Fatism: The Socially Accepted Prejudice?

Woman with a Fan 1906 by Pierre-Auguste Renoir in a private collection

Woman with a Fan 1906 by Pierre-Auguste Renoir in a private collection

Stereotyping and discrimination have become social offenses in recent decades. So why is it that all but few are silent when the cause of discrimination is a little extraweight? Cases of fat discrimination range from social degradation to job refusal. Although Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin this law says nothing of discrimination because of physical characteristics. As a result many overweight job applicants have struggled to find work. According to the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, “There are only six cities in the U.S., and one state — Michigan — where weight discrimination is against the law.”

One of those cities is San Francisco, which seems to have adopted the law for good reason. There have been many cases of blatant weight discrimination in San Francisco including one overweight aerobics instructor who was denied a jazzercize position because she did not look the part. A health food store server was also fired from her position after a customer posted a negative review regarding her weight and the hypocrisy of a “fat girl” as he called her, working at a store focused on health.

But are overweight people all unhealthy? A study done by Health at every size (HAES) concluded that  Healthy lifestyle habits, such as drinking plenty of water, engaging in physical activity and refraining from smoking cigarettes or binge drinking “are associated with a significant decrease in mortality regardless of baseline body mass index.” Many overweight people practice these habits, and although their habits might not have a significant impact on their weight there is a large impact on their overall health.

A rationale that some employers have regarding job discrimination due to weight is health insurance. Stefano Kotsonis, a founding member of the PBS program, The Kwinty Report, claims that the rising price of health insurance prompts employers to investigate weight, blood pressure, glucose and cholesterol levels. Many cases prove however that health investigation is a rare occurrence. Overweight hopefuls are frequently dismissed on the spot. In her Frequently asked questions section of Shake The Cobwebs, a popular tumblr blog focused partially on fat politics, fat activist Taylor claims that this instinctive reaction is the result of years of social stigma. “Fat is an adjective, which means that it is a descriptive word. Our society gives the word “fat” a negative connotation, by systemically and institutionally perpetuating the idea that all fat people are lazy, dirty, stupid, unhealthy, and lack self-discipline.” Which as Taylor demonstrates through her active engagement in feminism and advocation against fat discrimination, is not necessarily the case. “Being fat isn’t about being stupid, yet most classes and programs dealing with weight loss assume that’s the case.” writes Elizabeth Hawksworth of the Huffington Post. Hawksworth who has had personal experiences with fat discrimination also describes the logic behind shaming those who are overweight. “Why else would anyone decide to eat food that’s wrong for them, or binge, or even have trouble exercising? After all, it’s easy for other people.”

In current society it is common to hear phrases such as “she’s not fat, she’s beautiful!” and the word fat –no pun intended–carries a lot of weight. Taylor claims that substituting the words “beautiful” and “human” for “fat” “impl[ies] that that fat bodies cannot be beautiful or human” She and many other fat activists disagree with this notion and describe themselves as fat without feeling socially constructed shame. Taylor stresses that “By reclaiming the word “fat” and using it as an adjective, instead of a slur, I am teaching the world that it is okay to be fat, and that I am not ashamed of my body.”

Reclaiming descriptive adjectives is a first step towards body acceptance as well as validating the possibility and truth of being fat attractive and sufficient all at the same time.








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