When we think of prejudice and discrimination, most of us tend to think of overt attacks, harassment, or discriminatory behavior. Blatant examples of prejudice do still occur with depressing frequency, but for most members of stigmatized groups, it is not these experiences that shape their daily lives. Rather, belonging to a socially stigmatized group means traveling through a world that is rife with multiple small, sometimes subtle or apparently inconsequential reminders of your devalued status, known as microaggressions.
As a weight stigma researcher, I focus on the experiences of fat people (many fat rights activists prefer the word “fat” and use it as a descriptive terms and not as an insult) but microaggressions define the lived experience of all groups devalued by society. Microaggressions can come from anywhere at any time. For a fat person, this might be:
- When they get on a bus and the person sitting next to an empty seat scowls at them or pointedly places their bag on the seat;
- People watching them while they’re eating in a restaurant or checking out the contents of their trolley in the supermarket;
- A fat joke on TV or in a film;
- A slimmer friend asking if she “looks fat in this”;
- Hearing a group of children making fun of them;
- Or even wondering whether they will be taken seriously when they go to the doctor with a sprained ankle, or just told to go away and lose some weight.
If you’re not a member of a stigmatised group, you might think that most of these examples sound relatively minor and could be easily ignored. But while any individual incident may be minor, it is the totality of stigma that defines our existence.
The cost of hostile environments
The pervasive hostile environment that marginalised people find themselves in serves as a source of constant physical and psychological stress. The body’s acute stress response involves the production of stress hormones and changes in cardiovascular, immune and neurological systems to deal with the threat.
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This is an adaptive response in the short term – that is, it aids with survival. But chronic exposure to stress is associated with increased rates of diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and even some cancers. This is not limited to fat people. These findings are consistent when looking at people belonging to racial minorities, LGBTQ individuals and many others.
Critically, the harms associated with a hostile environment occur even in the absence of actual stigmatising incidents – stigmatised individuals go through their daily life anticipating, fearing, expecting and preparing for these events. This consumes an enormous amount of mental and emotional energy and is itself a form of chronic stress. Hostile environments also contribute indirectly to long-term health and life outcomes via impacts on educational and economic achievement.
Microaggressions against fat people are so pervasive and normalised in modern society that people, even fat people, may not recognise them as stigmatising at all. The sometimes ambiguous nature of microaggressions means that the target may be unsure of the intent or underlying meaning, wondering if that person was actually stigmatising them or not, making it difficult to respond. What is more, fat stigma is so entrenched that many fat people are complicit in their own stigmatisation, believing that they deserve it, or that the perpetrator was just stating a fact (“fat people are ugly and disgusting”).
On the other hand, if they do challenge the stigma, at best, they may be told to ignore it; at worst, their experiences are invalidated. Victims of microaggressions are told they are just imagining the slight, that they are overly sensitive or even paranoid, or that they simply need to develop a sense of humour. Fat people may even be told to lose weight if they don’t like it. Most people would never tell a member of another stigmatised group that they should change themselves if they don’t want to be discriminated against.
Most of us like to think of ourselves as unprejudiced. We would never harrass a fat person in the street, beat them up, or give them inferior service in a shop.
But children as young as three exhibit anti-fat attitudes. They are not born with these beliefs – they are picking them up from the cues in their environment, for example from the attitudes and behaviours of parents and caregivers, or from ubiquitous anti-fat messaging and stereotyping in kids’ cartoons. If we genuinely want to be part of a kind and decent society, if we want our children to grow up in that world, it is up to us not to let hostility go unchallenged. Oppression comes in many forms, and we all have a role to play in addressing it.
This type of discrimination can take a number of forms, ranging from refusing to hire someone because they are considered to be too short or too tall, to treating overweight and underweight individuals with disdain. There aren’t currently any specific anti-discrimination laws that have been put in place to prohibit sizeism, despite the issue being extremely prevalent. Sizeist stereotypes (such as “overweight people are lazy” or “tall people can play basketball”) are often ingrained in modern society.
In the US, the list of anti-discrimination acts does not specifically include sizeism as an offense.The EOCC website states “Height and weight requirements tend to disproportionately limit the employment opportunities of some protected groups and unless the employer can demonstrate how the need is related to the job, it may be viewed as illegal under federal law. A number of states and localities have laws specifically prohibiting discrimination on the basis of height and weight unless based on actual job requirements.
Therefore, unless job-related, inquiries about height and weight should be avoided.” Therefore, size discrimination in the workplace is only illegal under federal law if it is not a job requirement. Sizeism can be based on height, weight or both, and so is often related to height and weight-based discrimination but is not synonymous with either. Depending on where in the world one is and how one lives his/her life, people may have a tendency to be especially tall, slender, short, or plump, and many societies have internalized attitudes about size.
Another manifestation of body variance is muscle mass and skeletal size, often with associations of degree of compliance to one’s born sex, but do not necessarily affect gender to deviate from sex. As a general rule, sizeist attitudes imply that someone believes that his or her size is superior to that of other people and treat people of other sizes negatively. Examples of sizeist discrimination might include a person being fired from a job for being overweight or exceptionally short though their work was unaffected.
Sizeism often takes the form of a number of stereotypes about people of particular heights and weights. Sizeist attitudes can also take the form of expressions of physical disgust when confronted with people of differing sizes and can even manifest into specific phobias such as cacomorphobia (the fear of fat people), or a fear of tall or short people. Sizeism, being a newly recognized discriminatory stance, is usually observed by those who are its targets.
- Social stigma of obesity
- Height discrimination
- “Short People“
- Tirosh, Yofi (12 September 2012). “The Right to Be Fat”. Yale Journal of Health Policy, Law, and Ethics. 12 (2): 264–335. PMID 23175917
- “Weight Bias Is As Prevalent As Racial Discrimination, Study Suggests”. http://www.sciencedaily.com. Yale University. March 28, 2008. Retrieved 2016-08-18.
- Sutin, Angelina R.; Terracciano, Antonio (July 24, 2013). “Perceived Weight Discrimination and Obesity”. PLOS One. 8 (7): e70048. Bibcode:2013PLoSO…870048S. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0070048. PMC 3722198. PMID 23894586.
- Antidiscrimination (EEO) Law Information, U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. June 15, 2011. Web. 26 April 2012.
- “Pre-Employment Inquiries and Height & Weight”.
- Susan M. Shaw, Janet Lee, Oregon State University. Women’s Voices, Feminist Visions : Classic and Contemporary Readings. New York, NY :McGraw-Hill, 2015. Print.[page needed]
- “Skinny Shaming is Just as Inappropriate as Fat Discrimination”. 10 October 2014.
- “Both Fat and Thin People Experience Weight Shaming, So Who Wins?”. 16 May 2014.
- Puhl, R. M.; Andreyeva, T.; Brownell, K. D. (June 2008). “Perceptions of weight discrimination: prevalence and comparison to race and gender discrimination in America”. International Journal of Obesity. 32 (6): 992–1000. doi:10.1038/ijo.2008.22. PMID 18317471