The Last Socially-Acceptable Prejudice: Weight Discrimination

Obesity StigmaABC News recently published the article “Stigma Against Fat People the Last Acceptable Prejudice.” Several elements of this article struck a chord in me, and I wanted to touch on some of them in a blog post. Forgive me for paraphrasing so much of the article…there was so much good research and content.

Earlier this month, the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University published a study, indicating that in a courtroom setting, male jurors didn’t administer blind justice to plus-size female defendants. Female jurors displayed no prejudice against obese male defendants, especially lean men, and were much more likely to slap a guilty verdict on an overweight woman. Rebecca Puhl, the co-author of the Yale study, said that “these displays of fat stigma are par for the course.” Prejudice against fat people is pervasive and translates into inequalities across broad areas of life. Puhl continued:

“Thinness has come to symbolize important values in our society; values such as discipline, hard work, ambition, and willpower. If you’re not thin, then you don’t have them”

A study by the Center for Creative Leadership found that top-level managers with a high BMI are judged more harshly by peers and seen as less effective than their slimmer colleagues, both in professional and in interpersonal relationships. I can personally attest to the fact that this happens, and I’ve felt held back in my career objectives. People have liked me on paper, but have treated me far less favorably at in-person job interviews than their initial online correspondences would suggest.

As much as HR departments will claim otherwise, weight prejudice in the workplace is real. I’ve experienced it repeatedly through my career. I have been passed over for job offers and promotions. I am applauded for my creativity, not my hard work. Is is just a coincidence that professional opportunities are opening up for me like crazy after losing weight? It’s tough to say.

friends don't let friends fat talkIt’s obvious that weight discrimination doesn’t just exist in the workplace. It happens in our schools and in our families. More than 70% of obese people say that they had been ridiculed about their weight by a family member.

Yet another study by Puhl at Yale found the following results: Fifty percent of doctors found that fat patients were “awkward, ugly, weak-willed, and unlikely to comply with treatment.” 24 percent of nurses said they were repulsed by obese patients. Almost 30% of teachers said that becoming obese was “the worst thing that can happen to someone.” People have few qualms aiming overly cruel comments toward overweight and obese people because there are few consequences. One of the ironies of the treatment of overweight individuals is fat people didn’t get much sympathy, even from others struggling with their own weight.

Fat stigma hasn’t changed much in my lifetime, and every time it becomes a topic of conversation…people get uncomfortable. People want to change the subject. In this sense, weight prejudice is the last acceptable prejudice.

“Overweight people are usually shown in stereotypical ways- engaged in out-of-control eating or bingeing on junk food- and they are often shown as the target of humor or ridicule,” said Puhl. “With the amount of media we all consume, it’s no wonder these stereotypes stick.”Puhl also stated, “There are no federal laws on the books that make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of body weight, so on the whole, it remains legal. It sends a message that it’s no big deal.” Public health campaigns which brand obesity as a disease are easily perceived as criticizing individuals, rather than the environmental and social factors that lead to weight gain. People engage in public fat-shaming. She also believes media portrayals of heavy people as fat, lazy and gluttonous do them no favors.

Another article I found in Forbes, titled “The Obesity Police Turn A Solvable Problem Into A Needless War“, also brings up some interesting points. “when it comes to addressing obesity, the most prominent public health activists are intent at making it into a war, rather than a solvable problem.” The reference the following video made by Coca-Cola:

Coca-Cola’s video give scientifically accurate data and is trying to spark dialogue about how obesity is caused by consuming more calories than we burn (including the calories in Coke products). They support programs that advocate healthy living, and make it a point to display calorie counts boldly on their packaging.

However, public health activists are not happy about the campaign. These health activists tend to one-up each other, using inflammatory language and tactics to make the food and beverage industry into the villains, instead of making actually making a difference. For instance, Michael Jacobson from the Center for Science in the Public Interest said that if the company was serious about wanting to help fight obesity, it shouldn’t even advertise full-calorie drinks. “They’re trying to pretend they’re part of the solution, instead of part of the problem”. The solution should be to focus on helping those struggling with obesity, and provide resources to those who feel trapped in their predicament, rather than pointing fingers at companies.

So. Where do we go from here? How can we bring up these dialogues and foster meaningful change?

weight discrimination question

I think the important thing is to talk about obesity, and the ways that people can emerge from the trapped feeling of excess weight. Last week I sent out a tweet and posted in my Beauty and the Bypass Facebook Group, asking for people to share their experiences about weight discrimination.

And what was the response?

Zip. Zilch. Nada.

Nobody is comfortable talking about weight prejudice. People are either too scared to talk about their experiences, or they fear retribution for discussing the experiences they’ve had with weight prejudices in the workplace. Or even weight prejudice in general. I have stayed mostly silent on the subject, even though it’s an issue that infuriates me. Last year when I published my post “Weighty Impressions“, there was fallout from it because I mentioned experiences that I’d had in the workplace (at several different jobs). Employers are scared of getting sued, and employees aren’t really protected by anything legally. It’s a really bad situtation.

Where do we go from here? I think it’s time to talk about it. Ideas?

Emotional Fatigue

nicole rough dayIn the last 7 weeks since surgery, I’ve had lots of ups and downs, good days and bad days. My bad days are usually from physical symptoms, but today was a BAD emotional day.

I had some rough things happen at work, got very agitated emotionally. As a result, it affected me physically. I have a headache from crying. My body aches like I had a big workout at the gym. I was feeling fine, then suddenly I couldn’t make it at work anymore. I came home and took a long nap. Naps aren’t out of the ordinary since surgery, but I woke up feeling EXHAUSTED.

One thing that I haven’t talked about much on this blog is my long-time struggle with clinical depression. I started on my first anti-depressant at 15, have been in and out of therapists offices to deal with traumatic life events, and have even struggled with thoughts of suicide. It was very out of character for me, but I stopped taking my anti-depressants, cold turkey, after surgery. My main reason for stopping was that I was too lazy to make a doctors appointment to get a prescription for pills in a tablet form. I can’t take capsules right now because my pouch won’t tolerate them.

Surprisingly, the way I’ve felt emotionally since surgery has been much better than I expected. I haven’t really had the down days like I normally have. Today was tough, but it was more of a situational sadness. I’m not going to go into what happened today, but it was definitely the hardest emotional day since surgery. My friend Simply June wrote a post today to help with my bad day. Thanks, June!

I’m getting a little worried that I’m getting another stricture. In my Bariatric Bad Girls Club, we talk about getting “the foamies.” Right before vomiting, you start to get pressure in your chest/pouch area, food and mucusy saliva starts to regurgitate up, and it’s usually a sign that you’ll be vomiting in the next minute or two. I got “the foamies” a lot right before I had my dilation for my other stricture, and I’ve had the foamies a few times this week. I’m hoping that I won’t need another dilation…at this point I can still keep liquids down.

Weighty Impressions

judge notToday was a tough day emotionally. Several instances of insensitivity really got me into an introspective mood. There are a lot of things that have been on my mind today, and I’ve been pondering thoughts regarding the perception of others. Specifically, how obese people are perceived by those who look at them.

I’m writing this while I’m completely emotionally charged. I might curse and say things that I later regret, but I feel like I’m going to explode if I don’t get it out there (at least for a short time). In fact, this post may suddenly disappear in the future.

I’ve always believed that every joke or tease has an element of truth to it. So even when somebody says “just kidding!” after a mean comment, there had to be something they believed about the remark as a reference point. Teasing never just comes totally out of the blue. I also believe that some topics should never be teased about.

Honestly, I can take a joke about 97% of the rude remarks people make about me. Like about my big boobs. Yes, they’re always in the way. Come up with anything dumb to say about it because I’m comfortable with my mammary largesse. I’ll usually laugh at anything you have to say. But I don’t know ANYONE who is 100% comfortable with joking criticism about weight and health.

While I’m aware that my body is disgusting to many people, I know that I’ve done my very best over the last two decades to get to a healthy weight. I try to dress well for my body shape, I bathe and I’m properly groomed, I know how to accessorize and make myself look pretty amazing. So when I hear people say “you’ve let yourself go” or they tell me I’m lazy, it honestly pisses me off. If I’d let myself go, I’d probably weigh double what I do now. If I was a lazy person, I would have zero muscle tone nor tolerance for exercise.

Not only do many people assume obese people are lazy, they also assume that they are dirty and smelly, dumb and uneducated, have no common decency, or that you have some kind of invisible disability. But as the old saying goes… if you ASSUME, it makes an ASS of U and ME.

I am aware that some people are just mean to others because it makes them feel better. Case in point: there is an annoying fake Twitter account that was set up to mock me. It’s basically a guy version of me, but much more crass. I know who is behind it, and it’s a person who will always be nice to my face, but watches my blog and social media feeds like a hawk to find fodder for his tweets. He’s a flat out bully. I joke that he’s either totally in love with me (and embarrassed about it) or feels so awful about himself that he found an easy target. His latest tweet was likening my surgery blog and pictures to him getting a penis enlargement, and how he’s so vain he’ll be tweeting pictures of it. Really classy.

I know some are scared of being seen with a fat person or of fat people in general. Cacomorphobia is a fear of fat or obese people, who are literally being terrified of being around a fat person without a rational reason. I’m certain I’ve been avoided just for that reason – some people are scared of me. I often feel shunned in social situations because people try to act like I don’t exist. Or people think I will be dangerous or “a liability” to them.

As you can see, I’m very sensitive to the way others perceive and treat me. Much of my time in the therapist’s chair is dealing with painful experiences from insensitive people, and trying to not care about others opinions. My life is already a flux between despair and euphoria, and I’m trying to not add in the hurt that others try to cause me.

But the scars are deep. I’ll never forget when a bunch of 5th grade boys in my class started chanting “Fat bitch! Fat bitch!” in the lunchroom. Fifth grade! I’ll never forget the time when my weight exceeded the point that my husband found me sexually unattractive, and the conversation that I had with him. It breaks my heart every time I smile and make eye contact with someone, and they veer off in another direction. I try to deal, and I try to forgive, but I’ll never forget.

My plea to you? BE NICE. Treat others with kindness and give them the benefit of the doubt. Try to imagine yourself in others circumstances, and act respectfully. And remember to keep your words sweet and tender, because tomorrow you may have to eat them.