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Fatphobia: America’s Overlooked Form of Discrimination

This past summer, statues depicting a completely nude Donald Trump popped up overnight in five major American cities. The statues, commissioned by street art collective Indecline, left nothing to the imagination.  In addition to this profane display, the statues also stood out for their portrayal of Trump’s protruding stomach. Though the artist who created the statues claims he had “no intent to fat-shame” the GOP candidate, the works still had that exact effect. As #nakedtrump trended on Twitter, some citizens and media outlets were quick to point and laugh at Trump’s weight and call the statues “ugly” and “horrifying.”

This fits into a long list of fat-shaming – the act of ridiculing and/or discriminating against someone perceived as being fat – directed at Trump: similar weight-related comments emerged in response to Ilma Gore’s widely-circulated nude painting of Trump and his medical records that listed him as “overweight.” Even Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) recently tweeted jokingly about wanting a “public daily weigh-in” for Trump. And although Trump has received his fair share of weight-related criticism, he’s dished out plenty of similar or even worse jabs himself. He has said horrible things about others’ weight (particularly women) time and time again, and has expressed little remorse for those comments, so he is in no way innocent of fatphobia.

While Trump, as of late, is a prime instigator of the growing practice of fat-shaming as a political tactic, especially considering how his repeated fatphobic comments have emboldened his supporters to use that same rhetoric, other candidates have also been unable to avoid criticisms regarding their weight. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie faces near-constant mocking about his weight, and the New York Times documented how Jeb Bush felt pressure to diet and lose weight ahead of his presidential bid.

The regularity of fatphobia and fat-shaming in the current political climate illustrates how these phenomena are far more harmful and pervasive within the US than people might recognize. Given this increased attention, it’s important that combating fatphobia becomes a core tenet of social activist discourse. It’s also key that politicians, political analysts, and media outlets – who often set the tone for what is socially acceptable and what isn’t – be wary of the harmful nature of these comments and refrain from making them, and that the public discourage such comments as we would with other forms of prejudice.

The scope of the problems involved with fat-shaming goes far beyond “hurt feelings.” The negative stigmas around obesity and the pressures to conform to a certain body image heavily impact Americans’ physical and mental health. Studies have shown that 43% of men and 70% of women have negative opinions of their own body, a phenomenon strongly caused by body-shaming. The same study found that 81% of 10 year olds are “afraid of being fat,” and that over 30 million Americans will suffer from eating disorders in their lifetime. Overall, fat-shaming – not the physical obesity – leads to higher rates of depression, eating disorders, lower self-esteem, and other ailments stemming from these stresses.

Fat-phobia is, importantly, far from a niche form of discrimination. Negativity towards fatness is so engrained in our society that many don’t even consider it a problem or recognize how often it appears. Countless films, television shows, and commercials use fatness as an easy punchline – consider Chris Farley’s Chippendales sketch on SNL, Eddie Murphy’s propensity for wearing fat suits, or “Fat Monica” on Friends or “Fat Bastard” from Austin Powers. But the socially harmful effects pervade beyond just the comedy sphere, as reported in a 2009 study from Yale University: in the workplace, overweight people are promoted less often and earn up to 6% less than their coworkers; in schools, as of 2008, one-third of children report experiencing weight bias from teachers (being stereotyped as untidy, emotional, and not likely to succeed), and two-thirds experience it from classmates; and in hospitals, over two-thirds of overweight people report being stigmatized by their doctors.

Sometimes, fatphobia manifests in even more blatant ways. Until it was shut down last year, the subreddit community r/fatpeoplehate existed for the sole purpose of sharing pictures of people and degrading them for their weight. One of the core rules of the forum was that there could be “absolutely no fat sympathy.” When it was banned last June for harassing users of other groups on the site, r/fatpeoplehate had nearly 150,000 members.

While there are legitimate health detriments to obesity, fat-shaming – especially through overtly cruel ways – is absolutely the wrong path towards tackling the issue. Some have defended fat-shaming by arguing that mocking obese people motivates them to lose weight and thus become physically healthier. In fact, just the opposite is true: studies have shown that the low self-esteem caused by fat-shaming actually usually leads people to either eat more food or develop an eating disorder, thus worsening their health rather than improving it. The aforementioned Yale study cites data that an overwhelming “close to three of every four [overweight or obese people] coped with weight bias by eating more and refusing to diet,” firmly disproving any suggestion that fat-shaming has a generally positive effect on health.

Considering its widespread negative effects, fatphobia should be an attitude we, as a society, work towards reducing as much as possible. However, the range of potential policy solutions is quite limited. One potential measure to fight fatphobia among our youth is to introduce a bill outlawing weight-based discrimination by schools and for schools to adopt a harder stance against weight-based bullying. Such a bill could take on a similar form to the Student Non-Discrimination Act, a bill proposed by Jared Polis and Al Franken in 2011 that protected LGBTQ+ students and was itself modeled after Title IX legislation. Similar steps could be taken to combat workplace and medical weight discrimination, but it is typically quite difficult to prove and thus hard to change. One state – Michigan – includes weight discrimination in their equal employment and civil rights legislature, as do Washington DC and several other cities, so the precedent is there for other jurisdictions to follow up. In terms of legal avenues, some victims of weight discrimination have sued employers, citing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but results have been mixed. There are also certain situations – most often involving extreme obesity or when diseases such as diabetes result in obesity – where citizens are protected from weight discrimination under the American Disabilities Act.

Perhaps the broadest step that could be taken would be to include overweight people as a protected class in federal civil rights legislature, as doing so would solidify weight discrimination as an unacceptable practice. Some may object to this due to weight not always being innate nor permanent, but the same transiency criticism can be leveled at religion, which is included in the Civil Rights Act. Others may find such a provision unnecessary, but the evidence provided above should hopefully prove otherwise.

One pitfall that should be avoided is equating weight discrimination with other forms of discrimination outlawed by the Civil Rights Act. While weight discrimination remains widespread, issues like racism and sexism have more systemic and historical roots, often with oppressive laws explicitly facilitating them. Acting as though these all exist on the same level of injustice and hardship would only discount the suffering caused by the long-established forms of discrimination and create discord among activists. Still, none of this disqualifies weight discrimination from being worthy of legal action via inclusion in civil rights legislature, as protection from fatphobia remains necessary regardless of how it compares to other forms of discrimination.

Legislative protections can help fight weight discrimination in the formal sense, but different work must be done in social spheres. If more people begin recognizing how problematic fat-shaming is, then more awareness about the issue will arise, possibly leading to a change in attitudes for the better. Many feminists have been fighting fat-shaming for a long time, as have the groups that commissioned the studies on fatphobia cited above, but the movement has yet to catch on with the mainstream public as a topic of discussion the way other forms of discrimination have as of late. The media has a role to play here, too – much of the stigma around fatness comes from our sources of entertainment and our news outlets. Not enough of an effort is being made to be respectful of the bodies of others, especially when it comes to overweight people. Comedians need to stop using fatness as a punchline, and audiences should stop responding to such styles of humor positively. And as outlined earlier, political discourse also needs to move away from allowing fat-shaming comments – even those offered in jest – to go uncriticized.

All of this can only happen, however, if people begin taking a stand against fatphobia and continually object to and reject the stereotypes, stigmas, and insults thrown towards people simply because of their weight. Discrimination is not something we should accept in this country, and weight discrimination is no exception. The facts of the matter prove that ending fatphobia is about more than just being “politically correct.” This problem is real, and it won’t just go away without political and social action.


About the Author

Michael O'Neill '19 is a Staff Writer for the Brown Political Review.