“And the shame. Oh, the shame of being wrong, all the time wrong, impossible to erase the wrong-bodied-ness that you express everywhere you go. Hide yourself. Don’t move. Don’t dress flashy. Don’t be loud. No one wants to hear you. No one respects you. No one will ever respect you. Do something about yourself forgodsakegoddamnit.” www.kimberlydark.com.
By Melodie McCullough
photo by recipes from heaven
The president of the United States loves to bully her. She gets a job interview, but doesn’t get the job. She tries to rent an apartment, but doesn’t get that either. She dreads a trip to the doctor. The fashion world pretends she doesn’t exist. She is mocked and scorned in media and online. If she eats in a restaurant or walks down the street, she is stared at, verbally, or even physically, abused. If she’s in school, she is taunted and shamed by both teachers and other students. She is, indeed, faced with the prospect of cruelty around every corner she turns.
“She” is a fat woman – a modern-day pariah in a culture that overwhelmingly worships thinness. And every day she deals with one of the last remaining socially acceptable prejudices — fat shaming.
It stems from fat phobia, a well-known societal bias against fatness.
“Always being too much, and never enough.”*
“I have been discriminated against verbally, been passed over for jobs where I was literally told I had oodles of talent, but I was simply too big for television,” said Jill Andrew, a body image advocate and co-founder of the annual national Body Confidence Canada Awards, in an interview with JOURNEY Magazine.
“And one of the biggest stereotypes is that we are fat because we are lazy and eat too much,” she continued. “And that we have no control over our lives, no commitment to change and we don’t want to make ourselves feel better. So people think it’s your own fault, and they say just lose the weight. Just get rid of it.”
In her 2014 TED Talk on the subject Andrew describes how, as a teenager, she was verbally assaulted by a man on public transit who sat next to her with a menacing dog. He took up a lot of space, and his dog stared at me as though I was its favourite food. It made me nervous, and as the man observed me fidgeting in my seat, he looked at me and yelled, “If you weren’t such a f*ing fat, black b*tch, you wouldn’t be afraid of my dog.”
No one came to her rescue. Other passengers, both adults and youth, either laughed or simply looked away.
“When someone calls you fat, you have to decide if it will empower you or destroy you. More often than not, I am destroyed by it.”*
Jenny Ellison, curator of sport and leisure at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec, and a former assistant professor of Canadian Studies at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, describes fat shaming as actively targeting larger people and making them feel bad. It’s definitely not about making their lives better.
There’s a “general social uneasiness with larger bodies,” Ellison said, in a recent interview. “There is the idea that your body weight says something about you as a person and that people who have a certain body weight are somehow moral failures or indicative of bad character.”
Negative attributes are routinely associated with ‘fat’, she said.
Think about it: lazy, no willpower, socially irresponsible, stupid, unhygienic, inactive, self-indulgent, bed-ridden, unscrupulous, untrustworthy, antisocial, sexless.
And many people believe that the amount of fat in your body is only determined by what you eat and how much you exercise, says the Canadian Obesity Network (CON) website. (See more FACTS below)
“I was raised by fat phobic women
who were always getting me to diet, sending me to fat camp.”*
“I was raised by four women who were feminists,
but who didn’t embrace body positivity.”*
“The reality is that obesity is a complex illness caused by a number of different factors, including environment, genes, emotional health, lack of sleep, medical problems or even some medications,” says CON. “Even with the same diet or the same amount of exercise, people will vary widely in the amount of body fat or weight at which their bodies settle.”
Adolescent girls who diet are at 324% greater risk for obesity than those who do not diet.
(Stice et al., 1999). National Eating Disorder Information Centre
Fat Activism: Fighting Back
Yet, women are fighting back. It’s called fat activism.
“Fat … I think it’s a three-letter
word for beautiful.”*
“Over time more people have adopted a view of themselves and come to realise it’s a view that’s unjust and unfair, and then they pushed back against it,” said Ellison.
“What’s cool about fat activism is they take these crappy experiences and turn them around into an attitude that empowers themselves through it.”
Andrew, who has spent 20 years fighting weight bias and “sizism”, has now begun advocating to have size and physical appearance made illegal in Ontario, and across Canada.
“We are seeking a change to the Ontario Human Rights Code, and hopefully the rest of Canada, to protect people of varying size from discrimination,” she said.
She, and Body Confidence Canada Awards, have started a petition (#SizismSucks) to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal the Ontario Human Rights Commission, the Supreme Court of Canada and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne. So far, the petition has 8,547 signatures.
As well, three more petitions – in Alberta, British Columbia and Manitoba – have also been started.
“We are thankful for the progress of the petition thus far. We want to create an environment – in both policy and practice – where people are no longer discriminated against because of how they look,” said Andrew.
“So there will be a law in place protecting those people who inhabit bodies of difference, and they will have access to legislation so they can fight for their rights, so an employee can have a leg to stand on,” she continued.
Appearance-based protection would mean human rights protection against size, weight, height discrimination and other differences such as visible scars, alopecia or facial differences, for instance, in the workplace and other segments of society.
The Ontario Human Rights Code (OHRC) recognizes this in regards to race, gender, sexual orientation and other necessary protected grounds but body size and physical appearance remains absent.
Andrew is also collaborating with Ontario MPP Cheri DiNovo and there is currently a draft bill in the works through legislative council.
“It’s hard to form new relationships, whether intimate or platonic, because I’m fat. I can’t seem to make new friends.
Sometimes there’s nobody.”*
“I see my thin friends meet people and want to spend time with them and I feel like I’m not a priority in platonic,
let alone intimate, relationships.”*
“I don’t know what it’s like to be ‘chosen’
and I feel my fatness plays a lot into that.”*
While boys and men also face varying standards of idealism regarding body image, said Andrew, “anyway you want to dish it, women and girls tend to be held to a higher standard and it’s on that we are never enough. We need to change or make ourselves small to fit into someone else’s mould, based on paternal, misogynist intersectionalities,” she said.
Her Body Confidence Canada Awards celebrate champions of body positivity, she explained. During the past four annual award ceremonies, 25 women at the forefront of body diversity and equity have been recognised.
“We are trying to say everybody has a story. Everybody has the right to be acknowledged and celebrated and you shouldn’t need to be small, heterosexual, white, x-bodied, or rich to be recognised in our community.”
“That’s not to suggest that all those others can’t be recognised, but on TV, online, in magazines, there are certain images that we see all the time. Our show is trying to say there are other people just as valuable.”
Fat panic!, a facebook page dedicated to “educating ourselves and others about the causes and consequences of fat oppression” while challenging myths around fatness, thinness and health, and the Australian Body Image Movement, and its documentary film, “Embrace”, by founder Taryn Brumfitt, are two other examples of fat activism.
In the past, religious thought had a share in society’s views on fatness, said Ellison, linking it with gluttony and laziness. More recently, fatness has become associated with unhealthiness, said Ellison, but the Health at Every Size movement — another example of fat activism — tries hard to dispel the idea behind that.
It says that good health can best be realized independent from considerations of size. It supports people of all sizes in addressing health directly by adopting healthy behaviors, and, as its website says, “hopes to advance social justice, create an inclusive and respectful community, and support people of all sizes in finding compassionate ways to take care of themselves.”
“If you want to change for yourself, fine,” Andrew sums up. “But there’s a consistent desire to change for other people in order to receive the ‘validity gaze’.”
“One of the messages we have to get out is that we are perfect in our own way. We are enough. Our bodies have set clocks. They know what size they are supposed to be, and in this world, there is room for size diversity.”
On Being an Ally: Suggestions from Jill Andrew
Recognise that discrimination happens. “It is so easy to deny, ignore, explain away.”
Recognise we contribute to that environment, and that we can speak out against it, even in small ways. Don’t be a bystander.
Educate yourself about the issues. Do your own research. “Do some of the leg work yourself to unlearn the bias you have.”
Go to an elementary school and find out about body-based bullying happening there. Get a body image advocate to talk at the school.
Avoid constantly complimenting the visible. “We pay too much attention to what we look like. We shouldn’t always have to compliment people on their physicality all the time.”
Avoid ‘fat talk’, i.e. making disparaging comments about yourself or others based on shape or size. Don’t compare your body to others and never fat talk in front of your kids or friends.
Canadians living with obesity face widespread weight bias and discrimination – from strangers, educators, employers, health professionals, media and even friends and family.
This has negative consequences, both emotional and physical, including shame and guilt, anxiety, depression, poor self-esteem and body dissatisfaction that can lead to unhealthy weight-control practices, increased stress, high blood pressure, and overall poor quality of life. Weight discrimination also negatively affects access to education, employment and medical care.
Elementary school children with obesity face a 63% higher chance of being bullied;
54% of adults with obesity report being stigmatized by co-workers;
69 % of adults with obesity report experiences with weight bias from a health care professional;
72% of images and 77% of videos stigmatized obese persons, according to recent media studies
The psychological impact can directly affect day-to-day social interactions resulting in social exclusion and isolation. Lower economic outcomes are realised due to weight-based discrimination in the workplace. Research shows that individuals with obesity can earn less for comparable employment, receive fewer promotions and are more likely to be fired, suspended, or demoted because of their weight. Then there is the possibility of poor academic performance due to bullying in schools, missing more school days, and experiencing lower expectations by their teachers.
People affected by obesity can be denied healthcare services because of their weight, experience derogatory comments from health professionals, and receive inadequate care (e.g. having unrelated medical problems attributed to their weight).
*These quotations were recorded during a Fat Phobia discussion, part of Disorientation Week at Trent University, Peterborough, 2016. Thank you to the participants.