In 2013, Madelyn Fernstrom, NBC News’ health and diet editor, was quoted in an article for NBC News saying that “bias against the overweight and obese is still very socially acceptable.” Three years later, it would appear that this still rings painfully true. Click on the comments section of any article featuring someone who is fat, and they are rife with concern trolls, insults and even death threats – even if the article in question has nothing to do with weight or body size. Those who attempt to humanize the targets often become targets themselves, or are silenced with: “But it’s been scientifically proven.”
Has it, though? Countless studies dating as far back as 1994 point to the fact that obesity, which was defined as a chronic disease by the Canadian Medical Association in October of last year, is not just the result of poor choices about diet and exercise. Genetics, environment, underlying medical conditions and side effects of medication have all been identified as causal factors for why someone may end up as overweight, or even obese. And yet, the $66 billion diet industry continues to spread misinformation that, by altering your food intake and increasing the amount of physical activity performed every day, your waistline will shrink, and your life will be better.
And people believe it – despite evidence that dieting often causes more harm than good, and that many of the products advertised as legitimate are not approved by the governing bodies that regulate them. Nowhere is the ‘eat less, move more’ mantra more believed than in public policy. In March 2016, the Report of the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology was published, calling for a national campaign to combat obesity. Out of the 21 recommendations made in the report, only one didn’t mention food consumption, quality, promotion, availability or physical activity – it said that a campaign needed to be launched – and that was the one they decided to go with.
Even if being fat was a choice that people consciously made, how in the hell does that make them deserving of public ridicule? Or death threats? Did Lindsey Averill, filmmaker and creator of the documentary Fattitude, deserve to be harassed daily by an anonymous troll who published the addresses and contact information of Averill, her husband, their family members and everyone who participated in the film, along with death threats towards her family, and threats to rape and kill her?
Perhaps one of the reasons why fat shaming is still an acceptable practice comes from the fact that the entertainment industry rarely portrays people who are overweight or obese in a positive, affirming light – sending the message that people who are overweight or obese should not be seen as such. In a 2010 review of research on weight bias in the media, researchers found that most fictionalized TV shows and books often portrayed characters that are overweight or obese as unattractive, unintelligent, lacking compassion, aggressive and violent. Most often, they were the antagonists of the show.
As for reality television, the researchers noted that they had yet to see a humanizing, positive portrayal of people who are overweight or obese. News reports have also been frequently shown to portray people who are overweight or obese without their heads, serving to dehumanize the subjects and perpetuate the idea that people who are overweight or obese are not really people. Even children’s programming isn’t safe: The majority of media targeted towards children tends to be stigmatizing, and the more media children consumed, the more likely they were to hold stigmatizing attitudes towards those who are overweight or obese. The study also noted several intersects between racist and sexist attitudes, noting that black people in general are more likely to be portrayed as being above-average weight than their white counterparts.
Another source of legitimacy for fat shaming comes from research that consistently demonstrates weight bias in doctors and other medical professionals. In 2012, The Guardian reported that the National Health Service survey in the United Kingdom saw 54% of physicians agreeing that they should have the right to deny non-emergency medical care to patients who ‘refuse to lose weight, or stop smoking.’ While it is true that certain medications and surgical procedures are less effective on people who smoke or are overweight, this response also reveals a very dangerous mindset: That there are healthcare practitioners out there who believe that their patients are overweight because they choose to be so, and are willing to disregard the Hippocratic Oath. Sadly, it is well known among those in obesity research that most physicians hold serious bias towards fat patients, which is often due to the lack of obesity-related curricula in medical education. What is even more concerning is that, according to a study from the University of Washington, most physicians are completely unaware of their biases, which is similar to that of the public – the same public that sent messages of support to Lindsey Averill’s tormentor, offering to kill her.
So, why are we still fat shaming? Public policy, the media and healthcare have all given their blessing, and those involved in the body positivity and fat acceptance movements, like Lindsey Averill or myself, are often subject to harassment or even threats on our lives. We continue to shame and ridicule bodies that are overweight or obese because we have created a cultural and social platform that has legitimized them as inhuman and unworthy of acceptance.
I suppose the real question shouldn’t be, ‘why are we still fat shaming?’ It should be: ‘When will we stop?’
Published in the Fall 2016 Issue. Read the rest of the issue for FREE here.
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