Two years ago I was at a conference listening to my friend Nick recount his experiences of being an obese kid at school.
He described how he was always the last to be picked for any team, always bullied for being lazy and slow, and cruelly teased by his peers in anything involving physical activity. One day when he was 12, he did a sprint training lap at rugby league practice.
About halfway through the lap, Nick realised he was in front of all his teammates!
Nick described how euphoric he felt as he puffed out his chest and ran as fast as he could to be FIRST! Until reality dawned. On turning around he realised that every other kid in the sprint had stopped running. And instead of cheering him, they were laughing at him. The fat kid hadn’t come first. He was the victim of yet another prank at the hands of his peers.
Fat stigma and discrimination are no laughing matter.
Six years ago I started to interview people about their experiences of being obese.
At the time, like many academics working in the area of obesity, I was probably more interested in hearing about why people were not able to lose weight. I think I thought I would be able to design a fancy weight loss intervention to address what I perceived were problems with the individual rather than our approach to ‘fighting obesity’.
After all, the evidence was clear that obesity was an epidemic, and unhealthy. All we needed to do was to work out a way of getting people to do what was good for them, to take more responsibility, to ‘eat less’ and ‘exercise more’. Right?
Within two days of interviewing people, I had completely changed my view about obesity and how we treat obese individuals in society today.
The turning point came when someone joked in front of our research participants that if we set up an ice cream cart we would make a fortune.
Over the last few years, I have listened to hundreds of stories just like Nick’s.
Stories of bullying, teasing, and victimization: people being spat at in the street; told they take up too much room on the train; are bad parents (for no other reason than their body size); and used as a cautionary tale to warn children about the consequences of eating too many sweets.
I have heard from women who have had strangers tell them at the bus stop that they should go on a diet or they will die.
People who have had things thrown at them from cars, women who have been told to leave fashion stores because they don’t stock their size, individuals who have been told they will never find love if they are fat – and if they do, will never have enjoyable sex, and one woman who was told that it was lucky she had a miscarriage because it would be terrible to be a fat parent.
I have heard about the obsessive focus on increasingly dangerous patterns of weight loss in an effort to desperately conform to a societal and medical thin ideal.
But for me, the most disturbing part of fat stigma is: a) how easy it is for us to make assumptions about what fat people MUST be doing for their bodies to be like that; and b) how acceptable it is for us to make those assumptions in a very public way.
How quick we are to call obese individuals lazy, gluttonous, burdensome, unhealthy, unloveable, careless and gross.
Many of my obese friends are far more active and eat a healthier diet than I do at a size 14. Yet they are the ones who are automatically targeted as ‘unhealthy’.
Perhaps this isn’t altogether surprising when the broader rhetoric from the media, medical profession, weight loss industry, academics, government, friends, family members, and strangers has created a moral, societal, and medical ideal of thin = good; fat = bad.
Fat stigma is not helpful for anyone – fat or thin. It does not encourage long term, positive health behaviours. It makes people feel awful about themselves. It leads to isolation, exclusion, and poor mental health. And it actually prevents individuals (of all shapes and sizes) from engaging in physical activity.
‘Health’ is no excuse for stigma and discrimination. In the creation of our war on obesity, have we unintentionally created a war on obese individuals?
Has the overwhelming focus on weight loss, waist circumference, BMI and dress size led us to lose sight of much broader, and important indicators of health and well-being?
In my opinion, our current approach to obesity may, in fact, be making things worse.