Do Americans Hate Fat People? Fight Prejudice Against the Overweight
This week, September 26 – 30, marks the first-ever “Weight Stigma Awareness Week.” It is sponsored by the Binge Eating Disorder Association, itself one of several new groups focused on eating disorders. The awareness drive arrives as the nation jiggles with fat. With over a third of adult Americans now weighing in as obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, attitudes toward obesity are rapidly changing.
There seems little question that obese people face plenty of prejudice. Weight discrimination in the U.S. skyrocketed by two thirds over the past decade, according to the medical journal Obesity. Weight bias abounds in the workplace, doctors’ offices, and schools, researchers found.
Many Americans think fat people “are lazy, unmotivated, lacking in self-discipline, less competent . . . and sloppy,” write Yale researchers Rebecca M. Puhl and Chelsea A. Heuer. “These stereotypes are rarely challenged,” they add.
At my weight clinic, I ask around about this. Turns out, everyone has a story to tell.
• One woman recalls a recent meeting about a major deadline at her office. The boss turned to a severely overweight worker. "It will be good for you to collect everyone’s work," the boss said. “All that walking will allow you to work off some of those extra pounds!” To the overweight worker, it was a public shaming. She was distraught, and eventually filed a discrimination grievance.
• A man recalls a scene at his rheumatologist’s office. He has worked hard, over the past 18 months, to drop 60 pounds. But at 323 pounds, he still has a long way to go. However, his body has stubbornly refused to drop more weight for the past six months. (Such a pattern is not uncommon, clinic doctors report. Sixty pounds is a big drop, and the body—not to mention the brain—needs time to adjust.) Although the man was happy he hadn't regained any of the lost weight, his rheumatologist was upset. "He looked furious. Gave me the hairy eyeball, furrowed his brow, and made me feel like the biggest failure ever,” the man says. "He yelled at me. ‘You’ve just got to get more weight off!” he adds. “I was half in shock. I felt like saying, 'Hey, you're a medical professional. How can you be saying this to me!’ Surely he has an inkling of how hard this is!” Click here for tips on combating fat prejudice in health settings.
• Another patient mentions the balance scales often used in doctor’s offices. Most only calculate weights up to 300 pounds. "Do you know how embarrassing it is, if you outweigh the scale?" the patient asks.
I have strong memories of my mother and brother hiding food from me as I was growing up. "Don’t leave it where she can find it!" they’d say. "She’ll eat it all!" Although my family meant to "help" me stay away from fattening foods, the hiding made me feel illegitimate. I felt as if I "didn’t deserve" the foods that others were allowed to eat; as if I were the family vampire—somehow defective, inferior.
I recall a conversation with my ob-gyn several years ago. "Are you trying to commit suicide by gaining all this weight?" she wanted to know. The question, kindly meant, made me feel sick.
It’s true that the agonies I’ve gone through attempting to lose weight have made me cry on many occasions. There has been, as the Bible sometimes puts it, “much gnashing of teeth,” and even tearing of hair. But honestly, suicide is has never been an objective of mine.
What is true is that losing weight has been murderously hard. What’s true is that, if weight loss could be attained by strength of effort and willpower, I would have been rail thin 40 years ago. What is true is that obesity in America has managed to defy the best efforts of our $59.7-billion diet industry, and a growing army of medical and public-health professionals.
What is true is that weight is an emotionally freighted subject. Fat people tend to be emotionally fragile. Even with the best of intentions, it’s easy to devastate someone with an insensitive joke or an offhand comment.
If you want to help a fat person, try being encouraging. A large body almost never means that a person is lazy or lacks the “willpower” to lose weight. A large body means that something within is out of whack. Click here for Fitbie’s suggestions on combating weight stigma.
“If I lose weight, how will people know how that I am in pain?” So lamented a patient to Deannie Jennings, director of the clinical programs at my weight clinic. Deannie repeats the lament often, because it seems to express a message often sent by what she calls the “language of obesity.” Inside the fat, someone is probably in pain, and in a morbidly obese person, the pain may be close to intolerable. So, the next time you see an obese person, try offering compassion. Who knew? We fat people have feelings, too.
Have you ever experienced weight stigma, or seen such prejudice in action? I’d love to hear your stories! If you keep a blog, help fight weight prejudice with a post for the Weight Stigma Blog Carnival on Wednesday!
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