Friday, June 10, 2011

The Stigma of Being Fat

There was one day when I was in the eighth grade that I was standing in the school cafeteria after classes had ended. There was a group of people near me, some of whom I knew, and some of whom I didn’t. There was one young girl who I recognized from my church, but I had never introduced myself. I walked up to her, did the introduction thing, and her response was a surprisingly confident “Oh yeah! You’re that fat girl so-and-so was telling me about.” I can’t quite remember, but I must have stuttered some small response and then I walked away in my own amazement.

This event happened nearly 18 years ago, yet even now when I think about it the palms of my hands sweat. The memory still upsets me, although I am not angry anymore. I don’t seek revenge. It has made me the forgiving person I am today. In junior high school I was chubby. And I was teased for being chubby. There may have been bigger kids than me, and there may have been kids who were teased more than me. That isn’t important. I am not trying to hang myself on a cross here, I am pretty sure that movie has been made. But my experience of being overweight and vulnerable left an undeniable imprint on my person. As a result, I developed a desire to be empathetic to others, and to look past any outward appearance to who they are inside. I believe that as a result I have become a relatively good judge of character.

Last month DH sent me a link. DH does not send me food related links ever. It is more likely that he will send me a link to an SNL skit. So when I got the email entitled “Pretty Good Article About Childhood Obesity”, I took notice. The article began by describing a series of Georgia billboards in which obese children stand next to print such as “Big bones didn’t make me this way, big meals did.” The effect was almost pornographic. Parents were furious! The Georgia Children’s Health Alliance who created the ads said that they were aimed at parents who needed a wake-up call when it came to their children’s health and weight. A doting parent can easily forgive a few pounds rather than get tough and stop buying junk food. However the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance called for the billboards removal due to the negative stigmatization of overweight and obese children.

The article is excellent, and there are several very thoughtful sound bites included. Please read it in full if you get a chance. But in reading it I was left so confused, conflicted and a little self-hating. On one hand, obese children are likely the most stigmatized group of children out there. Their obesity is in plain sight, there is no hiding from it. And furthermore, the article continues, overweight children are usually left out of the bullying discussion which tends to center on sexual orientation, race and religion among others.

Yet I couldn’t help but stare and blink at a group called the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance. I had no idea that such a group even existed. Here I am someone who has felt the verbal barbs of fat-hatred and I could never, under any circumstances, condone harassment. Yet I couldn’t say that I am rushing to exclaim that our obesity problem should just be overlooked so that people don’t feel bad. My thoughts were very jumbled up between what I stand for as a person and what I think is right and what I feel will be viewed negatively by others. And I assume others have jumbled brains too. Consider the difficulty that schools have in even discussing the issue of bullying of overweight children! I believe that people are afraid to broach the subject. It is after all so much easier to discuss food and meal plans. Conflicted is the only word to describe how I was feeling.

According to the NIDDK, a division of the US Department of Health and Human Services, two thirds of the US adult population is overweight or obese. Over one third of the US adult population is obese. Only about 5.7% of the population is considered extremely obese (BMI greater than 40). Obesity rates among the total population remained relatively even until 1980, when they took off. In the early 1990’s another spike is visible. Research remains inconclusive about the reasons for the various spikes.

Obesity is a national epidemic, as is the stigmatization and discrimination of overweight and obese people. And considering the depth of obesity in our nation, it is not just a case of the thin mocking the fat. It is likely that there are discriminators all along the size scale, simply discriminating against those larger than themselves. I agree with the Yahoo article. Being called a nasty name, or being left out of a social situation does nothing to help someone lose weight. It is far more likely that a ridiculed person will continue to gain weight as a result of the stigmatization. So for those who fear eliminating the stigma of being fat sends the message that obesity is perfectly okay, it is likely that negative stigma itself is doing nothing to solve the problem. The discrimination of overweight individuals may actually be exacerbating the problem of obesity.

And it has been proven in study after study, stigmatization and bullying are not an effective motivators for weight loss. In fact, it is believed that bullying increases the likelihood that one will continue to engage in behaviors that increase weight gain, creating an endless cycle. And this type of discrimination is taking place every day. In a fascinating article compiled by the Yale Rudd Center from dozens of different studies, it is estimated a significant portion of the overweight population feels discrimination from bosses, while over half also feel stigma from their co-workers. This is in addition to the numerous studies of doctors who feel inadequate to combat obesity and/ or blame their overweight patients’ lack of motivation. The stigma is endless.

However I also agree that overlooking obesity and accepting it in order that no one ‘feels bad’ doesn’t really help the problem either. In 2009 CBS News reported that about 147 billion dollars were spent each year on obesity and the related illnesses associated with obesity. By comparison, only about 100 billion dollars were spent on all cancers combined. And for the individual, an obese person can expect personal health care costs of approximately 42% (or $1429) higher than their regular weight counterpart. But costs aside, don’t forget that additional health care costs mean that someone is SICK. Despite the economic burden, an obese person can experience a reduced quality of life from chronic pain, joint degradation, fatigue, difficulty breathing, etc as it relates to their obesity. And yet obesity is preventable in most cases. We, as a nation, prevented it rather well until about 1980. So I understand the person who would say that to fully accept fatness is to accept a poor quality of life. And I believe that everyone deserves a better quality of life! It is counterintuitive to fully accept a condition that is brining so many of our countrymen misery.

What I believe we really need to have is a healthy positive food culture in place that supports weight loss and the maintenance of a healthy weight. We place on a pedestal outrageous foods full of fat and sugar and try to counter it with celery sticks and low fat fake foods. Our eating habits are too high and too low. My approach since beginning this blog has been to eliminate most of the highs and lows of my diet. I try to eat a normal healthy diet every day. And while I certainly have celebration foods and will eat some small amounts of refined sugar, I tend to stay away from dishes that seem over the top. The Bacon Explosion comes to mind. How did we ever get to a place where we feel that eating that way is appropriate? The accepted notion that outrageous foods can be balanced in the diet with lower fat, lower calorie options is the hallmark of our sick food culture. And to those who want to exclusively eat these over the top ‘live your life to the fullest’ foods, obesity is certainly waiting around the corner.

With a name like The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, I assumed that their agenda would be to make you accept obesity or ‘fatness’. And accepting obesity to me feels like accepting smoking. However that’s NOT what the NAAFA is. The NAAFA is an organization who wants to end the discrimination of fat people. Their website clearly states, “Fat people are discriminated against in all aspects of daily life, from employment to education to access to public accommodations, and even access to adequate medical care.” And I think most Americans know that this is wrong. Yet we also know that it happens daily. I believe that it is important to fight obesity and not the obese person. NAAFA agrees, as I think we all can.

Though when I began to write this post, along with feeling conflicted, silent is another word that comes to mind. Although I read the thought provoking Yahoo article over a month ago, I didn’t even consider writing a post about it until last week because I considered the topic too controversial. I feared my inability to adequately discuss all the angles of the topic, and I also feared upsetting others. It is likely that are many many people are like I was in the beginning, not wanting to fully reject the stigmatization of being overweight, for fear that it might encourage the problem to grow. But in the end, as I have sorted out my thoughts, my issues are not with the people who are overweight but with the culture that has allowed obesity to become such a problem. Our broken food culture is hurting us. It is making us sick. And it should not be condoned. All the medicine and diet plans in the world won’t help us if we still long to eat foods that make us sick. But the people who have fallen victim to the outcome of our busted up eating culture, they are struggling with enough already. They don’t need any discrimination or additional stigma. It is not helping. It is not right. And it is not American.

Now it is your turn. What do you think? What questions has this post raised for you?


This post is entered in Food Renegade's Fight Back Fridays and Real Food Whole Health's Traditional Tuesdays


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. COB, you struck a cord with me! Hehe, are this many words still considered a "comment?"

    Obese children are by far the biggest tragedy of the "obesity epidemic." It's one thing for a 50 year old to pay little mind to his diet and become obese. But obese kids never really get a chance. And as a kid who was one of the "bigger kids than you" in your story, I understand the misery of childhood obesity.

    If we can make a dramatic enough shift in our food culture, than we will likely return to our previous obesity rates. But I'm confident that this won't help the currently obese children as much as we hope it will. We view obesity as just the far side of a continuum from lean to obese, and so the obese just need to eat more like the lean. But all of these obese kids, and especially the obese kids who were born to overweight mothers, are ever more susceptible to gaining and keeping their body fat. We can't just hope that they'll "eat like the lean kids do, or just eat what the lean ones do." We need to treat it as a disorder, and rather than simply offering a prudent diet, we need to encourage a more prescriptive diet.

    I'm not sure if you've read it yet, but I hope you will read Gary Taubes's new book. Then you'll understand what I mean. We really need to get these kids off of the soda, fruit juice, snack foods, desserts, and maybe even some bread and pasta. Even the cupcakes and cookies that their mothers or grandmothers make them. Of course these kids can have some, and lean kids will be fine with even more, but probably not to the degree to which we consider "moderation." After all, we don't apply the same degree of moderation to a childhood diabetic as we do a non-diabetic child. Why should we do the same with obese children? They both have metabolic disorders, one auto-immune driven and the other diet driven.

    There was study a few years ago showing that obese children have a comparable quality of life to children with cancer ( The simplest thing to take from it is that no child is okay with being overweight. And from personal experience, it is absolutely miserable. All I would have likely had to do to avoid it was eliminate soda, snacks, and dessert - the refined carbs and sugar. Although I'm aware that, as I child, I would have protested. While it seems wrong to some (usually the always lean) to deny children the joys of candy and dessert, I would have gladly taken that over obesity. We just need to understand that these foods literally make us, and our kids, fat.

  3. I was going to ask if you have read the Gary Taubes book, Why We Get Fat. I am half way through so I can't fully comment on it yet. However, early on in the book he points out that in the 1930s research had begun on obesity in America. It surprised me given how much our food system and way of life has changed since then.

    Personally, I think most people have been incorrectly educated in regards to food and do not understand what will really make them fat/keep them thin. I had someone argue with me that diet coke is ok to drink because it has nothing in it, and then in the same day refuse to eat a carrot because of the amount of carbs it contained....carbs in a carrot!?! They refused to see that benefits of the carrot, only the "evil" carb. And they refused to recognize that whatever is in a diet coke that allows it to be no calories could possibly be evil.

    -Linda E

  4. Thanks for sharing your perspective. I'm so sorry you went through that.

  5. Thank you so much for this post. I can't help but think that the creation of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance is along the same lines as our society's creation of special college's for minorities, beauty pageants for minorities, dodge ball without the ball in many elementary schools...and the list goes on and on. We're not solving the problem of racism by further separating into different colleges, we're not teaching our children how to cope in the world where sometimes you win and other times you don't by taking away the ball, and we sure as heck aren't creating healthy future generations by ignoring and "accepting" obesity. I wish our society had the nerve to take an honest look at reality, dig to the source, and truly help. Right now we're experts at applying band-aids- it may hurt to tear off the band-aid and look at the wound, but it's better off in the long run.

  6. I've been digging through files looking for an article that I read recently but can't find it now. Mark Bittman wrote about the "deconstructing of food". In his article, he showed that once we stopped eating food and began eating "low-fat", "high-fiber" engineered ingredients, obesity took off. I don't know if that is the case or not but I'm willing to buy it for now. I think it is very much in line with what Linda is saying above.

  7. What NAAFA believes is that there shouldn't be fat stigma, and that fat people should be able to live without being judged. They belive obesity is a term used to medicalize a natural diversity in human bodies.

    So perhaps you misunderstood, when they say fight obesity they don't mean to try making fat people thin, they mean to fight the message that says the concept obesity should exsist in the first place.

    You CAN be healthy and fat, attempts to make fat people thin, only cause fat people ill. What matters is eating healthy REGARDLESS of body size.