents a day — than previous research has reported, according to a study published in the Feb. issue of the Journal of Health Psychology.

I am Ragen’s complete lack of surprise.

Past research has tended to suggest that people who are overweight or obese experience negative weight-related stigmatization only a few times during their entire lives.

BWA HA HA HA HA HA  OMG HA HA HA HA HA HA HA! SO FUNNY I FORGOT TO LAUGH HA HA HA HA HA HA HA.  I’M CRYING OVER HERE!  HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA! No, seriously, I’m crying that anyone would suggest that this is true.

The 50 women cited a total of 1,077 stigmatizing experiences during that single week — an average of three a day for each woman. The most common experiences involved “physical barriers” (84%), “nasty comments from others” (74%), “being stared at” (72%) and “others making negative assumptions” (72%). Experiences least frequently reported included “job discrimination” (22%), “comments from doctors” (16%) and “being physically attacked”(12%).

Yeah, I’m going to have a heart attack and die from not surprised. (Not to get all mathlete on you, but that’s an average of 1,123 experiences a year for each woman!)

The article gave some examples:

“With friends at a baby shower. Went to McDonald’s first so people wouldn’t look at me eating more than I should.”

“Teenagers made animal sounds [moo] outside of a store I was in.”

“I was told what a bad mother I am because I can’t set limits as to what my son or his friends eat during sleepovers, because I can’t even control myself.”

“Boyfriend’s mother denied me access to food, also stated that I was so fat because I was lazy.”

(Sadly) I exhibit no surprise.

The study authors drew the conclusion:

“It is therefore important that researchers continue investigating all aspects of this important phenomenon. Future interventions to reduce stigma and better equip overweight/obese individuals for their encounters with stigmatization should be based upon solid empirical and ecologically valid research.”

Yes!  Thank you.  And let’s be clear that equipping fat people to deal with bullshit should be nothing more than a stop-gap measure as we insist that fat people should be able to exist in fat bodies without shame, bullying, stigma, or oppression. Remember that – no matter what someone thinks about why we’re fat, or what being fat means – there is absolutely no reason to believe that oppressing us will improve our lives, or society, in any way.

But then I broke the cardinal rule of being fat on the internet and read the comments, and that’s where I was reminded of how all of this stigma is held in place:

Not to quibble, but the term “social stigma” seems incorrect.

I understand the term “stigma” to refer to a posture of being disgraced in the eyes of others. The most frequently cited “social stigma” in the study is “physical barriers.” The fact that the typical chair in a public place is not designed comfortably to accommodate the obese doesn’t implicate “stigma.” It reflects that because of material costs and space considerations, typical chairs are designed for those of typical size.

Another fault of the study, it seems, is that incidents of “social stigma” are based on the subjects’ perceptions. It seems likely that a person who is obese, who is self-conscious about her obesity, and who is participating in a study about how others respond to her in light of her obesity, is going to be somewhat more inclined to perceive “false positives” in the eye contact, comments, etc of others than “false negatives.”

What the study seems more to be measuring is the self-stigmatization of those who are obese – i.e., how often, and in what respects, someone who is obese is negatively self-aware of that fact when in public.

Oh Charlie – can I call you Charlie? What a mess you’ve made. Let’s clean it up:

I understand the term “stigma” to refer to a posture of being disgraced in the eyes of others. The most frequently cited “social stigma” in the study is “physical barriers.” The fact that the typical chair in a public place is not designed comfortably to accommodate the obese doesn’t implicate “stigma.” It reflects that because of material costs and space considerations, typical chairs are designed for those of typical size.

For the purposes of this exercise, I’ll go ahead and use Charlie’s definition: First of all, does he honestly think that not being able to fit in a chair isn’t being disgraced in the eyes of others? Does he imagine fat people to be like “No, it’s cool, I’m not embarrassed at all. I mean obviously it’s just way too difficult to have some arm-less chairs in this restaurant, so I’ll just stand through this business lunch, it won’t be weird at all, it won’t feel stigmatizing in any way, it’s really my fault for existing.”?  The fact that he thinks that his (weak) justification for the stigmatizing experience erases the nature of the stigmatizing experience, tells me that Charlie’s not really working this out logically, but let’s move on:

Another fault of the study, it seems, is that incidents of “social stigma” are based on the subjects’ perceptions. It seems likely that a person who is obese, who is self-conscious about her obesity, and who is participating in a study about how others respond to her in light of her obesity, is going to be somewhat more inclined to perceive “false positives” in the eye contact, comments, etc of others than “false negatives.”

Nope nope nope, swing and a miss Charlie. In a world where the diversity of body sizes was respected and there was no stigmatizing of fat bodies, there would be no self-consciousness about body size. That the self-consciousness exists (and as Charlie illustrated is expected of fat people) is a pretty good indicator that fat people are living in a world where fat people are stigmatized (possibly to the tune of over 1,000 incidents a year and that doesn’t include all of the constant messages we get that “thin = good/fat=bad” from the media.)

Telling people who are experiencing stigma that you know better than they do what their experiences are isn’t new, and as long as it’s been around, it’s been a way to hold oppression in place – this is what happens when people think that “No I’m not.” is a complete and acceptable answer to “You’re hurting me.”

What the study seems more to be measuring is the self-stigmatization of those who are obese – i.e., how often, and in what respects, someone who is obese is negatively self-aware of that fact when in public.

Let’s examine the situation:

“Teenagers made animal sounds [moo] outside of a store I was in.”

“I was told what a bad mother I am because I can’t set limits as to what my son or his friends eat during sleepovers, because I can’t even control myself.”

“Boyfriend’s mother denied me access to food, also stated that I was so fat because I was lazy.”

Oh sure, Charlie, these are all just examples of people being negatively-self aware, I totally see it now!  (Why isn’t there a font to indicate sarcasm?  Can someone get on that please? I need it more than Oprah needs bread.)

But what about “With friends at a baby shower. Went to McDonald’s first so people wouldn’t look at me eating more than I should.”  Surely that’s just in the fat person’s head right?  Wrong.  First of all, this person knows their friends and family better than we do, so if they tell us that their experience of stigma led them to avoid eating in public at an event where food was served, we should take their word for it.  In general, ask yourself this –  if this person hadn’t experienced stigma around eating in public as a fat person, where would they have gotten the idea to avoid eating in public?

Again – one of the things that helps perpetuate stigma and hold oppression in place is peoples’s tendency, when told about someone else’s experience of stigma, to immediately engage in an attempt to try to explain it away or justify it. We do more to work against oppression and stigma when our first thought upon being told that something is stigmatizing is “tell me more” (assuming the person is interested in doing so, nobody has an obligation to educate,) or “wow, let me think about that” rather than “no it’s not, and let me tell you why.”

Charlie (and so many like him) are missing the point here (perhaps aggressively, purposefully missing the point.)  Fat people don’t just wake up and “self-stigmatize” out of the blue. Internalized oppression happens when fat people believe all of the stigmatizing messages that we get (from teenagers who moo at us, people who question our parenting, and boyfriend’s mothers who deny us food, the US Government which is waging war on us etc., all because of a physical characteristic that is easily identifiable by sight and thus easily stigmatized. ) The suggestion that the existence of internalized oppression somehow invalidates a fat person’s experience of stigma is truly awful.

It’s also an excellent example of oppression – If I’m able to convince some fat people of the idea that being fat makes them bad/ugly/unhealthy/immoral etc., then I can declare that fat people aren’t competent witnesses to their experience of stigma, because they “self-stigmatize.”

Fat people face real stigma, and it needs to stop right the hell now, and a great place to start would be to stop pretending that it doesn’t happen.

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Published in: on January 30, 2016 at 10:53 am  Comments (24)  

24 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. How did researchers come up with the only one or two incidents of stigma their whole lives?! Were the researchers asleep during the study? Was “almost being murdered” the only example of stigma they would accept? How in the world…

    • I thought that too. They must be in lala land.

      • How do you think many victims of domestic abuse deal with it? “Well, it’s not THAT bad. I mean, it’s not like he put me in the hospital, or anything. He’s not REALLY abusive.”

        Get a bunch of victims who are stuck in a situation they can’t escape, and question them about their abuse, and you’re likely to find a lot of people (knowing they can’t escape, and fearing that their abusers will see this and hurt them even more), trying to justify their abusers, and seriously under-reporting.

        I used to lie to protect my abusers, when I was young (I had reasons, although if I knew then what I know now, I would have prosecuted to the full extent of the law). Who knows how the previous researchers selected their victims to question?

        If the initial questionnaire, to screen people to participate in their study included the question (Have you ever been beaten up by someone, based entirely on that person’s hatred of your size?) then yeah, it would basically equate to “almost being murdered” being the only example of stigma they would accept, or even notice.

    • According to the article, the study that got the “one or two incidents” was flawed because it relied, not just on self-reporting, but self-reporting *from memory, years after the fact.* That’s why the new one had participants keep a diary and write down the incidents as they happened, in real time.

      Of course, that still poses a few problems. Some kinds of fat-shaming aren’t immediately obvious enough to report them as they happen (being diagnosed fat, for instance; we frequently don’t know that happened until we go to a different doctor who finds out what’s really wrong, and I suspect this contributed to that number being so low). Others are so omnipresent and normalized they’re no longer recognized as prejudice, not even by their targets. The “well-meaning” relatives who sidle up to your plate and whisper, “Do you really need to eat that?” or the conspicuous-as-a-whoopee-cushion fat joke worked at random into the TV drama’s touching love confession scene – unambiguously fat-shaming, but likely to fade into the background noise as “just the way things are.”

  2. I would bet anything that that low incidence of discriminatory treatment by doctors was underreporting based on medical misconceptions and women not realizing how much their treatment is affected by their doctors’ (and nurses and NPs) perception of their size.

    • Looks like the study only lasted a week; probably a pretty small sample saw doctors. I think this also accounts for the low number of reports of job discrimination.

  3. Excellent post – thank you! It also makes me think harder about how I respond to friends when talking about any kind of experience. Maybe “what if we try looking at it this way” is unhelpful, and the better response is “tell me more about why you feel that way”. I feel like a lot of what you write about in regards to cluelessness and accidental harm in talking about size issues applies to lots of other sorts of cluelessness, and points to ways to be a better listener and more thoughtful person in general. I know this is tangential to your point here – I just wanna say thanks, is all, because your writing always teaches me something new about body size issues – but it also teaches me some important things about how not to be an ass in general. And those are all good things.

    • That’s a great thought. I like that: “Tell me more about why you feel that way”. Thank you for sharing that!

      • …or even just trying active listening and paraphrasing what they have been saying.

        • Yeah. “Wait, did I hear that right? You’re telling me that ________ happened? Whoa!” is a lot more helpful than “NO WAY!”

          Even in the slang sense of “No way,” meaning, “Whooooah!” it’s just not helpful. Actually acknowledging details, on the other hand, shows a much better understanding.

      • That language wouldn’t work for everyone, especially people like me who are triggered by pseudo therapy language. The “tell me more about why you feel this way” says to me, ‘Oh, here’s yet ANOTHER person who thinks I’m imagining it.’ Grow up with a mother who believes she knows exactly what you’re thinking and why much better than you do, and who acts based on her false assumptions and who believes she’s never in error, because she’s studying for a BS in clinical psychology, and you might get triggered like I do and for similar reasons.

        Better language for me would be “tell me more about it” or “tell me more about what happens and how it feels to you”, language which, especially in the second case, indicates that YOU believe the person you’re talking with when s/he’s giving you information, rather than language which intimates that it’s really all in their imagination or that you’re skeptical about the situation and believe s/he may be blowing it all out of proportion.

        Just like we behave when someone says that s/he’s a rape survivor and/or victim, behave that way with body size or other body stigma. Believe the person who experienced it and indicate that you do! It is truly important and it’s amazing how validating it feels to the other person.

  4. Also I know there is a lot of intentional harm done – I’m not ignoring that. My point is only that a lot of harm comes from people who mean well and actually think they’re trying. So I was thinking about that end of things.

    • That’s a big problem with micro-aggressions. Most people aren’t even aware they’re doing it. Most people aren’t truly aware of just how bigoted they actually are. After all, they wouldn’t go out and lynch someone, just because of their color. But they might, subconsciously, be more likely to vote “guilty” on a jury, because of their color.

      Same thing happens to fat people. They are more likely to be judged guilty (“You can’t even control your own food intake, so how can you control your child’s intake?” being one example), simply on the basis of their size. And having made the judgement about the fat person’s character, they then food police and concern troll, “for the fat person’s own good,” and tell themselves they are brave and heroic for doing so.

      And micro-aggressions add up. They are cumulative, and painful. And dangerous. A single bee sting won’t kill you (unless you’re allergic, or something), but a swarm of bees can kill the most hardy person. And THAT is why micro-aggressions NEED to be reported and understood by society at large.

      I’m very grateful for this study, because it shows people, who didn’t think they were hurting people, that they actually are.

  5. And this is why otherwise reasonable people can say with a straight face, “my sister was never happy until she lost weight, but it was her choice and had nothing to do with society.”

  6. Yeah, when somebody at the only doctor’s office in my network that I can reach without getting on a plane took one look at my butt size and wrote in my file that I had a history of gestational diabetes, when four pages down in the same file was an extensive history of conclusively negative testing for GD spanning three pregnancies, it was just my negative self-image.

    When the same doctor’s office was so fixated on testing my pee for the dreaded GD that they pooh-poohed all signs and symptoms of a UTI including my pee starting to look like Tang, telling me that fat middle-aged preggy ladies just had trouble peeing and to quit worrying about it, that was my negative self-image. I came thisclose to a miscarriage because my silly lady head was so sensitive.

    Alllll about my perceptions, yep.

    • Oh, Jennifer, what a terrible experience and I am so sorry you treated so negligently. When I was pregnant I felt very vulnerable and I had no issues. Your story both breaks my heart and makes me throat-punching mad.

      • I published an article in Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics about my experiences, so I can only hope that my voice has been heard.

  7. We don’t become self-conscious about our bodies until we are made conscious of them. We are made conscious of them by the rest of the world, and we are simultaneously made conscious of the world’s judgement of said bodies.

    “You’ve got to be carefully taught”…to hate yourself.

    • This is downright Biblical.

      Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, and then they hide themselves from God, because they were naked.

      And what does God say? “Who TOLD you that you were naked?” He doesn’t say, “Dude, I gave you everything you needed, but I didn’t give you clothes, so what makes you think you need them, now?” Nope. It’s all “WHO TOLD YOU?”

      Lucifer was the first body-shamer.

      • I”m not trying to bring religion into this, btw. The Bible is the longest-lasting Pop Culture icon in the world, and affects people in most cultures, whether they believe in it, or not.

        It just goes to show, though, that Pauline is right – we have been taught to hate our bodies for a very long time.

    • And if you don’t hate yourself sufficiently, it’s your family’s job to instill it as early as possible. Wonder if my mother’s reaction to my developing breasts and menstruating at eleven, rather than her reaction to my gaining weight, was the reason she put me on a very public and punitive-style diet when I was that age.

  8. I notice that Charlie didn’t even TRY to explain away the 12% (TWELVE PERCENT!!!) of these incidences of stigmatization being actual physical attacks.

  9. Many statistical studies these days are badly flawed and biased especially in the areas of fat and weight loss diets. They are used to “prove” a point and influence people with the Big Lie.The real life experiences of many bloggers is much closer to reality.
    As I see it, one real purpose of studies like this is to obscure the fact that a major goal of most shaming is to force fat people and their admirers into the closet.To hide fatness and become reclusive. One answer is to flaunt it in any way you feel comfortable and strong enough to do so. Believe it because it is so. All humans are beautiful in their own unique way physically.

  10. I really enjoyed this article. I think it’s really important that posts like yours continue to expose the flaws in justifying this way of thinking. It’s really is infuriating to see the kind of defense that others try to make for various kinds of body shaming and I’m glad there are people like you that are able to turn it around and call them on all the BS.


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