A more complicated truth: understanding fat justice

The fat justice workshop on March 30 discussed the historical evolution of the oppression of fat people today in the U.S. Nicole Sullivan and Cora Segal outlined the ways in which white supremacist and patriarchal ideologies, many of which culminated in eugenic atrocities such as the Holocaust, also fed into the now pervasive idea that the ideal body is a thin, white body. Using both a large body of scientific evidence and a number of painful personal anecdotes, the speakers explained how the discrimination, violence and marginalization endured by fat people is ubiquitous in media, politics and the workforce. The relationship between drug corporations, diet products and the government’s classification of obesity, for example, spoke for itself. However, as I should have expected, there was a huge amount of backlash to the arguments that fat people deserve to be treated equally despite their body size, and (even more controversially!) that being fat is not necessarily unhealthy or immoral. The ideology in this country heavily suggests that fat people can and should be thin. This notion was heavily challenged during the workshop, and in my opinion, the evidence supporting the speakers’ argument was compelling.

It is grasping at straws to suggest that the oppression endured by overweight and obese people can be attributed solely to bigotry on an individual level. As Nicole Sullivan mentioned, in the hospital where she works, all the highly paid professionals are thin and all the low-paid service workers are fat. This trend can be generalized across the country. What exactly the root causes of this class-based stratification of body size are have not, in my opinion, been sufficiently investigated. Like poverty, fatness is a category that many like to attribute to a sole issue of personal responsibility and willpower. While it is tempting to judge someone’s character on their body size — after all, we’re socialized to do this from a young age, bombarded with images of fat, greedy, lazy villains or fat, funny comic relief characters — this judgment is inaccurate and harmful. Even if an argument seems compelling or seems to make sense, when it is not borne out by data, it is dangerous and oppressive to continue to endorse it simply because the truth is more complicated.

Moreover, to claim that size is a self-imposed problem of willpower and personal choice inevitably serves to justify the dangerous mistreatment, violence, discrimination, shaming, humiliation and other forms of oppression that fat people are subject to on a daily basis. When we replace the word “fat” with that of another group that has historically endured (or still endures) discrimination, this becomes horrifyingly clear. How many people are comfortable saying that queer and trans people should simply choose to act straight or cisgender so that they can avoid threatening, unjust treatment and oppression? While that set of battles is obviously nowhere close to being won, that idea is more recognizable — at least by most Swatties — as an example of indefensible bigotry. So what is it about fatness that provokes so much self-righteous opining and moral judgment? Fatness is something we’re socialized to believe we know a lot about, when it’s something most people actually know very little about.

Political and social acceptance of this paradigm is dangerous because it hides fat discrimination behind a veil of coded language and makes it appear acceptable. We see this in the “war on obesity” which, as mentioned at the workshop, is generally received as a positive thing: obesity kills, we say; the policy aims to eradicate obesity. However, this policy puts fatness it in a light in which the moral judgment of fat people appears acceptable and inevitable, because the solutions proposed to eliminate obesity oversimplify the situation and paint weight as a simple matter of lifestyle choice. While lifestyle can have some effect on weight, most studies suggest that genetics and environment have much more of an effect. Additionally, there are many nuances to consider. Firstly, a huge number of people in this country cannot afford to live the way these policies ask them to. Fresh food in this country costs far more than processed, heavily salted or sugary food. Healthy food is not nearly as accessible in poor areas and is often nearly impossible to find. Economically, eating processed food or fast food makes more sense. Time is another huge consideration. Time is a luxury; many poor families do not consistently have time to cook all of their meals because they work full-time.

A socioeconomic explanation of lifestyle, however, doesn’t adequately explain why the poorer someone is, the more likely they are to be fat. Discrimination against fat people in the workforce is consistent and pervasive and contributes to lower starting salaries, fewer promotions, higher insurance premiums and obviously to not getting hired in the first place. We have many social safeguards in place to justify this type of discrimination, such as the excuse that fat people are at a higher risk for diseases and thus are a liability for hiring. While this is a myth—the majority of overweight people actually live longer than “normal-weight” people — the bigger question is why society seems to capitalize on fatness as a more seemingly justifiable category for discrimination when so many others, such as race and sex, are more blatantly recognized as wrong (even though racial and gender discrimination are still very much in practice). The reasons generally given for discrimination against fat people are just as contrived as those that were given to justify discrimination on the basis of race and gender. Everyone deserves an equal chance at making a living. Denying a fat person a job because of a wrong and stereotyped idea about their work ethic or health is discriminatory and oppressive.

What the workshop came down to — or what I got out of it, anyway — was that it really is impossible to know about someone’s character and capabilities just by looking at them. People are foremost individuals, and nobody should be subject to different treatment because of a preconceived notion of who they are based on false assumptions that are generated by stereotypes. What must be fought, then, are the persistent and insidious assumptions and generalizations about the character of fat people that are perpetuated by media, politics, workforce discrimination and violence.

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