Weight Stigma Research: Angela Meadows

BEDA promotes cultural acceptance of, and respect for, the natural diversity of sizes, as well as promoting a goal of improved health, which may or may not include weight change.  The views expressed by our featured bloggers are their own.

Angela MeadowsAngela Meadows is the founder of Never Diet Again UK, delivering HAES® workshops to women with a history of weight, food and body image issues. A biomedical scientist by training, she qualified as a personal trainer and completed an MSc in weight management before she realized that the dieting was the problem, not the solution. As well as being a HAES and size acceptance activist, she is currently studying for a doctorate looking at size acceptance and internalised weight stigma.

 

I like the title of Weight Stigma Awareness Week. It’s the ‘Awareness’ bit that is so important.

The funny thing about weight stigma, the only funny thing, and then only if you enjoy gallows humor, is that most people don’t even realize it’s there. I think it’s fairly normal for people who don’t belong to a stigmatized group to be blissfully unaware of the world of prejudice in which those people live. But as a fat person myself, one of millions, I went through most of my adult life not even aware of my own stigmatization.  Although I can’t say there was any bliss involved in my ignorance.

I’m not talking about the overt fat-hating. The insults. The mooing. Not the obvious stuff.  The perpetrators of these attacks are clearly idiots. But the astonishing degree of fat hatred sewn into the fabric of everyday life, so common, we don’t even realize it’s there. So common in fact that intelligent, liberal-leaning folks who would shudder at the idea that they are prejudiced against anybody, actually engage in it as a matter of course with privileged aplomb. So common that it’s in movies aimed at 4-year olds. Fat jokes. We laugh. They’re funny. And then we wonder why kids barely old enough to write their own names are biased against fat people, why they believe all the negative stereotypes. They must be getting it at home, we say. We don’t even recognize the rivulets of stigma running through almost every aspect of our culture, day in and day out. People barely realize that weight stigma is a thing.

It’s this stigmatization that is so insidious, so dangerous, it’s the stuff that makes us forget to even question the disapprobation heaped upon fatties. To forget that being fat is not a crime. That nobody has an obligation to be thin. And that fat, thin, or whatever, we are all equally valuable as human beings.

We have forgotten this.

And with this devaluation of the humanity of ‘we fatties’ comes the rampant proliferation of the socially sanctioned stigmatization of fat that is being increasingly documented in the scientific literature. Here’s a selection for you.

  1. Fat people are more likely to be shown without a head, in ill-fitting clothes, or stuffing their disembodied mouths in news stories about obesity. Readers attitudes are influenced by these images, and stories accompanied by them result in more anti-fat bias among readers than those without stigmatizing images.
  2. In employment settings, fat individuals face discrimination in hiring, pay, and promotion, and are more likely to be disciplined and fired than their thin co-workers
  3. Fat shoppers can’t even go to the mall without being discriminated against by service personnel.
  4. In a study of 51 children aged between 4 and 8, the kids reported they’d be less likely to befriend a fat classmate, and less likely to help them with everyday tasks like picking up toys. This lack of helping has even more potentially serious consequences once they get out of the sandbox. Over 1000 educated adult men and women were less likely to assist a fat woman than a thin woman following a serious traffic accident to which they were the only witness.
  5. Male jurors are more likely to convict a fat woman than a thin woman, as well as finding the fat female defendant less trustworthy and more likely to re-offend.
  6. Fat students do significantly worse in both secondary and tertiary education, despite absolutely no difference in tests of academic skill. One possible reason, although there are several other good candidates: in a study of over 1500 adolescents, over 80% had witnessed fat students being teased “in a mean way”, and between two-thirds and three-quarters had seen their fat peers being ignored, avoided, excluded from social activities and the butt of negative rumors. Physical harassment was also common. And even if they manage to do well at university, applicants to a US graduate psychology program were shown to be less successful the higher their BMI, despite having equally good test scores.
  7. And then there’s healthcare. In an online study of over 2,000 doctors, when asked outright what they thought of fat people on a scale of 1 (I strongly prefer thin people to fat people) to 7 (I strongly prefer fat people to thin people), the average was 1.36. In fact, doctors have consistently been shown to consider their fat patients to be lazy, self-indulgent, and non-compliant. They like us less, would often rather not take care of us at all, and spend less time talking to us compared with their thin patients. Some nurses admit to being repulsed by their obese patients and saying they would prefer not to touch them at all. This all translates into poorer healthcare and reduced healthcare access for fat people, with all the problems that brings.  Sadly, the future doesn’t look any more promising on this front: in a study looking at negative stereotypes about fat people among 1130 medical, nursing, nutrition and dietetics students, only 16 of them managed a neutral or better opinion. 

And with each new report of one of these studies in the popular press, accompanied by the obligatory dehumanizing photo – what Charlotte Cooper dubbed ‘the headless fatty’ – comes an outpouring of disdain and hatred in the comments section, about how fat people deserve this treatment, that perhaps they even enjoy it, are immune to it, or simply aren’t stigmatized enough, because if they were, they would push themselves away from the table and do something about it. And if they couldn’t bring themselves to put down the cheeseburger and get off the couch, well then, they weren’t deserving of being treated as equal members of the human race. It was a fate they had brought upon themselves.

And as a fat person, I was complicit. I believed it too. I didn’t see it as prejudice. I saw it as the unpalatable truth. Maybe if I just tried again, tried harder. Fat people are greedy and lazy. I am fat, therefore, I must be greedy and lazy. It must be true. My continued fatness was proof of my moral turpitude. I can’t help but think of Dobby, the house elf from Harry Potter who serves the evil wizarding family, the Malfoys. Dobby is the poster-boy (poster-elf?) of self-castigation:

Dobby: “Bad Dobby! Bad Dobby!” “Dobby will have to punish himself most grievously…. Dobby will have to shut his ears in the oven door for this.” “Dobby is always having to punish himself for something, sir. They lets Dobby get on with it, sir. Sometimes they reminds me to do extra punishments … ”

Harry: “But why don’t you leave? Escape?”

Dobby: “A house-elf must be set free, sir. And the family will never set Dobby free … Dobby will serve the family until he dies, sir … ”

I’m sure you can see the parallels.

The other funny thing, although again, I used the word ‘funny’ advisedly, is that from the day that I discovered Health At Every Size®, I saw the emperor unclothed. Finally, I could see it. Recognize it. Fat stigma. And it was EVERYWHERE. Once you change your frame of reference, start looking through those unshuttered eyes, you will see.

For me, it wasn’t even about discovering size acceptance, learning to like myself in the body I have now, or finding fat anything other than the repulsive affront to the rest of society that our culture dictates… that came later. It was the day I stopped buying into the idea that I had to be thin – that was my watershed.

In a way, the stigma helped me on my journey, but not in the way the haters predicted. If it hadn’t been there, I may have stopped at ‘I don’t have to be thin’, without getting as far as ‘I’m awesome, and, oh yeah, Fuck you’. But few people who go down this route fail to adopt at least some level of activism. How could any decent person not be exercised by the hatred we see around us? That only we see around us. How can we not try to open the eyes of the guilty and the victims alike (in case you’re unsure, that’s the fat-haters and the fatties, respectively; reading the comments in the media – something you should never, ever do – it’s not always obvious which is which)? To tell our still imprisoned brethren that they can stop ironing their hands and shutting their ears in the oven door.* That they don’t need to be punished, either by themselves or others. And that those people telling us that we should be – they are not our masters. We must demand our liberation. We’re not going to get it otherwise. That’s where the awareness comes in. Before we can end this stigma, first, we have to see it, to recognize it, to call it out. Don’t let it go unchallenged. You are not being too sensitive. It’s not just a joke. We are human beings and we deserve to be treated as such, regardless of size, shape, weight, whether or not they have a predilection for cheeseburgers.

I look forward to the day when that sentence is no longer necessary.

*Harry Potter reference, in case you haven’t read it.

 

Links:

    1. Movies aimed at 4-year olds: http://www.neverdietagain.co.uk/the-pirates-in-an-adventure-with-bigotry/
    2. Barely old enough to write their own names: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22890168
    3. almost every aspect of our culture: http://www.yaleruddcenter.org/resources/upload/docs/what/bias/WeightBiasStudy.pdf
    4. Proliferation: http://www.yaleruddcenter.org/resources/upload/docs/news/Obesity-2008.pdf
    5. More likely to be shown headless etc: http://www.yaleruddcenter.org/resources/upload/docs/what/bias/VideoAnalysisOnlineNews_JHC_2.13.pdf
    6. More anti-fat bias among readers: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23668850
    7. Employment settings: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1744-6570.1999.tb00186.x/abstract
    8. Go to the mall: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16737356
    9. Study of 4-8 year olds: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21996656
    10. Less likely to assist: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20434416
    11. More likely to convict: http://www.yaleruddcenter.org/resources/upload/docs/what/bias/Weight_Bias_Courtroom_IJO_1.13.pdf
    12. Do significantly worse: http://www.nature.com/ijo/journal/v37/n1/abs/ijo201247a.html
    13. 1500 adolescents: http://www.yaleruddcenter.org/resources/upload/docs/what/bias/VictiminationPeerObservations_JSH_11.11.pdf
    14. less successful graduate school: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23784894
    15. Average 1.36: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3492331/
    16. Doctors: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19165161
    17. Nurses: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11743063
    18. 16 neutral or better: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23171227
    19. HAES: http://www.neverdietagain.co.uk/haes-facts/