Breaking Down the Roots of Anti-Fat Bias
This blog is the last of our series of blogs on the experience of fatness in urban India, and is written by Vallari Shivkumar.
Content warning: mentions of bullying, anti fat discrimination, sexual abuse
When people discriminate against fat people, they often chalk it up to preference, concern, or advice. Fat people experience hostile environments, judgment, and ostracization on a daily basis because of their bodies. This discrimination was met by the rebellion in the 1960s. As with any political movement, fat liberation started out as a way to fight oppression. As fat people organized and mobilized against fatphobia, the early fat liberation movement gained traction. Fat people were at the center of theory, actions, and radicalism. The impact and ripples of these movements are still felt today, as the fat liberation movement evolves and continues to be a part of the zeitgeist.
The fat acceptance movement has facilitated the creation of a community that carries forward that fight for equality. Although the message in the movement evolves and takes different forms like body positivity, anti-diet culture, intuitive eating, etc, it has led to a platform that fat people can use and take up space in and has established a community of people that are working towards eradicating anti-fat discrimination. Fat activism has led to a pushback towards people who discriminate against fat folks. Whilst this movement has led to real change, there is still a long way to go. Is this all there is to anti-fat bias? Or does it go much deeper than that?
Fatphobia is a Systemic Issue
According to the Collins Dictionary, fatphobia is an “irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against obesity or people with obesity.” Fatphobia has been reigning terror over fat bodies for centuries. Fatphobia, rooted in racism, classism, misogyny and other forms of oppression, spiraled into the oppression fat folks face today. Systemic fatphobia is a societal issue. Saying fat people are at a disadvantage in society is like calling a cut a scrape because the extent of this disadvantage has strong roots in structural and interpersonal violence.
There is a level of violence when a fat person is denied equal opportunities, denied access to be able to meet basic needs like clothes, to not just live but thrive as a complete person. What does that mean for me when I am not given proper care at the doctor’s office? What does it mean when support systems like the HR at my workplace or a police officer have an internal bias against fat people? What does it mean when I get on an airplane and the airline doesn’t have seats that fit me or resources like an extendable seat belt in place for fat people?
In the fat community, fatphobia is the most commonly used term, but I think we, as a community, need to start narrowing down exactly what fatphobia means. Phobia means fear, but people aren’t afraid, they’re biased and hateful. Perhaps systemic anti-fat bias is a better choice of words. Weight-based oppression on a large scale affects marginalized groups more deeply. It’s common for the experiences of fat folks’ to get downplayed because they think ‘fat’ is an ‘excess of flesh’, which can be easily changed with hard work and determination and being fat is still viewed as a choice or moral failure. There is so much emphasis on obesity care, but how about making sure therapists understand weight discrimination and how to accommodate our bodies? Often, particularly, in systems of structural care, there is both a glaring lack of experience and infrastructure to deal with fat bodies in a safe, equitable and dignified manner.
While society at large still uplifts and prioritizes thinness, fat bodies are continuously exiled and ridiculed. For fat individuals and people with nonconforming bodies, society adversely attacks and belittles them as ‘responsible’ for their sizes and takes the onus upon itself to recast them into ‘acceptable bodies’. This is done through the flooding of markets with products and services to ‘address’ fatness. ‘Thin’ sized bodies are given more value and desirability by society because those bodies are considered “normal.” This value system is a hierarchy of size that focuses on personal choice but doesn’t take into account geography, culture, poverty, or genetics. Through such a value system, people are blamed or held responsible for their body types.
Institutional and Interpersonal Violence
A fat body is invaded by comments, measured with hatred, pathologized by fear, and diagnosed with ignorance. It is weighed down not by its weight, but by the force of hatred, contempt, and pity. This violence also can be of fat people towards themselves and their own bodies in self-talk among other things. Fighting systemic fatphobia is all about equal access, equal respect, and fair treatment. Anti-fat bias permeates multiple structures and interpersonal relationships which in turn make existing and thriving in a fat body challenging.
Every institution and agent of socialization in our culture — schools, health-care organizations, media, marketing— promotes the propaganda of weight control, so that it is nearly impossible for individuals not to believe that “fat is bad.” Fat people have to face multiple levels of interpersonal violence as they navigate life and spaces.
People who are fat get discriminated against in a multitude of areas, including healthcare, work, education, and transportation. Discrimination against fat people is the fourth most common type of discrimination and it has increased drastically over the past twenty years. This marginalization has consequences over the entire lifespan of fat people. It starts as early as school. Bullying is, unfortunately, a lived reality of school. Fatness is one of the many reasons that kids are bullied and socially excluded in school. Students do so by making nasty comments, and the fat body once again becomes the site of humour. Teachers sometimes also contribute to this. For example, teachers can be insensitive towards fat kids and make them feel excluded from certain activities. Often, teachers choose conventionally ‘attractive-looking’ students as representatives. Teachers perceive fat students as less academically, physically and socially able. Anti-fat bias can also affect friendships. In a clique, people who are fat get reduced to the ‘fat friend’ like a token. A study by the University of Southern California found that children who are overweight have more unreciprocated friendships than others. It was further found that they are excluded from friendships. All of these take a mental, social and physical toll on people who are fat. The constant ostracization of individuals who are fat is likely to lead to the risk of loneliness, depression, poor eating habits, and chronically feeling isolated, lonely or socially disconnected experiences.
In the workplace, fat people are harassed and bullied. They face a significant “wage penalty” for employment, even when controlling for socioeconomic status and health. They are less likely to be hired and promoted, and more likely to be fired. Many people think overweight employees lack self-discipline, are lazy, aren’t competent, aren’t conscientious, are sloppy, disagreeable, and are emotionally unstable. Even when fat candidates/employees are better qualified than their colleagues, reservations like these result in unfair hiring practices, low wages, and job termination. Places like schools and offices structurally fail fat folks. Usually, there is no consideration for inclusive seating, uniform sizes and policies in place that help reduce this alienation and discrimination. India also completely lacks an anti-discriminatory legislative framework to deal with weight bias in the workplace. The Delhi High court rejected a flight attendant’s appeal of Air India’s decision to ground and further terminate them for being overweight in June 2008. The decision was “taken strictly as per the terms of employment,” according to the state-owned airline. The court justified its decision by stating, “In the highly competitive industry of civil aviation, the company has to focus on the personality of its employees. By the very nature of their jobs, their overall physical personality is one of the primary considerations.” However, in a more recent turn of events, the Delhi High Court ordered the reinstatement of three employees grounded by Air India, citing that excess weight does not necessarily impede optimal performance.
In mainstream media, fat bodies get limited representation, reaffirming thin supremacist preferences for bodies that follow hegemonic body size and beauty standards. This leads to dominant conceptualizations controlling discourses about fatness: fat bodies are lazy, disgusting, and lacking control. As Marilyn Wann notes, “[e]very person who lives in a fat-hating culture inevitably absorbs anti-fat beliefs, assumptions, and stereotypes, and also inevitably comes to occupy a position in relation to power arrangements that are based on weight.” This creates a hierarchy of bodies. People who experience weight discrimination report more psychological distress, lower well-being, and greater loneliness as a result of weightism.
Based on one’s size, specific performance is expected. In our society, this same performance creates, stabilizes, and legitimizes ‘fat’ as a concept. In courtrooms, the same association can be made with fat defendants by jurors, who expect a particular performance. Fat makes people feel guilty, lack self-control, and lack respect. Then studies on social reaction and response to size become applicable to the courtroom. Researchers found that male jurors found female presenting defendants guilty more often if they were fat than slim in a simulated check fraud case. In cases where a defendant’s body expresses a size and situation not allowed to be explained by the voice, bias based on fat may also harm them. Fat defendants’ and fat victims’ bodies are seen as beyond their control, which reflects an entrenchment within the justice system too.
Court actors who conceptualize victims of abuse as thin might not take fat women seriously when they tell stories of abuse. In State v. Ruhlman, the defendant said he wouldn’t assault the victim/survivor because she was “fat and ugly.” It’s especially visible in domestic violence. Abusers use size as a tool to insult and attack a romantic partner’s sexual attractiveness. Several police officers refuse to take reports of sexual assaults by fat women, saying they’re too unattractive to have been raped because of their size. These experiences of cultural, structural, and interpersonal violence only get worse for people whose fatness intersects with other marginalized identities such as age, disability, race, caste, among others. Even within communities, not falling within the expectations of the community, may lead to a disconnect and further alienation.
As a fat person, living with a fat body is hard considering that the world feels like it isn’t made for someone like us and is actively trying to work against us. There are constant battles, big and small that need to be fought so that we as fat people can take up the space we deserve. It is imperative to look out for and act on the intersectional needs of fat people so that every person has more than the basic necessities to thrive and be their best self. Fat people need to be heard and taken into account in a way that tackles systemic anti-fat bias by making laws, policies, and recommendations, and having fat people in the room helps make those so that people whose needs are being met are represented and are part of the process.
Thank you for reading this blog, which is the final blog in our series of blogs on the experience of fatness in urban India. This blog series is a part of our upcoming research study on Fatness in Urban India, focusing on building counter-power narratives on the experience of fatness in Mumbai; as well as developing an evidence base for documentation of the discrimination and oppression faced by fat people in urban India, with a focus on
(1) built environments
(2) health and medical infrastructure
(3) careers – educational institutions and workplaces
(4) intimacies and interpersonal relationships
Further, we hope to document the ways in which fat people embody different physical-emotional conditions. Finally, we hope to use this research study to co-create recommendations for changing norms, policies and infrastructure to meet the needs of fat people in urban India.
To become a part of this study, please consider participating in our data collection process by giving us 30-45 minutes of your time in an interview. To learn more about the process, check if you are eligible and to sign up, please visit: bit.ly/OFC_Fatness_Study.
Breaking Down the Roots of Anti-Fat Bias
The Performance Of Fatness
The Joy of Movement – Conditions Applied