Sizeism: Rage Against an Acceptable Form of Oppression.
Brief History of Sizeism
The oldest human subject figure in existence is the Venus of Willendorf. She is a fat black woman between ages of 25 to 28 thousand years. The history of fat in America starts with plumpness being an asset as it displayed wealth and prosperity. Roughly about one hundred years ago a beautiful woman was one who had plump arms and cheeks. She wore attire that accentuated her full figure and was said to be better off than her thin counterparts at fighting off infectious diseases.
By the late 20’s views toward fat began to shift. An influx in the number of immigrants entering the country aided in this change. Also, people moved into industrialized fields of labor leaving behind the physically challenging work of farming. These various areas of labor included service jobs and factory work. It also became easier for people to become fat due to increased access because of advances in processed food production, use of refrigeration to keep food fresh, and the distribution of food via railways.
Additionally, the shift was heavily focused on women. Poet Lord Byron proclaimed, “A woman should never be seen eating or drinking, unless it be lobster salad and Champagne, the only truly feminine and becoming viands” (Schwartz, p. 38). This became the diet standard of the time and women subscribed to this standard. Linda Fraser is a researcher and author in the area of fat studies. In an interview with anthropologist Margaret Mackenzie, Fraser (1996), notes the scholar’s stance on the shift of fat ideologies being due to classism. Fat became common because the proletariat was able to attain it and thinness became a sign of exclusivity held by the bourgeoisie.
Discrimination and Fat People
Obesity now affects over one-third of the adult population in the United States. Fat people are rated among the least favored social group, closely followed by overweight people, who are then followed by Muslims. Research has shown that weight bias is the fourth most frequently reported form of discrimination. Weight and race-based harassment in adolescents are 35.3% and 35.2% respectively. These numbers illustrate that weight-based discrimination is much more pervasive than one may think.
Defining the Characteristics of Oppression
When examining oppression, much consideration is given to the various systems within its framework. These systems of oppression include classism, racism, ageism, ableism, heterosexism, and sexism. All of these systems share elements that allow themselves to classify as an oppressed group. These elements go beyond discrimination. This literature review purports that the loathing of fat people — a subordinate group that embodies a non-normative body type — by the dominant normative body type goes beyond mere discrimination. These attacks against fat people are oppressive and systemic in nature.
Fat people meet at various social and cultural intersections which include gender, race, disability, socioeconomic status, sexuality, and education (Center for Disease Control, 2016). There is no fat person exempt from the label’s connotations of laziness, lacking self-discipline, and moral corruptness.
Iris Young (1988) claims oppression is a structural phenomenon that impedes on a group of people. Fat people and sizeism are often not included in discussions of diversity and oppression because non-normative body types are many times viewed as morally wrong. Non-normative body types are typically associated with stereotypes and attributes that support their continued oppression. This posits the question should the demoralization of fat people be considered oppressive?
Young defines five characteristics evident in oppression. These features are called the five faces of oppression, and they include exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism, and violence. Below, the five faces of oppression will be applied to the treatment of fat people. Using existing literature to support each face of oppression it will be argued that sizeism is oppressive and deserves to be examined with other systems of oppression.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines exploitation as, “The action or fact of taking advantage of something or someone in an unfair or unethical manner; utilization of something for one’s own ends.” Young does not narrowly define exploitation. She goes beyond the Marxist frame of thought to examine oppression outside of class. She applies exploitation to a broader range of groups including women, laborers, and people of various races.
Diet-culture promotes the continued exploitation of fat people by the diet industry. The diet industry invokes anxiety among dieters causing them to engage in futile dieting behaviors. These actions are futile because the diet industry trades false hope in the form of new diets, and in exchange, consumers make these organizations extremely rich by continually buying into these false hopes. Dieting generates a billion dollar a year industry that thrives on the exploitation of fat dollars. If dieting works why is there still an obesity epidemic and why is this epidemic continuing to grow?
Fat oppression is evidenced by the group’s marginalization in society. Young describes marginalization as the expulsion of a group of people from participation in social life. The Oxford English Dictionary defines marginalization as, “The process or result of becoming or making marginal; spec. the process of making an individual or minority group marginal in relation to a dominant social group.” Thin people are part of the dominant social group. They hold the most positions in industry, academia, and healthcare.
Fat people are often perceived as unintelligent, lonely, lazy, dishonest, and immoral. Fat job candidates are more likely to receive lower starting pay as they are perceived to be mentally lazy, disorganized, and lacking self-discipline. Research conducted by Flint, Cadek, Codreanu, Ivić, Zomer, and Gomoiu (2015) supports the notion that employers discriminate based on size. They assert that employers feel fat people lack leadership skills. This results in psychological decline in the well-being of fat people. This may also result in lower earnings across the lifespan.
Powerlessness can be classified as people who are exposed to poor or disrespectful treatment due to their subordinate status in the societal structure. The dominant group inflicts this disrespectful behavior, and this leads to reduced opportunities for skills and talent enhancement by the subordinate group. Cooper (2016) discusses her feelings around powerlessness when she examines obesity research. She notes that the research is primarily led by people with normative body types who lack a full understanding of fat experiences in the world.
A lack of policies to protect obese people also puts them at risk of being powerless. Lack of workplace protections and anti-fat prejudices impede on fat people holding an authoritative position in the workplace. Fat people are often subject to higher premiums for insurance and paid less.
Fat people are also heavily discriminated against in medical settings, which often renders them powerless in the care they receive. Often, during an office visit, much of the focus is given to the person’s weight regardless of their reason for the visit. Fat people may go into their doctor’s office for the flu and be told that they need to lose weight. However, they present with no weight correlated co-morbid conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, or cardiovascular disease.
When the immigrants arrived in the United States in the early 1900’s many of them brought their rounder more stout figures to the country. The advent of the industrialized culture brought greater access to food. This also meant that production was less labor intensive due to industry. To separate themselves racially and physically from the immigrants Europeans decided being thin was virtuous and Godly. Thinness has since long been admired by European culture and adopted by American culture as the preferred body type.
Europeans even went as far as getting sick to obtain thinness. Being thin was seen as glamorous and was a sign that a person was of higher intellectual standing. This set the stage for the standard of beauty in American society.
Cultural imperialism is described as one group’s experience and culture being generalized to other group’s experiences and culture. Sobczak (2014) asserts thin people exert their will over society as the dominant group. They use anti-fat prejudice and moral judgments to promote adherence to the thin ideal.
Young states oppressed groups are aware they can face unprovoked violence to their body or property due to their difference. This violence is systematic because it is directed at a person due to their inclusion in the subordinate group. Fat people are threatened with violence and fat youth are often targets for bullying. Fat people, women in particular, and young people are subject to verbal harassment and abuse from bullies who use name-calling as a way to psychologically tear them down. Fat women also often face increased intimate partner violence due to their body size.
Fat people are viewed as the other by society at large. They are noted as having no value and are often stigmatized due to these societal beliefs. When a person experiences fat stigmatization, they internalize normative beliefs about the binary of thin and fat bodies. This leads to increased psychological distress in fat people especially women.
Carels, Wott, Young, Gumble, Koball, and Oehlhof (2010) argue weight stigma has significant psychosocial effects on people who identify as fat. The internalized bias from sizeism predicted body image dissatisfaction, eating disturbances, and depression. Also internalized sizeism or obesity stigma has been well documented as being pervasive and harmful.
The normalization of thinness is so pervasive in Western culture that health status has been attached to one’s body size. It is often automatically assumed that a thin person is beautiful and healthy.
People with thin privilege can eat what they want in peace regardless of their actual health. Airlines will not charge additional fees for them to travel, nor do people assume they are lazy, dumb, or lack discipline. Additionally, they are not scrutinized by potential employers about their worthiness for a position due to their normative body type.
Historically privileged groups have systematic social advantages. Thin privilege is no different. Scholars have begun to point out the social constructs that surround fatness. Additionally, the neoliberal health discourse that has been attached to the medical model of obesity is being challenged.
Resistance and Transformation
There is a growing resistance movement against sizeism. This movement is being led by grassroots activists, educators, academics, health professionals, and fat people who are tired of being oppressed. Weight-based discrimination has many negatives psychosocial outcomes and is a phenomenon that extends from the cradle to the grave. Due to obesity’s reaching and lifelong psychosocial effects, groups have formed in search of social justice, in efforts to promote enhanced physical and psychological health.
The growing social movement around sizeism and the associated field of fat studies developed many segments of resistance. These segments are called proxies as they are a small piece of the whole that makes up fat activism. Below, this paper will examine the literature associated with four resistance proxies in addition to exploring the overarching subject of fat activism.
Fat activism is multi-faceted in its structure, delivery, and focus. Cooper (2016) states fat activism encompasses self-acceptance, challenging the stigma associated with fat, eating politics, campaigning for social change, health, being body positive, and human rights. Fat activism is all of these things, yet, it is still something more.
Fat activism is political through the use of political process activism. Another fat activist strategy is micro fat activism, activist communities, and cultural work. Fat activism is not merely one thing. Fat activism is represented by many proxies, and a fat activist has no single identity, nor are they required to maintain absolutes in their quest for social justice.
The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) is one of the most prominent groups in the fat activism community. They are a fat activism proxy that is on the front line of pursuing social change. NAAFA, which changed its names in the 1980’s, was originally called the National Association to Aid Fat Americans.
The organization was initiated by William Fabrey. He was a thin man married to a fat woman. Inspired by a 1967 article he had read written by Llewellyn Louderback, Fabrey contacted the author, and they began working together. They then organized NAAFA’s first meeting that took place on June 13, 1969.
NAAFA’s mission is to equip fat people with the tools they need to advocate for themselves and gain empowerment by eliminating the discrimination against non-normative body sizes. They seek to accomplish this through advocacy, support, and education.
Tribole and Resch (2012) developed a fat activism proxy called the intuitive eating model, and define it as a dynamic process that integrates a harmonious balance between the mind, body, and food. This process can aid problem eaters of all kinds. The model was originally developed in 1995. Hawks, Merrill, and Madanat, (2004) and Tylka (2006) added to the model by operationalizing its tenets. Both measures are called the intuitive eating scale. Intuitive eating seeks to change eating culture as it has been heavily influenced by diet culture.
Diet-culture and the practice of dieting promote behaviors that restrict eating based on external cues. Dieting is common in adolescents as 46% of United States high school students report they engage in dieting behaviors. These behaviors typically follow them into adulthood. There is evidence to support dieting, or dietary restraint, increases feelings of food deprivation and preoccupation with body weight or size.
Intuitive eating supports a person-centered intervention strategy. Research evidence suggests that as an intervention intuitive eating has had several instances of success. Intuitive eating is a holistic approach to behavior change surrounding eating habits. This intervention strays away from traditional methods that promote restriction and deprivation.
The Body Positive Movement
In recent years there has been a growing community of people who are exploring body acceptance in the body positive movement. This acceptance could encompass size, shape, weight, gender identity, and disability. Some of the pioneers of this movement include Deb Burgard, Connie Sobczak, and Elizabeth Scott.
Burgard (2011) was the first person to coin the term “Body Positive” in her quest to also promote a standpoint when addressing body image. Research suggests that accepting one’s bodily imperfections can lead to improved life satisfaction. Although, there are many people involved in the fat activism movement, Sobczak (2014) and Elizabeth Scott developed a model for obtaining positive body image, which is discussed in their book entitled Embody. The model is called body positive and is often used with adolescents.
The body positive model is built upon five competencies that promote self-love and the rejection of standard beauty myths. Sobczak and Scott list these five competencies as reclaim health, practice intuitive self-care, cultivate self-love, declare your own authentic beauty, and build community.
Health at Every Size Model
The Association for Size Diversity and Health (ASDAH) created the Health at Every Size (HAES) model. Grounded in a social justice framework, the model was born out of research and discussions with activists, healthcare professionals, and consumers. The model integrates a dual approach of individual decision-making and policy influence.
The HAES model promotes five key principals which include weight inclusivity, health enhancement, respectful care, eating for well-being, and life-enhancing movement. The HAES framework suggests a paradigm shift from weight-focused to health-focused interventions. Individuals, health professionals, fitness professionals, and activists alike are adopting a HAES perspective when working with their clients, and this behavior at its core is a form of fat activism.
Fat Studies Programs and Courses
The last form of fat activism that will be discussed in this literature review are the new programs and courses arriving on college campus with a focus on fat. Cooper (2016) asserts that by educating people, fat studies courses offer an additional way to resist fat oppression. Tufts University (2016) recently offered a fat studies course. The course examined what it means to be fat in America, how these meanings shape opportunity, and how fat intersects with other oppression's. Another course offered at Oregon State University (2004) examines body shape, size, and weight as an area open to privilege and discrimination.
Fat studies examine weight-bias as a form of oppression that intersects with other systems of oppression which include, race, age, gender, sex, gender identity, and socioeconomic status. Additionally, fat studies seek to offer social justice, a paradigm shift from weight loss to health gain, and the reorganization of thin privilege and oppression.
Implications for Social Workers
McCardle (2008) conducted research with a sample of social workers where a correlation was found between workers bias toward obesity and practice. Social workers are entering the field at a time when they will likely encounter an obese individual as a client whose obesity is a target and a form of stigma. Understanding that ACE’s (Adverse Childhood Experiences) plays a significant role in obesity development, social work educators and students would benefit from incorporating conversations around the fat and thin binary.
The Rudd Report on Weight Bias (2012) suggests fat people are an oppressed group. Social support and medical support on the micro, mezzo, and macro levels mitigate the adverse psychosocial effects of oppression, internalized stigma, and discrimination fat people face on their journey through a thin-privileged America. As fat people continue to be discriminated against the resistance against sizeism will continue to grow. Social work programs that are innovative at educating future professionals about this form of oppression could stand out in the crowd, as they address the issue of sizeism with a trauma-informed human rights perspective.
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